William Schniedewind on Scribalism and the Development of the Bible

William Schniedewind on Scribalism and the Development of the Bible January 24, 2015
Funeral Inscription of a Royal Official (Silwan, near Jerusalem; end 8th Century B.C.E.)

How did we get the Bible? Back in 2004, UCLA professor of biblical studies and Northwest Semitic languages, William Schniedewind, published his insightful work How the Bible Became a Book. It’s an essential read for anyone interested in this fascinating question. Dr. Schniedewind explores the development of writing in the ancient world of Canaan, and his study sheds significant light on the creation of the Bible.

The Hebrew Bible (or Christian Old Testament) is a compilation of scribal material written over a thousand year period in Israelite and Judean history. The scholarly consensus holds that these writings, which include various genres such as narratives, laws, poetry, wisdom sayings, prophecy, and apocalyptic texts were composed from approximately the 12th through the 2nd centuries B.C.E.

Concerning the material in the Pentateuch, Schniedewind suggests it began to take its preliminary shape in Jerusalem sometime during the late 8th century B.C.E. (800-701). To give some perspective, this was the time period of the prophet Isaiah and the Judean king Hezekiah.

This observation does not mean that absolutely no form of any of this material existed prior to this point (I for one believe that the E source was written first as a northern literary work in Israel). It only suggests that with the emergence of Jerusalem as an important political center, together with the rise of the Assyrian empire, that Judean scribes began to collect and record Israelite oral traditions, as well as compose new religious literature that would eventually make its way into the pages of our Hebrew Bible. [1]

This perspective must be interpreted with the fact that writing itself does not appear to have existed as an important Israelite skill until shortly before the 8th century B.C.E. During this historical period, the rise of the Assyrian empire to political power led to the development of what scholars refer to as “scribalization,” and this movement greatly affected the southern kingdom of Judah. The Assyrians used writing with its ability to record detailed information as a political tool to help govern their conquered territories. Scribalization and an increase in Israelite and Judean exposure to Mesopotamian sources led to the development of our Bible.

I strongly resonate with many of Schniedewind’s historical views and again, highly recommend his book. Recent archeological and textual discoveries have helped fill in this fascinating narrative. [2] Judean scribal literacy increased after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrian empire in 721 B.C.E. The evidence for this assertion includes not only the number of scribal texts that emerge in Judah following the destruction of Israel, it includes the easily documented increase in Judean respect towards the art of literacy and those texts that emerged. [3]

Scholars take that evidence together with the fact that the earliest scribal sources in the Bible stem from the north (i.e. ancient Israel) and were later adapted and reformulated in ancient Judah to put together a pretty good picture of what happened historically. Our best estimates are that prior to the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the population was around 350,000. In Judah, it was much, much smaller at around 110,000. So Israel was a lot more advanced (not only in numbers, but technologically) than Judah during the time these two nations existed. Then after the destruction of the north, at the end of the 8th century, the size of settlements in the south grew tremendously. These have to be Israelite refugees fleeing the Assyrian destruction and settling in Judah. The city of Jerusalem itself more than doubled in size during this period and its population increased to approximately 20,000 people or so. [4]

So what happens after Israel was destroyed and many of the survivors moved south? They brought their skills with them. And almost overnight, Judah began at this specific period to adopt the advanced Israelite buildings and waterways that were used in the north (Hezekiah’s tunnel, for example). It only make sense, therefore, that Judah not only inherited these specific abilities, but increased scribal technology as well.

And sure enough, that’s exactly the evidence we find when we read the Pentateuchal material critically with the E source and the Covenant Code in Exodus (used to create Deuteronomy) being produced first in the north, then brought to the south, only to be adopted and reformulated into the Judean scribal works that now appear in our Bible. Much of this narrative appears articulated in recent scholarly works, including Schniedewind’s treatment, How the Bible Became a Book.

Given that I resonate with Schniedewind’s scholarship, I was excited for his 2013 publication A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period published by Yale University Press. I finally finished reading the study, and found it to be a wonderful contribution to scholarship that builds significantly upon Schniedewind’s earlier work.

I’m not going to review the entire book in this post, but I would like to share a few points from his analysis that directly connect with some of my recent posts concerning the Bible as history and the development of literacy in ancient Israel.

