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  • Torah on the Heart:Literary Jewish Textuality Within Its Ancient Near Eastern Context
  • David Carr (bio)

This essay examines evidence for the interplay of memory recall and written technology in ancient Israel and surrounding cultures.1 The focus is on recovering the processes by which ancient Israelite authors wrote and revised long-duration texts of the sort found in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, this essay does not address the process by which display, administrative, or other types of texts were written, however important those genres were. Instead, the primary emphasis is on what we can learn from other cultures, epigraphy, manuscripts, and references within the Hebrew Bible itself about the context in which such texts transmitted over long periods of time were composed and revised, texts that might be broadly described as literary-theological in emphasis (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ptah-Hotep, Homer, the Bible—with “theology” used in its very broadest sense).

Remarkably little has been written on this topic in the several centuries of biblical scholarship, especially given how much scholars have wanted to say about the stages through which the Hebrew Bible reached its present form. On the one hand, since the 1700s, scholars have developed many theories, some quite compelling, about sources and layers of redactional revision in the texts of the Pentateuch/Torah (Genesis -Deuteronomy) and other parts of the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, very few have explored concretely how such sources were created or revised, other than to posit some general sort of transition from oral traditions/cycles to written compositions/sources/redactions. Moreover, the few studies that have addressed the specific processes of writing, however worthwhile they are (see Blau 1894; 1902; Breasted 1930; Eissfeldt 1962; Martin 1958; Wilson and Wills 1982; Tov 2004; and others) have focused almost exclusively on what might be termed the “material technology” of writing: the creation and preparation of different sorts of scrolls, pens, and ink, and various sorts of scribal markings. Even now, with a resurgence of focus on the “scribal” context of the Hebrew Bible in some recent and important publications (see Schniedewind 2004 and van der Toorn 2007), much more emphasis has been put on the historical contexts of writing on the one hand and on exigencies of scroll technology on the other—for example, how long a scroll lasts.

However important those dimensions of composition are, this essay focuses on another issue that might be termed the “cognitive technology” of textual composition and revision. As will be evident in the first part of the essay, this focus comes from some parallel themes that have emerged in studies of textuality in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. Together, these themes—emerging largely independently in these different disciplines—point to education and socialization of leading elites as a primary context, if not the primary context, for the transmission of the kind of long-duration literature seen in the Bible, as well as literature such as Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, or Homer. By “long-duration literature” is meant texts—usually viewed in some way as particularly archaic/ancient, inspired/holy, and obscure/inaccessible—that are passed from generation to generation, transcending whatever their original time-bound contexts might be and being consumed by generation after generation. “Education/enculturation” is not necessarily training in a “school” that we might recognize today with a professional teacher and separate building, but more a familial or pseudo-familial arrangement where a “father” taught his sons (or students seen as “sons”) the ancient tradition in a part-time or apprentice-like setting alongside other activities. As will be discussed shortly, the “elites” thus educated are not just textual professionals, for example “scribes” as most conceive that word, but priestly, governmental, high-level military, bureaucratic, and other elites as part of larger-scale city-states, empires, and similar formations.

The comparative argument for these assertions is presented in much more detail in my book Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (2005). In it I argue that the main point of the textual production and reception process in the educational/ enculturational context was not to incise and revise texts on parchment, papyrus, or tablet. Rather...

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