It was a privilege to participate in the recent symposium, “Revelation before the Bible,” an initiative of the Bible and Religions of the Ancient Near East Collective, where I presented work-in-progress on a manuscript, “Is Bible Scripture? Reassembling the Biblical in Ancient Judaism and Beyond.” The Collective’s interventions in the field of biblical studies range over a number of different areas. I would emphasize one: turning scholars into interlocutors that join in the production of scholarly work rather than merely reviewing it as a finished product allows us to appreciate how books are always an assembly of different voices and occasions. In that spirit, I offer the following words, alongside my colleagues, as a preview of more to come. Here, I hope to begin the process of questioning 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.
Jubilees at Sinai
This project began elsewhere, while I was studying the place of human transformation and moral agency in ancient Jewish apocalypticism. I was working specifically on the vision of redemption and the end of times in the second-century B.C.E. pseudepigraphon, the book of Jubilees, when I noticed another, rather surprising detail. Jubilees as a whole represents a retelling of much of the material found in Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. But despite its evident reliance on the canonical text, the first chapter of Jubilees seems to suggest that it is the book of Jubilees and not the Pentateuch that was given to Moses at Sinai. How so and to what effect? The opening chapter purports to provide a complete account of the events that transpired during the first period that “Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Jub. 1:4). At first glance there appears to be quite a jumble of revelatory material exchanged at Sinai. But it is not too hard to sort through. One of the items–let us call it Revelation # 1–is already well known to us from the canonical account: “The Two Stone Tablets, the Torah and Commandment” (Jub. 1:1, cf. Exod 24:12). For various reasons, including its version of Exod 24:12, which was in line with the Septuagint, rather than the Masoretic Text, it appears that Jubilees might have had a more expansive understanding of what these stone tablets contained than is our customary assumption. Rather than just the Decalogue, they contained, in the author’s view, a broad range of legal (“Torah and Commandment”) material, exemplified perhaps in the sort of material found in Exod 25:1-31:17. In any event, Revelation # 1 was inscribed in stone by God himself, handed over to Moses, and destroyed, if we are to follow the canonical narrative, during the incident of the Golden Calf. The second and final item–we’ll call it Revelation # 2–is not alluded to at all in the canonical account, but it explains why Moses needed to spend a full forty days and nights on the mountain, why he needed to do more than just ascend the mountain to receive a prepared package of laws from God and a bit of information about Israel’s future. Revelation # 2 had to be dictated to Moses by an angel. It contained a full account of “what (was) in the beginning and what will occur (in the future)” (Jub. 1:4). Revelation # 2 also has a name: “The Divisions of the Times, of the Torah and Testimony.” In the case of this revelation, we know much more about what it might have contained. Unlike the stone tablets, it was not lost. It was co-extensive, at least in part, with Jubilees itself! For, after the account of the proceedings at Sinai, the angel charged with dictating Revelation # 2 to Moses segues immediately into that dictation: “And the angel of the Presence spoke to Moses by the word of the LORD, saying, ‘Write the whole account of creation…’” (Jub. 2:1)
This narrative does not appear to be overly complex or unusual for the pseudepigraphic form of self-representation so common in Second Temple Judaism. With its account of Sinaitic revelation, Jubilees has found a way of folding its own origins into canonical events. But a question does arise in connection to Jubilees’ relationship to the Pentateuch from which it so clearly draws. If Revelation # 1 (“the Stone Tablets”) and Revelation # 2 (“The Divisions of the Times,” i.e. Jubilees) are what get transmitted at Sinai, then when was the Pentateuch revealed? Lurking behind this question is a post-canonical, canonical assumption about the canon, namely, the traditional rabbinic and eventually Christian belief that the Pentateuch was dictated to Moses at Sinai, that “the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke and Moses wrote” (b. Menaḥ. 30a). Now there is nothing in either the Pentateuch or Jubilees to suggest this view of the Pentateuch’s origins, one that is not attested, in this form, until well into the rabbinic period. For its part, a canonical reading of the Pentateuch would yield, at most, the notion that the torah written down by Moses at the end of Deuteronomy was, in fact, the Pentateuch as a whole (and not just much of Deuteronomy itself, which was most likely its original referent). But that writing would have occurred forty years after Sinai on the plains of Moab. It is therefore surprising to find the common scholarly view that, indeed, according to Jubilees the Pentateuch too was given at Sinai. Such an insistence seems to contradict the plain sense of Jubilees 1, all of whose revelatory components are already accounted for: tablets of law that are to be destroyed by Moses and a copy of tablets of events, which constitutes Jubilees itself. The reason for this unusual canonical perspective is clear. We tend to assume that Jubilees must have operated with the same fixed structure, namely, the idea of Scripture, that generations of Jewish and Christian readers are said to share: the Bible must be seen as Jubilees’ authoritative source and Jubilees’ own rewriting of the Pentateuchal text, therefore, as interpretation. In fact, Jubilees would seem to position itself as existing before the Pentateuch and as containing content closer to the heavenly tablets, though that hardly need suggest that it would deny the Pentateuch’s own status or significance, on the contrary.
