Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Stott, Katherine M., Why Did They Write This Way? Reflections on References to Written Documents in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Literature (LHBOTS, 492; New York: T&T Clark, 2008). Pp. xiv+162, Hardcover, US$115.00. ISBN 9780567027368.

The goal of Stott's study is to “examine the character and function of the documents cited in the biblical text in relation to comparable references” in classical antiquity (p. 1). Stott points out (p. 12) that Mesopotamian writers never cite their sources and argues that the tendency in biblical writing to refer to prior texts has a parallel only among the classical historians. Stott asks, therefore, whether Herodotus' use of sources can inform us about the use of sources by the biblical writers, regardless of whether there was direct influence one upon the other or even whether or not one read or was aware of the other.

To answer this question, Stott reviews recent scholarship surrounding classical authors' use of sources. Scholars have previously accepted Herodotus' reliance on oral sources, and when errors occurred in the Histories, they have generally attributed them to the sources, not to Herodotus (p. 20). More recent scholars have suggested that Herodotus has invented his sources, however, since “foreign” sources betray Greek traditions. Herodotus cites Hecataeus of Miletus four times, for example (p. 23), but many scholars find that Herodotus is dependent on Hecataeus in ways which he does not always acknowledge. Herodotus also refers to inscriptions (p. 24), but it cannot be assumed that he actually saw them. Classical historians also conclude (p. 29) that Thucydides uses some written documents, such as treaties, without actually quoting them, while other documents he quotes verbatim. Stott summarizes her review of these scholars by concluding that the ancient historians cite sources for ornamentation yet often make extensive use of sources that they do not cite.

Chapter 3 compares the historiographic techniques of the books of the HB with those of the classics. A primary difference noted by Stott (p. 54) is the total lack of the historian's voice in the biblical books. This difference is one reason for the absence in the biblical books of any discussion of the authenticity of the sources to which it refers. Stott suggests that reference to named sources lends an air of authenticity and credibility to the work. It also shows that the author is well acquainted with the material, is an authority on it, and that the material itself can be checked if questions arise (p. 58). Like the classical authors, the biblical writers may also have referred to sources where none actually existed, but even so, the reference to written sources testifies to the importance of the written word both to author and audience (p. 59). Stott does not make use of what she has learned about the classical historians' use of sources to do an in-depth study of the Deuteronomistic history. She does not investigate the Deuteronomic text, nor does she ask whether the Deuteronomist makes use of sources that he does not cite or conversely refers to sources that do not exist. Presumably we may assume so, since scholars have concluded thus for the Greek historians, but an in-depth study of the Deuteronomic text would have been appropriate here.

Stott devotes the second half of her book to stories in the biblical canon about “found” documents, primarily the story of the discovery of the book of the law in 2 Kgs 22-23, but also the lost and found Cyrus decree in Ezra 1-6 and the lost book of Nehemiah in 1 Maccabees. She compares the story in Kings to other stories of found books in Near Eastern and Classical literature. Unfortunately, this leads to a long and largely irrelevant discussion of the date of the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos which concludes that that text is Hellenistic. Philo's Phoenician History is the earliest story of “lost books” that Stott discusses; others stem from the Roman period. Stott finds that these all contain similar elements, a primary one being that the found book is authored by an important person. She points out that in Deuteronomy the book of the law is said to be authored by Moses (Deut 31:9, 24), yet does not discuss the problematic fact that although the book found in Kings is called the book of the law (2 Kgs 22:8), it is nowhere stated that it was written by Moses. Moreover, in the parallels that Stott cites, the found book is presented to the reader as the book that is then in the reader's hands. This is not at all the case with the law book found in Kings. The reader is only told that Josiah acted on it, but the reader is not given the book nor told precisely what was in it. These differences deserved discussion. Stott concludes that the story is intended to promote Josiah as a righteous king who acts in accordance with the laws of Moses (p. 121-122), but the reference to the law of Moses is supplied only by the Deuteronomistic historian (23:25) in a retrospective and is not part of the story. Stott suggests (p. 122) another possible reason for the story — that it is designed to endorse the legal stipulations set forth in the narrative. Both of these conclusions could have been derived from a cursory reading of the text itself; it is not clear to me how the comparative data contributed to her conclusions.

In her penultimate chapter, Stott reviews literature on the story of Jehoiakim's burning of Jeremiah's scroll, the Ezra story, and the story of the found book in Maccabees, and shows that these have parallels in Greek and Roman literature. Stott makes a good beginning in pointing out the parallels, but much more work is needed before we can attempt to answer the question posed in the title of her book, Why Did They Write This Way?

The book performs a useful purpose in reminding us that every story serves a rhetorical function, whether historical or not.

Lisbeth S. Fried, University of Michigan