Carr-implications

Some implications of David M. Carr’s approach to the Bible as a text in continuity with other ancient long-duration texts get drawn out in his conclusion to Writing on the Tablet of the Heart.

Before mentioning some of those implications let me recap his proposal.  The Bible is a text that arose in a society were writing served oral transmission, education, and enculturation.  The texts were like written music and aided in the performance of their content.  We should not read back into ancient cultures our modern habit of private, solitary reading for pleasure or information.   Mastery of a text by memorization and repeated performance of it were the norm.

This led to an institution where scribes became elite guardians and teachers of culture. Often scribes were priests attached to a temple.  Master scribes often updated traditional texts.  Sometimes they produced new works infused with allusions to past works.  Often they did so in the name of some figure from the past.

They usually did not do this by looking at and copying from the scrolls of older works, but they operated creatively from memory.

Now to the implications.  Carr says his approach has implications for certain kinds of biblical criticism.

First there is what is called canonical criticism.  Although Carr is close to some of the insights of canonical critics like Brevard Childs, he does not think that “canon” is a good term for the Hebrew Bible.  He would prefer to speak of “scriptural criticism.”  He agrees with someone like Childs that the scriptures were shaped into their present form by scribal activity over time.  But he thinks canonical critics tend to see too much theological motivation for such shaping.  There probably were other motives like adapting the work to different audiences and making it a better tool for teaching.

Another trend in biblical criticism that he finds some fault with is the attempt to reconstruct the original text behind a passage.

“One can speculate about individual readings of the tradition in earlier periods, but the fluid dynamics of textual transmission in such periods render impossible a methodologically controlled reconstruction of a broader textual tradition before such authorization of a single textual tradition occurred.  As a form critic, I now look first to the process of education and other forms of cultural reproduction as the Sitz im Leben (institutional setting) for the formation and transmission of all texts. . . . Though such texts often had a previous oral or written prehistory,  they entered the stream of ongoing written tradition as part of a matrix of socialization-enculturalization literature. . .”

Further, he talks about implications for society today.  He notes his sympathy with postcolonial and feminist criticism.  The use of education and enculturation by one society or culture to impose new thought forms on another, he finds problematic.  He sees that ancient scribal education was mostly open only to men.  (He doesn’t say anything about males as a distinct minority in higher education today and the surprising kind of elitism that may lead to.)

He knows he belongs to a guild defined by knowledge of ancient languages and historical methods.  Of course, STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) also produce an elite based on arcane knowledge.  But knowledge about texts puts one in a unique cultural power position like the scribes of old.

This may give rise to an emphasis that ignores the oral energy behind written texts.  Carr gives the example of professors disparaging students who use the KJV Bible. There is a dynamic around the KJV (also Latin for some Catholics, Greek for some Orthodox and Hebrew in some synagogues) that involves memorization and archaic, poetic language.  We see that dynamic was also part of old scribal traditions. He does not want to return to assigning memory verses to college students.  But Carr thinks scholars could be more aware of the robust oral force of texts.  And perhaps the performance of texts could be a part of biblical education.

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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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