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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



The Growth of the Old Testament

Reinhard G. Kratz

1. The Israelite-Judaean Scribal Culture

The growth of the Old Testament presupposes the Israelite-Judaean scribal culture. From it the biblical tradition took over the practices, knowledge, and literary remains of the scribes. At the same time they pioneered with what they took over, or produced independently on the basis of it, a very particular way that was also unique in the whole of the ancient Near East. The genre and the content of the biblical books burst the limits of the usual praxis of the scribes. From the scribes developed the scribal scholars, and from the Israelite-Judaean scribal culture they developed the Jewish tradition in the Old Testament. In order to describe this development, it is necessary first to make clear the literary-historical presuppositions.

1.1 Scribes and Scribal Schools

As in the whole of the ancient Near East, the scribal culture in Israel and Judah developed with the rise of the monarchy. The economy of the court and the temple, as well as that of trade, made the establishment of a bureaucracy necessary. As well as priests, prophets, those skilled in the law, and soldiers, it needed scribes, who practised their trade within and outside the court. Among their tasks belonged the following: bookkeeping and correspondence, as well as the writing, recording, and archiving of important political, legal, economic, and religious documents, as well as literary compositions.

There is a good deal of evidence for the view that schools were established in order to educate scribes. These dealt with not only reading and writing, but offered the widest possible education, which enabled those who completed it to undertake service in the court or the temple. The would-be scribes were made familiar with the traditions and literatures of their culture and educated in the correct behaviour in relation to themselves and others. The content of their education was collected and passed on in the context of so-called Wisdom.

It is difficult to say to what extent the scribal or wisdom schools worked in broader circles and educated other members of the upper class in addition to those who would be future servants of the state. This must be assumed, however, at least for trade and legal matters, that were not entirely centrally organized. Nevertheless, the ability to read and write as the basis for a broad education was confined to a small minority of professional scribes and other professional groups. It must be assumed that the dissemination of literature was similarly limited.

There is evidence in inscriptions for the existence of professional scribes both before and after the Exile, and some are known by name. The composition of inscriptions found in Israel and Judah as well as in the Diaspora can be attributed to them and to those like them. However, the fact that scribes copied, wrote, or even themselves composed biblical books (cf. Jer. 36; Baruch 1: 1 ff.) is never mentioned outside the Bible itself or the literature influenced by it. The reason presumably lies in the fact that scribes were trained in schools, and as a rule were active in state positions, whereas the biblical writings are somewhat reserved in their view of the court and the temple. The likely conclusion is that the authors and copiers of biblical books consisted of people who came from the scribal schools and the higher ranks of administration, but who had distanced themselves either privately or publicly from these and had gone their own ways.

The same conclusion can be drawn from the comparison of two Jewish archives that have been preserved archaeologically: those at Elephantine and Qumran. Neither the municipal archive of Jedaniah nor the private family archive of the Jewish colony from Elephantine from the fourth century BCE contain any mention of biblical books. On the contrary, the literature that was read here confines itself, so far as can be seen, to the Aramaic version of the well-known Behistun inscription of the Persian king Darius I and the book of the scribe Ahikar, a non-Israelite Wisdom writing which has left its traces in the apocryphal book of Tobit (1: 21–2; 2: 10; 11: 18; 14: 10). As, over against this, there are, with the exception of Esther, fragmentary copies of all the books of the Hebrew canon and related literature at Qumran and other places near the Dead Sea. Here, a Jewish community lived since the second century BCE, which had separated itself from the cult of the temple in Jerusalem and had founded its own scribal institutions. In the scribal chamber at Qumran and in other settlements the literary activity of the everyday life of the community and its correspondence was undertaken, but also numerous copies were made of biblical and related books, and their own writings were composed. At what point biblical books also began to be kept in the archive of the temple in Jerusalem as well as in the synagogues of the motherland and the Diaspora, we do not know. The first indications of a broader dissemination are the Greek translation of the Jewish law, the Torah, presumably from the middle of the third century BCE (the Letter of Aristeas), and the evidence for the three parts of the later canon—Torah, prophets, and additional writings—in the book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) (44–51 and its prologue 1: 810: 24–5) as well as in the instructional writing 4 QMMT (4 Q397 fr. 14–21, line 10 = 4Q398 fr. 14–17, line 5).