Three Scriptural Obstacles
This specific textual encounter forced upon me a broader reckoning with a concept that I, like many others, had regularly relied on with little concern for systematic explanation. We need to reconsider how we speak of “scripture” and other similar terms, whether “revealed literature,” “sacred writings,” or “authoritative texts” as pointing to an assumed identity, an understood way in which readers relate to certain texts–attributing to them a fixed authority, purpose, or origin–and instead find ways to highlight the multiplicity of textual formations in which readers are involved on an ongoing basis. This is the work that my forthcoming monograph seeks to accomplish. It thus builds off the work of Hindy Najman, Eva Mroczek, and others who have shown an interest in reimagining ancient Jews’ relationships to their textual archives. Along the way, my own project of redescription encounters several obstacles, three of which I would like to address briefly here.
The first is the idea put forward, for instance, in Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach that “scripture” is a universal phenomenon. Human beings naturally, so the argument goes, coalesce around and attribute a certain importance to collections of written material, thereby entering into a scriptural relationship with these texts. This notion of scripture received its fullest expression in the work of the nineteenth-century Oxford professor, Friedrich Max Müller, who, with the help of the British imperial authorities, led a group of scholars in systematically collecting and translating texts from East and Southeast Asia in the fifty-volume edition, The Sacred Books of the East. What can be all too readily overlooked is how such a comparative project is also a colonial project. It transports a certain notion of text and then organizes non-Western textual production accordingly in a process that ends up providing circular confirmation of the West’s own notion of sacred text. Suffice it to say that we do better when we study the specific circumstances of textual production and transmission, when we recognize texts’ local uses, than when we decontextualize them as part of a transhistorical, universal phenomenon in keeping with a certain ideology of a common, underlying religious spirit.
Another obstacle arises as a potential, secondary effect of what has actually been one of the most productive developments in the study of ancient Judaism–a steady decentering of the Bible itself. John Collins in The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul has highlighted surprising absences in the Pentateuch’s role as authoritative literature in the history of ancient Judaism. Timothy Lim’s The Formation of the Jewish Canon argues that the biblical canon was not closed until the second or even the third century C.E. In a different vein, Emanuel Tov and others have shown in numerous publications how a “pluriform textual tradition” existed well into the first century C.E. Most compellingly, Eva Mroczek has shown in The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity how the outright proliferation of divinely-inspired texts, rather than any attempt to delineate them as “Bible,” was itself an ancient Jewish literary value. The challenge is how, as we push the Bible out of the picture as the authoritative literary corpus of ancient Judaism, to avoid falling back on a generic concept of “scripture,” whose ideational content is already prepared for us by the very history of the Bible in the West. A horizontal model, whereby the “tyranny of canonical assumptions” is challenged by arguing that we must move beyond the biblical canon to recognize that there were additional, revealed texts treated as scripture, is an essential redescription of the literary situation in ancient Judaism. However, it also runs the risk of reinscribing “scripture” as a concept. It is important to emphasize that we need to challenge any monolithic account of the contents of Scripture in ancient Judaism and any notion of a single, global way of relating to certain texts as scripture.
A final challenge that presents itself is the developmental account basic to the field of biblical studies, that the Bible began as varied collections of ancient Israelite texts and at some point came to be accepted as the entity we now refer to as Scripture. There is much disagreement, not least of all because of the contradictory and inadequate nature of the evidence, as to when precisely this momentous shift might have occurred. Was it in the time of Josiah? Ezra? The Hasmoneans? One scholar even has a date for the event: 167 B.C.E. That’s when the Jerusalem temple was desecrated and, just like that, “authoritative literature replaced the temple as the place in which Israel encountered its God.” As a result, some scholars prefer to speak not of a single moment of promulgation and acceptance but of a “canonical process,” an inherent, natural process whereby biblical texts gradually gained authoritative status in the community. The shared assumption is that we need to account one way or another for when and how in the past the Bible became what it is today.
