Carr-oral to text with rabbis and evangelists

I am close to the end of David M. Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart. He has covered a lot of territory, from Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek scribal culture through the evidence for the beginnings of writing in Israel, to the developments under the Persians and Greeks, to the period of relative Jewish independence under the Hasmoneans.

As I recounted in my last post, he now believes that the Hasmonean rulers adopted Hellenistic educational practices ironically to promote an anti-Hellenistic and pro-Hebrew cultural agenda. In the process they made authoritative Scriptures out of the Law and the Prophets.

“What I have not clarified here is the journey of such Scriptures from the Hasmonean period onward. Even after the Hasmonean period, some Jewish groups appear to have persisted in focusing exclusively or almost exclusively on the Torah, while others like those at Qumran treated a broader collection of writings as inspired and worthy of copying and study. Nevertheless, once the Hasmoneans had set this temple-based system of broader education in motion, its temple connections would have supported its continuance during the Roman period, even when rulers like Herod appointed high priests but were not high priests themselves.”

More and more Jews were living outside of Palestine in the Hellenistic world. Herod the Great spent much wealth on the renovation and expansion of the temple. This caused it to serve as a magnet for great pilgrimages by the Jews of the Diaspora. One of the results of this extension of the temple’s influence was the translation of the Bible into Greek, the Septuagint.

Again this had an ironic or double effect. It put the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language. At the same time, it helped define the Jews as non-Greek. Thus we get the binary of Jew and Greek so prominent in Paul and Acts.

The Hasmonean temple-based education system made this possible. But Josephus and others show that the effects lasted after the destruction of the temple. Rabbinic writings testify to the temple as a place where many scrolls had been stored. They also point back to the priestly nature of education when they say all education should begin with Leviticus.

Carr points out that the development of rabbinical Judaism ended up with something different from what Christians understand as the Bible or the canon of Scripture. The heart of Judaism was always the Torah. But as testimony the the original orality of the Torah, the rabbis continued to espouse an oral Torah along with the scrolls. Together with the Prophets and Writings (Wisdom and Psalms) this was authoritative for Jews. But it was also combined with authoritative interpretive works of Midrash and Talmud.

So the scribal role of first mastering the primary texts and then adding to and applying them anew continued.

Carr says that before the Christians canonized the books of the Bible, they also depended on the interplay of the oral and the written. He talks about the synoptic problem of how the gospels came to be written so that the same stories get told with different wording and emphasis in different gospels. These variants, he says, show the orality of the transmission of the earliest Christian traditions. There may have been a Jerusalem-centered educational effort. But with the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem, there was a motive to textualize what had been oral sayings and oral narratives.

I will need one more post to summarize and comment on Carr’s book. I notice that I have not had many hits on these posts. This does not concern me. Nothing from here will likely ever go viral. I do this blog as a project in continuing my own education in retirement. Carr’s discussion is important, I think. But I recognize that it is technical and full of jargon– and I think it tries to cover too much territory.

Anyway, after I finish with Carr, I am going to move on to a book about the late Bronze Age collapse in the Near East.  This has more the elements of a mystery story. So, to me at least, it will be more exciting.


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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2 Responses to Carr-oral to text with rabbis and evangelists

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I actually remember when Carr was writing this book. I went to Jewish Theological Seminary, and he taught at Union Theological Seminary. He would come to the JTS Bible lunch and talk about what he was working on. One time, he was talking with James Sanders about his research, when Sanders came to visit the Bible lunch. I’ve appreciated your posts because they put what Carr what talking about in context for me.

  2. James, thank you. I had hoped Carr would provide more direct evidence about scribal activity before Hezekiah. But, given the misty nature of things that long ago, the evidence is mostly indirect and circumstantial–so far. But it was an informative read.

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