Carr-a distinction between scribes and people who could read and write

In David M. Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, we now move to his argument that Israel had a system of scribal education and a scribal culture comparable to what he found in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece.

We have to dispel notions that we get from modern education.  Our idea of schools is that they have a campus, hire professional teachers, may be financed by student tuition, and aim to educate the public.  This was not the model for school that Carr finds in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  We should not look for anything like that in Israel either.

We should look for small-scale schooling in an “apprentice-like atmosphere”.  The setting might be a slightly expanded family with a scholar teaching his sons and a few others.  The focus would likely be not literacy in the sense of mastering the alphabet and grammar. The focus would be on mastering a cultural tradition.  This would take place mostly orally with texts as an aid and support.

There was a scribe in David’s court.  The link of this man was to Egyptian scribes.  He is sometimes called Seraiah (2 Samuel 8:17), Sheva (2 Samuel 20:25), and Shavsha (1 Chronicles 18:16).  These names, according to Carr, are all variants of the Egyptian word for “royal secretary”.  Solomon’s scribes were this man’s sons (1 Kings 4:3).

We read of royal scribes during the reigns of Jehoash and Hezekiah.  The scribe, Shaphan, played a role in the reforms of Josiah and the ministry of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah also mentions Shaphan’s sons and grandsons as helping the prophet even to the point of self sacrifice (Jeremiah 41:1-10).

The institution of the royal scribe also appears in Psalm 45:1 (“my tongue is like the pen of a skilled scribe”), Carr also believes that the “skilled worker” in Proverbs 22:29 is a scribe because the word for “skilled” is the one used in Psalm 45 and other places where a scribe is meant.  This skilled worker serves before kings.

Besides royal scribes, there also came to be priestly scribes like Shemaiah in 1 Chronicles 24:6.  There were other non-royal scribes, like Jeremiah’s Baruch.

Carr believes literacy was a broader category than scribe.  Many non-scribal royal officials, priests, and merchants probably had literacy skills.  A letter found at Lachish has the military governor defending his own literacy and proclaiming his lack of a need for a scribe.

Carr’s point is that the role of a scribe was more than being able to read and write.  In worship or festival settings there is a word for “read” that means much more than to comprehend a text.  This word means to “cry out” or verbalize a text for the non-literate public.

He commanded them: “At the end of seven years, at the appointed time of the cancellation of debts, at the Feast of Temporary Shelters,  when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place he chooses,you must read this law before them within their hearingGather the people – men, women, and children, as well as the resident foreigners in your villages – so they may hear and thus learn about and fear the Lord your God and carefully obey all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 31:10-12 NET Bible.  I added the bold).

This kind of reading was essentially a performance of written work.  Joshua, Josiah, and Ezra are all said to have “read” the Torah to the people.  In Nehemiah 8:8 the Levites do this:

They read from the book of God’s law, explaining it and imparting insight. Thus the people gained understanding from what was read (NET Bible).

Probably they had to read in Hebrew and then explain in the common language, Aramaic.

This is interesting and establishes Carr’s point that a scribe was not just a person with the ability to read and write.  But the contention of many Biblical scholars is that scribal activity came about late in Israel and that the Bible, written after the exile, reads scribal activity back into an earlier time.

So the next thing will be Carr taking up the evidence for earlier scribal activity.

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Carr-ancient texts as human software

David M. Carr’s book, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart is my subject.

I went into perhaps more detail than needed in summarizing Carr’s survey of scribal culture and education in Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East where Mesopotamian influence reached.

His thesis was that there was a set curriculum for teaching scribes. This went beyond just teaching them to be literate. It aimed at producing master scribes who could pass on the heritage of the culture orally and even produce new works built upon the old ones because the cultural values were internalized upon the hearts and mind of the scribes.

From this Mesopotamian scribal culture he moves on to talk about Egypt and Greece.

I won’t say too much about Greece. It seems less relevant to the Bible, although I am aware that Moshe Weinfeld had a theory that the founding story of Israel came to be modeled after the Greek founding stories (see here). The main Greek founding story is that of Homer in his Iliad and the Odyssey. It is poetry. This tells us something about the relation between oral narrative and literature. Poetry was meant to be performed. Written poetry was a help to performance.

Plato, our main source on Greek education, was biased against scribes. Particularly, he criticized Egyptian culture as catering too much to the written word.

Indeed, writing was highly developed in Egypt. I have an interest in Egypt. I am tempted to go into a lot of detail because Carr’s discussion fascinated me. But I will refrain. Carr actually concluded that Egyptian scribal culture and the education of scribes was very similar to Mesopotamian institutions.

A main difference was that in Egypt many of the basic works upon which scribal education stood were works of wisdom literature. In Mesopotamia and Greece we have more epic poetry.