1.2. Script and Writing Materials

During the first half of the first millennium scribes used the old Hebrew script, a local variant of the Phoenician alphabetic script, which had developed in the transition from the late Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The first known example of the old Hebrew alphabet is on the stele of the Moabite king Mesha, and afterwards this alphabet is also met in inscriptions from Israel and Judah from the eighth century. In the second half of the first millennium it was displaced by the Aramaic square script, which was a further development of the old Aramaic variant of the alphabetic script.

The oldest biblical manuscripts that we possess, the fragments from the Dead Sea (Qumran and its neighbourhood), are mostly written in the Aramaic square script, which is still in use today. A few manuscripts, legends on coins, and the writing of the divine name in old Hebrew letters in both Hebrew and Greek manuscripts show, however, that the old Hebrew alphabet was not entirely superseded even well into post-Christian times, although it was by then something of a curiosity. In the tradition of the Samaritan Pentateuch it lives on even today.

The writing materials used were stone, ceramic, wood, metal, papyrus, and leather. The choice of materials was dependent upon the reason for writing and what it was possible to use. Stone was suitable above all for monumental and tomb inscriptions. In daily life ceramic was widespread. Ceramic vessels, handles, and bullae were inscribed—before or after firing—according to their function, while ostraca served for commercial matters and correspondence. Wood was used for dictation or instruction, in the form of a tablet covered with wax. Inscription upon metal was mostly for decorative purposes.

In the second half of the first millennium BCE papyrus and leather (later velum) established themselves as the most important writing materials, on which the text was written with ink. Like the other writing materials, papyrus had also been in use for a long time. However, up to now only one ancient Hebrew papyrus is known, a palimpsest from the seventh century (Wadi Murabba'at). Ceramic bullae, which were used for fastening and had a seal on the one side and a reproduction of a papyrus on the other, are an indirect proof for the use of this writing material in the pre-exilic period. Papyrus and leather were suitable both for use in daily life as well as for archiving and disseminating. Smaller texts like treaties or letters were written on single sheets, while longer compositions, in particular literary works, were written upon rolls in which the leaves were fastened (glued or sewn) together. The pages were divided into columns, and lines which were drawn by the scribes beforehand and then written upon.

Papyrus and leather are also the materials upon which the biblical books were written. From the pre-exilic period no biblical manuscripts have been preserved. The oldest witnesses known to us are the fragments from the Dead Sea, which date from between the third century BCE and the second century CE. They are mostly written upon leather. This material was preferred because of the length of the texts. A roll had an average length of eight to ten metres, but could also be shorter or longer. As a rule, a roll at Qumran contained one biblical writing or group of writings (e.g. the Twelve Prophets and possibly also the Pentateuch). From the time after Qumran fragments of Hebrew manuscripts are known from the sixth to the eighth centuries CE (the Cairo Geniza), and complete copies are known from the ninth century onwards. These are mostly no longer on rolls but, as in the case of the text of the Bible in Greek, written in the form of a codex. Unlike the majority of the written documents of the first millennium BCE, which are found on stone, ceramic, wood, metal, or also papyrus and leather, the biblical books and the related texts with religious content, which were found in Qumran or have come to us in other ways, exist in many, sometimes divergent, copies which have been carefully looked after by scribes by way of improvements to the text or the materials. While the other writings have been forgotten, the biblical manuscripts have been continually produced.

