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Origins of the Written Bible

  • By William M. Schniedewind
  • Posted 11.18.08
  • NOVA

In the modern era, we take for granted that the Hebrew Bible is a text—written words, displayed in chapters and verse. Yet biblical scholar William Schniedewind, the Kershaw Chair of Ancient Eastern Mediterranean Studies at UCLA, has a different view. In How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge University Press, 2004), he explores when and why the ancient Israelite accounts—once conveyed only orally—came to be written down and attain the status of Scripture. Here, Schniedewind offers an overview of his findings.

Close-up of ancient text.

In order to have a sacred text, a culture must first have writing. For that text to be the central authority of a religion, literacy must be widespread. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

A cultural shift

In writing How the Bible Became a Book, I began with a different question than scholars usually ask. Namely, why did the Bible become a book at all? This question began to haunt me more and more as I studied the archeology of ancient Palestine and the early history of Hebrew writing. Scholars agree that early Israel was an oral society of pastoralism and subsistence farming. So how and why did such a pastoral-agrarian society come to write down and give authority to the written word? How and why did writing spread from the closed circles of royal and priestly scribes to the lay classes? It was this spread of Hebrew writing in ancient Palestine that democratized the written word and allowed it to gain religious authority in the book we now call "the Bible."

When the Bible became a book, the written word supplanted the living voice of the teacher. Ancient Israelite society was textualized. This textualization marked one of the great turning points in human history, namely the movement from an oral culture towards a written culture.

We tend to read the Bible from our own viewpoint—that is, we tend to think of the Bible as if it came from a world of texts, books, and authors. But the Bible was written before there were books. As the great French scholar Henri-Jean Martin has observed, the role of writing in society has changed dramatically through history, yet modern analyses of biblical literature often depend on the perspective of the text in modern society. Using the most recent advances in the archeology of Palestine and relying on insights from linguistic anthropology, I came to new conclusions about why and when the Bible began to be written down.

The magical writing of priests and kings

In ancient Palestine, writing was a restricted and expensive technology. Writing was controlled by the government and manipulated by the priests. Writing was seen as a gift from the gods. It was not used to canonize religious practice, but rather to engender religious awe. Writing was magical. It was powerful. It was the guarded knowledge of political and religious elites.

An inscription, an example of early writing.

This inscription of a proto-Hebrew alphabet, found at Tel Zayit and dating to the 10th century B.C., is early evidence of Israelite writing. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

We know from ancient inscriptions that writing did not require well-developed states like those of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. For example, the tiny city-states in Canaan during the late 2nd millennium B.C. each had their own scribe. Excavations at Tel Amarna in Egypt uncovered correspondence from these petty rulers in Canaan to the great pharaohs of the New Kingdom during the 14th century B.C. Other evidence, documented in NOVA's "The Bible's Buried Secrets," turned up in 2005, when a proto-Hebrew abecedary (that is, an alphabet inscription) dated to the 10th century B.C. was excavated at Tel Zayit in Israel.

Many early inscriptions were used in religious rituals, reflecting the belief in the magical power of writing. The well-known Gezer Calendar, a series of notes about planting and harvesting that dates to the 10th century B.C., was probably written on soft limestone so that the writing could be scraped off in such a ritual, with the written words literally becoming a kind of magic fertilizer blessing the agricultural year. Other inscriptions such as an early-ninth-century royal inscription from the tiny chiefdom of Moab (in ancient Jordan) were display inscriptions—they were located in prominent places by kings and chiefs, not to be read but to be seen. An aspiring king projected power by his control and manipulation of writing. But eventually writing would break free from these restricted uses.

The Gezer Calendar, a tablet covered in etchings.

The Gezer Calendar may have been etched in soft limestone so that the writing could be scraped off in a magical ritual. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy www.HolyLandPhotos.org

The spread of literacy and origins of biblical literature

The invention of alphabetic writing was a pivotal development in the history of writing, but it alone did not encourage the spread of writing beyond the palace and the temple. Recent discoveries at Wadi el-Hol in Egypt date the invention of the alphabet back to 2000 B.C., and for centuries after, writing likely remained the province of the elite. So what allowed the alphabet to spread beyond religious and literary elites to be used by soldiers, merchants, and even common workmen? It was the urbanization and globalization of society. This process began in the eighth century B.C. with the rise of the Assyrian Empire, which encouraged urbanization as part of a plan for economically exploiting its growing territory.

I believe that the formative period for the writing of biblical literature also began at this time and stretched roughly from the eighth through the sixth century B.C., when the social and political conditions for the expansion of writing in ancient Israel flourished. With the rise of the Assyrian Empire, ancient Palestine became more urban, and writing became critical to the increasingly complex economy. Writing was important to the bureaucracy of Jerusalem. It also continued to serve as an ideological tool projecting the power of kings. At the end of the eighth century in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, rulers were collecting the ancient books, and ancient Judeans followed their model—collecting the traditions, stories, and laws of their ancestors into written manuscripts.

