Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature

By Sanders, James A. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature


Sanders, James A., Journal of Biblical Literature


Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature, by David M. Carr. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv + 330. $65.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0195172973

This is a remarkable analysis and critical discussion of the interrelation in antiquity of literacy and orality in the formation of the literatures of the peoples of the ancient Near East, including the Sumero-Akkadian, Egyptian, West Semitic, Early Jewish, Greek, and Hellenistic, with references to relevant manuscripts from Qumran. It is probably the most complete gathering in one place of data culled from recent scholarly literature on the West Asian and Eastern Mediterranean cultures relating to modes of education of the young in biblical antiquity. It will undoubtedly be the touchstone of reference to such studies in the foreseeable future.

Carr is excellent at perceiving the importance of "schools" in antiquity as the vehicle for the development of literature of various cultures. Schools were of various types from "home schooling" in priests' families to later priestly and scribal schools where the elite were trained in the traditions that gave a culture its memory and identity (17-173). Temple-based education in Early Judaism was central until around the first century CE. especially when Sabbath gatherings at early synagogues provided the opportunity for trans-temple textuality and education (177-285). Carr does a convincing job of showing the interplay between memorization and writing in the enculturation process of a people and its development of a distinct body of literature that preserved the memory essential to continuing identity. That process was dependent on the younger generation's bearing the trappings of the culture in memory, "on the tablet of the heart," or on recording it for public display and recitation, and it was a process that was similar across the cultural boundaries as diverse as the peoples of the whole area under study. This is the widest range of cultures, to my knowledge, ever brought under one prism for study of education, the mode whereby various peoples maintained cultural identity and continuity-a continuing, vital function of education today.

The method Carr uses is to look synoptically at the various ancient venues of traditioning, teaching, and learning. Occasionally he shows how the traditioning worked in specific cases in one of the bodies of literature under purview, but his method is a comparative study of the vehicles of traditioning/education in the several cultures as reported in recent critical literature. Education of the young in a society was in effect "gaining humanity at the hand of the gods," that is, from their teachers, and the prime teacher or human of a society was its king, the figure in ancient cultures who had contact with the divine and drew on its authority (hier-archy). Carr understands midrash as drawing on tradition to understand the new and intertextuality as the means whereby "new" literature was created out of older works. These are the essential ways to comprehend the creation of literature in antiquity. Those in a society who knew earlier tradition "by heart" were able to create the new out of pastiches of the old. Writing was a means of aiding memory. Literature was an oral/written phenomenon. Literacy was expressed in the various cultures at different levels-vulgar, functional, and "higher literacy." The Greeks, having a relatively simple alphabetic system, probably attained a rather broad level of "vulgar literacy"; a polis was in part a "school" for learning and sharing the standard works of traditions that rendered a diverse, urban people functionally literate. This was an essential part of the development of the Greek idea of democracy. The Hellenistic education system shaped citizens of a polis into citizens of the world (285).

While Carr devotes considerable space to appreciation of the Greek attainments of literacy, he is quite aware of the differences in the ways authority was expressed and recognized in the non-Greek cultures he studies. …

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