1.3. The Literary Evidence

Only a few examples of the Israelite-Judaean scribal culture have survived. These include the Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions that have been found in Palestine and elsewhere, as well as the literary remains that found their way into the biblical tradition. The first are authentic witnesses of the Israelite-Judaean scribal culture, whereas the latter can be reconstructed only hypothetically by means of literary analysis, the criterion for this being obtained from the authentic witnesses.

As might be expected, the inscriptions deal mostly with documents of the economy and administration: accounts, lists, and letters (from Samaria, Arad, Elephantine), as well as seals, stamps, and weights which are widely distributed as to time period and geographical region (Davies 1991: 118–263; Gibson 1971: 59–70). Such documents coming from daily life are hardly, if at all, attested in the Old Testament. Only in the case of certain lists, such as those of the sons of David (2 Sam. 3: 2–5; 5: 14–16), of David's officers (2 Sam. 8: 15–18), or of the administrative districts of Solomon (1 Kgs. 4: 1–19) may old traditions lie at their basic core, or have served as examples. All in all, the biblical tradition is far removed from everyday affairs.

More attention has been paid to the administration of justice in the Old Testament. As can be concluded from the petition of a labourer on the ostracon from Yavne Yam (Davies 1991: 77 f.; Gibson 1971: 26–30), law was administered at a particular place; by the ‘elders’ at an assembly of the full citizens ‘at the gate’ or, as here, by a royal official. The labourer has been deprived of his outer garment by his employer and pleads his case to a higher authority: ‘let my lord, the commander, hear my case!’. Cases like these were decided on the basis of simple legal principles, the law of parity (ius talionis) or the principle of appropriate compensation, and it was used as a precedent. As time passed, there developed a sophisticated casuistry which was written down in collections of legal statements according to the scheme ‘if—then’. An example of such a collection, for which there are also examples in the ancient world, is found in the so-called Book of the Covenant (Exod. 21: 1–22: 19). In it, cases from civil law are collected together and, in particular, laws dealing with compensation and bodily injuries in neighbourly common life, and relationships with ‘neighbours’ are dealt with. However, this collection remained the exception. Normally, the practice of law depended upon customary usage, and thus can be deduced only from particular cases. The family archive at Elephantine offers a view into covenant law dealing with marriage and exchange of property.

The only extant ancient collection of Israelite legal sentences in the Book of the Covenant was either collected for the purposes of education or, as in the Codex Hammurabi, put together to give honour to the king as the divinely commissioned highest defender of law and justice. In the context of the biblical tradition, in which Moses was advanced to the position of lawgiver par excellence and the corpora of laws were multiplied, law lost its Sitz im Leben. It was promoted to the rank of divine revelation, and was correspondingly ordered theologically. In consequence of this, the legal case of the labourer on the ostracon from Yavne Yam gained new meaning. The question was now no longer whether the labourer had had his cloak taken justly or unjustly. The question was that of his social status. God himself will hear the complaint of the poor so that he receives his cloak back before the sun sets (Exod. 22: 25 f.; Deut. 24: 12 f.).

In the general area of religion, it is above all tomb and votive inscriptions that have survived (Hirbet el Qom, Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, Silwan, Hirbet Bet Lei). They display a quite different theological profile of the religion of Israel and Judah compared with that in the Old Testament, and in particular in relation to the First Commandment. In addition to YHWH the chief god, who is differentiated according to different places, they recognize Ashera as a divine force that gives blessings, and several other gods (El, Baal) who were worshipped alongside YHWH. One sees in the inscriptions evidence of popular religion that differed from the official or traditional religion of YHWH. There is no reason to marginalize the epigraphic evidence. The dominant position of YHWH, which is also expressed in personal names of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE and in many formulae such as those of the Aaronic blessing (Num. 6: 24–6) in one of the inscriptions from Kuntillet 'Ajrud (Davies 1991: 81, 8. 021) and the two (later) silver amulets from Ketef Hinnom (Davies 1991: 72 f.), suggests another conclusion. The boundaries between temple theology and the popular religion of the people in the pre-exilic monarchy and, if one thinks of Elephantine, also later, were fluid. The separation of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the biblical tradition which expects blessing from YHWH alone (cf. Gen. 12: 1–3), comes from later theological construction.

