Authorship and Author in the Ancient near East and in the Hebrew Bible

By Weinberg, J. P. | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

Authorship and Author in the Ancient near East and in the Hebrew Bible


Weinberg, J. P., Hebrew Studies Journal


This article deals with two main issues: "authorship" as a cultural-literary phenomenon in the ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Bible and its importance for the understanding of a text. It presents two hypotheses regarding the possible authors of Job and Ecclesiastes that suggest some ways and means for discovering "hidden" authors in the Hebrew Bible.

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Is it not a senseless waste of time and effort to look for the author of an ancient text? Does not the text itself, together with some information about its Sitz-im-Leben, genre, composition, style, and language suffice to enable scholars in understanding and evaluation of it? E. M. Good, for example, believes "that even if we could identify the author, we would learn nothing useful for the understanding of the book.... It may even hinder our understanding of the book," because "the ancient world's assumption about authorship, composition and integrity of the book were so different from ours that all our habitual moves in thinking about books are wrong." (1)

Good is undoubtedly right in asserting the difference between ancient and modern conceptions of text, authorship, and the like. But is knowledge about the life and affairs of Herodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, Seneca, and others less useful for understanding their works than knowledge about the life and affairs of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Wilde, Kafka, and other modern authors for the understanding of their writings? According to M. M. Bakhtin "we do find (perceive, understand, sense, feel) the author in every work of art" (2) and it is consideration of the triad "author-text-audience" that offers an intelligible and productive approach to a text. (3) This view, so common in contemporary literary studies as to be perceived as natural, actually reflects intellectual advances in ways of thinking about the topics.

Authorship, if perceived not only as an audience's knowledge about the author, but also as the principle that the creator of a text recognizes himself as its author, is not a natural, constant, ever-existing phenomenon in mankind's historical-cultural development. Quite the contrary, in cultures dominated by mythological thinking--habitually diffuse, holistic, and non-analytical--it is unimportant to know by whom something was said (or written) and to distinguish strictly between words uttered yesterday and today; it is important only to note what was pronounced. (4) Consequently, a word, a text, is perceived not as an independent entity possessed of value on its own, but rather as a component within the ongoing, everlasting conversation, lacking an explicit beginning and specific end. Within such a perception of reality, there is no, and cannot be, a place for the notions of "authorship" and "author." The generation of texts is governed by a postulate of anonymity that cannot recognize or acknowledge the existence of such a being. (5)

That was the situation in the ancient world until the end of the second, beginning of the first millennium B.C.E., when radical changes in the perception of authorship began. These changes were caused mainly by two factors: 1) by the conceptualization of people as individuals and recognition of each as a unique "I," and 2) by the growing impact of the scientific-logical thought with its essential striving for differentiation leading to the distinction between the word said yesterday and today, between words said by one person and not by another. These changes conditioned the construction and perception of each text as an entity defined by time and place as well as by its own creator who claimed to be its author and was recognized as such by his audience. (6) Conscious authorship became an essential feature of the Axial Age, about the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., but was realized with varying degrees of intensity and completion in different texts and genres. (7)

In the Near East of the Axial Age, awareness of authorship was regularly displayed in wisdom literature. …

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