How the Bible Became a Book: Textualization in Ancient Israel

By Levine, Ely | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

How the Bible Became a Book: Textualization in Ancient Israel


Levine, Ely, Shofar


How the Bible Became a Book: Textualization in Ancient Israel, by William Schniedewind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 257 pp. $27.00.

Much has been written on the question of who wrote the Bible. These discussions usually deal little with writing per se. Most of those who are historical critics are interested primarily in the historical situation out of which these texts emerge. In his new book, How the Bible Became a Book: Textualization in Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2004), William Schniedewind adds to this ongoing discussion the issue of the social conditions that allowed for the writing of the Bible.

Most important for a discussion of the development of a written work is the question of readership. Schniedewind devotes his first chapter to describing the sociological criteria for the emergence of literacy. This is, of course, more than simply the invention of writing or even the invention of an alphabet. Writing was originally the exclusive purview of the religious and palace administrations. Literacy then spread gradually, alternately spreading and becoming restricted again, but always radiating from these two types of centers. When writing is more restricted, it is seen as a secret power of the ruling class. As literacy spreads, writing loses its magic.

The social conditions for more widespread literacy in ancient Israel hit rather suddenly at the end of the eighth century. With the urban growth and influx into Jerusalem and the surrounding area of thousands of refugees from the Northern Kingdom-including its scribes, administrators, and bureaucrats-evidence of writing appears in Judah. This writing, however varied in genre, still emanates from the royal administration.

The end of the seventh century shows another dramatic increase. In this period, the evidence of literacy is found in the impressions from a large number of personal seals. Since the names of the seals' owners are on the sealings, Schniedewind suggests that a degree of literacy had spread among the people. Recognizing a name, whether ones own or the name of someone else, however, is not the same as the ability to read. Additionally, the variety of arrangements of names and other decorations made each seal distinctive in appearance, eliminating the specific need to read them.

In fact, the author points out that Jeremiah's reaction to writing (Jeremiah 8:8) shows that many people objected to the increase in use of written documents for official and public purposes. This is likely because far too few people could read these texts and thus were excluded from interacting with them. In our society, we try to ensure that those who cannot read find someone to read important documents to them, especially before they sign their names.

In other words, despite the spread of literacy that occurred at the end of the Judahite Monarchy allowing the composition of the Bible, only a small percentage of the population was yet able to read and write. The example of the Letter of the Literate Soldier (Lachish Letter 3) only shows that officers in the army were able to read; it says nothing about the common soldier. Hebrew graffiti, while a better indicator of writing among commoners, still reflects a limited literacy. While reading and writing may have become available beyond the scribal classes, it is still primarily the social elites for whom we have evidence of these skills. …

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