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Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible Paperback – 14 Apr 2009

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This scrupulous study by the Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn of how the Hebrew Bible was written and then evolved over time is in most respects finely instructive. Some of what Toorn has to say involves concepts long familiar to Biblical scholars, though even in this regard he provides many fresh insights. Nearly all the book's argument, moreover, offers a strong corrective to misconceptions about the Bible...Karel van der Toorn is the perfect--and bracing--antithesis to Harold Bloom..."Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible" is a salutary book based on the most formidable scholarly knowledge and analysis. It will compel readers to rethink their conceptions of literary production in ancient Israel, and it is a valuable reminder that in many respects those responsible for the biblical corpus were quite far from being early Iron Age equivalents of Flaubert or Henry James.--Robert Alter"London Review of Books" (07/19/2007)

Van der Toorn covers considerable ground in this volume. He surveys literacy and authorship in the ancient world, the culture and vocation of scribes, production of the Moses and prophetic traditions, and the issues of revelation and canon...This volume is extremely valuable. "Scribal Culture" is a must-read for anyone interested in the issues of the formation, transmission, and standardization of the Hebrew Bible.--Charles Halton"Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society" (12/01/2007)

Every decade we see the publication of only one or two works of scholarly excellence that fundamentally advance the understanding of the Hebrew Bible and change the intellectual contours of the biblical field. Karel van der Toorn has accomplished this rarest of intellectual achievements. Different branches of biblical studies, whether literary, theological or historical in orientation, will strongly benefit from this volume.--Mark S. Smith, Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, New York University

Van der Toorn has made a masterful case that the Hebrew Bible is the product of the scribal culture of ancient Israel and Judaism. His argument is lucidly and elegantly plotted and relentlessly and convincingly logical. Particularly striking is his ability to bring evidence from other ancient Near Eastern cultures on the scribal craft, especially Mesopotamia, to a penetrating and nuanced elucidation of the Biblical case. In all, this is really a major contribution to Biblical studies and a triumph of the comparative approach to them.--Peter Machinist, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages, Harvard University

Karel van der Toorn has truly swept away a number of improbable theories and at the same time has laid a firm foundation for future research. He cuts through much of the speculation of the recent scholarly debate and proposes new theories that will be controversial but are based on solid evidence. Future debates on this topic will need to take his contributions into account or risk being perceived to be out of touch with the reality of ancient literary practice.--Robert R. Wilson, Hoober Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of Old Testament, Yale University

Building upon the growing recognition that the Hebrew Bible came into being as the Near East moved from an oral to a written culture Van der Toorn...examines the central role ancient scribes played in shaping the biblical text. The author brings to bear his vast knowledge of scribal practices throughout the ancient Near East, and thereby shows how the Bible s growth is illuminated when seen against this background. While at times speculative (e.g., his contention that Deuteronomy passed through four editions, which he neatly delineates), the author s research calls into question those who blithely dismiss source and redaction criticism; it also challenges the conclusions of historical minimalists who date the vast bulk of the Hebrew Bible to late in the Persian or early in the Hellenistic era. Furthermore, the portrait Van der Toorn draws of scribal training deals a devastating blow to critics who argue that J may have been a woman. Van der Toorn demonstrates that the scribes who produced the Hebrew Bible were part of a wider scribal culture and that those who ignore this fact end up misunderstanding the biblical text and its history.--J.S. Kaminsky"Choice" (09/01/2007)"

About the Author

Karel van der Toorn is President of the University of Amsterdam.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars 10 reviews
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scribes Not Authors, Scrolls Not Books 16 May 2009
By Edward G. Simmons - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
With the exception of the book of Daniel, the Hebrew Bible, says Van der Toorn, was the product of streams of tradition recorded and edited by scribes who were Levites connected to the Temple in Jerusalem. These Levites descended from the priesthood in Israel that had migrated to Judah after the Assyrian conquest and became integrated into the ranks of priests as the scribes. Consequently, Van der Toorn asserts that it is anachronism to refer to the Bible as a collection of books. Books are separate items with an author who designs parts to produce a whole and intends this product to be appreciated by an audience. Books thus presume authors, a book trade, and a literate public. Study of such books can appropriately focus on authenticity of authorship and the general intentions and message of the author. But, according to Van der Toorn, books and authors did not come into existence until the Hellenistic period. Before then the materials that evolved into the Hebrew Bible were streams of tradition recorded on various scrolls by an organized group of scribes. The scrolls represented the product of oral traditions mixed with the editorial activity of the scribes. The way to study the Hebrew Bible, then, is to trace the signs within documents that point to scribal editing. Based on this method, Van der Toorn argues there were four editions of the book of Deuteronomy that came approximately at forty year intervals as the scribes replaced the master copy of the book with an updated edition.

