Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Notes on Israelite Scribal Training I

There is an argument making its rounds that (1) the historical authenticity of the scriptures (2) is unnecessary because (3) the biblical authors did not do history because (4) they did not cite sources, because (5) their sources were all made up, because (6) ancient Israelite scribes did not keep historical records like annals. I have been involved in this discussion. Point (1) is important. I see point (2) as misguided. I see point (3) as a silly opinion, and I see points (4) - (6) as factually wrong. I have dealt with points (4) - (6) before and here I am only going to deal with point (6).

In dealing with point (6) I adduced a lengthy list of biblical evidence that ancient Israelite scribes kept annals and I cited two scholars of divergent ideological persuasions (K. A. Kitchen and D. B. Redford) who agreed on the scribal practice (here). It is claimed here (and here) that my citing of K. A. Kitchen's remarks about the annals of the kings of Judah and Israel is flawed. Kitchen said:
First, it was common custom for ancient kingdoms (from the third millennium onward) to keep a series of running records for hardheaded, administrative purposes, on a daily, monthly, and annual basis. Naming of years after significant events, and compiling lists of these years with their events, perhaps formed rudimentary chronicles that recorded actual facts and happenings of all kinds. Daybooks became customary, whether called such or not, in the guise of running records as in first-millennium Babylonia, or annotated lists of annual eponym officers in Assyria. From these detailed running series of "annals" a variety of writers could draw, in order to compose their own works on historical matters. Such efforts could vary from such as the Babylonian Chronicle, which gave a compact, objective digest of mainly political events (military campaigns by successive kings, etc.), to more partisan texts as in the Synchronous History (Grayson, no. 21, probably derived from a stela) asserting Assyrian military and moral ascendancy over Babylonia. Or we find "special interest" chronicles, such as the Akitu Chronicle (no. 16), whose author noted years in which the Akitu feast of Marduk was not celebrated in Babylon, along with contemporary events, and the "Religious Chronicle" (no. 17), whose author noted celebration or otherwise of temple feasts and was obsessed with wild animals straying into Babylon (and there killed), among other phenomena.
So too with biblical Kings and Chronicles. These works are not the official annals of Israel and Judah, but they explicitly refer their readers to the official annals or daybooks (Heb. "daily affairs") of the kings of Israel and Judah. From Wenamun, it is clear that the kings of Byblos in the early eleventh century kept daybooks, incorporating records of past sales of timber to foreign kingdoms such as Egypt. At two removes, the king list of Tyre cited by Josephus after Menander of Ephesus (from the latter's history of Tyre and neighbors) clearly draws upon quite accurate tradition when compared with other evidence. Neo-Hittite kingdoms such as Carchemish, Malatya, and Gurgum maintained their royal traditions, as is implied by their known hieroglyphic texts. Thus there is good reason to credit Israel and Judah with the same practices as everyone else in their world, namely, keeping running records upon which others (such as the authors of Kings and Chronicles) could draw for data in writing their own "special interest" works. To dismiss references to these "annals" of Israel and Judah is wholly unjustified in this cultural context.
(K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003], 48-49.)

After quoting part of the passage I quoted, one respondent remarks:
No! Not so with biblical Kings and Chronicles! You really can’t do that!
Well, why not?
like many other Near Eastern studies in the past, Kitchen’s work is suspect if for no other reason than as an Egyptologist (who also deals with Mesopotamian texts), Kitchen fails to view biblical material in its own unique historical and cultural context. Israelite scribal traditions are not the same thing as Mesopotamian scribal traditions. I’m going to be direct. Near Eastern scholars like Kitchen who fail to properly contextualize this material often create a type of “parallelomania” in Near Eastern society, which results in the absorption of various distinct cultural and religious aspects into a meaningless synchronic whole.
Apparently, Israelite society was wholly different from its ancient Near Eastern neighbors. You see, according to this line of thought, Judah just was not sophisticated enough to have annals:
The first evidence of an inland Canaanite script appears in Israel during the 10th century BCE. We have alphabetic writing and official seals from what would have been the period of this United Monarchy (if the Biblical account is correct that such an entity existed). Hebrew doesn’t exist as a written language until the 9th (perhaps 10th, depending on how you classify “Hebrew”) century BCE. This means that during the time period of biblical heroes such as Samuel, Saul, and David that a written form of Hebrew was only beginning to take shape. So the stories about these men do not stem from a contemporary written royal record.
The northern kingdom of Israel seems to have developed a fairly advanced society during the 8th century BCE. During this time, the southern kingdom of Judah was much smaller and far less articulate. By the end of the 8th century, however, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians (think of the famous “lost ten tribes”). Twenty years after the destruction of Samaria, the Israelite elite had established a significant presence in Judah, and that presence changed everything, including the development of scribal texts that would eventually find their way into our Bible. During the century or so between the Assyrian destruction of Israel and the later Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the kingdom of Judah followed Israel’s lead and developed an extraordinary literary culture. By 586 (the year Babylon destroyed Jerusalem), the Judean scribes had created their own literary texts that developed Judean authority. And these texts would eventually find their way into our Bible. This is the basic historical background for the development of writing and literary sources in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This is the historical background that must be taken into consideration in a study of “historical reliability” in the scribal works that appear in the Bible.
This line of argumentation is problematic. I think that this line of argument is wrong about what epigraphy says about the development of writing in Israel and Judah, but I will save that for another post. The fact that the response to my post cites only a portion of Kitchen's book that I quoted and the disgruntled review of someone whose position was demolished by Kitchen and the characterization of Kitchen as "an Egyptologist (who also deals with Mesopotamian texts)" makes me wonder: Could it be that the author of the response has not read Kitchen's book and is even familiar with Kitchen's vast and varied output.