Carr makes the case that the influence of Egypt’s scribal system was at least as strong in Israel as the Mesopotamian influence. This is not because of the Exodus tradition, which he does not talk much about. It is more because of Egyptian influence in Solomon’s court and harem and upon the Northern Kingdom’s founder, Jeroboam, who spent years in Egypt. These kings may have sponsored Egyptian-style scribes.

Hebrew does not borrow many words from Egyptian. But Carr argues that the few Egyptian loan words often have to do with writing. For instance, he thinks the Hebrew name for a scribe (2 Samuel 20:25) and the word for ink go back to Egyptian roots.

There are a number of parallels between Egyptian and Hebrew wisdom literature in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and even the Song of Solomon.

Egyptologist Jan Assmann introduced the idea that many Egyptian writings were “cultural texts” used to educate the ruling class. He has said that the Egyptians saw biological “hardware” as only a minor part of being human. But cultural “software” is what makes one fully human. This was the function of Egyptian literature.

As part of this discussion Carr brings up Isaiah 8:16. In the literal NASB translation it says:

“Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.”

I am familiar with this text being used to argue that Isaiah founded the prophetic school that extended to the prophet behind Second Isaiah. But Carr thinks the word for “disciples” refers to scribal students. The reference would be to the Torah as a cultural text used in scribal education.

I am not sure about some of these details in Carr’s discussion. However, they are small points in the massive and persuasive evidence he brings that in the Ancient Near East scribes were way more than literate functionaries: they were carriers of cultural values to be internalized through wisdom and story.

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Carr-the extent of the Mesopotamian curriculum

After outlining the Old Babylonian educational system, David M. Carr in Writing on the Tablet of the Heart goes on to show that that system’s influence reached beyond Babylonia (located in modern Iraq) to several other places.

In Syria at Ebla we have found copies of various lists, treaties, hymns, prayers and incantations.  These go back to before 2000 BCE.  At Mari we have found archives that include school texts on the Mesopotamian pattern.  These would be from around 1700 BCE.  At Nuzi and Alalakh we have found evidence of the influence of the Mesopotamian school system in the Mitani empire around 1400 BCE.

The Hittites (in modern Turkey) seem to have taken over and built upon the Mitani educational practices.

From around the thirteenth and twelfth centuries we have evidence of a scribal family at Emar in Syria producing school copies of old Sumerian texts like the Gilgamesh epic.  This is one of the things that shows that the scribal curriculum remained much the same over the centuries and across ethnic and language lines.

Even in Egypt, the tablets of the Amarna letters show that the old Mesopotamian language of Akkadian had become an international language for written communication.  And, of course, that many of the letters were produced in Palestine and Syria shows that the scribal profession was widespread there.

Carr’s point is that the scribal educational system that arose in Old Babylon spread through the Near East.

He discusses in more depth the finds at Ugarit.  He thinks that the Phoenicians there had, like the Hittites, derived their scribal system from the Mitanni empire.  We have extensive texts from Ugarit that we have been able to study with modern scientific and linguistic methods.

One thing that I had not realized is that, although some of these texts were found connected to the palace or temples, the vast majority were found in private homes.  They were usually the homes of priests.  It is very likely that these were tablet houses where young scribes learned the profession.

An important point is that in all these settings, and particularly at Ugarit, we see that scribal education went way beyond what they would have needed for legal, administrative and commercial purposes.  The old texts that taught cultural and religious values were a major part of the curriculum.  According to Carr, this means that scribal education aimed to produce master scribes through a passing on of works that formed the mind and heart.

This leads to critics who argue that there could not have been this kind of scribal system in Israel.  In Israel there was a simple alphabet that would not have required scribes to have the full treatment of Mesopotamian scribal education.

Carr says that the finds at Ugarit undermine this argument.  As is well-know, the Hebrew alphabet (and ours) derives from the Phoenicians.  At Ugarit we see the old Akkadian pictoral writing system along side the alphabetic system.  And we see the Mesopotamian scribal education system applied to the new form of writing using an alphabet.  All the texts of the traditional scribal curriculum get brought over into the new alphabetic script.

The difference between Ugarit and societies like Israel, Moab and Edom is that the later did not usually write on stone or clay tablets.  They used perishable materials so most of what they wrote is not preserved.  It is important to realize that this does not mean writing and fully trained scribes did not exist in these societies.  It just means that what we have from Ugarit and the other places where we have found tablets is better documented.

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Carr-home schooling in Old Babylon

David M. Carr in Writing on the Tablet of the Heart talks about what we have found out about scribal education in Old Babylon and other Mesopotamian settings.

The profession of scribe was passed on from father to son in a home-schooling setting. Because of the short life span of those times, scribes began to take in youth other than their sons to these home schools.  Otherwise the high death rate would have undercut the effort to school a decent number of scribes.

