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Text vs. Tradition

June 4, 2007

coffee.pngThere’s been a slew of posts as of late on what to call that canonical thing that some of us study (see Claude Mariottini, Christopher Heard, Tyler Williams, Patrick McCullough, and a recap of the discussion at the Biblical Studies Carnival 18). Personally, I go with calling it the “Hebrew Bible” in most academic situations, the “Old Testament” when I’m in a church setting and the “Tanakh” when I’m in a synagogal setting. What is of more interest to me is what the effects of thinking of this thing as canon has on our understanding of the amalgamation rather than the name in and of itself.

In this direction, Christopher Heard over at Higgaion echoes a comment by Niels Peter Lemeche when he blogs Is the Old Testament an ancient Near Eastern Text? He sums up his valuable inquiry by saying:

As a plurality of canons, neither the Tanakh nor any Christian Old Testament is an ancient Near Eastern text. As individual documents, some of the component parts of the Tanakh might be ancient Near Eastern texts, depending on how you demarcate the ancient Near East.

This is a wonderful way of putting it. But, it still doesn’t get back to a fundamental problem for me: what is a text? While this might sound like the beginning of a flight into postmodern reader-response criticism discussing the vitality of “the author” in our literary Schrodinger quantum box, it is actually a question of the perception of literature and tradition in the ancient Near East.

As luck would have it, yesterday I picked up Karl van der Toorn’s new book Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Harvard, 2007). While I haven’t finished the book yet (though I hope to with in the next day or so), a comment he makes in the introduction seems germane to the problem:

Prior to the Hellenistic era—that is, before ca. 300 B.C.E.—there were no books. There were documents, literary compilations, myths, collections of prayers, ritual prescriptions, chronicles, and the like, but no books, no trade in books, and no reading public of any substance. Insofar as literature reached a larger audience, it was by way of oral performance…. The Bible is a repository of tradition, accumulated over time, that was preserved and studied by a small body of specialists. (p.5)

When we think of ancient Near Eastern texts, most of us have a concept of some body of literature, some group of tablets or scrolls. But van der Toorn holds that this is the wrong preconception to bring to the study. Scribes in the ancient Near East saw themselves as artisans learning a body of traditions that would hone their skills rather than creating texts or books as we would think of them today. With that as his starting point, van der Toorn attempts to penetrate and explain the mind of the scribal elites behind these traditions.

To me it seems that the written traditions that became the texts that now make up our various canons were indeed part of an ancient Near Eastern milieu, but these traditions existed as traditions not texts.

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