Is scripture a term we should invoke in the study of ancient Jewish texts? What crucial aspects of textuality does this term obscure and what does it highlight? Whose imaginations are we invoking when we talk about scripture, or its less-fraught alternatives? And what are we really doing when we attempt to map networks of discourse in ancient Judaism and beyond?
In this response I meditate on the above questions that David Lambert’s chapter draft has inspired. I begin by amplifying several points that Lambert has made alongside the work of a few other scholars. I then invoke a biblical example that illustrates one way of understanding hierarchical relations among different types of ancient texts. Finally, I consider what the metaphor of map-making presumes about our vantage point as scholars of ancient literature. Throughout this short response, I consider how “scripture” might, in fact, remain a useful term for talking about texts with power.
I want to begin by emphasizing several crucial points Lambert has made in his chapter draft. First, his observation that scholarly claims about “scriptures” or “the scriptural,” far from revealing any unified concept of scripture, instead showcase vastly “diverging theories of knowledge.” Lambert shows that, in fact, “very particular hierarchies of divinity, humanity, and text underpin each scholarly take or theorization on scripture.” Lambert has compellingly articulated how the concept of “scripture” naturalizes what is in fact a very particular way that humans may relate to texts. I also want to re-state Lambert’s important call that instead of continuing to make bids for what “scripture” is or was, that scholars “do the work of mapping out the network of associations with which the biblical is actually assembled among textual witnesses in ancient Judaism.”
In addition to what Lambert has argued, I add that the concept of scripture also naturalizes a very particular way of defining the term “text” itself. I am not the first person to recognize this, but it is worth pointing out that in biblical studies, for example, the word “text” is usually understood in the very specific register of the inscribed or the written. Biblical studies in its essence is not just scripture-centric, it is writing-centric. This can make it difficult for us to think outside not only the scriptural, but also the written, when we talk about means of communication (that is, media) in ancient Judaism.
The work of anthropologist Karin Barber is helpful in challenging and expanding our definition of texts. She notes that “writing is not what confers textuality. [Textuality is instead] the quality of being joined together in order to attract attention and outlast the moment.” Texts are, in Barber’s formulation, importantly wedded to discourse but not to the page. They are “hot spots of language, that have been marked out to command heightened attention” (Barber draws upon Vološinov’s claim that so crucial is this kind of discourse that other activities are “bathed by, suspended in, and cannot be entirely segregated or divorced from the element of speech.”). To my mind, the “joined together” quality that Barber articulates resonates with Lambert’s formulation of “assemblage.”
I also want to highlight the centrality of the word “attention” in Barber’s definitions. In what follows, “attention” (and later, “control”) surface as crucial features of privileged media—media that we may (or may not) want to refer to as “scripture.” I want to think about Barber’s notion of an attention-laden “text,” together with Lambert’s call to trace networks of association that constitute textual assemblages. Daniel 6 will serve as my test case for this thought-experiment. My question that arises from this example is this: if we sideline the concept of scripture—along with its colonial legacies and its writing-focused myopia—what might it look like to discuss or to map perceived hierarchies among texts or other forms of media more generally? In other words: is there a term we could use to designate local processes of becoming more or less effective assemblages, without recourse to terms like scripture or even authority?
Here is what I hope is a clarifying example from the book of Daniel that James Nati and I have written about elsewhere. We argue that Daniel 6 stages a kind of debate about adequate means of knowledge-dissemination; or about various kinds of efficacious media. The texts that show up in Dan 6 differ from the media that show up in earlier chapters. In Dan 3, for example, Babylonian knowledge is made manifest through another type of media: a monumental, sixty-cubit high image (Dan 3:1). This monument is striking, but its message is also limited to those who can see it. By contrast, the Darius of Dan 6 circulates mobile texts that, we’re told, are addressed to “all people and all languages that live on the earth” (Dan 6:26); these letters lay claim to attention that is ostensibly universal. Fittingly, the letters contain a message that is also global in scope, making claims about this particular God’s universal rule throughout space and time (Dan 6:27). Our argument is that there are indeed very particular relationships represented here among gods, humans, and media – both written texts and monuments. Not only that, these stories are also making an argument that some kinds of media are better suited than others at communicating particular types of messages. Dan 1-6 asserts the superiority of the mobile text over the stationary monument.
Are the authors of Daniel 1-6 (and Dan 6 in particular) deliberating about processes of “scripturalization”? “Scripturalization,” which Lambert references in his chapter draft, is a term that Vincent Wimbush has coined to designate “a language or representational regime that (over-) determines ways of knowing, the subjects and objects of knowing, the shape of consciousness, and authorized forms of communication.” Insofar as they encompass many “representational regimes,” processes of scripturalization may exceed the written but they can never be divorced from exertions of social power.