The theory succeeds insofar as it proves to be an effective of way of encapsulating the shifting nature of biblical texts in ancient Judaism, but, despite its broad acceptance, it ultimately suffers from several, fatal flaws. Chief among them is its notion that repetition is sameness. When we speak of “scripture” as a concept, even when we allow for a degree of variation, the assertion is being made that there is some fundamental identity that unites all the various uses of biblical texts from the time of their acceptance as scripture to the present. To be sure, there are aspects of the Bible’s use that repeat, but these similarities are always being arrayed anew, are being renewed, through new forms of engagement. What then does it mean to speak of the Bible “becoming Scripture?” That sort of formulation falls into a practice of historical explanation, still evident in biblical studies, based on what Jacqueline Vayntrub has labeled, in the case of a supposed shift in ancient Israel from “orality” to “literacy,” as a “developmental framework.” As Karl Popper put it in The Poverty of Historicism, “the idea of the movement of society itself–the idea that society, like a physical body, can move as a whole along a certain path and in a certain direction–is merely a holistic confusion.” In short, the problems present in identifying when and how the Bible became scripture may have less to do with what is usually given as an explanation–lack of evidence–and more to do with the theory of identity and development at work in how the scholarly inquiry is framed in the first place.
The universality of “scripture” as a phenomenon, the proliferation of revealed texts as “scriptures” in ancient Judaism, and how ancient Israelite texts did not originate as but only later became “scriptural” are all notions generated by significant research in comparative religion and the study of ancient Judaism. They have pushed the boundaries of scholarship by helping us overcome existing canonical assumptions. But to realize fully the benefit of these studies, we need to be attuned to the risk of reinscribing “scripture.” Beyond expanding the contents of what might populate “scripture,” we need to challenge the very category of “scripture” as a coherent unity or form of identification. In short, my argument is that the concept of “scripture,” with the primacy it accords to text and its hierarchical structure of text and reader, may be acting now more as a restraint than an aid to the ongoing process of redescription, which, hitherto, studies of ancient Judaism have engaged so successfully.
What sort of alternatives might there be? What we need is a language that can account for the extended, ongoing use of the Bible in ancient Judaism without falling into the trap that repetition is sameness, that texts which receive extensive, even reverential, continued treatment necessarily share an identity as “scripture.” Here’s one, abbreviated attempt: the “biblical”–by which I intend not just texts but the whole range of themes, figures, words, and landscapes associated with what we call the “Bible”–receives its definition through its complex, ongoing entanglements with networks of other actors–humans and non-humans, real and imagined. I call these networks “assemblages.” The biblical exists only in assemblages with other entities. It cannot be transmitted without being mediated and, as such, can only be described alongside and on the basis of what it is “plugged into,” with what it is assembled. The ubiquity of the biblical in ancient Judaism is not secured, that is, enforced, on the basis of its mastery or authoritative status, its operation as a fixed rule, as “scripture.” Its manifestations over time and different geographies are much too ramified for that. It follows instead from its very capacity as a multiplicity to join with local sites, transforming and being transformed by them along the way. To be sure that does not imply the absence of structures, like collections or authority, around the biblical. However, these structures are being continuously generated locally, within specific contexts, in cooperation with other actors, rather than existing as a pre-given, system-wide aspect of ancient Judaism on account of having been accepted as such at some (still undetermined) point in its history. The idea of the Bible as source, as authority unto itself, even if that authority rests on communal acceptance, can only be seen as a holdover of the very claims that Jews and Christians were to make about it in later eras, even as they could hardly agree among themselves, no less with each other, about what sort of document precisely the Bible is. In short, to avoid the sort of teleological accounts that, at times, have dominated past scholarship, I would propose that we tell the history of the Bible as an ongoing series of assemblages.