First, when did Hebrew develop as a written language? Well, technically speaking, in terms of the Bible, this question is actually a bit anachronistic, a point that Schniedewind discusses effectively right from the beginning of his book. The term Hebrew is not a biblical expression for the languages (note the plural) spoken by ancient Israel and Judean people. Biblical Hebrew, in fact, as Marc Brettler notes, is actually not even a “real” language:

“Biblical Hebrew is a scholarly construct, based on the collection of books now found in the Hebrew Bible… The books constitute a rather incomplete representation of the range of languages spoken in ancient Israel. Nor do they truly represent a single language or dialect, for they reflect a diversity of time periods, places, and genres that are exhibited in the Hebrew Bible… We must always remember that BH is a ‘linguistic fragment;’ we can supplement this fragment with caution given what we know from the small number of extrabiblical inscriptions, from later Hebrew, and from other Semitic languages, which are closely related to Hebrew. Still, even with these resources, we have an incomplete picture of ancient Israelite Hebrew.” [5]

Ancient biblical authors would not have called their languages “Hebrew.” They would have used other terms. In the southern kingdom of Judah, they called their language Yehudite, a term that derives from the territory of Judah. As Schniedewind notes, the term “Hebrew” as a language reference first appears attested in the Jewish Mishnah, edited around 230 C.E. (p. 7).

So what are all those “Hebrew” inscriptions archeologists have uncovered in the land of Israel that date from the early Iron Age period [1200-980 B.C.E]. Well, first we need to recognize that they aren’t “Hebrew.” Not really. Schniedewind writes:

“The first ‘Hebrew’ inscriptions did not use a uniquely Israelite alphabet. Rather, early Hebrew writing employed an alphabet attributed to the Phoenicians in spite of its deficiencies for accurately reflecting the phonology of Hebrew” (p. 54).

Note that Schniedewind intentionally places the word “Hebrew” in quotation marks. This is because,

“During the early Iron Age, the term Hebrew writing is problematic. It is better to employ a local geographical term like Israelite writing or a more general term like Levantine or Canaanite writing. Though the ancient Israelites undoubtedly had their own local dialects and speech communities, there is little evidence to suggest that they developed an independent writing system or scribal community” (p. 62).

Writing and scribal administration existed earlier in Canaanite history, prior to the emergence of Israel, as a result of Egyptian influence throughout the region. However, the archeological record indicates that a “decisive linguistic cultural break” occurred throughout the Levant with the arrival of the Sea Peoples in the early 12th century B.C.E. (p. 60).

This topic has been addressed quite effectively by David Jamison-Drake, who after surveying the archeological evidence for the Levant during the 12th through 10th centuries B.C.E. notes,

“The lack of drastic change over the relatively long period suggests no significant changes in administrative control systems to enhance agricultural production or security in response to other forces, whether from outside the society or within… There is no reason to posit scribal institutions of any kind for Israel during this period.” [6]

Schniedewind addresses these same points in his new book, writing:

“Only a handful of inscriptions [from Iron I 1200-980 BCE) have been found, and most are very short and/or fragmentary. The paucity of evidence is not just a matter of luck—or the lack thereof. Rather, the meager epigraphic evidence indicates that this was a formative period in the development of the alphabet” (p. 63).

He addresses some of the writing from this era such as the Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription (from the late 11th or early 10th century B.C.E.), noting that this is not only “not a ‘Hebrew’ script,” but that there is scholarly debate on whether or not the inscription can be shown to indicate that it was in fact a “Hebrew” vernacular rather than simply “Canaanite” speech (p. 65).

The inscription, in fact, reads from left to right instead of right to left (the way Hebrew does). The way the symbols are formed, together with the lack of uniformity throughout the inscription “does not give evidence for a refined scribal hand reflecting a highly developed scribal institution; rather, it seems to suggest just the opposite” (p. 66).

There really isn’t any evidence for serious scribal training, let alone a unified “Hebrew” script during this era. Still, some scholars have tried to make a case based upon the 10th century B.C.E. Tel Zayit Abecedary that there must have existed some form of scribal training in “Israel” during this era. Using the Tel Zayit Abecedary as evidence, David Carr, for example, has speculated that this inscription possibly reveals the emergence of alphabetic scribalism in early Israel.[7] Carr’s theory supposes that 10th century Israel featured “an emergent state structure” that included “borrowing or adaptation of the Phoenician alphabetic scribal system in some administrative centers and the learning of this system by a limited number of officials.”

Carr’s thesis, however, has been rightfully criticized. For example, in a critique of Carr’s reading, J. Whisenant has explained:

“It is not merely the lack of intermediate training texts that poses an obstacle to Carr’s thesis. . . it is the near absence of texts dated securely to the tenth century with an inland Canaanite provenance. The likelier explanation for the presence of the abecedary is that it reflects the presence of a lone (and not very experienced) scribe educated in the Phoenician tradition, who scratched out the letters of the alphabet at this site in a border region between the hill country entity and the coastal cities.” [8]

Schniedewind’s perspective of the Tel Zayit inscription is also insightful and suggests that the inscription cannot be used to support advanced “scribalism” during this era. He writes:

“The purpose of an abecedary would seem to be a school text, though it is difficult to understand how this particular inscription could have served in such a manner since it was embedded in a wall inside a building, where it would have been quite difficult to read or use for instructional purposes. This leads us to look for alternative explanations, such as the possibility that the written alphabet served some numinous function” (p. 68).

