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Looking at who wrote the Bible — from the scribes’ viewpoints

January 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible By Karel van der Toorn, Harvard University Press, Cambridge ISBN 978-0-674-03254-5, $18.95,  265 pages  plus 125 pages of notes and selected bibliography

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California — Who wrote the Hebrew Bible, that is, the so-called Old Testament? Jewish tradition says that Moses wrote the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Job, Joshua wrote his book and the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, and Samuel wrote his books along with the Book of Judges and the Book of Ruth. Most of the prophets wrote, or at least dictated, their own books. King David wrote most of the Book of Psalms, while Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs.

Biblical scholars disagree.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen applied textual analysis to the Bible, and arrived at his Documentary Hypothesis. This proposition states that the Five Books of Moses are actually the result of the editing of four independent scrolls that did not exist until many centuries after the death of Moses. Numerous scholars and biblical archeologists now believe that the authorship of the Book of Deuteronomy occurred during the reign of King Josiah, in the sixth century B.C.E. By applying textual analysis to other books of the Bible, these same scholars have come to accept the idea that the same author wrote Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

Karel Van Der Toorn in his newest book, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, concludes that anonymous scribes wrote the Book of Deuteronomy over a two hundred year period. During this interval, as a result of social, political, and religious needs, they changed the books focus no less than four times. He also concludes that the books of the prophets are the result of numerous scribes working over hundreds of years, and the Book of Malachi, the last of the books in the Jewish canon, is a pure invention of the scribes—Malachi never existed.

To arrive at these conclusions, Dr. Karel van der Toorn, a scholar of religion and Near Eastern languages, former dean of the Faculty of Humanities and now President of the University of Amsterdam, takes his readers on an scholarly journey to discover as much about the academic, social, political, and religious milieu of the Hebrew scribes as history and archeology will allow. Because little remains of the everyday work of the Hebrew scribes, van der Toorn draws on Israel’s nearest neighbors, the Assyrians and Babylonians. He builds a strong case about their training and the role they played, serving both kings and priests.

The Book of Deuteronomy mysteriously appears during the time that King Josiah is in the middle of renovating the Temple and centralizing sacrifice and worship in Jerusalem. By the time of its final revision, two centuries later, The Book of Deuteronomy evolved from obeying God’s Law (the Torah) to studying the Law as the highest form of wisdom. Van der Toorn denies that any of the prophets wrote their own books. They were all written by scribes who based their work on oral history, or other written scrolls. As one example, he cites the fact that the Jeremiah scrolls, which comprise part of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran, contain two editions. One used by the Masoretes and incorporated in the Hebrew biblical canon, and the other based on a Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, and used by the early Christians.

According to Jewish tradition, the Five Books of Moses were canonized about 400 B.C.E., the books of the prophets around 200 B.C.E, and the Writings about 100 A.D. at the Council of Jamnia. However, according to van der Toorn, the council never took place, and the Hebrew Bible has a canon for two reasons. First, the scribes used many of the books found in the canon as part of their curriculum. Second, sometime in the middle of the second century B.C.E, they put an end to prophecy by creating the fictitious Malachi, which Rabbinic literature equates with Ezra, as the twelfth and last of the Minor Prophets.

Scribal Culture is a worthy book not so much for what it contains, because much of the history and disclosures are not new, but rather because it presents the material from a new perspective—the point of view of the Hebrew scribes—a group of people about whom we know so little.


Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars; Ancient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and Reclaiming the Messiah. Email: info@fredreissbooks.com  Website: www.fredreissbooks.com

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  1. January 23, 2010 at 11:07 pm

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