In recent years we have moved away from discussions of the biblical in Second Temple Judaism, recognizing that it is anachronistic to speak of the Bible given that there was no fixed biblical canon during that time period. Instead, we have come to speak of Second Temple Jewish texts as Scripture, works that were considered authoritative or sacred, some of which became biblical and others of which were excluded from the canon. Metatron’s conversation about what ancient Jewish literature was began around Molly Zahn’s work, Genres of Rewriting in Second Temple Judaism (2020), which builds on Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity (2016). With David Lambert’s chapter draft, “What is Scripture? An Introduction to Biblical Assemblages” the discussion continues. In this work, Lambert takes issue with the use of the term Scripture. For Lambert, discussions about Scripture only serve to reinscribe normalized ideas about the Bible in modern discourse. As he puts it in the chapter draft, the term Scripture “accounts for difference through the proliferation of diverse items within a single category, while affirming the hierarchical structure established by the category,” thereby “reinscribing, if not the Bible, then scripture as a natural and inevitable component of Judaism.” Moreover, he posits that the notion of Scripture is too “thoroughly grounded in the exigencies of the history of the West [and] constrains the possibilities for a full redescription of the relationship between ancient Judaism and its literary sources.”
Given the problem of Scripture as a category, how do we then go about examining and discussing biblical texts and related Second Temple Jewish works? In the chapter draft, Lambert answers, “rather than beginning with the relationship between biblical texts and their readers presumed in the category of ‘scripture,’ I propose that we do the work of mapping out the network of associations with which the biblical is actually assembled among textual witnesses in ancient Judaism.” For Lambert, the notion of Scripture carries with it a system of ordering, a hierarchy, which “interrupts the flow of connections to which the texts themselves point,” whilst the idea of “assemblages” does not.
It should be noted, firstly, that the use of “assemblages” in our field is not an innovation. In The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity, Mroczek asks “what the literary world might have looked like” in Second Temple Judaism “before the categories of ‘Bible’ and ‘book’ were available concepts.” She suggests that “different metaphors” might help us and, drawing on the work of N. Katherine Hayles, proposes thinking in terms of “clusters and assemblages” for example. Both Zahn and Mroczek make the point that the horizon of the literary landscape in Second Temple Judaism extends further than we have allowed for. Remedying this includes recognizing the fluidity of text categories, being cognizant of the fact that the textual features that stand out to us as modern readers may not have had the same significance to the original authors, and taking account of additional sources, such as the imagined, remembered, theorized, and indexed works that our texts make reference to.
Secondly, although he argues in the chapter draft that “the question of nomenclature is ultimately moot,” it seems to me that Lambert’s push for us to think in terms of “assemblages” instead of Scripture is itself another iteration of the long-running “nomenclature debate” that has long occupied scholars of Second Temple Jewish literature. The unanimous shift from speaking about “Rewritten Bible” to “Rewritten Scripture” is the result of one such debate. Recognising that “Rewritten Bible” is a misnomer, given that at the time of the production of the “rewritten” texts a fixed collection of authoritative works known as “Bible” did not exist, many scholars advocated for the label “Rewritten Scripture” instead. “Scripture” was employed to refer “more generally to a text or group of texts considered sacred and authoritative by a particular religious tradition,” regardless of whether or not those texts eventually came to constitute what is known now as “Bible.” However, the term “Rewritten Scripture” is not without its own issues. The question must be asked, Scripture for whom? The landscape of ancient Judaism in the Second Temple period was far from homogenous and determining which texts were considered scriptural by which groups is not a straightforward task.
The preoccupation with coining and normalizing appropriate terminology with which to refer to the works we study distracts from premises about which scholars tend to unanimously agree; namely, that putting texts in conversation with each other is instructive, and that a single text can simultaneously be in conversation with more than one other text. In support of this basic premise, many cite the Bakhtinian theory of dialogism, which instructs that texts are not written in a vacuum. Authors, ancient and modern, are thus unable to divorce themselves from their epistemic bases and, whether consciously or unconsciously, overtly or covertly, produce texts that in one way or another respond to pre-existing works and the thoughts and ideologies contained therein. In this way, we understand, meaning is constantly evolving through the dialectical relationship between texts, authors, and audiences. Hanna Tervanotko, for example, combines this Bakhtinian theory with feminist criticism in her monograph tracing the development and popularity of Miriam traditions in Jewish literature from the Persian to Roman periods. For scholars and students who are similarly interested in subjects such as intertextuality and the reception history of biblical traditions, Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel” is frequently recommended reading.
The preoccupation with nomenclature seems to be inspired by an aversion to categorizing or labelling things, inspired, perhaps, by a fear that suggesting that a text belongs to one category precludes it from simultaneously belonging to another. It goes without saying that categories are useful. Zahn makes the point in Genres of Rewriting in Second Temple Judaism that “the nature and significance of the diversity [among texts] can only be understood when the basic similarities are understood.” Categories assist us in recognizing similarities and diversity.