We must be careful not to assume too much concerning early Israelite scribalism from these types of inscriptions and via comparative Near Eastern analysis. On this topic, Schniedewind explains:

“There is… no archeological evidence in Judah for a building that was dedicated to the training of scribes. There is no extensive discussion in the Hebrew Bible dealing with the training of scribes. The comparative evidence from the Near East would suggest that scribes were trained in family houses and that scribal training worked on an apprenticeship-type system. However, it is dangerous to rely too heavily on comparative evidence. From Mesopotamian, for example, there is extensive literary evidence about the edubba, the cuneiform scribal school, as well as the nature of the scribal training and curriculum. Egypt also had excellent evidence about scribes, their curriculum, and their training. Nothing like this exists in the archeological, epigraphic, or literary record for ancient Israel” (p. 70).

This is not to say that “scribalism” did not exist in ancient Israel and Judah. Remember, the Bible itself is a compilation of scribal material from these two kingdoms. But it’s really from the 8th century onward that we encounter what Seth L. Sanders has illustrated constitutes a “unity and breadth of Hebrew.” During this era, the epigraphic evidence points towards “coherent” scribal training. However, Sanders is quick to note that

“There is no reason to assume that this [scribal] institution was a school, in the modern sense. Scholarship has moved away from the idea that scribes must have been trained in a specially designated building alongside people from different families, and toward a more kinship-based model.”

This model, as opposed to a scribal school, accords with the archeological evidence from the period:

“The epigraphic evidence points to Hebrew scribes working outside of large institutions, which makes them less like monks or clerks and more like potters or metalworkers. . . these skills were taught at scattered sites and communicated over time and distance through trade networks and family traditions. Like pottery and metallurgy, this sort of scribalism could easily be brought into the service of the state but did not require the same massing of people and resources as a chancery.” [9]

This argument expressed by Sanders can be linked with part of Schniedewind’s thesis:

“Demography is one of the important indicators for linguistic change, and the Iron IIB period (840-700 BCE) was characterized by wholesale shifts in the demography of the ancient Near East, including Israel an Judah” (p. 76).

I’ll provide one more quote from this impressive study that helps us return back to the narrative I described at the beginning of this essay. Concerning Israelite and Judean scribalism in the 8th century Schniedewind again writes:

“Refugees probably began arriving in Jerusalem after the Assyrian conquest of Samaria in 721 BCE… [This event] can be placed within a larger context that shaped the city of Jerusalem, where Standard Biblical Hebrew as a written language was forged. Rather than trying to barricade his borders, Hezekiah tried to integrate these refugees into his realm, with the hopes of restoring an idealized golden age of Israel, the kingdom of David and Solomon. These events raise the question of how the language of the refugees from northern Israel might have influenced Judean Hebrew. Gary Rendsburg, for example, has estimated that at least 16 percent, and perhaps as much as 30 percent of the Hebrew Bible may directly reflect Israelite Hebrew. This influx of northern refugees certainly helps to account for the substantial quantity of northern texts and Israelite Hebrew in the Hebrew Bible…

“The exile of the northern kingdom of Assyria and the subsequent urbanization of the rural south were catalysts for literary activity that resulted in the composition of extended portions of the Hebrew bible. It gave rise to the prophetic works of Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah of Jerusalem, to priestly liturgies and ritual texts, as well as to a pre-Deuteronomic historical work. .. The social and political events of the eighth century apparently encouraged both the preservation of literary and cultural traditions in writing and the nationalization or localization of writing technology—that is, the full development of Hebrew writing alongside the local vernacular” (pp. 76-77).

I hope that this post encourages readers to engage this new book. I’m a strong believer in the insights a diachronic analysis of Hebrew offer for our understanding of the development of biblical material. With this brief post, I’ve only scratched the surface of the significant insights Schniedewind’s impressive book offers. It’s a major contribution to this fascinating discussion.

[1] David Carr writes in his most recent assessment, “though there were potential early cores behind separate Pentateuchal traditions, such as the ancestral or Exodus-Moses traditions, most specialists in the study of the Pentateuch now think that the first proto-Pentateuchal narrative, one extending from creation to Moses, dated to the exile at the earliest.” David Carr,The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford, 2011), 359.

[2] See especially David P. Wright, Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[3] See Michael L. Satlow, How the Bible Became Holy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 73-74.

[4] Satlow, 70.

[5] Marc Zvi Brettler, Biblical Hebrew for Students of Modern Israeli Hebrew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 1.

[6] D. Jamieson-Drake, Scribes and Schools in Monarchic Judah: A Socio-Archeological Approach (JSOT Supplement Series 109) (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield University Press, 1991), 76-77.

[7] David McLain Carr, “The Tel Zayit Abecedary in (Social) Context,” in Literature Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context (ed. Ron Tappy and Kyle Mcarter; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 124.

[8] J. Whisenant, “Review: Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context,” JAOS 129 (2009): 551.

[9] Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Traditions) (University of Illinois Press, 2011), 131.

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