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Scribes and Schools: The canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures

Scribes and Schools: The canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures. By PHILIP R. DAVIES. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville, Ky.: WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX PRESS, 1998. Pp. xi + 219. $24.

Davies is an iconoclastic scholar of the Bible, best known for his 1992 book, In Search of "Ancient Israel." His desire to shake up readers begins with this book's title, since it is initially unclear what "Scribes and Schools" have to do with "The Canonization of the Hebrew Scripture." Here Davies is convincing, emphasizing that canonization should not be viewed primarily as a literary process, but is closely connected to powerful literate elites ("scribes") and their institutions ("schools"). He is also correct when he notes that the evidence for the process he is exploring is meager, and thus much of the book should be read as an exploration rather than as a definitive history of the development of the biblical canon.

In the process of exploring, Davies points to many problems with the standard depictions of the canonization of the Bible. These include the use of the later Christian idea of book lists for understanding the canon of the Hebrew Bible,

viewing canonization as a singular, linear process, assuming that the canon provides good evidence for its history of formation, and taking the inevitability of the canon for granted (p. 4). These are important corrections that should frame any future discussion of this issue.

Many additional elements suggested by Davies are equally compelling. This is especially true of his comments early in the book that there is a clear connection between canon and authority (p. 11), and that all texts within the canon are not always equal (p. 12). Equally valuable are his observations that we have "canonical processes" in plural and that canonizing is open-ended (p. 58). However, once Davies moves from these generalities to a description of the creation of the biblical canon, he is much less compelling because the historical framework within which he works is not convincing.

Naturally, the particular picture favored by Davies is based on an understanding of biblical history in which the Persian period was much more determinative than earlier periods, and is the major period of literary production. He reads much of the Bible as a type of allegory, and concludes that the canon developed then "from a search for identity on the part of an immigrant elite in a colonial society where they governed but did not feet totally at home" (p. 106).

Other weaknesses mar this work as well. It is not sufficiently contrastive in method, exploring in sufficient detail why what we call the Mesopotamian "canon" was significantly larger than its later Israelite counterpart. Thus, are we talking about canon in the same sense for both? In Davies' desire to be iconoclastic and clever, he goes beyond the stated evidence. This is most obvious in statements such as (p. 3), "This book, then, is not about how ancient Israel produced its canon, but rather about how a canon produced 'ancient Israel," or (p. 124), "The process of canonizing prophetic books, then, generated a literary institution called 'prophecy."' Like most scholars, Davies incorrectly sees too close a connection between canonization and the fixing of the biblical text (pp. 153, 157). This position was criticized in this journal over forty-five years ago (Moshe Greenberg, "The Stabilization of the Text of the Hebrew Bible, Reviewed in the Light of the Biblical Materials from the Judean Desert," JAOS 76 [1956]: 314). In many places, detailed endnotes are lacking, so it is impossible for the non-specialist reader to tell whether a particular opinion voiced by Davies is idiosyncratic or widely accepted. (See, e.g., his discussion of the council of Yavneh on p. 169, where he might have cited D. E. Aune, "On the Origins of the 'Council of Javneh' Myth," JBL 110 [1991]: 49 1-93, or his discussion of "serious entertainment" [ch. 9, pp. 142-51], which would have benefited from Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1993], 57-70). In addition, many Hebrew quotes in the book suffer from typographical errors (e.g., p. 158 has for

On balance, this book is extremely valuable for the questions that it poses rather than for the answers it offers. It builds too many reconstructions on possible, but not compelling, arguments. It properly emphasizes how crucial the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls is for understanding canon (p. 168). but is too skimpy in teasing out this evidence. (The studies later collected in Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible, Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999], for example, are not cited.) Its almost total neglect of admittedly much later rabbinic evidence (see Sid Z. Leiman, Tile Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: Tile Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence [Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1976]) stands in sharp contrast to most other discussions of the problem. These blemishes are compensated for by the way in which Davies states the salient issues in a clear and sharp fashion (see, e.g., p. 169: "[H]ow was it that the rabbis came to inherit, from the many writings that we know Judaism had been producing, a relatively small set of Hebrew scrolls?"). Additionally, Davies has performed a valuable service by showing the fundamental problems of so many earlier studies. This study will thus shape future scholarship on canon by forcing the scholarly community to ask better questions, and to view canonization as the complex social phenomenon which it is.
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Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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