The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction

The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction

The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction

The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction


In The Formation of the Hebrew Bible David Carr rethinks both the methods and historical orientation points for research into the growth of the Hebrew Bible into its present form. Building on his prior work, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (Oxford, 2005), he explores both the possibilities and limits of reconstruction of pre-stages of the Bible. The method he advocates is a "methodologically modest" investigation of those pre-stages, utilizing criteria andmodels derived from his survey of documented examples of textual revision in the Ancient Near East. The result is a new picture of the formation of the Hebrew Bible, with insights on the initial emergence of Hebrew literary textuality, the development of the first Hexateuch, and the final formation of the Hebrew Bible. Where some have advocated dating the bulk of the Hebrew Bible in a single period, whether relatively early (Neo-Assyrian) or late (Persian or Hellenistic), Carr uncovers specific evidence that the Hebrew Bible contains texts dating across Israelite history, even the early pre-exilic period (10th-9th centuries). He traces the impact of Neo-Assyrian imperialism on eighth and seventh century Israelite textuality. He uses studies of collective trauma to identify marks of the reshaping andcollection of traditions in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and Babylonian exile. He develops a picture of varied Priestly reshaping of narrative and prophetic traditions in the Second Temple period, including the move toward eschatological and apocalyptic themes and genres. And he uses manuscriptevidence from Qumran and the Septuagint to find clues to the final literary shaping of the proto-Masoretic text, likely under the Hasmonean monarchy.


In a seminal article published in 1930, Milman Parry touched on an often overlooked kind of data that can provide confirmation that many ancient texts were transmitted, at least in part, through memorization: the sorts of variants found in many early manuscripts. He was responding to those in classics who believed that the Homeric epics had been created and transmitted through a purely literary process of writing and copying texts. One central aim of prior classics scholarship was reconstruction of the earliest written text of Homer and the elimination of various errors that occurred through careless copying by ancient scribes. In response, Parry objected:

How have they explained the unique number of good variant readings in our text of
Homer, and the need for laborious editions of Aristarchus and of the other grammar
ians, and the extra lines, which grow in number as new papyri are found?

Here in brief, Parry articulated a principle that is elaborated in studies to be discussed in this chapter: the idea that traditions transmitted via memorization manifest a different sort of variation from traditions transmitted in a purely literary context. The latter sort of traditions will show variations that are often the result of visual errors of the copyist—graphic variants: a skipped line, misinterpreted letters, etc. The lists of such errors are prominent in any text-critical handbook. Typically, the result of such a copying error is a text that is garbled, where at least one or the other variant does not make sense. But Parry noticed that the earliest manuscripts of Homer are characterized by another sort of variation, one where both variants make sense: good variants. Moreover, he noted how dynamic the tradition was, again pointing to a process of free updating and adaptation rather than copying. These indicators—preserved in the written records of Homeric verse—pointed to an earlier or concomitant process of memorization and recitation.

1. Emphasis is in Parry’s original: Milman Parry, “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse
Making. I. Homer and Homeric Style,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 41 (1930): 75–76;
reprinted on p. 268 of Milman Parry and Adam Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected
Papers of Milman Parry
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). See also his discussion of some such variants
on pp. 112–14 (297–98 of the reprint) of the essay and his comments on pp. 46–47 of his “Studies in the
Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making. II. The Homeric Language as the Language of an Oral Poetry,”
Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 43 (1932): 46–47 (p. 361 of the collected papers).

2. See, for example, the discussion in Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, rev. ed.
(Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 236–55.

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