Biblical literature became a tool that legitimated and furthered the priests' political and religious authority.

The evidence of archeology and inscriptions suggests a spread of writing through all classes of society by the seventh century B.C. in Judah. This allowed for a momentous shift in the role of writing in society that is reflected in the reforms of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century; writing became a tool of religious reformers who first proclaimed the authority of the written word. This new role of the written word is particularly reflected in the Book of Deuteronomy, which commands the masses to write down the words of God, to read it and treasure it in their hearts, and to post the written word on the entrance to their homes.

A mezuzah near a doorway.

The Book of Deuteronomy, likely compiled around the 7th century B.C., instructed ancient Israelites to post prayers on the entrances of their homes, as Jews do today with mezuzahs containing tiny scrolls. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy The Jewish Learning Experience www.jle.org

To be sure, this shift in the role of writing encroached on groups with a vested interest in the authority of the oral tradition or the prophetic word. The rise of authoritative texts in the late Judean monarchy was accompanied by a critique of the written word.

Dark years of exile

The composition of biblical literature continued into the period of the Babylonian exile (586-539 B.C.), after the Babylonians overthrew the Assyrians in the north and invaded the Kingdom of Judah. However, it was hardly a time when biblical literature could flourish. The exile resulted in a massive depopulation of the land of Israel. Archeological surveys suggest the region was depopulated by as much as 80 percent, and in Babylon the situation was grim for the exiles—with the exception of the royal family.

It is hardly credible that Jewish exiles working on Babylonian canal projects wrote or even valued literature. However, the royal entourage of the last kings of Judah were living in the southern palace of the Babylonian kings, and they retained their claim to the throne in Jerusalem. They collected literature from the royal and temple library, as well as wrote and edited literature that advanced their claims and standing. But the high status of the royal family and its role in the formation of biblical literature seems to disappear by the end of the sixth century B.C.

The region of Palestine, especially in the hills around Jerusalem, continued to be sparsely populated and impoverished in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. These were dark times for Jerusalem and the Persian province of Yehud. In past scholarship, it was "dark" simply because we knew so little about this period of history. Increasingly, archeology has filled in the void but painted a bleak picture.

Most biblical literature was written long before this dark age. However, the priests who took over the leadership of the Jewish community during this period preserved and edited biblical literature. Biblical literature became a tool that legitimated and furthered the priests' political and religious authority.

A NOVA recreation of early writers of the Hebrew Bible.

In making "The Bible's Buried Secrets," NOVA portrayed some of the early writers of what would become the Hebrew Bible. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

The text becomes the teacher

By the time of the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C., and the return of the Jewish exiles to Palestine, the core of the Hebrew Bible was completed. The very language of Scripture changed as society became more textualized. Most tellingly, the Hebrew word torah, which originally meant "teaching, instruction," increasingly began to refer to a written text, "the Torah of Moses," (also known as the Pentateuch) in the Second Temple period (530 B.C.–A.D. 130).

The tension between the authority of the oral tradition and the written word, the teacher and the text, continued in the Second Temple period among the various Jewish groups. The priestly aristocracy controlled the temple library and the sacred texts. They were literate elites whose authority was threatened by the oral tradition. Groups like the Pharisees, in contrast, were largely composed of the lay classes. They invested authority in the teacher and the oral tradition.

Still, a fierce ideology of orality would persist in rabbinic Judaism.

Both early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, which grew out of the lay classes, struggled with the tension between the sacred text and the authority of the oral tradition in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Although they acknowledged the authority of the written Scriptures, they also asserted the authority of the living voice of the teacher.

Christianity, however, quickly adopted the codex—the precursor of the modern book. Codices, with bound leaves of pages, appeared in the first century A.D. and became common by the fourth century. The codex could encompass a much more extensive series of texts than a single scroll could contain. In bringing together a collection of scrolls, the codex also defined a set and order of books and made possible a more defined canon. It was with the technological invention of the codex that the "Bible" as a book, that is, the Bible as we know it, first got its physical form. The adoption of the codex probably encouraged the authority of the written Scriptures in the early Church.

Judaism, in contrast, was quite slow in adopting the codex and even today it is a Torah scroll that we find in a synagogue ark. Eventually, Judaism too would cloak its oral tradition in a written garb. Still, a fierce ideology of orality would persist in rabbinic Judaism even as the oral Torah and the written tablets were merged into what, according to doctrine, is one pre-existent Torah that was with God at the very creation of the world.

A rabbi reading from the Torah.

The Torah remains at the core of Jewish identity and religion, as well as a link to the ancient past. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program "The Bible's Buried Secrets". See the original site for more related features.

William M. SchniedewindWilliam M. Schniedewind is the Kershaw Chair of Ancient Eastern Mediterranean Studies and Professor of Biblical Studies and Northwest Semitic Languages at UCLA. In addition to writing How the Bible Became a Book, he is also the author of The Word of God in Transition and Society and the Promise to David.

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