In Akkadian, the word for school meant “tablet house”.  And that is what archeologists have found.  When a collection of texts shows up, we tend to say that an ancient library has been found.  But in Mesopotamia, aside from a few finds of royal  or temple archives, what we usually find is a “tablet house”.

These finds usually give us two kinds of document.  The first is mundane commercial, legal, and administrative documents like receipts, contracts and letters.  The second is what Carr calls “long-duration documents”.  These  pass tradition on from one generation to another. They contain narratives, myths, magic spells, and rituals.

The documents from tablet houses are frequently crude and full of mistakes.  This shows that they are student documents that originated as practice  pieces as young scribes tried to master their craft.

The first stage of scribal education involved copying and memorization.  Carr says this taught both the language and cultural values.  The memorization part of this would be impressive to us.  The students, rather than copying word for word, apparently had to memorize scores of lines and then reproduce them verbatum.

The second stage involved longer texts and specialization in fields like math, surveying, music, or administrative procedure.

In later periods the Old Babylonian emphasis on perfectly reproducing texts expanded into also providing commentary and explanation for old texts.

Carr stresses that these texts represent only “the tip of a largely oral iceberg.”  In other words, the work of the scribes was in service of a society that mostly operated with oral communication.  Many documents have survived.  But much of the education was about learning to dictate, recite and perform.  Texts often included notes about how to pronounce, sing, or chant them.  This was to serve the majority of the people who could not benefit from a written document.

The written did not exist for its own sake.  Texts speak of how the writing hand and the mouth of the scribe need to coincide.  Written teaching had to be memorized and “put in the mouth”.

The purpose of scribal education was to ultimately produce elite master scribes who fulfilled an important and creative role in society.  While basic scribal education emphasized memorization and exact reproduction of traditions, the more advanced scribes sometimes revised and built upon texts.

The Old Babylonian scribes produced new and revised versions of Sumerian tales.  Carr talks about how this creative process sometimes worked:

“The impact of memory is indicated by the fact that the materials incorporated often are not incorporated precisely.  Though the scribe may have had virtually total recall of the tradition, he (or she) was not consulting one tablet after another in order to copy various parts into the new composition.  Rather he was composing a new work out of a store of older works that constitute the authorized building blocks of the new.”

The scribe’s education was not just about grammar and reproducing texts.  It gave him blocks of tradition in the form of “textual chunks, templates and motifs.”

So the great scribes, on the one hand, taught their students to accurately reproduce memorized texts, while, on the other hand, they had the freedom to use their own mastery of tradition for the production of new traditions and new versions of the old ones.

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New evidence about scribal activity

In regard to the question of scribal activity in ancient Israel, which is part of my discussion of the work of David M. Carr, here is a New York Times article published the other day.

It is about discoveries that show a high level of such activity at Arad where 100 or so notes on pottery shards have been found.  They date from the late first-temple period.

The article contains links to more detailed reports.

One of the longstanding arguments for why the main body of biblical literature was not written down in anything like its present form until after the destruction and exile of 586 B.C. is that before then there was not enough literacy or enough scribes to support such a huge undertaking.

But if the literacy rates in the Arad fortress were repeated across the kingdom of Judah, which had about 100,000 people, there would have been hundreds of literate people, the Tel Aviv research team suggests.

That could have provided the infrastructure for the composition of biblical works that constitute the basis of Judahite history and theology including early versions of the books of Deuteronomy to II Kings, according to the researchers.

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Carr-the purpose of unreadable old books

Today I have begun to read David M. Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature.  I am reading the Kindle version.  So no page numbers.

The documentary hypothesis about the composition of the Torah is easy to ridicule. When I was in seminary one of the students made a project of actually replicating the J, E, P and D (Yawist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomistic) components by cutting and pasting passages with different type sets from different Bibles.  This was before word processing.  So I am talking about literally cutting up several Bibles.

Carr quotes Susan Niditch as asking how the editing process using several documents would have worked.  If the documents were leather scrolls, try to imagine how an editor copying from several of them to produce a single document would have handled it.  The scrolls would have been bulky and unrolling them would have been awkward.  Even if they were papyrus, wouldn’t the process have required at least three assistants to hold open J, P, and E?  Would the editor have had to ask each of them to dictate chosen passages while he transcribed to the edited document?

Of course, this is a bit of a straw man because modern supporters of the J, E, P, D theory often think in terms of strands of tradition rather than documents for J and E.  Since Deuteronomy and Leviticus exist, there clearly were D and P documents.  However, the letters often refer to identifiable theologies and writing styles.

For instance, I was just looking at Psalm 68.  The kernel of that Psalm seems to be vss. 4-33.  But, without even doing any in-depth study, it seems clear that an editor with an Elohistic style and theology has provided an introduction and a closing.  Unlike the rest of the Psalm, the introduction and closing only use elohim as a name for God.  This does not mean that there was a preexisting Elohistic document.

