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.”