Van der Toorn uses Mesopotamian and Egyptian archeology and literature as he argues that Jewish scribes were part of a Middle Eastern phenomenon. Scribes were usually attached to the palace of the ruler and important temples. Van der Toorn believes that the key work on the Bible was done at the Jerusalem temple. He argues that Mesopotamian scribes were the first to claim that written documents represented authoritative revelation which superseded oral traditions. He says this transition happened in Mesopotamia around 1150 B.C.E. That transition happened in Judah, he maintains, with the Josiah reform of 622 when a written version of Deuteronomy was used as the basis for overruling oral tradition. Thenceforward written documents began to be viewed as revelation and the oral tradition was downgraded. Eventually the doctrine took hold that the era of prophecy had come to a close with the work of Ezra, who is credited with publishing the five books of the Torah as Jewish law, thus representing the closing of the canon as it relates to the Pentateuch. In the final analysis, the books that were included in the Hebrew Bible were those that were considered prior to the prophetic activity of Ezra. The books of prophecy that were admitted to the Masoretic canon derived from streams of tradition prior to Ezra with the exception of Daniel which was the only example of pseudepigraphy that was accepted as legitimately by an ancient prophet.

Van der Toorn goes into the books of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah to show in detail how the scribal procedures resulted in editions of Torah and prophets. Among the interesting facts that are revealed are that Jeremiah denounces the discovery of Deuteronomy in the temple under Josiah as a fraud perpetrated by the scribes; that Malachi was an invented prophet needed to bring the scroll of minor prophets to the perfect number twelve; and that Daniel was erroneously accepted as a legitimate traditional prophet when the book was definitely pseudonymous. He also argues that there was no closure of the canon at a particular time and place. Rather, the scribes were concerned with the closure of the canonization period, which is to say they accepted books that were regarded as reflecting material up to the life of Ezra, whose work was regarded as bringing to an end the age of prophesy. From that time onward, the scribes and their successors in Judaism maintained that revelation could only be found by studying the texts that became the Hebrew Bible.

Van der Toorn's book is very readable and full of provocative insights. Anyone interested in the development of the Hebrew Bible will find this work to be very worthwhile.
59 of 72 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good description of early scribal culture 12 May 2007
By Carl Kinbar - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The nature of my Ph.D. thesis required an in-depth study of orality theory. Although I had studied early scribal culture, this book -- though clearly intended for the non-specialist -- brings together a significant depth and breadth of material on the subject. Unfortunately, although occasionally referencing orally produced material, van der Toon is overly scribe-centered and does not seriously engage orality theory. This produces a lop-sided impression of how the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures were formed and shaped. Nevetheless, the depiction of scribal culture is easily strong enough for me to recommend the first part of the book.

Unfortunately, I can not recommend the second part of the book, in which van der Toom attempts to reconstruct the writing and collection of the texts that make up the Hebrew Scriptures. Out of the massive mixture of consensus, bold ideas, and cautious suggestions that exist in the scholarship of this field, he fabricates a thesis in which all notions favorable to his paradigm function as equally certain. A more minimalist approach would, in my opinion, have produced less detailed but more convincing conclusions.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Comparative study at its finest 12 April 2010
By E. L. Bess - Published on
Format: Paperback
I cannot exaggerate the importance of van der Toorn's work. Often the call for doing more 'work' in biblical scholarship comes to calling for sitting and contemplating new things to say or rearranging the way things are already said. This book is what I would call real work because it actually has something to contribute to the field of Hebrew bible studies. The greatest contribution to the excellence of this work is the comparative evidence from Mesopotamia and Egypt, though mostly Mesopotamia. This permeates all aspects of the entire thesis: scribal activity and social setting, literary compositional techniques (which support redactorial activity and source criticism; see the discussions of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah in chs. 6 & 7), divine revelation through textual traditions, canon formation, and conceptions of authorship in the ancient world. Karel van der Toorn balances this evidence in comprehensive and unquestionably gifted fashion. Simply put, text manufacture in the ancient world was generally a scribal phenomenon. Behind the scenes of the literary achievement of the Hebrew bible are generations of scribes. 'The books of the Bible would not have seen the light in the oral culture of Israel if it were not for the professional scribes. They are the main figures behind biblical literature; we owe the Bible entirely to them.' [75] What are scribes, the scribes so important for this thesis? Not just automata of transcription. Rather, 'the involvement of scribes in the process of literary production exceeded that of mere copyists. They had an active part in the formation and transformation of the tradition'. [110]