To return to the example with which I began, where is the biblical in Jubilees? It exists through a series of connections to other actors and entities. We have a deity who shares with his prophet the future of his people; heavenly tablets–heavenly knowledge in its fullest form; an angel dictating from those tablets; and a book, Jubilees, which seems to contain information that is more complete and more immediately connected to the heavenly tablets than the Pentateuchal text itself. But it would be a mistake based on our own scriptural framework to imagine that it is Jubilees now that is the source, the scriptural text, that it replaces the canonical text. Jubilees needs the canonical text for the way in which it reflects the accuracy of its own reconstruction of the heavenly tablets. Jubilees itself is only confirmed and comprehensible through its connections to the canonical text, even as it would claim not to derive from it. At the same time, we cannot see Jubilees as existing simply in a flat, horizontal model with the Pentateuch, as there are layers in the specific network of actors, humans and non-humans, real and imagined–the assemblage–that Jubilees connects together in its account of Sinai and throughout the book. In a quasi-Platonic model of the forms, Jubilees is closer to divine knowledge itself. That makes the Pentateuch no less true, only a more distant emanation, what has been made publicly available to all.
The results of that research first appeared in “Did Israel Believe that Redemption Awaited Their Repentance? The Case of Jubilees 1,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006): 631-650; and later, in a revised version, as “Agency and Redemption,” in How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 121-50.
The conjunctive-vav is lacking in the Septuagint before “the torah,” thus indicating that “the torah and commandment” need to be seen as existing in apposition with “the two stone tablets.” Jubilees clearly sees the terms in this phrase as together indicating one unified product, rather than atomizing each term as having its own separate referent in the manner of the Rabbis: “‘Tablets’ refer to the Ten Commandments, ‘torah’ to Scripture, 'the commandment” to Mishnah, ‘that I have written’ to the Prophets and Writings, ‘to teach them’ to gemara, teaching that all of these were given to Moses at Sinai" (b. Ber. 5a).
That two stone tablets were needed for only ten commandments is identified as an oddity in exegetical history. See James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as it Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 640-41, 680.
For critiques of the standard structural framework, see Eva Mroczek, “The Hegemony of the Biblical in the Study of Second Temple Jewish Literature,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 6 (2015): 2-35; and Seth L. Sanders, “Daniel and the Origins of Jewish Biblical Interpretation,” Prooftexts 37 (2018): 1-55.
For my full discussion of the situation in Jubilees, see “How the ‘Torah of Moses’ Became Revelation: An Early, Apocalyptic Theory of Pentateuchal Origins,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 47 (2016): 22-54. For a sympathetic account that considers the role of revealed literature broadly in Jubilees, see, further, Eva Mroczek, The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 139-154.
For Najman, see, among other contributions, “The Vitality of Scripture Within and Beyond the ‘Canon,’” Journal for the Study of Judaism 43 (2012): 497-518; and Mroczek, Literary Imagination.
What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). See also William A. Graham, “Scripture,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan, 2005), 12: 8194-8205.
John J. Collins, The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).
Timothy Lim, The Formation of the Jewish Canon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
See, for example, Emanuel Tov, “The Many Forms of Hebrew Scripture: Reflections in Light of the LXX and 4QReworked Pentateuch,” in From Qumran to Aleppo: A Discussion with Emanuel Tov about the Textual History of Jewish Scriptures in Honor of his 65th Birthday, eds. Armin Lange et al. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009), 11-28, quote from 14.
See, especially, 19-50 and 156-183.
Recent discussions include William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).
Armin Lange, “From Literature to Scripture: The Unity and Plurality of the Hebrew Scriptures in Light of the Qumran Library,” in One Scripture or Many? Canon from Biblical, Theological and Philosophical Perspectives, eds. Christine Helmer and Christof Landmesser (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 51-107 at 107.
See the insightful article of George J. Brooke, “Canonisation Processes of the Jewish Bible in the Light of the Qumran Scrolls,” in “For it is Written:” Essays on the Function of Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity, eds. David Brakke et al. (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 13-35.
Jacqueline Vayntrub, Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms (New York: Routledge, 2019), esp. 20-23.
Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (London: Routledge, 1957), 105.
Again, I am thinking here with Mroczek and her idea of the “imagined sacred library in early Judaism” (Literary Imagination, 117).
See, further, my discussion of “prewritten Bible” in “How the ‘Torah of Moses’ Became Revelation,” 26-31.
Cf. 4 Ezra 14:45-47.