Formulae of blessing and curse in inscriptions and amulets touch on a further area of religion: magic and manticism. Belief in hidden divine powers and the possibility of influencing them by means of magic can be recognized in many ways in the epigraphic and iconographic remains. However, the functionaries who presided over the art of magic and the closely connected practice of foretelling the future—namely priests and prophets—are only seldom mentioned in the inscriptions. They existed also in Israel and Judah.

In the Lachish Ostracon number 3, a letter sent from the battlefield by a lower-ranking person to his superior (Davies 1991: 1 f.; Gibson 1971: 38–41), a letter written by a royal official is referred to which mentions a prophet. In the tense situation of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (around 597 BCE), the anonymous prophet speaking no doubt in the name of the national god YHWH had counselled caution: ‘be careful!’, whether to warn the king against a hostile attack (cf. 2 Kgs. 6: 9), or whether because he was full of anxiety and wanted to secure the help of YHWH against his enemies (cf. Isa. 7: 4). Although this evidence is not clear, it fits best into the picture that one gets from parallels in the ancient Near East (the Mari Letters, neo-Assyrian prophecies, and the Zakur inscription). According to this, prophets were cult officials who worked in the name of the national god for the ruling king, who advised him in political, military, cultic, or ethical matters, and whose messages were conveyed in letters, and in this and in other ways were retained in archives. In the ancient Orient and also in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, prophecy was a means of politics and propaganda.

The prophets, indeed, did not always have only good news to announce. From the closer circle of Israel come the words of Balaam, the son of Beor the seer of the gods from Deir 'Alla in the land Gilead (TUAT ii. 1: 138–48). He is none other than the Balaam of the Bible (Num. 22–4), but one meets him here in his original setting and in his time around 700 BCE, before he was taken over into the biblical tradition in connection with Israel. The inscription was written with red and black ink upon a whitewashed wall. Balaam, as Germans say, had painted the devil on the wall: a shocking catastrophe decreed by the gods, which he related to his people with tears. From the badly preserved remains it is not possible to say what caused the proclamations of disaster and curse, or the intention with which they were written down. At best they can be understood as a warning and a threat about improvements needed to appease the angry gods Shagar and Ashtar, El and the gathering of the Shaddin (cf. Num. 24: 4, 16!). The inscription recalls the old oriental science of omens, and other forms of manticism, which is concerned with the recognition and meaning of good and bad signs.

In the Old Testament not only the genres and methods of speech, but also the remains of old Israelite and Judaean prophecy, have been preserved. The prophetic legends in the books of Samuel and Kings stand closest to the phenomenology of the classical old oriental prophecy. Here one meets king-makers and political-military advisors of the king (Samuel in 1 Sam. 9–10; Nathan in 1 Kgs. 1–2; Elisha in 2 Kgs. 3: 11 ff.; Isaiah in 2 Kgs. 18–20), as well as the wonder-workers who are clothed with magical powers (Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kgs. 18: 41–6; 2 Kgs. 4). However, not all the narratives in Samuel and Kings have an old literary kernel which goes back to the time of the monarchy. Some were composed later, under the influence of the older material. They were all later reworked in the sense of redactions, which gave them their present forms in the books of Samuel and Kings.

