Friday, February 18, 2011

Karel van der Toorn's "Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible," Part 1

A critic suggested this book, which we’re going to look at over the next three entries; it’s got all the appearance of being one of those useful background texts I like to recommend, which is ironic since this critic apparently thought it’d be full of stuff that would debunk me. Today we’ll look at Chapters 1 through 4, which takes up over a third of the book proper. Actually, of the book’s 401 pages, from 267 on is notes and end matter. From this alone you can guess that Van der Toorn is providing something that the average reader can manage in his main text, while also offering depth for the more interested reader in the notes.

What’s in the first four chapters, though, will not be new to a lot of Tekton readers: It’s an Old Testament variation of what Gamble offered in Books and Readers in the Early Church. In many ways, things were not a lot different on these matters in the OT era, so much of what Van der Toorn offers will be familiar as he discusses the role and function of scribes, the production of books, and the interaction of orality and literacy in the Old Testament world, among other subjects.

The one major contribution Van der Toorn offers , for my experience, is in Chapter 2 where he discusses the role and nature of authorship in antiquity. I have frequently told critics that the ancient concept of authorship is more like authority than “so and so wrote this” as it is today, and this is exactly what Van der Toorn says and elaborates upon. Here are some critical points:
“Up until the end of the Middle Ages, readers were more concerned with the authority of books than their authenticity. The author was deemed relevant mainly as a source of authority.”[27]
“In the Ancient Near East, it was uncommon for an author to sign his or her work.” [231] Hence it is no surprise that we have so many “anonymous” OT books (the Samuels, the Kings, etc). Even Babylonian and Assyrian texts named not the author of the text, but either the name of the scribe or the name of the owner of the text.

One point I’d derive from this is one I have used often already: When Moses is said to be the authority behind the Pentateuch, it never means that he personally wrote it. Rather, though he may have authored some of the texts, his main role would be that of an authority who stood behind the text and caused it to be made.

Another concept Van der Toorn introduce is that of honorary authorship. This is a case of a text being ascribed to a patron who ordered the text, as opposed to the scribe who wrote and composed it. Once again, it is in this sense that it ought be argued that Moses, for example, “authored” the Pentateuch. However, critics continue to work with a modern definition of authorship in their criticisms. He also points out that our concept of authorship is tied to notions of authors as individuals; but because in the ancient world, “an individual is indistinguishable from his or her social role and social status,” [46] authorship is itself an expression of role, and that as mouthpiece and crafter of the values of the community the author represents. In that sense, authorship is in a real sense communal .

This is not to say van derToorn agrees that eg, Moses wrote the Pentateuch. He doesn’t; he thinks it was a fictitious attribution. But I have frequently argued with critics that their criticisms assume a modern definition of “authorship” and that is precisely what van der Toorn debunks. He makes an analogy to the modern practice of those who write copy for advertisements – they never “sign” their work. This is one major exception to our modern tendency to take offense when an author is not credited with the creation of a text. But for ancient people, “an author does not invent his text but merely arranges it….” [47]
I should also relate this to theories by NT scholars that the Gospels are the products of anonymous “communities”. The main problem with such theories is not that the pose communities per se, but that they manage to invent them out of whole cloth and posit radical ideological differences based on even minor points.

A final useful point from the first four chapters: Scribes were part of a literate elite, and were generally scholars – as well as public speakers [104]. After all, most of the people couldn’t read what they wrote, so it had to be read to them.

A fascinating tome so far – we’ll look at a second section Monday.

1 comment:

  1. So this "critic" presented you with yet more information to beat them around the head with. That was silly of them.

    "Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of ‘touching’ a man’s heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." Chesterton