Saturday, September 06, 2008


I'm returning to the other end of my academic interests for this post. I've recently completed reading Phillip Davies Scribes and Schools, first published in 1998. This shows that I'm only about ten years behind on my reading. This post is mostly about Second Temple Judaism and ancient scribal activity, but there is some medieval content toward the end.

Anyway, its a great, and I think overlooked, volume. The premise is that when discussing the canonization of the collection we know as the Hebrew Bible, we ought to look to scribal schools and activities. The Hebrew Bible is less a "religious" text than a cultural text composed, collected, codified, and canonized by scribes. The processes at work are social processes that are only in part religious. These processes are further the same processes we see in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Hellenistic world. YES! The only other person whom I know to have discussed the development of the biblical canon from this perspective has been Nahum Sarna in a pamphlet he did for Library of Congress in which he points to these same processes at work.

There are various models of canonical development that Davies critiques. He rejects the models that do not adequately place the canonical of Jewish texts in a cultural mileau of the Ancient Near East. He rejects models that suggest that the canon, or perhaps multiple canons, arose to address and resolve conflicts in the community. In my view, this is absolutely correct. While there were certainly conflicts only a few of which we are able to discern in the text, canonization is seldom a process that is designed to paper over such differences. Individual texts may be removed or added to a preexisting canon to resolve such conflicts, but the canonizing process really has nothing to do with community conflicts as a whole. Davies also takes to task Michael Fishbane, who also sees the canonizing process as taking a long time and in scribal activities, but offers no certain rationale. In my mind, this is true as well, and what's more, for some reason not quite adequately explained in his writings, Fishbane rejects the notion of a pre-rabbinic canon. Related, Davies also rejects, rightly I think, that the texts of the Hebrew Bible were written to be canon...i. e. the canonical process and the composition process are one and the same. This might be true of some of the later material, such as Daniel, but as a whole can not be sustained, and so far as I know would be a unique situation in canonical history. Davies comes to a similar conclusion in that he points out that the composition of some books can not have been intended as canon (Song of Solomon for example), nor does Davies see how an author could develop the canonical clout so to speak to have a writing accepted. He also takes on James Sanders and Brevard Childs. These two are who got me interested in the question of canon in the first place, but one of the questions and issues here is that they look at the end product and talk about reception and canon communities. This is important, but has little place in a discussion of the processes of canonization; both tend to be rather too theological as well.

Davies argues, erroneously I think, that the canonization process can not have begun in the monarchical period (c. 1050-585 BCE), and so he points to the Persian period as the point of departure in the process. He further argues that for the prophets, the idea of a true vs. false prophet is not the major motivating factor. And before I forget I should toss in here that scribes serve power structures, and thus their canonizing activities have to be seen in relationship to those power structures.

There are places where I strongly disagree with Davies. He's a minimalist, I'm not. Considering scribal activity in the cultural mileau during the monarchical period, canonizing undoubtedly occurred then....whether that activity has much bearing on activity after the Exile is a different question.

When we get to the rabbis, Davies does not go nearly far enough in his critique of taking the phrase "to make the hands unclean" as indication of canonicity. It has for long been thought that rabbinic discussions on whether a particular scroll containing a literary work, particularly a literary work that belongs in what we know of as the Hebrew Bible, expressed as whether or not it "makes the hands unclean" indicates whether or not the rabbis were debating its canonical status.

They weren't. The tractate of the Mishnah in which the phrase occurs is Yadaim, "hands", and its subject matter by and large is ritual purity as it pertains to, well, the hands. Thus a black pot on an open fire makes the hands unclean. Heave offerings in the Temple violated by mice make the hands unclean. The only books that get mentioned are those pertaining to the Bible.

The issue, even with the books, is ritual purity: what and in what conditions do certain objects impute impurity that must then be purified. Thus, the scrolls containing what we call Scripture impute impurity according to the Mishnah only when written on leather (parchment), in Assyrian square script, in Hebrew. Any translations do not so impart impurity under any conditions. In short, only the scrolls written in a deluxe manner, any other manner (on papyrus in a different script or a different language) need not apply. Now if we press this into service as an indicator of canonicity we run into the problem the Psalms for instance are only canonical if written on leather in Assyrian square script in Hebrew: but not if written on papyrus in Hebrew in Assyrian square script. ANd it should be obvious that that is NOT how canon, canons, and canonical processes work.

Davies notes that the phrase refers to holiness and leaves the question there really, not going far enough to point out the error of our ways. Nor does he point out that talking about canonizing processes producing a "final" canon never really produce a "final" canon. Any canon that is considered closed may be reopened by future generations, particularly generations like the rabbis who are picking up the pieces after a major cultural upheaval.

Davies does point out toward the end of the discussion but misses the import of the fact that modern Christianity does not have a closed canon of its Bible(s). There are at least 3 major recensions, and each of those has minor differences depending on the body of people one is referring to. Nor does he point out that "lists of books" as a final product are no sure measure of canonicity either or of closure: again taking Christianity as an example, the first such list that had any widespread authority, rather than local authority, was the Council of Trent in 1550.

