Archaeology and Hermeneutics

Get Complete Project Material File(s) Now! »



The notion of the existence of scribes who were professionals with regards to the art of writing and keeping records has been used to distract theological scholars and students from following and understanding clear cut historical statements. Furthermore, when this idea of the contribution of scribes in writing just about any epigraphic material discovered by archaeologists is advanced, preference is given to royal scribes and there is hardly any mention of the existence of scribes in the sanctuary or cultic area.
However, Schniedewind (2004: 68) posits: ‘Indeed, the first moves to collect the literary traditions of Israel (and Judah) must have been sponsored by the institution of the monarchy and the temple.’ The author here mentions the temple as an institution which had to do some writing, it is clear that this temple is actually the one built by Solomon, because it is mentioned alongside the monarchy.
A lot has been generalised about the existence of scribes. However, Van der Toorn (2007:
52) asserts: ‘The fact remains that whatever the complexity, or lack of it, in Israelite society, the presence of professional scribes cannot be contested. Private seals from the monarchic and the Persian periods designating their owner as “the scribe” … confirm the actual existence of a profession that is repeatedly referred to in the Bible.’ During the time of picture writing, a writer had to have some degree of artistic talent and indeed scribes could have been fewer, but the advent of alphabetic writing made literacy to be easily acquired even by persons who had no intention of actually writing for profit. The writing of religious material or literature was not only dependent on the formal writing done by scribes in palaces, but the Levites or priests and pre-monarchic leaders recorded divine revelations at times by the instruction of God Himself as Moses was instructed to write. Somehow, to be a scribe, an individual never had to forsake any other title or responsibility they might be bearing. Thus a priest could be a scribe by choice or appointment due to his ability to write.

Definitions of scribes

The issue or practice of having scribes in Israel is understood differently by scholars and this is manifested in their definitions of scribes. Schniedewind (2004: 7) states: ‘The scribes were first of all administrators or bureaucrats; they were not authors.’ Nevertheless, the author continues to say that in the Hebrew language there is no such thing as a writer, but a scribe or sofer which is an individual or title that can best match that of an author. In fact, the nature of scribal services changed with time. Davies (1998: 17) also reasons like Schniedewind thus: ‘The scribe was …the administrator, the “civil servant” …Among the diplomatic activities of the scribe, the composing of inscriptions, annals and treaties…related to the main activity of the ruling class, that is, warfare is not to be overlooked.’ Seemingly, so far these scholars or such arguments seek to emphasise that the scribes were royal officials.
However, Horn (1979: 988-989) outlines a number of definitions. The first definition presents a scribe as a freelance person helping people to prepare their documents according to proper standards and these scribes earned a living by so doing. The second definition goes: ‘A government official, who either had clerical duties or was a recording minister of state….’ The third definition simply says: ‘A man who copied the Law and other books of the scriptures …a man who was proficient in teaching and interpreting the Bible.’ Furthermore, the author postulates that in our days such persons are called ‘theologians’ or ‘religious scholars.’ In addition to the fact that the functions or the nature of scribal duties changed with time, a scholar’s preferred definition should be actually dated and not just be used as a generalised understanding of scribes since the beginning of literacy until to date.
Suggesting that anyone who can read and write is a scribe would be hard to believe as much as it would be hard to accept that a scribe may not be able to read and write. The title of a scribe seems to have been an official one or a well respected one. To subject the development of writing and reading under the guidance of scribes is not convincing, because the art of writing neither necessarily developed in royal circles only nor was it developed by scribes, but in trade and legal marking of objects. Ancient writing or early biblical documents or sources were not written exclusively by scribes whose main occupation was writing.

Functions of scribes

The royal scribes according to Blenkinsopp (1995: 30-31) had to ‘draw up official edicts….’ He further says: ‘Other functions probably included supervision of the royal commissariat and tax returns.’ Still further the author says they had to supervise temple revenue and to participate in ‘diplomatic missions….’ Such functions are said to have been performed around the middle of the 9th century B.C.E. Here the scribes seem to have been royal servants competent among other things in the art of writing.
Scribes of the New Testament seem to have been individuals who were knowledgeable as far as the Torah was concerned. This understanding of scribes is misleading for Old Testament students. Prior to the exile in Babylon, scribes were not really individuals who specialized in studying the law. The writing of religious literature before the Babylonian empire may not be gleaned from the history of scribal work. The literate religious leaders were not necessarily scribes. Seeking answers from the study of scribes and their work may not yield much fruit. The scribes performed tasks that required literacy especially for the monarchy, but they were not really the only persons or individuals who could read and write.

