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The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 373-375 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0027

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In this book, Carr builds on his previous work on scribal culture (Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature [New York: Oxford University Press, 2005]) to discern what scribal practices can tell us about how the Hebrew Bible was shaped by generations of scribes.

After a short introduction, the book consists of seventeen chapters divided into three major parts. Part 1 may be the most interesting and enlightening section that prepares the way for the remainder of the work. Carr articulates evidence that many societies transmitted canonical texts through an oral-written context in which written texts were used to assist memorization, and memorization of texts assisted writing. He develops the concept of "memory variants," which are textual variants best explained as arising from errors in memorization that have been well documented in modern empirical studies (e.g., changing unusual words to more familiar ones). Memory variants (which exist alongside visual and aural variants) demonstrate the ongoing use of memorization in the reproduction of written texts. In other words, memory variants are not merely part of a pre-literary oral tradition, but a continuing phenomenon in scribal practice. Carr convincingly establishes the reality of memory variants from modern studies of memory and several case studies of documented biblical and non-biblical textual transmission (e.g., Gilgamesh, Temple Scroll). The documented cases Carr examines show that the process of revision was too fluid to reconstruct in detail. Therefore, Carr argues for and practices "methodological modesty," meaning reconstructions of transmission history will be admittedly partial, but focus on well-documented modes of change (e.g., resumptive repetition, harmonization, conflation, addition of appendices). The reader looking for a systematic dating of biblical texts will be disappointed, since Carr does not think all texts can be dated, and he limits himself to elucidating basic features of text deriving from various periods.

The next two parts of the book attempt a modest reconstruction of the formation of the Hebrew Bible. These chapters unfold in reverse chronological order. Carr begins with the Hasmonean period because it is the earliest documented stage in the transmission of the Hebrew Bible. He then works backwards through time into more remote eras with ever less evidence to work with. He hopes that once the profile of relatively late texts is established, earlier material may be isolated. Part 2 has chapters concerned with the following periods: Hasmonean, pre-Hasmonean Hellenistic, Persian, Exilic (two chapters), and Neo-Assyrian. Part 3 consists of six chapters discerning possible texts dating from the early pre-exilic period. The first chapter in this section reviews evidence for state-sponsored textuality in the tenth and ninth century and establishes the possibility that there may be traces of early monarchic texts in the Hebrew Bible. In other chapters, he suggests that the royal psalms and Proverbs may preserve early monarchic elements.

Carr's discussion of Proverbs illustrates his approach and hints at its potential impact on the field. In documented educational systems, wisdom literature was used early in the training of a scribe, and represents the kind of literature that would have been developed if Israel modeled its educational curriculum on foreign practices as suggested by its borrowing of the Phoenician script. Proverbs has few contacts with content and themes from other books (ancestral stories, exodus, Mosaic law, Davidic covenant, prophecy) because these traditions had not yet achieved a central place in the culture (and not, as many scholars believe, because it was composed by sages who did not care about these traditions). Indeed, wisdom literature known to be later (e.g., Sirach) shows an explicit interest in these "non-wisdom" traditions. If Proverbs does represent an early Israelite written tradition, then it is the earlier source in the many intertextual parallels between Proverbs and other books. For example, Carr argues that Deut 19:14 uses language from Prov 22:28 rather than the other way around, since the Deuteronomy text is more elaborate and the Proverbs text is related to the older Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. Proverbs frequently critiques false measures in other terms (Prov 11:1; 20:23), which suggests that this is a common theme in wisdom instruction rather than...

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