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How the Bible Became a Book
(Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Writing was an extension of the urbanization of the Judean state in the late eighth century. The evidence of archaeology and inscriptions suggests a spread of writing through all classes of society by the seventh century BCE in Judah.

William M. Schniedewind
Bible and Interpretation

How did the Bible become a book? Or, phrased differently, how did a pastoral-agrarian society like ancient Israel come to write down and give authority to the written word? When did this happen? Why did this happen? These questions strike at the heart of our understanding of the Bible as literature and as sacred writ. How the Bible Became a Book argues that the formative period for biblical literature was between the eighth and the sixth centuries BCE. In other words, the composition of biblical literature is much earlier than has often been assumed by biblical scholars in the last century. Moreover, the recent radical redating of the composition of biblical literature to the Persian and Hellenistic periods is completely unfounded. How the Bible Became a Book also explores the movement between orality and literacy and the tension between oral tradition and written texts. The rise of authoritative texts in the late Judean monarchy was accompanied by a critique of the written word by those with a vested interest in the authority of the teacher, the community, and the oral tradition. This tension between the oral and the written, the teacher and the text, continues and develops in the Second Temple period and in the formative period for Judaism and Christianity.

How the Bible Became a Book applies new approaches and evidence to the study of ancient Israel and the formation of the Bible. One particularly useful approach that has yet to be fully appreciated in biblical scholarship is linguistic anthropology (see, for example, Martin, 1994; Goody, 2000; Ong, 1982). Linguistic anthropology explores the relationship between language and society. The role of writing in society has changed dramatically through history, yet often modern analyses of biblical literature are dependent on the role of the text in modern society.

The issue of orality and literary has been a hot topic in biblical scholarship. The important book of Susan Niditch, Oral World, Written Word (1996) recently focused the attention of biblical scholars on the significance of orality and literacy for understanding the formation of biblical literature. Several other books by James Crenshaw, Simon Parker, David Carr (2004) have advanced our understanding of the role of orality and literacy in ancient Israel (see Schniedewind, 2000). How the Bible Became a Book advances these studies by incorporating more recent archaeological data and methodological insights gleaned from linguistic anthropology. Writing in the ancient near east was first of all a tool of the royal bureaucracy. Literacy was quite restricted. Writing was also regarded as a gift of the gods. It had magical powers and played a special role in religious rituals (e.g., Numbers 5) and myth (e.g., Exod 32:32). Writing did not have religious authority, but rather numinous power.

From the archaeological record, we note that the social and political conditions for the expansion of writing in ancient Israel flourished beginning in the late 8th century BCE until the end of the monarchy. Some of these observations had already been made in Niel Silberman and Israel Finkelstein's best-selling book, The Bible Unearthed (2001). They, unfortunately, narrow the focus of this literary flourishing to the reign of Josiah, and they also adopt the conventional view of literary production in the Persian and Hellenistic periods (in spite of the archaeological evidence to the contrary). The flourishing of literary production in ancient Israel began at least as early as King Hezekiah (715-687 BCE). Beginning in the eighth century BCE and with the rise of the Assyrian empire, there was an urbanization of ancient Israel. Writing became more important as part of the urban bureaucracy of Jerusalem in the late eighth century. It became more critical to the increasing complex and even global economy. Writing also was an ideological tool projecting the power and importance of the king. At the end of the eighth century in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, rulers were collecting the ancient books. Pharaoh Shabaqa (716-702 BCE) recovers "books of the Temple," and it was Sennacherib (705-681 BCE) who founded the great library in Nineveh. Likewise, writing thus was an extension of the urbanization of the Judean state in the late eighth century. The evidence of archaeology and inscriptions suggests a spread of writing through all classes of society by the seventh century BCE in Judah. This allowed for a momentous shift in the role of writing in society that is reflected in the reforms of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century; writing became a tool of religious reformers who first proclaimed the authority of the written word. To be sure, this shift in the role of writing encroached on groups with a vested interested in the authority in the oral tradition or the prophetic word (e.g., Jer 8:7-9).

