Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).  Pp. xiii + 257.  Cloth, $27.00.  ISBN 0-521-82946-1.

In this highly readable and informed study, Schniedewind opens with two equally provocative questions: “when was the Bible written?” and “why was it written?” (p. 1).  The first question frames the present study as an inquiry into the social and historical context surrounding the composition of the Bible.  The introduction of the second question signifies Schniedewind’s unique contribution to the larger discussion of the formation of the Bible and what sets this book apart from all other similar enterprises. 

In proposing this second question, Schniedewind is interested in the written character of the Bible that marks it as the product of a textual society. Ancient Israel was long an oral culture.  The emergence of a written text such as the Bible reflects a gradual shift within ancient Israel from an oral culture to a textual society.  Schniedewind is interested in charting this progression and exploring its implications for the question of the historical and social context of the origins of the biblical books.  The results of recent anthropological and sociolinguistic studies are combined with exploration of the unique historical circumstances that gave rise to the production of the biblical books.  Schniedewind argues that the introduction of textuality into this discussion completely revolutionizes long held assumptions concerning the dating of many biblical books.  Here, he is in dialogue (or, perhaps debate) both with the classic source-critical position and with the recent trend among a minority of biblical scholars to date the majority of the Bible to the late Persian, Hellenistic, and even Hasmonean periods. 

After surveying the limited role of writing in the Near East in 2nd millennium (chs. 2-3), the discussion then shifts to writing in ancient Israel (ch. 4).  In particular, Schniedewind identifies the minimal role of writing in Israel, which at that time was primarily an oral culture (pp. 52-56).  As in contemporary Near Eastern societies, the emerging scribal class was closely tied to the administrative and monumental tasks of the state.  Their scribal traditions and linguistic style display little deviance from Canaanite culture and language, offering no evidence of an independent writing tradition (pp. 56-60).  As is readily apparent, this is hardly the appropriate social and historical context for the commissioning of great prose traditions of Israel’s past and argues against locating the composition of the earliest strands of the Hebrew Bible during the United Monarchy (p. 63).

As Schniedewind moves to the late Monarchic period, he locates a wealth of archaeological and literary evidence that attests to the rapid spread of writing and literacy.  In addition, the urbanization of Judean society, the growth of Jerusalem, and the expansion of royal power all served as catalysts for the formation of literary traditions.  Following the collapse of the northern kingdom, Schniedewind argues, Hezekiah forged a “political ideology” focused on the restoration of the golden age of the United Monarchy which “would be textualized by the collection, composition, and editing of literature by the royal scribes of Hezekiah” (p. 73).  Within this literary heritage, he locates much of the wisdom literature, the 8th century writing prophets, the first edition of the Deuteronomistic history, and significant portions of the Pentateuchal literature.  Throughout, writing is still closely associated with the king and state. 

The remainder of the study continues Schniedewind’s exploration of the role of writing in Judean society and its impact on the formation of the Bible.  Schniedewind identifies a rise in literacy and writing in the 7th century B.C.E. and the simultaneous emergence of the authority of the written word.  This notion of textual authority was seized upon and became a cornerstone in the Josianic religious reforms (ch. 6).  This in turn produced a whole new corpus of biblical literature that reflects new notions of textuality, the foremost exemplar being Deuteronomy. 

Schniedewind’s analysis of the exilic and post-exilic period (chs. 8-9) severely calls into question the long held assumption that the Persian period was a time of literary flourishing within which we should locate the composition of most of the Bible.  To be sure, Schniedewind identifies this as a time of “retrenchment” in which much of the Bible is collected and edited into its final form (p. 166).  Finally, he explores the impact of the results of the present study with respect to orality and textuality in later Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity (ch. 10).  

Schniedewind’s work represents a welcome shift in the discussion of the composition of the Bible.  Though scholars may quibble with some of his reconstruction of historical circumstances or conclusions concerning the dating of individual books, this work is surely the most thorough treatment of orality and textuality in ancient Israel and the concomitant implications with respect to the formation of the Bible. 

Schniedewind should also be commended for the highly readable nature of this book.  Discussion of intricate scholarly issues is relegated to the footnotes.  Difficult points are often elucidated by recourse to instructive modern analogies.  In addition, the book is complemented by a number of informative and attractive images.  Schniedewind has accomplished the rare feat of writing a book that appeals to an informed popular audience while at the same time making a significant scholarly contribution.


p. vi: “Jehorachin” should be “Jehoiachin”
p. xi: “Alttestamentlichye” should be “Alttestamentliche”
p. xii: “Alttestamentlischen” should be “die Alttestamentliche”
p. 119: a he is written as a het
p. 130: “pes. 54a” should be “b. Pes. 54a”
pp. 24, 118, 137: inconstant spelling for “m. Aboth/m. Avot”
p. 197: “halachaic” should be “halachic”
p. 200: “writng” should be “writing”
pp. 201, 202 (2x): “Anti” should be “Ant”
p. 226, n. 5: “Schriedewind” should be “Schniedewind”
p. 238, n. 49: there are a number of Hebrew typographical errors in the biblical citations.  Extra space needed between “2” and “Chr”
p. 239, n. 18: “STJD” should be “STDJ”
p. 239, n. 22: “Community Rule” should be “Damascus Document”
passim: capitalization for “temple” (with respect to the Jerusalem temple) is inconsistent throughout the book.

Alex Jassen
New York University