Specialised service

Generally, the perception of scribes and their role in rendering their services in ancient institutions or communities may be confusing. Nevertheless, such perceptions should be considered in order to portray the actual situation regarding Israelite life prior to the exile and compare the situation with the post-exilic one. The general assumption is that hardly anyone wrote religious material, because of oral tradition.
Davies (1992: 106) explains that writing was done impulsively or as literate individuals wished to and says: ‘Writing is an economically supported activity, which requires the specialized knowledge of writing and, not least, a purpose… The biblical literature is the product of professional writers.’ The author is very correct about the scriptures as we have them today, but these professionals used older sources which were probably not written or presented in a professional manner. The final chapter of this work will shed more light on this point.
The confusion on the work of scribes as a special task deepens when dates are not attached to explanations about such services. Matthews and Benjamin (1993: 243) present scribes and sages as storytellers and regarding the reign of Josiah, claims: ‘The ability to read and write allowed storytellers to work both as the monarch’s book keepers and book readers.’ Yearsley (1933: 35) intimates: ‘Among peoples in a high state of civilization, as Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, large numbers of scribes were kept at work copying important books or documents.’ The author further shares light thus: ‘Writing done by scribes was called “scripture”… these men were powerful and important; to hurt or kill a scribe was serious and punishable by death.’ As for the Greeks and Romans and their power or fame, it all came after the exile and thus they are not part of the discussion. The Egyptians played a greater role in developing writing and they practiced writing much earlier than other nationalities. It would be interesting to know the date during which murderers of scribes would be executed. The so called scribes who were powerful may have been individuals who had some other responsibilities including the interpretation of earlier writings or documents. Benjamin (2004: 11) later on writing alone claims that the scribes were priests who had been charged with the responsibility of taking care of traditions of Israel which were merely storytelling until the time of the exile. The author (Benjamin)is correct in saying some priests were also scribes, but in implying that religious writing never occurred prior to the exile is speculative.
During the time of advanced alphabetic writing around 1200-1000B.C.E. the art of writing was not as difficult as during the time of hieroglyphics and early cuneiform writings. However, Nielsen (1954: 56) speculates: ‘…writing belonged to the craftsman, even when it was a case of the relatively simple Canaanite alphabetic writing…even men of authority were illiterate…as it always has been in the east.’ It may have been that some leaders were illiterate, but the author does not necessarily make a sweeping statement here.
Schniedewind (2004: 37) also pursues this line of argument thus: ‘The scribes were not independent, but served at the discretion of the ruling groups who brought them into existence, provided for their sustenance, and controlled their access to the public.’ It would be fascinating to know the exact ruling groups that controlled their access to the public or enslaved them.
The notion of scribes being the only group of persons who could write does not hold water at all. Unless if the art of writing was developed by them particularly. There is hardly any piece of legislation or policy among epigraphic finds to the effect that not everyone was allowed to write except the scribes and the literate were not allowed to teach others to read and write. The discoveries of abecedaries do not necessarily uphold the idea that learning to read and write could not occur, because the literate were kept out of contact with other individuals. The study of how scribes worked and what their duties entailed may not give us answers as to when religious materials were actually written. However, the argument is that pre-exilic religious material was not in a book form as we have it now. True, but what does it mean? Does it undermine the pre-exilic sources which were not in book form or the authenticity of the contents of the biblical books concerned with pre-exilic material or history? The actual pre-exilic religious material and the one that we have concerning pre-exilic events should not be undermined under the shadow of oral tradition. Both materials are fully authentic as much as any document may be even if it is not a book. The understanding that redaction and reorganisation took place does not mean that biblical books about pre-exilic events are riddled with error and thus faulty and unreliable .