Others who reviewed the book have pointed out other problems. For example, Davies thinks that the canonizing process in the Persian period started because that's when the texts were first written; but the problem there is that some of the texts contain references to a social situation that no longer pertains to fifth century Jerusalem and that the writers of that period never knew. Others point to studies of scribal activity in Mesopotamia and cast doubt on whether we have sure evidence of canonizing processes there, the evidence is unclear. These are just examples.

All in all however, I thought the book a good one and many of the problems could have been resolved with simply a longer volume, but then it couldn't have been in this series. And it must be remembered that canonizing processes, and the final product, a literary canon, takes place within the context of scribal activity.

And this is true in the medieval period as well. We too seldom talk about the literary canons and canonizing processes in the medieval period; it goes beyond mere availability. There are the works that any educated person was expected to know, there's Alfred's canon, there's the entire process of what was read by medieval authors and why, the canon of Aelfric's works (and how and why such works were often divorced from their authors), and of course the invention of authority in a new work imitating a canonical one. We often hint around these issues. We have talked about them to a degree (Stock's Listening to the Text, Martin Irvine, etc) and talked about scribal culture and scribal activity. But not really, unless I'm missing something, in terms of canonical and the canonical process. Maybe its time we did.

What is of interest to me though is that to a degree there's a stream of scribal tradition, some part of which is canonical process, some part of which is dipolmatic in nature, some part of which is literary or theological or philosophical in nature, that can be traced from the invention of writing all the way to the present. We still participate in that scribal tradition, those of us in the Humanities in modern academia (and others). Even in the post-cultural wars period, we've invented new canons, not really done away with them--anyone may check the anthologies for literature classes to confirm that! Anyway, along the same lines what interests me too is that what we see in the medieval period is something akin to the Rabbinic problem: recreating a culture out of the past inheritance and the present. And it is interesting what they chose (hence at least in Anglo-Saxon studies we have the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture project and Fontes Anglo-Saxonici both of which examine Anglo-Saxon literary borrowings of the past. I don't know of like projects for other fields.) But this is getting me into the subject of another conclude this one, scribal tradition and the accompanying canonical processes are an ever-flowing stream worthy of our study as we too continue the processes. I have to go fix dinner now, so a good stop to finish. As Garrison Keilor says, "Be Well. Do Good Work. Stay in touch."


stevent said...


I would have sent you an email but I didn't see one listed on the site, and since I'm not sure if you're still checking the Heroic Age site (I left you a message there as well), I just thought I would post here.

I came across your site through Dr. Richard Nokes' Unlocked Wordhoard blog. I'm a subscriber to his blog (Dr. Nokes also regularly links to my site in his "Morning Medieval Miscellany" posts), as well as a subscriber to Carl Prydum's blog Got Medieval, among others. I’m just now trying to fill out my own blogroll — I’ve been slow to add other resource links to my website — and the category of “medieval resources” definitely needs some links added to it.

I notice we share several of the same Web site interests, and I was wondering if you would be interested in trading links: I'll add your site to my blogroll and vice versa. Let me know if you're interested.

Best wishes,


Ed Gallagher said...

A difficulty with your take on the rabbinic discussion of what "defiles the hands" is that the rabbis not only discuss writing material and styles, but also specific books. For instance, Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs (m. Yad 3.5). This seems to mean that certain books would not defile the hands under any conditions, while other books would defile the hands if they are written in a certain way. So the issue is one of sanctity (= defiling the hands), which can only occur if certain conditions are met. The book itself has to be holy (= canonical), and it has to be written in a certain way and on certain material. You are right to point out that more than just canonicity is involved, but I think that canonicity (= status as scripture) is one of the things involved.

Derek the ├ćnglican said...

I haven't read the book--but from what you say about it, I should... That having been said, I'd agree with the author on period--Exile and Persian period seem the most logical points for me. One point that I think is crucial to mention is not simply authoring but *copying*. Yes, there were other books, but the canon contains the ones that got copied... I'm thinking of the books of wars that appear as "for more information see..." in Kings and Chronicles.

However you break it down, I don't see how this could be argued without a significant section on the LXX and an explanation of why its contents differ from the Tanak. What does he do with the LXX?

theswain said...

Hello Ed. Thanks for coming by and for your comments. You didn't mention, so I will, that you have a blog and have posted on the question this past summer:

To your points: "...difficulty with your take on the rabbinic discussion of what "defiles the hands" is that the rabbis not only discuss writing material and styles, but also specific books."

Yes, I'm aware of that and talked about that in general terms when I introduced the topic. If I understand you correctly, you want to draw a distinction between when the rabbis talk about specific books and specific books on specific materials. That is, you would also take notices of "Ecclesiastes makes the hands unclean" as indicating that Ecclesiastes would render ritually impure no matter what format or language one found it in.
Have to finish later,and since its a comment....I can't save til later.