The argument also seems to have constructed something of a straw man. The sources I cited (here and here) do not claim annals for David and is divided about whether there were such for Solomon, although they do claim records for both. Annals are not consistently cited until the reigns of Jeroboam and Rehoboam.

Apparently, so the response would lead us to believe, real biblical scholars do not think that scribes from Israel and Judah drew up ancient annals of their kings.

Who would know about such a thing? Christopher Rollston received his PhD at Johns Hopkins University, and is currently Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures at George Washington University. He has taught courses in "Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East, Dead Sea Scrolls, Critical Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Pentateuch, Deuteronomistic History, Wisdom Literature, Prophetic Texts, Second Temple Jewish Literature, Archaeology of Syria-Palestine, Gender and Ethnicity in the Bible, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Biblical and Epigraphic Aramaic, Biblical and Epigraphic Hebrew, Hellenistic Greek, Septuagint, Sahidic Coptic, Critical Introduction to the New Testament, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible." He has published in such venues as the Journal of Biblical Literature, and is the editor of Maarav. He is a biblical scholar and one of the best Hebrew epigraphers in America. He also has literally written the book on ancient Israelite scribal practice: Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel.

This is how Rollston describes the status of scribes in ancient Israel and Judah:
The scribe was an esteemed member of elite society. Note, for example, that the majority of the biblical references refer to scribes associated with the palace and temple. For example, the term sōpēr ham-melek, "scribe of the king," and "royal scribe" (2 Kgs 12:11; 2 Chr 24:11; cf. Esth 3:12; 8:9) suggest the close association of certain scribes with the palace (and thus in a position of power and status). There is also a reference to a šĕkat sōpēr, "scribal chamber" located within the royal palace (Jer 36:12), and the "house of Nathan the scribe" was under royal auspices (Jer 37:15, 20). Producing and maintaining royal records such as "the chronicles of the kings of Israel," "the chronicles of the kings of Judah," and "the chronicles of Solomon" were certainly among the responsibilities fulfilled by royal scribes (1 Kgs 11:41; 14:19, 29). Recording decrees and taking dictation were probably among the duties of scribes (Jer 36:32; Esth 1:19; 8:9-14; Dan 6:8). Furthermore, the epigraphic record demonstrates that scribes were also responsible for maintaining certain economic dockets (e.g. Reisner Samaria Ostraca). Within the Hebrew Bible, the term sōpēr śar has-sābāʾ, "scribe of the commander of the army" (2 Kgs 25:19; Jer 52:25) suggests that certain scribes were responsible for aspects of the military (e.g., mustering the troops, ordering rations, and so on), another indication of the royal affiliation on certain scribes. Naturally, scribes would be included among the śarîm, "officials," as also demonstrated by the presence of scribes in lists of officials (e.g., 2 Sam 8:17; 20:25; 2 Kgs 12:11; Jer 36:12). Because of the royal scribe's status as a literate high official, certain responsibilities connected with the temple sometimes devolved to the royal scribe (e.g., 2 Kgs 12:11; 22:3). The fact that a scribe was present, along with additional officials, during negotiations with Sennacherib's delegation, is also indicative of the power and prominence sometimes attained by a royal scribe (2 Kgs 18:18).
(Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel {Atlanta: Society  of Biblical Literature, 2010], 88-89, emphasis added.)
This is the evidence for the status of scribes in ancient Israel and Judah from the Hebrew Bible. It is worth noting that the functions of scribes in ancient Israel and Judah parallel those of scribes in ancient Mesopotamian and Egypt. The production of royal annals by royal scribes from Judah is not the mere fantasy of some third-rate scholar drunken with "parallelomania." Rollston, by analyzing biblical sources, independently confirms Kitchen's comparative analysis. So here we have a top-notch biblical scholar who agrees with Kitchen's view about the existence of the annals of the kings of Judah and Israel. (Rollston's analysis is supplemented by his immersion in the epigraphic material, which I will look at later.)

I am not saying that Israel and Judah were identical in all cultural respects, much less that either was culturally identical to ancient Assyria, or Babylon, or Egypt. Nevertheless, the basic social situation of scribes in each of these cultures seems similar. Scribes were attached to the palace or the temple, or representatives of those institutions in a local setting. They generated records to help in the management of all of those institutions. These records included economic, legal, literary, and (yes) historical texts (however biased they may have been). I am not arguing that these cultures were identical in all respects. Suggestions that ancient Judah was somehow dramatically different is special pleading and betrays a lack of basic knowledge of scribal practice in both ancient Judah and the ancient Near East.

Positing that royal scribes did not keep royal annals is untenable given that we have preserved examples of royal inscriptions found in archaeological contexts in both Judah (Siloam Inscription) and Israel (Tell Dan Inscription). If royal scribes did not write these things, who did? Furthermore the author of Kings refers to one of these inscriptions by citing the royal annals (2 Kings 20:20) that it is argued did not exist because the theory preferred is not able to accommodate the basic historical and archaeological facts.

One problem with those who do not take the historical authenticity of the Hebrew Bible seriously is that they cannot seem to do much with the historical information actually contained in the Bible. Many of them have been trained solely in literary approaches to the Bible and the ancient Near East. (For example, when I took Ugaritic we only read literary texts from Ugarit; we did not read any of the historical ones; I discovered the historical texts later on my own.) Literary approaches have some merit, but they are only one approach and not always the best one. Lacking training with historical documents, some biblical scholars can only deal with ancient texts as literature and sometimes lack any feel for using documents to answer historical questions. Many biblical studies programs simply do not teach their students about history or archaeology. I feel sorry for those who come out of such programs.