Turning to other fields, such as English Literature, illuminates the peculiarity of the discomfort around using categories and labels to understand how texts function. For instance, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) belongs simultaneously to multiple generic categories. Austen satirizes the gothic in her depiction of Catherine Morland, whose familiarity with earlier gothic romances, such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and overactive imagination lead her to imagine gothic plots where there are none during her stay at Northanger Abbey. Morland’s coming of age in the novel also places it in the category of Bildungsroman. Without explicit references to say Northanger Abbey or The Mysteries of Udolpho, Jean Rhys’ post-colonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), also engages the gothic tradition. A prequel to what may be called a paradigmatic example of the gothic novel, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), it reveals the origins of the relationship between the Byronic Mr. Rochester and the mentally-ill wife he confines to the attic of Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. In Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) the newly married protagonist must reckon with the memory of her husband’s first wife. Although the specter of the first Mrs. De Winter’s memory haunts the corridors of the country estate the protagonist shares with her husband, there is no paradigmatic madwoman in the attic. Yet, Rebecca is still considered a gothic work. In Atonement (2001), a Bildungsroman that makes use of gothic conventions, Ian McEwan’s protagonist, Briony Tallis, has a penchant for melodrama that rivals Catherine Morland. Yet, the only explicit reference to Northanger Abbey is in the epigraph that appears in the frontmatter of Atonement, and the comedy of Northanger Abbey is unparalleled in the dark drama of Atonement.
Citations of and allusions to the early gothic novels are not necessarily found in each of the later examples, and whilst some characteristic features of the gothic are found in each, some are notably absent. Nevertheless, the authors of each of the aforementioned works participate in the ongoing gothic tradition. Moreover, participation in the gothic tradition does not preclude the aforementioned texts from belonging to other generic categories such as post-colonial literature, the Bildungsroman, and parody. For scholars of English Literature, the boundaries of generic categories are penetrable, traversable. In the famous words of Alastair Fowler, genre is “much less of a pigeonhole than a pigeon.”
The field of Classics is also instructive. In “Visions and Revisions of Homer,” Froma Zeitlin explains that “in the cultural economy of the Empire, Homer circulated as a kind of common coinage, an acknowledged criterion of self-recognition for all those who included themselves in ‘a proclaimed communality of paideia, a shared system of reference and expectation.’” Similarly, the ancient Jewish authors we discuss were participants in a shared system of reference and expectation. This system was established and reified by a variety of texts, some of which are known whilst others remain unknown, some of which are real whilst others are imagined. Ancient Jewish authors were participants in a stream of literary tradition that aimed to create and maintain a common symbolic universe for those who encountered the texts they produced. That maintenance was ongoing given the changing religio-political horizon, the evolution of existing texts, and the production of new texts. Whilst we can avoid retelling old scholarly myths of origins for the Bible, and certainly should not imagine the trajectory of its development being perfectly linear, at the same time we should attend to the ways ancient writers were retelling their own myths of origins, whether those of a group of people, an identity, or a text.
Categories, genres, assemblages, whatever the nomenclature, we are engaged in the practice of grouping and ordering texts because that is, in part, how we make sense of the information they contain. Of course, it is anachronistic to do so, insofar as the categories that we employ are modern creations; but, we are not arguing that the ancient authors were self-consciously participating in these modern categories; rather, that they were participating in an ongoing tradition. We must recognise the plurality of features in a single text and trace the connections with other texts made by those features. Labels and categories do not do that work, they simply assist us in doing that work. 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.
Eva Mroczek, The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5.
Mroczek, Literary Imagination, 41.
Anders Klostergaard Petersen, “The Riverrun of Rewriting Scripture: From Textual Cannibalism to Scriptural Completion,” JSJ 43 (2012): 476-496; and before him James C. VanderKam, “The Wording of Biblical Citations in Some Rewritten Scriptural Works,” in The Bible as Book: The Hebrew Bible and the Judean Desert Discoveries, eds. E.D. Herbert and Emanuel Tov (London: British Library, 2002), 43, 52-53; Robert A. Kraft, “Para-mania: Beside Before and Beyond Bible Studies,” JBL 126 (2007): 5-27; Sidnie White Crawford, “'The ‘Rewritten’ Bible at Qumran: A Look at Three Texts,” ErIsr 26 (1999): 1-8; George J. Brooke, “The Rewritten Law, Prophets and Psalms: Issues for Understanding the Text of the Bible,” in The Bible as Book, 31; Jonathan G. Campbell, “‘Rewritten Bible’ and ‘Parabiblical Texts’: A Terminological and Methodological Critique,” in New Directions in Qumran Studies, eds. Jonathan G. Campbell, William John Lyons, and Lloyd K. Pietersen (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 49; Molly M. Zahn, “Talking About Rewritten Texts: Some Reflections on Terminology,” in Changes in Scripture: Rewriting and Interpreting Authoritative Traditions in the Second Temple Period, eds. Hanne von Weissenberg, Juha Pakkala and Marko Marttila (Berlin: De Grutyer, 2011), 95-103.
Zahn, “Talking About Rewritten Texts,” 97.
On this see, Zahn, “Talking About Rewritten Texts,” 97-103.
Hanna Tervanotko, Denying Her Voice: The Figure of Miriam in Ancient Jewish Literature (Goettingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2016), esp. 34-38; also, Walter L. Reed, Dialogues of the Word: The Bible as Literature According to Bakhtin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Barbara Green, Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Scholarship: An Introduction, SemeiaSt 38 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 2000).
Molly M. Zahn, Genres of Rewriting in Second Temple Judaism: Scribal Composition and Transmission (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 4.
Alistair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 37.
Froma I. Zeitlin, “Visions and Revisions of Homer” in Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic, and the Development of Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 195-266 at 202-203.