There is one major thing that perturbed me all the way through, and that was the argument for a correct conception of authorship in the ancient world as less individual and more authority or scribal representation of particular values. In the first case an individual figure might be the authority behind a textual tradition written by scribes. In the latter case, anonymity is the rule of thumb. But I don't see how this is consistent with his discussion of pseudonymity and what he calls 'attributed authorship'. Pseudonymity is where the real writer claims the name of an authority figure in a written text to deceive the public into its reception. I agree with van der Toorn here against other scholars who explain away pseudonymity as an ancient 'literary convention', obviously to extenuate the use of a pseudonym, which today looks very much like fraud and forgery. But alas, we try to look at the ancients too sympathetically as if they were sophisticated apes; they wouldn't ever intentionally mislead their audiences...they're too stupid, obviously, to think of something so sinister as pretending to be somebody else. In attributed authorship, editors/compilers repute a figure with the authorship of a text because they really believed the reputed figure wrote the text. (see 39) But the context indicates that this means the text was believed to have been written by the individual figure as opposed to the attribution being an editorial invoking of authority. This presupposes more than a 'scribal milieu' of common values or traditions or a figure standing behind the text in some way other than literal composition. And without a presupposition of individual authorship, in what sense could pseudonymity be fraudulent? That's what van der Toorn calls Deuteronomy, in agreement with Jeremiah's suspicion of Deuteronomy as van der Toorn so often reminds the reader. (see 35, 77, 87, 95, 143, 145, 222f., 225) Pseudonymity ends up looking identical to the invoking of an authority figure, belief in a tradition streaming from him, or a case of honorary authorship. (see 33f.) Therefore pseudonymity also presupposes a conception of authorship in antiquity along individual lines, especially considering that examples of this 'genre' record the individual experiences of the author in autobiographical form. (van der Toorn cites the standard edition of the Gilgamesh Epic and Daniel) Scribes writing this way knew the person they were attributing the text to had no such experiences.

Other than this, this book is jam-packed with data and authoritative.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Speaking of writing... 30 Jun. 2009
By Ramon Antonio - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is somewhat elevated reading, meaning that it is not an easy read. However, it is iluminating and insightful on things other than its core theme of jewish scripture historic study. This book provides a very comprehensive overview of culture development and history in the making process. Its impact is well beyond religion evolution and really breaks through in cultural evolution and social organizations. The problem is that it has to be read slowly, it can't be read casually. This is a study book, a guide to anotate other references. it is invaluable for that and a cornerstone in its theme. With this caution, I fully enjoy it continued use.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ecstatic Achievement in Oriental Scribal Scholarship: Vital & Necessary to Own! 20 Aug. 2010
By John E.D.P. Malin - Published on
Format: Paperback
Karel van der Toom's masterpiece, "Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible" must be purchased by all students of ancient historical, literary, scientific & philological culture in the Semitic & Indo-European languages. How were these ancient texts written, copied, edited, transmitted and interpreted by its various scribal cultures spanning the maturity of writing skill [2300 to 200 BCE] over a two millenia period of duration?

You young scholars at our great universities of the world must purchase and read this book more than once. I am 63 years old, so I am jealous that I did not have such a work of scholarship at my disposal when I was a young scholar in my teens and early twenties! It has taken me a lifetime reading my various ancient texts in their original languages to absord the intuitions that Karel displays with such alarming simplicity. His prose is immaculate, cogent, authoritative and clean. Not only is he a great scholar of Oriental and Classical scholarship, he is a humane, brilliant teacher.

His analysis of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah requires careful reading and re-reading. His mature discussions of redaction criticism stimulates the human mind to better appreciate our Biblical books free of the vulgar superstitions and dogmatic suppositions of our ignorant evangelical age.

You will appreciate how books were actually streams of traditions organized by a jealous priesthood guarding its tutelary gods or *God under the auspices of a Temple bureaucracy; and how presumed "authors" were really a series and successive groups of collective scribes preserving a specialized set of texts---legal, administrative, military, palace dossier and religious texts.

It is inexcusable not to buy this actual book! One does not want a kindle version. This book must be smelt, touched and fondled! It must be read multiple times!! Furthermore, it will enhance your insight into the behind-the-scenes activities that produced for us this great book we all call the Bible!!! The foundation of our western culture.
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