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 hearing. Gather 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.