The words of the prophets are collected in the books of the prophets, but here also only a few authentic words can be discerned which can be attributed to the heritage of the Israelite-Judaean scribal culture. From the time of the so called Syro-Ephraimite war around 730 BCE come the oracles of salvation of the prophet Isaiah, who prophesied the demise of the enemies of Judah in the north—namely, Aram and Israel (Isa. 7: 4, 7–9; 8: 1–4; 17: 1–3)—and just as a hundred years later, Nahum prophesied the demise of the Assyrians. Words from both sides of the Syro-Ephraimite war seem to appear in Hos. 5: 8–11. The authentic speech of the prophet Hosea, however, is in Hos. 6: 8–7: 7, and deals with the threatened demise of the kingdom of Israel, which became true in 722 BCE. The parables and woe-oracles of the prophet Amos in chapters 3–6 (Amos 3: 12; 5: 2, 3, 19; 5: 18; 6: 1 ff.; cf. 3: 12bβ; 4: 1, 5: 7) have the same purpose, in that they present the downfall of Samaria as inevitable, whether (from an Israelite perspective) these prophetic words are originally intended to induce regret and perhaps even avert this or (from the perspective of Judah), to welcome it and to some extent wish to influence it. Unambiguously spoken from the point of view of those affected are the words of the prophet Jeremiah in the form of laments about the imminent demise of Judah in the years 597–587 BCE, which erupt from the deep sympathy felt by the prophet in his innermost being (Jer. 4: 7, 11, 13, 19–21; 6: 1, 22–3). In the laments it is Jeremiah who speaks, not YHWH. He is deeply shocked by what he hears and sees about what is to come. What it is, he only hints at, but this much is clear: it is not YHWH who punishes Judah and Jerusalem for their sins, but a monstrous war machine that marches towards them—the ominous ‘foe from the north’. The laments of Jeremiah can be compared with the words of Zephaniah concerning the ‘day of YHWH’ (Zeph. 1: 14–16), that is reminiscent of the perverted world of Balaam's presentiments of disaster from Deir 'Alla.

After all this had taken place, and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah no longer existed, the prophets lost their social setting and, with it, their meaning. Several prophets none the less uttered words here and there. Some adhered to the end to the received tradition and proclaimed a victory over the enemies in the name of YHWH (Jer. 27–8). Others made their voices heard when it became clear who would rule the land in the future and take over the custody of the temple. Two oracles have been preserved under the date of the second year of Darius I which call for the rebuilding of the temple and proclaim the entry of the glory of YHWH (Hag. 1: 1, 4, 8 and 1: 15b/2: 1, 3, 9a). From the time of the Second Temple we hear practically nothing more about prophets, which does not mean that they did not exist (Neh. 6: 7, 10–14; Zech. 13). However, the prophetic spirit was active no longer in the prophets themselves, but in the written tradition which circulated in their names and gained strength in the time of the Second Temple.

The epigraphic finds unfortunately afford us no view of the literary activity of the priests in the temples of Israel and Judah. On the basis of parallels from the ancient world, one would expect them to consist of lists of gods, rituals of sacrifices, liturgical calendars, hymns, and prayers, as well as myths about the gods. However, nothing has remained to this day except several inscriptions on cult objects. Thus one has to look to the Old Testament.

It can be assumed that behind the laws concerning sacrifices in Leviticus 1–7 and the decrees about purity in Leviticus 11–15 are the traditions of the priests. Also, the law of the altar in Exod. 20: 24–6 and the cultic calendar in Exod. 23: 14–16 could well rest upon older pre-exilic traditions.

Hymns and prayers can be found in the psalter. The old hymns such as Psalms 29 or 93 indicate that they are such because they stand in an unbroken line of tradition with Canaanite texts and represent the myth of the kingdom of God in a short poetic version. The hymns are close to the declarations of property in one of the inscriptions from Hirbet Bet Lei, to the phrase in the cave inscription from Ein Gedi, and to a description of a theophany in the old Phoenician wall inscription from Kuntillet 'Ajrud. The YHWH of Samaria and the YHWH of Jerusalem are no different from the Baal of Ugarit and the Baal or Hadad of the Phoenicians and the Aramaeans. Old prayers are the lament (e.g. Ps. 13) and the thanksgiving of the individual (cf. Ps. 118: 5, 14, 17–19, 21, 28). They are part of the liturgy that accompanied the ritual of sacrifice, which is hinted at in the text of the thanksgivings, but about which we know nothing further. Also for these prayers, the Canaanite mythology gave the inspiration, in so far as the divinity constantly conducts the supplicant from death into life. In the Ugaritic Baal epic, death (in Hebrew Mot) is the second foe after the sea-god Yam, with whom the weather god Baal struggles for the kingship.