Still there is some point to asking how redaction using documents could have worked.

Carr says that his purpose is to develop an “alternative picture of how people in the ancient world produced and worked with texts.”

A starting point is to realize that you or I would have found many ancient texts unreadable. Ancient Greek documents, for instance, often had all capital letters and no divisions between words.  So how was anyone supposed to read them?  Carr’s answer is that the only people who could read them were people already familiar with their content.

He says that the text functioned more the way written music does for players who already know the piece.  It was a help to the performance of the work.

This means that books in oral societies were not written for individuals who would sit down and read them alone.  There was an interplay between the primary means of communication, which was by talking, and the written texts that, even though written down, were themselves “intensely oral”.

So Carr does not agree with those who see the rise of writing as undermining the orality of societies.  Perhaps writing introduced a conservative impulse for preservation.  This may have arisen from a natural anxiety that tradition not be lost.

Carr says that written texts, like the Bible, became part of a project for passing on cultural memories.  The focus was not on producing documents, but on passing content from mind to mind and generation to generation. The idea was not to produce books but to write a precious cultural heritage on “the insides of people.”

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Saul, David and the Gibeonites

Often nowadays scholars take the position that much of the story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible was invented by writers hundreds of years after the fact.  One of the reasons I dissent from this is that certain passages just do not work with that theory.

Today I want to think out loud about a passage in 2 Samuel 21.  There has been a famine for three years during the reign of King David.  David inquires of the Lord.  In 1 and 2 Samuel this means that he sought an oracle.  It doesn’t seem to be the kind of question that you could answer by asking yes-or-no questions and casting lots.  So he probably consulted a seer or dream interpreter.  Anyway, the answer he got was that the famine was because of the blood on the house of Saul.

That part is in line with the spin that 1 and 2 Samuel put on David’s rise to power.  It was because of the inadequacy of the house of Saul.

But the specific reason here is that Saul massacred the Gibeonites.  This is the first time we hear about this event.  Gibeonite seems to name a group of Hivites who lived in enclaves on the Benjamin plateau just north of Jerusalem.  We have no information about the Hivites outside of the Bible, so their identity is mysterious. The book of Joshua shows them as having been allies of Israel since the occupation of the hill country.  It also shows considerable prejudice against them.

The only Gibeonite blood shed in the previous chapters had been at David’s hand.  A group of Hivites from Beeroth (Joshua 9:17) had assassinated Saul’s son, Ish-bosheth.   David had them executed (2 Samuel 4:12).

The only massacre attributed to Saul is that of the priests at Nob (1 Samuel 22:6).  I have wondered if this slaughter included a bunch of Gibeonites.  Gibeonites were said to have served the altar of the Lord as woodcutters and water bearers (Joshua 9:27).  I doubt the historicity of Joshua on this. But that Saul’s attack on the Gibeonites refers to what happened at Nob is possible.

There is another group that Saul persecuted.  When Saul seeks out a spiritualist medium at Endor to summon the spirit of Samuel, we learn that Saul had removed or cut off from the land necromancers and magicians (1 Samuel 28:3, 9).  Compare this with the Gibeonites’ own description of what Saul had done to them.  He had “planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel” (2 Samuel 21:5 NRSV).

Were the Gibeonites like a Voodoo cult?  There was something like that still around in the time of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:19).  The Davidic kings did not remove them from the land as Saul is said to have done.

That the religion of the Gibeonites was pretty messed up comes across in their proposal to David about how to make things right.  What they want is not merely to take revenge on Saul’s family.  They say they have no right to execute anyone in Israel (2 Samuel 21:4). What they ask is that seven sons of Saul be given to them so that they can “hang them before YHWH in Gibeah of Saul, who was YHWH’s chosen one (2 Samuel 21:6 my translation).

This was not an execution.  It was a human sacrifice to the God of Israel to influence him to end the famine.  There was a kind of creepy sarcasm about the idea that Saul was God’s chosen. And David went along with it all.  What the heck!

Did this have anything to do with David obtaining the Ark of the Covenant, which was in the custody of Hivites in one of their enclaves (1 Samuel 7:2)?

I cannot imagine a supporter of the Davidic dynasty inventing a story like this hundreds of years later.

My own wildly conjectural theory about many of the stories in 1 and 2 Samuel is that they were produced under the sponsorship of the queen mothers Bathsheba and Naamah. They had a jaundiced view of David.  Yet they wanted to defend the divine right of their sons, Solomon and Rehoboam.

Queen mother was a powerful institution in early Judah.  These women seem to have been unothodox Yahwists.  King Asa had to depose his mother, Maacah (1 Kings 15:13).  But the institution came back with a vengeance in Athaliah.

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