When we seek to understand what world religions have in common, scripture is often the answer. Since the modern study of religion began, scholars have attempted to compare the oldest and most widespread forms of human religiosity: most prominently Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. All of them appear to be rooted in the interpretation and application of divine revealed texts, whether defined as written (as typically in Islam, Buddhism, the biblical traditions etc.) or primarily recited and heard (as in Hinduism but also, intriguingly, almost equally in Islam and Judaism [see Graham 1987]).
Yet at least with the traditions that scholars of the Bible and ancient Near East know best, there may be a profound paradox at the heart of the phenomenon of scripture. This is that the closer you look, the more ‘scripture’ seems to shift and blur, to vary widely over time. It is this surprising phenomenon that already led Jonathan Z. Smith to remark that “In a sense, the Bible is still in the process of formation, as witnessed to by the number of candidates that would arise to the request: ‘Will the real Bible please stand up.’” (1992, 100). Might it be that the essence of scripture is not a definable object but a relationship, a belief in the *idea* of scripture itself, perhaps along the lines of the medieval social phenomenon of defining oneself by the assumed presence of a fixed sacred writing shared by both literate and nonliterate Medieval European Christians, for which Brian Stock (1983) coined the term “textual communities”?
We now know that there was no fixed content to scripture in antiquity, but has there ever been, even now? As Smith noted,
The place to start is with the fact that ‘the Bible’ is, at the very least, a post-biblical formulation. That is to say, no biblical text ever entertained the notion that it was fated, at some later date, to be placed together with others. Thus, while individual books may or may not contain warrants for themselves—ranging from letters from heaven, or claims to revelation, to ideas of accurate transmission or comparability—there is no internal warrant for the Bible as a whole. (Smith 1992, 101)
If scholars of Second Temple Judaism such as Robert Kraft, Eva Mroczek, Hindy Najman, Annette Reed, Michael Stone, and Molly Zahn brilliantly illuminated the threads of this tapestry, David Lambert has now pulled on one of these threads and we will see how far it may unravel.
This second issue of Metatron represents Part 2 of the online forum “Ancient Hebrew Literature Beyond ‘the Bible,’” organized and hosted by the BRANE collective. The contributions were presented in a virtual panel discussion in October 2020, one that was centered around a pre-circulated draft of a book chapter written by David Lambert. The essays by John Barton, Laura Carlson Hasler, and Chontel Syfox in this issue began as responses to Lambert’s chapter in the panel discussion.
Lambert’s circulated chapter draft raises the question “What is Scripture?,” and it proceeds to give an account of scripture as “a series of assemblages,” drawing on the work of Bruno Latour along with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Lambert questions the fundamental stability of scripture as an achieved ideal in the ancient world, and focuses instead upon the “actors” that make particular scriptural claims, on the constant dynamics of becoming rather than a final moment of acceptance. In this way, Lambert’s chapter offers a way to think about scripture in antiquity apart from teleological ideas about the “canonical process.”
His essay in this issue offers a condensed form of this chapter, and it opens up the question of “whether it continues to remain helpful or adequate to use ‘scripture’ as an obvious, natural, and universal concept for comprehending the function and history of certain kinds of texts.” Using the book of Jubilees as an illuminating example, Lambert explores three obstacles that he has encountered in the course of his project: the universality of scripture, the reliance upon “scripture” as a category as the field has moved beyond canonical boundaries, and the emphasis upon a developmental account of scripture’s origins. He concludes by offering the “assemblage” as a model that may allow us to move beyond these obstacles.
John Barton situates Lambert’s work within the history of scholarship on the canon, suggesting that it serves as the latest contribution coming after “three broad periods in the study of the biblical canon so far.” These, for Barton, are marked, respectively, by the understandings that 1) the council of Jamnia fixed the canon at the end of a period of development; 2) a delimited canon came about much later in the Common Era; 3) canon is not the same as scripture. Barton then focuses on the differences between scripture and canon, and suggests that while earlier studies worked to draw out the distinction between the two, this “fourth phase,” of which Lambert’s work is a part, argues that “the idea of scripture is seen to be more problematic than has traditionally been thought.” Barton details the ways in which Lambert’s work challenges both our understanding of what it means for scriptural texts to exert authority as well as the supposed fixedness of the canon.
Laura Carlson Hasler focuses on the way in which Lambert’s work pushes back against scripture as a naturalized category by highlighting instead its particularity. Building on this claim, Carlson Hasler extends the move to the notion of “text” itself, arguing that a more broadly-construed definition of textuality might open us up to new insights on textual authority. She draws a connection between Lambert’s notion of biblical “assemblages” and Karin Barber’s emphasis on the “joined together”-ness of texts, and asks if there is “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?” Invoking Daniel 6 as an example, Carlson Hasler asks us to think about scripture beyond the written, giving attention to “changing power relations among [both] texts and other media.”
Chontel Syfox homes in on a particular issue that Lambert’s chapter confronts: that of nomenclature and categories. Syfox suggests that “The preoccupation with nomenclature seems to be inspired by an aversion to categorizing or labelling things”, and in order to elucidate the particular preoccupation in biblical studies, Syfox turns to other fields for comparison: English literature and Classics. The discussion around these corpora are illuminating by comparison, and they allow Syfox to suggest ultimately that “Rather than searching for one final, perfect category to solve the problem of the provisional and incomplete nature of categories, perhaps recognizing their inherent incompleteness will let us use them better, with clear-sighted awareness of their multiple and historically shifting nature and uses.”
We thank those who attended and offered remarks in the virtual panel in October 2020, and we are grateful to the coordinators of the BRANE collective for making the event possible. Many thanks are owed to the editorial board of Metatron for accepting this collection as a journal issue. Finally, we are especially grateful to David for his willingness to circulate a work-in-progress, and to each of the respondents for their contributions to both the virtual panel and this issue.
Image: “Jaddus reading the Book of Daniel to Alexander the Great,” a late 13th century illumination from the University of Leipzig, Rep. II 143, fol. 18v.
As Smith showed, this absence of a single universally used fixed text certainly continued through what was supposed to be the heart of scriptural devotion, the middle ages: “[W]hatever Bible one chooses, some parts will always be “more equal” than others. Technologically, this is revealed whenever an eglogadic lectionary (i.e., a non-continual system of readings) is liturgically employed. In Judaism, this is the case with the prophets, reduced to the status of proto-rabbinic commentaries on particular passages of the Pentateuch (the latter read in a continuous system) in the haftarah which only print out the relevant portion of the prophets in the order in which they are employed. While this was a considerable economy for hand-written manuscripts, the result is a text which is syntagmatically unreadable. The same phenomenon occurred, on a more massive scale, in the majority of Christianities which employ an entirely eglogadic lectionary: Thus, before print, handwritten capitularies, containing only the lections in their liturgical order, outnumber whole manuscript bibles by some 20 to 1, resulting, again, in a text which is unreadable serially, and which represents an unacknowledged fifth gospel, in this case one heard by more individuals than have ever read the full New Testament text” (Smith 1992, 103).
See James Nati and Seth Sanders, “Introduction,” Metatron 1.1 (2021), and the works of Kraft, Mroczek, Najman, Reed, Stone, and Zahn cited there. metatron.scholasticahq.com/article/21198-introduction