The exilic period was hardly a period where biblical literature could flourish. The exile had resulted in a massive depopulation of the land of Israel. Although the land was not empty, archaeological surveys suggest that it was depopulated by as much as 90%. Settlement was largely in rural villages, and the land did not begin to recover until the Hellenistic period. In Babylon, the situation was not much better for the exiles—with the exception of the royal family. It is hardly credible that the exiles working on Babylonian canal projects wrote or even valued literature. However, the royal entourage of Jehoiachin had been brought to Babylon where they apparently lived in the southern palace and enjoyed generous rations of the Babylonian kings. The royal family continued to retain their claim to the throne in Jerusalem (against Zedekiah). They apparently collected literature from the royal and temple library, as well as wrote and edited literature that advanced their claims and standing. The influence of the royal family continued to the end of the sixth century BCE (e.g., Zechariah, Haggai, Ezra 1-6), but the role of the royal family in the formation of biblical text seems to disappear along with Zerubabbel by the end of the sixth century.

According to archaeologists (e.g., Carter, 1999), the province of Yehud was largely depopulated and impoverished in the Persian period. These were dark times for Jerusalem and the Persian province of Yehud. In past scholarship, it was "dark" simply because we knew so little about this period of history. Increasingly, archaeology has filled in the void but painted a bleak picture of a depopulated and impoverished region. This hardly makes it a good environment in which great literary accomplishments could flourish. It is also noteworthy that the Aramaic language overtakes Hebrew as the primary Jewish language in the Persian period. This is first of all indicated by the adoption of Aramaic script by Jews during this period. Although we have recovered hundreds of Aramaic inscriptions from Palestine dating to the Persian period, there are almost no Hebrew inscriptions. Jewish priests like Ezra or officials like Nehemiah would have been trained in the Persian scribal chancellary, that is, in Aramaic. Thus, it is not surprising that the few biblical books that were written in the Persian period (e.g., Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles) reflect the Aramaic scribal training of their authors. Books like Esther, Daniel, and perhaps Ecclesiastes were probably Hellenistic compositions. Most biblical literature, however, was written long before this dark age. The priests took over the leadership of the Jewish community during the Persian period. They preserved and edited biblical literature during this period. As literate elites, biblical literature became a tool that legitimated and furthered their political and religious authority (see Eskenazi, 1988; Nehemiah 8).

The tension between the authority of the oral tradition and the written word continued in the Second Temple period among the various Jewish groups. The priestly aristocracy controlled the temple library and the sacred texts. They were literate elites whose authority was threatened by the oral tradition. Groups like the Pharisees, in contrast, were largely composed of the lay classes. They invested authority in the teacher and the oral tradition. It is striking, for example, that the chain of oral tradition laid out in Mishnah Aboth includes no priests. Both early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, which grew of the lay classes, struggled with the tension between the sacred text and the authority of the oral tradition in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Although they acknowledged the authority of the written Scriptures, they also asserted the authority of oral tradition and the living voice of the teacher. Christianity, however, quickly adopted the codex. In fact, early Christianity was quite innovative in its adoption of the codex. This fact probably encouraged the authority of the written Scriptures in the early Church. Judaism, in contrast, was quite slow in adopting the codex and even until today it is a Torah scroll that we find in a synagogue ark. Eventually Judaism too would cloak its oral tradition in a written garb. Still, a fierce ideology of orality would persist in rabbinic Judaism even as the oral Torah and the written tablets were merged into one pre-existent Torah that was with God at the very creation of the world.


Works Cited

(back) Carr, David M. (2004). Written on the Tablet of Their Heart: the Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press.

(back) Carter, C. E. (1999). The Emergence of Yehud in the Persian Period: A Social and Demographic Study. Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press.

(back) Eskenazi, Tamara. (1988). In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah. Atlanta, Scholars Press.

(back) Finkelstein, I. and N. A. Siberman (2001). The Bible Unearthed. New York, Free Press.

(back) Goody, J. (2000). The Power of the Written Tradition, Smithsonian.

(back) Martin, H.-J. (1994). The History and Power of Writing. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

(back) Niditch, S. (1996). Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature. Philadephia, Westminister John Knox Press.

(back) Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Padstow, Cornwall, T. J. Press.

(back) Schniedewind, W. M. (2000). "Orality and Literacy in Ancient Israel." RSR 26(4): 327-32.