How the Bible Became a Book
A review of William Schniedewind's, "How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel," by Dr. Richard Hess.
William M. Schniedewind. How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xiii + 257 pages. Hardback, $29.99. ISBN 0-521-82946-1.
Schniedewind provides a new paradigm for the development and appearance of the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, although the New Testament is also mentioned. The study presents evidence for the oral culture in Israel as well as the appearance of a written culture in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. The book is well written and serves both as a critique of former theories regarding the construction of the Bible and as a model of literary development that is based more firmly upon the existing archaeological data than any previous hypothesis. For Schniedewind, oral culture dominated the society of early Israel until the eighth century B.C. Even after that it continued to have an impact. However, beginning with the writing prophets of Hosea and Amos in the north, as well as Isaiah and Micah in the south, there emerged in this century the concern to record in writing those matters important to the royalty and to religious officials. Although writing did exist earlier, it was primarily perceived as a kind of magical device with a power of its own. In the eighth century, however, it began to be used by those in political power. Above all, this is exemplified by Hezekiah the king of Judah at the end of that century. He used writing extensively for administrative purposes. During his time the earliest edition of the book of Kings was written and a variety of wisdom literature was penned. Schniedewind affirms that the historical material was, at least in part, a record of an actual United Monarchy, though much reduced in size in comparison with what was written in the book of Kings. In addition, Hezekiah’s age saw the composition of some of the Pentateuch and of the book of Joshua. The idea that the eighth century served as the earliest period of Israelite literature is not unknown to scholars. It has been argued elsewhere. Nor is the archaeological evidence for the significant growth and building during the eighth century anything new. It too has previously been observed (P. J. King, “The Eighth, the Greatest of Centuries?” Journal of Biblical Literature 108  3-15). However, Schniedewind integrates this material into a Neo-Assyrian political context and melds the whole together with a theory of textuality in order to generate an explanatory model that satisfactorily accounts for the dominance of archaeological and written data.
If the latter eighth century saw the emergence of a writing culture among the royalty of Judah, the latter part of the seventh century saw a challenge by the less literate rural population who managed to place on the throne the boy king Josiah. The conservative backlash is evident in Jer. 8:8 where the “lying pen of the scribes” is noted. For Schniedewind this verse in particular establishes the critique of literacy and the replacement of oral tradition and teaching (= torah) with a written word. The document of Deuteronomy, which is discovered in the Temple and is to be understood as the product of the seventh century, represents the only mention of writing in the Pentateuch. It distinctive emphasis, in contrast with the rest of the legal material, includes an emphasis on the agrarian way of life and on the manner in which the king is subservient to the law.
A vital point that Schniedewind wishes to make is that the period from the time of the destruction of Jerusalem until the third century B.C. was a time unlikely to produce great works of literature among the Jewish people. The archaeology demonstrates an impoverished state in Judah without any clear evidence of writing in Hebrew. Despite the arguments of many scholars that this was a time of massive literary production in terms of the editing and composition of much of the Old Testament, there is nothing in terms of the extant evidence to support such a conclusion. Further, those who argue that the writing of the Scriptures occurred at the end of this period, or in the Hellenistic age, must deal with the profound difference in literary style and Hebrew grammar that the undisputed Hebrew writings from this period demonstrate. Schniedewind effectively supplements the existing arguments against large-scale post-Exilic writing of the Old Testament with a social, linguistic, and archaeological synthesis.
The final pages of the volume conclude with the ongoing tension between the oral and the written word and the views of authority. Thus Schniedewind finds in the Sadducees and the Essenes an importance ascribed to the written text. However, the Pharisees and both Jesus and Paul in the New Testament rely more heavily upon the authority of the teacher and the oral word.
Schniedewind presents a compelling synthesis on many points. Indeed, if one relies on the quantity of extrabiblical inscriptions to establish the times when the Old Testament was most likely written, then his book makes its case. However, there remain questions as to why the eighth and seventh centuries provide so much epigraphic material. Is it because the earlier periods were barely literate in comparison, or could other reasons also play a role? The largest find of epigraphic materials in the eighth century in situ comes from the capital of the northern kingdom at Samaria. The largest finds of the seventh and early sixth centuries come from the capital and chief fortified centers of the southern kingdom. Is this a coincidence, or is it the case that, as with archaeological remains in general (and as with other archival finds in the Middle East), the largest quantity often appears within a generation or so of the destruction of a site? From the earlier period, Schniedewind discusses but does not emphasize the eleventh century B.C. find of the Izbet Sartah ostracon. This was a practice tablet for learning to read and write the early alphabet. It was found in a village. Such a find would suggest that effort was made to read and write even in Israelite villages. What does this have to say about early literacy?
Such questions remain but they do not diminish the importance of this valuable book for critiquing older critical views and for establishing the groundwork of a valuable model to interpret the formation of the Old Testament.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages