Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Carr, David M., The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Pp. vii+524. Hardcover. $74.00. ISBN 978-0-19-974260-8.

David M. Carr's The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction is a major achievement and exactly what the subtitle claims. Amidst the endless iterations of scholarly work on the formation of the Hebrew Bible that break little new ground, Carr's reconstruction is a new synthesis that nevertheless is deeply rooted in the global discussion. It builds off of many of his other works, especially Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature with its focus on the role of memorization and education/enculturation in the ancient Near East. Memory is central to Carr's methodologically modest proposal in which he claims that scribes often copied and updated earlier text from memory rather than only from written texts. This leads Carr to be cautious about overstating our ability to reconstruct precursor texts with precision since the transmission process is probably more fluid than the scalpel-like expectations of modern methods for digging deeply into the development of the many layers of the Hebrew Bible. The book is broken up into three major sections; I will examine each and then offer a short evaluation at the end.

The first section contains methodological essays: the first examines the role of oral-written transmission; the second considers cases of documented transmission history. The third brings together the methodological implications of the previous essays. According to Carr, texts were transmitted, at least in part, through memorization. Taking his cues from studies in psychology, classics, medieval literature, and ancient Near Eastern traditions, Carr notes how information transmitted partly through memory contains “changes in mood, tense, and grammatical construction; synonyms are common; and passages are of different lengths” (25) compared to passages transmitted through “graphic copying,” which reveal a high degree of verbatim repetition. In the Hebrew Bible, parallels in Proverbs offer examples that might suggest that memory played a role in the text's transmission. After examining several passages in great detail, Carr finds the same kinds of variations that characterize texts recalled through memory (25–34). With this broad interdisciplinary support, Carr claims that the “texts of the Hebrew Bible, whatever their diverse original uses, came down to us through the sorts of transmission processes characteristic of oral-written long-duration literature” (35), which means literature passed from one generation to the next by performance and memory. Earlier layers of the Hebrew Bible are not so much “written in stone,” as scholars sometimes suppose, as they are “written in the shifting sand of memory” (36). Thus the present Bible contains far less information for reconstructing its prehistory than scholars often suppose.

Before moving on to examine the prehistory of the Hebrew Bible, Carr explores documented cases of transmission history. The Gilgamesh Epic is a classic case in which the chronology of the recensions is established. Memory is demonstrably the primary vehicle for the transmission of the epic. Even as the text is changed, reformulated, and the order of presentation altered, the meaning remains basically the same. The insertion of the Atrahasis flood narrative into the Gilgamesh Epic clearly demonstrates the incorporation of material that once existed separately and the tendency then to coordinate the combined texts vis-à-vis each other (45–47). In this case the harmonization is only partially successful since signs of Atrahasis's literary history in a different setting remain. The Temple Scroll is another example of the tendency for a later version to expand, conflate, update, and revise precursor texts. This is due to a variety of reasons, but when the Temple Scroll reproduces Deuteronomy it does so with almost no change except for the occasional memory variant or small expansion. Partial preservation and, paradoxically, some expansion are both present. Several more cases are discussed including the divergences between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, between different editions of the Pentateuch found in the Dead Sea caves, between Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and 1 Esdras, and the Qumran Community Rule. In most of these cases there is a tendency toward expansion in the later text and in coordinating the different texts together even as scribes “rarely appropriated earlier compositions in their entirety” (99). There was a “premium” put on preservation, yet, at the same time, scribes did innovate in the transmission process (101).

The first section ends with an extended discussion, built on the previous essays, of the importance of method in the reconstruction of textual growth. Scribes could have better concealed their work, but like the insertion of the flood narrative into the Gilgamesh Epic, they left us some rough edges by which we can discern their activity. At the same time, Carr wants to highlight the fluidity of textual transmission in the ancient Near East, and he is very careful to remind his readers that “all biblical manuscripts … are a product of a centuries-long process of oral-written textual transmission that has blurred the contours of earlier recensions” (102). The transmission process has blurred the textual signs of growth and has, on occasion, led scholars astray. Lacking documented cases, as can sometimes be seen between the MT and the LXX, scholars are better able to reconstruct earlier stages in the text when tradents have “combined originally independent” sources than when they have “expanded” earlier sources (105). On the other hand, “terminological indicators are only minimally useful” (107). The change from YHWH to Elohim or vice versa, for instance, may only indicate, in the process of textual transmission, that these divine designations where treated as equivalents or substitutes (107). By contrast, the different divine names in the P and the non-P flood narrative are supported by the addition of other terminological differences across over ten doublets spanning the narrative (108–109). Due again to the process of oral-written transmission, it is unlikely that prior sources are completely preserved in the current Hebrew Bible. Scholarly attempts to reconstruct a continuous narrative from earlier sources ought, then, to be tempered in their expectations of the success of such efforts. The oral-written transmission process introduces complexity and fluidity into the ways tradents preserved earlier traditions. Therefore, the kind of textual precision found later in the text of the Masoretes can only be applied to the entire formational process of the Hebrew Bible by projecting these same transmission standards anachronistically into earlier stages of growth. What this means, among other things, is that a return to the “simplicity of the documentary hypothesis is no longer possible” (124). Locating J and E sources across the Pentateuch “has proved multiply flawed” according to Carr (124). The fluidity of the transmission process also means that arguments (which have been viewed as relatively objective) based on the development of the Hebrew language are of limited value since it is likely that scribes “updated and contaminated” the linguistic profiles of texts (127). Carr develops the implications of this observation later for the Song of Songs (442–447). Another traditional approach, which Carr deems problematic, is dating texts based on their supposed direction of dependence on other texts (144). Arguments of this kind still have value, but they must be qualified and should generally be considered of limited importance and probability (144).

As a result of these deficiencies in source-critical methods, Carr sets some “reachable goals for reconstruction of transmission history” (144). Instead of renouncing attempts to reconstruct transmission history due to the uncertainty built into the transmission process, Carr advocates for a “middle way” that is “methodologically modest” (147). First, Carr moves away from models that focus on analyzing the various redactions/expansion “within biblical texts” to one focused on the “interrelationship between separate scrolls” and larger chunks (148). Second, Carr wants to align texts with “broad periods” like the Persian and neo-Babylonian (149). The best one can achieve is an incomplete profile and a partial reconstruction. Although we know that texts were revised over time, it is a “fantasy” to think that one can obtain precision in charting the development of the Hebrew Bible at every stage (148).

The second section of the book explores the formation of the Hebrew Bible from the Hasmonean to the neo-Assyrian periods. Carr chose the Hasmonean period because he, in contrast to the current trend, argues that despite the fact that there is no generally agreed Hebrew Bible in this period, there is nevertheless an “emergent standardization of the Hebrew Bible, both in scope and (textual) form” (153). The Hasmonean monarchy did not sponsor the creation of new works; rather, they played a key role in “defining, circumscribing, and possibly revising” older works (158). Ben Sira's praise of ancient fathers, 4 Macc 18:10–19, Josephus (C. Ap. 1.38–41), and 4 Ezra 14:38–47 each play a significant role for Carr as he forms this conclusion. The temple in Jerusalem is the primary place the Hasmoneans kept these sacred texts and other Jewish groups (like Qumran) that did not adhere to this delimited corpus opposed the Hasmoneans, and, in particular, their control of the Jerusalem temple (163–164). There is evidence of textual fluidity when the Hasmoneans alter texts in their antagonism towards the Samaritans. The proto-MT of Deuteronomy, for example, contains alternations from the Samaritan Pentateuch, Old Latin and Old Greek translations regarding a central place of worship that favors Jerusalem. These changes are best set, according to Carr, “in the context of the destruction of the sanctuary at Mount Gerizim by the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus in 128 b.c.e.” (168).

The next period Carr analyzes is the Hellenistic. During this time, the temple exercised great influence. In this context, the priests were the ones primarily responsible for the copying and composition of ancient texts. These priests are somewhat separate from the political powers, and they focused on traditions that claim pre-Hellenistic antiquity (182). The redacted portion of Qohelet (12:13–14) is a probable candidate to fit the Hellenistic period because its ideology matches that of Hellenistic wisdom texts found at Qumran (189). Other texts located in this period are Chronicles and portions of Daniel and Esther. Two presuppositions emerge in the Hellenistic period: the Torah of Moses is central to Jewish piety, and YHWH rewards individuals for their (Torah) obedience (202–203).

From here, Carr moves on to examine Persian-period texts. Of all the empires found in Hebrew Bible, the Persians alone escape without negative criticism, which probably means that the Bible was significantly shaped in this period by scribes with pro-Persian sympathies (206). Carr dates parts of Isaiah 56–66, Zachariah, Haggai, and Ezra-Nehemiah to this period. To take one example, the Nehemiah Memoir and the Rebuilding-Ezra Narrative were probably independent compositions until they were later combined and reformulated into Ezra-Nehemiah. The Nehemiah Memoir probably originated in the fifth century by a Judean of the same name and predates the Rebuilding-Ezra Narrative by at least a century (209), yet both of these are probably examples of scribal writing invested in Persian support for the return since the later combined Ezra-Nehemiah narrative describes Persian rule as slavery (Neh 9:36). Scribal activity in this period is characterized by a focus on rebuilding, particularly as it pertains to the temple, and an emphasis on the importance of priests in Jerusalem (213). The P and non-P Hexateuch, which scholars generally agree on their identification, were likely combined and underwent significant “reconceptualization” due to internal and external forces under Persian sponsorship (219). This stage of the P and non-P sources is the most reconstructable stage in the formation of the Pentateuch (221). Much of the material that is a product of the Persian period is probably not identifiable with any degree of likelihood, but the “major contribution” of this period is in the “ongoing transmission, minor adaptation, and reconstrual of pre-Persian-period compositions.” Persian period scribes reread and reshaped old texts to apply them to their present circumstances (223). Probably these same scribes are responsible for the focus on Torah at the beginning of Joshua and the Psalter and the end of Malachi (224).

The remainder of this second section offers historical profiles of the Babylonian exile and the Neo-Assyrian domination and then maps out texts that fit these profiles in terms of composition and reshaping. Carr notes that the Hebrew Bible is a “Bible for exiles” (226). He begins with lamentation literature and then examines prophecy and texts associated with the deposed Davidic monarchy. Texts located in the Babylonian exile are not only composed but also reshaped to address present concerns. Genesis 11:1–9 is an example of a preexilic text that was modified in an anti-Babylonian direction (245). This portion of the book is dense and heavily footnoted. Some of the major conclusions in the section are that the post-D Hexateuch (embedded in Genesis-Joshua) “combined at least three compositions: non-P Genesis materials …, a pre-D Moses story, and a composition starting with Deuteronomy and including (at least) Joshua” (278). Anthropological studies and clearly exilic traditions “provide indicators that the collection and shaping” of the post-D Hexateuch probably occurred in the exile (281). The Priestly document, which is easily identifiable and extends from the beginning of Genesis to at least Exodus, originated as a “counter-narrative” to the non-P document and is even at points dependent on the non-P material (294–295). Again the P document is probably best understood, not as a brand new work, but as one that combines and expands traditions, so that dating the document depends on discerning the ways in which P connects and frames earlier traditions (296). These areas of P show signs of being composed in light of the exile (297). P and the post-D Hexateuch created a Bible for exiles.

In the Neo-Assyrian period, there are indications that earlier traditions were shaped across Deuteronomy through 2 Kings, and it is possible that there are some cases in Genesis through Numbers of similar shaping. Although it is difficult to attain certainty in reconstructing prophetic texts with textual forms from the Hellenistic period, it is likely that portions of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah (eighth century), Zephaniah and Jeremiah (seventh century) originated in the Neo-Assyrian period (335).

The last section of the book examines the shape of literary textuality in the early preexilic period. Although the political centralization under the united monarch of David and Solomon was limited and not as strong as the later Omride dynasty, there is still evidence that a modest political center was formed in Solomon's time that built on the precedents started by David (374). This last section is full of nuanced conclusions, but three stand out. First, though the task is without a high degree of certainty, Carr thinks that it is possible if not likely that some of the royal psalms contain portions of material that dates from the preexilic era. Second, Carr asserts that Proverbs, rather than being indifferent to Israel's salvation history, is instead a product of Israel's earliest writing-supported education before the Torah of Moses reached preeminence (403–407). The reasons for this are many, but a few are very plausible. Proverbs 22:17–24:34 is probably the “best candidate in Hebrew literature for direct borrowing” from the Egyptian wisdom instruction Amenemope (408). Early in Israel's history they are more likely to be influenced by other cultures while later this openness is considerably reduced. He also contends that this kind of wisdom literature was used “earliest in [the] ancient educational process,” (409) before they later developed more specific and sophisticated educational models. Against current trends, Carr argues that the attribution of certain portions of Proverbs to Solomon is prima facie evidence that should not be lightly discarded since scholars take the attribution of some prophetic books to prophetic figures as rightly reflecting the origin of at least the core of these books (410). Of course, not all of Proverbs originated with Solomon or his court, as the book itself makes clear. It is also likely that Isa 59:7, Deut 19:14; 8:5, among other texts, are dependent on Proverbs, which is consistent with an early dating of at least portions of Proverbs (413–425). Third, the Song of Songs may date from this period as well since its transmission history is rather fluid, meaning that the language of the book was probably contaminated or updated by scribes so that attempts to date the book late based on assigning its Hebrew a late date are of little value. This early date reconnects the book chronologically with the love poems, particularly Egyptian, to which it closely corresponds (434). Based on the connections with Solomon and the probable dependence of the Song on Hosea and portions of Deuteronomy and the direct historical references in the Song, Carr suggests an early and Northern origin for the Song of Songs. Important to Carr's methodology is the criterion of “dissimilarity,” which adds support to his contention that Proverbs and the Song of Songs may date much earlier than is often assumed since they not only fit well with this early period, but also do not fit well with literature in the Hebrew Bible from later periods (439–440). Carr even entertains the possibility that the body of Ecclesiastes may be another example of preexilic literature since here, again, language is a far less stable criterion for dating than is often thought. If wisdom books are this early, then it has implications for dating other texts that contain similar wisdom motifs, like the non-P primeval history (Gen 2–9, and possibly 10) according to Carr (465).

Carr's book is an enormous achievement, both as a synthesis of global scholarship and as a work that breaks new and significant ground in his modest methodology and in many of his proposals for the formation of the Hebrew Bible. Without question Carr's hope that the book “may point the way towards progress on central questions around which much of the academic study of the Bible revolves” (9) is surely realized. The methodology continually highlights the limits of our knowledge to discover with precision the many stages of the Hebrew Bible including the latest ones. At every turn the book is well nuanced and arguments are made in proportion to the evidence. It should be kept in mind that many of the nuances or rough edges that Carr has carefully set forth, are, of necessity, in this short review, lost or made smooth. Furthermore, a book of this scope and complexity does not easily lend itself to short evaluations; it is a book that should be interacted with in some depth in all future work on the formation of the Hebrew Bible.

A few observations are in order. First, this is a new proposal for a scholarly enterprise that has existed for a significant period of time. Carr wants repeatable results so that scholarly conclusions in this area can gain a high degree of probability, yet his own new proposal, at least, has the affect of undermining further some of the old approaches that where already beginning to erode as well as the hope that the enterprise can achieve long lasting and repeatable results. This step back from claims to high levels of certainty seems necessary in view of the transmission process that Carr describes and in view of the lack of scholarly consensus, at least in some areas (the designation of the P material in the Pentateuch is an obvious exception). Yet even with Carr's methodologically modest proposal, I cannot help but wonder if he still underestimates the gap between our knowledge that multiple sources stand behind many portions of the Hebrew Bible in its different textual forms on the one hand and our ability to discern and date these sources with enough precision for our conclusions to be meaningful on the other. Carr's date for large portions of Proverbs and the Song of Songs are a robust challenge to the scholarly consensus and only time will tell if his arguments will hold up under scholarly scrutiny, but the fact that he has made them at all reveals the enormous difficulty of the task. This is a point that Carr makes often.

Second, arguments from silence, though often acknowledged, abound. There are certainly occasions when the silence of the source is rather telling, but the explanation that the source did not exist is too often appealed to as the reason for the silence. Alternative explanations should be sought. To take only one example, Carr notes that Ben Sira, in his praise of famous men, does not mention Esther (or Daniel and Ezra), which may mean that the book of Esther was composed late or in a diaspora context (192). There is no discussion of the fact the Ben Sira does not mention Ruth either, which may help provide a rationale for why Esther is also missing. Ben Sira is not going to praise any women whether he knows of them or not. Ben Sira's omission of Ruth and Esther probably tells us nothing about whether or not these books, in some form, were available to him.

Third, in a book so meticulously researched, it is surprising that Carr does not mention the possible intertextual relationship between Gen 3 and 4 and Ecclesiastes when he analyzes Ecclesiastes' other intertextual relationships since it may well have supported his case in dating the two texts to the same period.

Finally, it is certainly too early to know, but Carr's book, especially his astute and modest methodology, may prove to be a watershed in the study of the formation of the Hebrew Bible. It deserves to be read with care and engaged with often.

Timothy J. Stone, Zomba Theological College, Malawi