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  • Book, Scribe, and Bard: Oral Discourse and Written Text in Recent Biblical Scholarship
  • Frank H. Polak
David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, x + 330 pp.
Robert S. Kawashima, Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode. Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature Series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, xi + 293 pp.
William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, xiii + 257 pp.

The beginning of the twenty-first century has witnessed a number of important publications in biblical scholarship that place the relationship between oral literature and written text at center stage. One can only hope that these studies will be as influential as Hermann Gunkel’s 1901 commentary on Genesis.1 But the world has changed. If Gunkel narrowly highlighted the role of the simple folktale as the oral source for the narratives in Genesis, and if Henrik Nyberg and his followers limited their interest to the oral transmission of biblical discourse,2 scholarly attention nowadays is drawn to a wide range of socio-historical and cultural aspects of orality and writtenness. Susan Niditch’s seminal Oral World and Written Word points to the art of the oral performance of narrator and/or singer, indicates diverse linguistic and literary aspects of orality, highlights the symbiosis of oral and written literature, and places a variety of texts on a scale extending from the predominantly oral to the writerly pole.3 Less than ten years later, such scholars as David Carr, Robert Kawashima, and William Schniedewind [End Page 118] indicate different directions for clarifying the relationship between orality and textuality in biblical literature.4 This essay explores the distinct points of view of these innovative works, reviews some of their common interests, and points to fresh perspectives suggested by their research.

The Social Context of Biblical Literature

The basic social and literary framework is established by William Schniedewind’s How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel, which aims at exploring “the movement from orality to textuality, from a pre-literate toward a literate society” (1). On the basis of a wealth of archeological data, Schniedewind argues that in ancient Israel, writing was at first restricted to a small circle of people, most of whom were close to the royal power center. The author, whose perspective comes from that of anthropological linguistics, forcefully argues that lack of literacy does not mean lack of culture, that the culture of ancient Israel was oral for ages, and that it drew upon the rich legacy of Canaanite literature. The oral nature of this culture is reflected in the numinous and even magical status accorded to writing and written texts in biblical narrative and the early prophets (Isa. 8:2–3; divine writing in Exod. 24:12 and 31:18).5 From Mesopotamia to Egypt, early use of writing is related to the royal administration. In early Israelite society the situation was similar, but Schniedewind rejects the notion that the monarchy then could have formed the background for literary works in writing, since “writing did not play an important enough role in early Israelite society to warrant writing down these songs and stories, proverbs and parables” (63). The inception of written Israelite literature, and thereby of biblical literature as we know it, is attributed to the late eighth century BCE, the days of Hezekiah and (First) Isaiah. In Schniedewind’s view, this process was conditioned under the influence of the Assyrian Empire and its well-developed administrative framework and scribal apparatus, and the sudden growth of Jerusalem with the Assyrian conquest of Samaria in 722 BCE. These developments gave the impetus to the urbanization of Judea and the growth of its royal bureaucracy, as witnessed by the inscribed seals found in excavations of seventh-century Jerusalem, and thereby brought into existence the sociological conditions required for the growth of a written literature. [End Page 119]

Schniedewind speaks of Hezekiah’s Golden Age (displacing the earlier notion of a Solomonic Golden Age). The point of departure for this theory is the well-known note on “the proverbs of Solomon...


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