A particular case is Hebrew narrative. Myths about the gods—that is, stories from the sphere of the gods, which explain conditions upon earth, as in the Baal cycle in Ugarit or Atram Hasis and Enuma Elish in Mesopotamia—are not preserved in the Old Testament. The nearest things to myths from the ancient Orient are the narratives that underlie the primal history in Genesis 1–11: the Canaanite anthropogony in Genesis 2–4, the account of the Flood in Genesis 6–9, and the Noachite table of nations in Genesis 10. Rather, the Hebrew narrative culture stood closer to the north-west Semitic tradition of hero legends, as one knows them from the epic of Gilgamesh, and concentrated upon relationships in various social milieux, such as the family (Genesis), the tribe (Judges), or the royal court (Samuel and Kings). Only later were the individual stories brought together in larger narrative wholes and overarching historical accounts, in the course of which they were transformed into the myth of the history of God with his people Israel.

With the exception, perhaps, of the primal history, the Hebrew narrative tradition was situated not in the priestly milieu but in that of the court. The scribes who were active there had, in addition to their daily world of which the ostraca from Samaria, Arad, and Lachish are indications, first and foremost a concern with royal annals. From them appear to be taken the information about changes of rule and length of reign upon which the chronology of the books of Kings rest. In connection with this, as was common in such royal chronicles, other happenings were occasionally mentioned, such as military undertakings and building works. These episodes are the point of departure for historical narratives which originally arose separately and which were later incorporated into the annalistic scheme of the books of Kings (e.g., 1 Kgs. 20 and 22, 2 Kgs. 3 and 9–10). It is possible to study the transition from the one to the other in three inscriptions: the stele of King Mesha (Gibson 1971: 71–83; Pritchard 1955: 320 f.; which is the Moabite version of 2 Kgs. 3), the inscription from Tell Dan (TUAT Suppl. 2001, 176–9; which is the Aramaic version of 2 Kgs. 9–10), and the Siloam inscription (Davies 1991: 68; Gibson 1971: 21–3), the only epigraphic remains of old Hebrew prose and an episode in which neither the king nor YHWH plays a role.

Closely connected with the court was wisdom, the spiritual home and school of the scribes. Here the various traditions and sources of knowledge of Israelite and Jewish culture were written down, edited and taught, in so far as they were not the preserve of specialists such as chroniclers, priests, and prophets. Here, the individual stories were collected and put together into a literary form.

As the example of the Aramaic version of Ahikar, which was read at Elephantine, shows, Wisdom understood its function to be that of narrating as well as putting things into poetic form. In polished proverbs and various poetic genres, the phenomena and orders of nature as well as of human conduct and its psychology are analysed and brought to expression. Examples can be found in the ancient collections of the book of Proverbs (10: 1–22: 16; 22: 17–24: 22 and 24: 23–32; 25–9), of which Proverbs 22: 17–24: 22 possesses an Egyptian parallel (Pritchard 1955: 421 ff.). The portrayal of nature in the divine speeches of the book of Job (38–41) also stands in this tradition.

Didactic stories such as the story of Ahikar are examples of wisdom as practised and woven into the life of an exemplary sage at the end of a successful career. In the Old Testament this genre is represented by the fable of Jotham in Judg. 9 and the story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50. In addition, there are later representatives of this genre, in which the exemplary sage has become the exemplary pious believer, and increasingly, the suffering of the wise believer in God and wisdom is taken into account (Daniel, Job). Indeed, in the old narratives which come from other milieux, the narrative art of wisdom is often also at work.

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