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.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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