Seth Perry deploys Wimbush’s notion of scripturalization in his recent book, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States. For Perry, “scripturalization” does not denote an inevitable plod toward canonical conformity. He uses it instead to mean something more ambiguous, fragmentary, and provisional. He remarks: “The contingency of the text speaks to the imaginary nature of scripturalization. The privileged distinction of a scripture is contingent; the power relations conjured by reference to a scripture are relationships of fictional asymmetry.”
For Perry, these relationships of power can and must always be subject to change. In light of these formulations, we might argue that Dan 1-6 privileges certain types of media – the written text over the monument – because of the former’s capacity to more effectively garner attention and exert control across vast reaches of space and time. Daniel 6, in Wimbush’s terms, meditates on more and less effective “scripturalization” efforts. In this context, the mobile, written text proves to be more successful with regards to gathering attention and (presumably) regulating devotional behavior.
While acknowledging that Perry is speaking about a very different context, I am interested in examining these changing power relations among texts and other media. In view of Lambert’s assertions, I wonder what it actually means to think about text and assemblage in terms of provisional relations of power. My question is: Do we have a word for that? Do we need a word for that, especially if we don’t want to use terms like “scripture” or “authority”?
I also wonder if it is possible to use the word “scripturalization” (or even “scripture”) the way that Wimbush and Perry do. Can we use the verbal form of scripture as a way of thinking about texts that situates them in the complicated and conditional middle between media-making and media-privileging? To put this another way: while appreciating the “flattening” effect of the term assemblage, when we go to map these assemblages, can we avoid hierarchy-making, especially when these hierarchies appear to be asserted within ancient sources themselves? If we can’t avoid such power relations, might the term “scripture” still have a part to play – playfully, provisionally, or even ironically – in our conversations about ancient Jewish texts and media, writ large?
Finally, I want to return to this metaphor of mapping. I find it useful to think about biblical and ancient Jewish scholarship as a kind of cartography; that is, an activity that traces boundaries and connections among ancient literature. But one of the limitations of the mapping metaphor is the position that it seems to grant us; map-making sits us, as scholars, at a vantage point high above these ancient texts. It can situate us as looking down at these texts, as they wait to be arranged and charted by us.
But our vantage point is not exactly above these texts. Again, I don’t want to contest the usefulness of the map metaphor but I do want to suggest another alongside it: our relationship to ancient texts and their contexts places us in a position like someone on a beach, squinting at the horizon towards a wrecked ship that we can’t get to. And we’re holding a handful of worn and fragmentary debris that have washed up on shore. The figures, maps, or formulations we make with these materials will be entirely constrained by what we find, and also entirely shaped by the images and concepts we carry with us.
This metaphor also has its limitations; it is less pithy and it certainly affords us less power. But the de-elevated position the image implies may also grant us a bit more freedom: freedom to play with concepts, terms – ancient and modern; and freedom to play with our non-knowledge, as much as our evidence. It also licenses us to see the maps we construct with this debris as profoundly constrained by the material we have retrieved from the past. It also highlights our inevitable role in fabricating any concept we perceive from this material. We produce our maps out of found material, and we also make them in our own image. In this sense, too, I wonder if “scripture” (even if we deem it an irrevocably modern term) is ever truly escapable in the arenas of our study.
I am grateful to David Lambert, James Nati, and Seth Sanders for coordinating this conversation. James and Seth offered helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this response. I am also grateful to Molly Zahn whose work anchored the first part of this discussion.
Karin Barber, The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics: Oral and Written Culture in Africa and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1-3. Barber’s invocation of A.L. Becker (“Communication Across Diversity,” in The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems, ed. A.L. Becker and A. Yengoyan [Norwood: Ablex, 1979], 1-5) and Alfred Gell (Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998]) help her interrogate the boundary between texts and other objects. See also Jonathan Ready, Orality, Textuality, and the Homeric Epics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
Barber, Anthropology of Texts, 3.
I am particularly interested in thinking about textual hierarches (or efficaciousness) with regards to space, place and monument. Mark Lester, Alice Mandell, Jeremy Smoak – among others – have all done important work on this front (Mark Lester, “The Material Transmission of Memory in Deuteronomy” [PhD diss.,Yale University, 2020]; Alice Mandell and Jeremy D. Smoak, “Reading Beyond Literacy, Writing Beyond Epigraphy: Multimodality and the Monumental Inscriptions at Ekron and Tel Dan,” Maarav 22 : 79–112).
James Nati and Laura Carlson Hasler, “Varieties of Writing, Truth, and Power in the Book of Daniel” (paper presented at the Association for Jewish Studies Annual Meeting. December 16, 2020).
Vincent L. Wimbush, “Introduction. Scripturalizing: Analytical Wedge for a Critical History of the Human,” in Scripturalizing the Human: The Written as Political, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (New York: Routledge, 2015), 1-19, here 1.
Seth Perry, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 5-6. See also Vincent L. Wimbush, Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).