Most ancient scribes

It is imperative that a shift of focus from royal to religious scribes be exercised in order to find some answers about early religious writing. It is not safe to talk about scribal work while actually not dating their work or practice of writing. Diringer (1962: 37) indicates that by 3200 B.C.E. there were scribes in Sumeria, and on page 39, he further shows that such scribes were instrumental in devising the practice of impressing symbols on clay from scratching symbols on harder materials or objects. Here the scribes are not said to have related to temple or palace services.
With time, the Israelites came into being. Wiseman (1958: 37) talks about the good reign of Joseph in Egypt which utilised recording, taxation and reporting to the Prime Minister, Joseph. The author further exclaims: ‘One official of this time …Ptah-mose, bore the title “royal scribe and overseer of the grain supply of the Lord of two lands.”’ A long time before Israelites could be released from Egypt; there were scribes according to their titles in Egypt. Schniedewind (2004: 47) talks about writing done in the city of Ugarit even before Israelites moved out of Egypt. As the author explains further, it becomes clear that by the 10th century B.C.E. there were Israelite scribes. The author says: ‘The affinities between Ugarit and biblical poetry especially early biblical poetry-thus point to Canaanite tradition as the heritage of early Israelite scribes.’ The linguistic similarities between Ugarit and biblical poetry imply that there was freedom of writing as much as there was freedom of speech on a general note that excludes political utterances or protests.
Enoch, Moses and Elijah, according to Barrera (1998: 111) were regarded as considerable scribes of Israel. Enoch and Elijah are not spoken of as scribes by many scholars except Moses. The author’s perception of scribes embraces palace and sanctuary duties. Furthermore, the author asserts: ‘The Bible often refers to the character of the scribe, in the monarchic period and also the period after the Exile, when the duties of priests, Levites and scribes often overlapped.’ The simple point here is that among the Israelites, scribes served in the sanctuary even before the first Israelite king was chosen. What could these scribes have written in addition to commercial and legal texts other than religious material in any possible format.
Schniedewind (2004: 11) profoundly posits: ‘Widespread literacy is a relatively modern phenomenon. Ancient Israel was primarily an oral culture. Although an eloquent defence might be made for the literacy of a figure like Moses, it is difficult to imagine the hordes of slaves Moses led out of Egypt as reading books.’ Moses is clearly numbered among the most ancient Israelite scribes who never lived on earth under a particular Israelite monarch. Some authors like playing with words or extremes like Schniedewind who knows that books had not been invented during the Israelite sojourn to Canaan. Suppose all Israelites who crossed the Red Sea could not read and write but Moses and there was no one learning to read and write, could writing anything be necessary? The existence of a few literate persons does not mean that there should be no writing at all. What could have mattered back then was the availability of one who could read for the audience. All in all, there were scribes in Israel before the inception of the system of the monarchy, so the argument that scribes were only at the disposal of rulers does not fully apply to Israelite history. The final chapter will shed more light especially regarding the use of writing by pre-monarchic priests.


Priests and Levites as scribes

When the Israelites adopted the culture of having kings, other nations already had had kings and literacy had been developed and used in their royal systems and as for Israelite priests who had served with God in dealing with the affairs of Israel. The Urim and Thummim were used by priests to settle cases which lacked witnesses to seek the intervention of God. Van der Toorn (2007: 85) emphasises that the temple and the state in ancient Near East were not separate entities or divided. The author further postulates: ‘The Jerusalem temple started as an annex of the royal palace.’
Prophets were used by God to help pass His instructions, exhortations and encouragements to the people. God Himself did give instructions for writing the commandments. God did write or engrave the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. Taking away the writing of the Decalogue from the Sinai account, nothing remains, though the Decalogue (original) is not available as a witness of the story. It is hard to imagine that God would write something that priests could not read then or ever in future. Van der Toorn (2007: 82) says: ‘Scribes in Israel were attached to the palace or the temple….’

Oral and written traditions.

There is a perception that oral tradition naturally precluded writing for a long time especially among priests and Levites. The Levites and sons of Aaron were set apart from birth to serve in and around the sanctuary for the rest of their lives. Some of their services in the sanctuary were public especially on particular special feasts done in commemoration of some revelations of God in the past.
Barrera (1998: 105) enunciates that in teaching learners books or scrolls and reading were not allowed. However, he says: ‘For private study the use of texts and the taking of notes was permitted which the pupil could consult outside the room in which the master was teaching.’ Oral tradition did exist, but those who were involved in it, the teachers and learners, may have been able to read and write outside the learning classroom or setting. Barrera (1998: 105) further says: ‘The text of the sacred books is usually divided into sections for recitation or reading aloud in liturgical assemblies.’ On page 104, Barrera (1998), emphasizes that the oral and written transmissions ‘…always had to go together.’ So oral tradition at the time of the tabernacle into the monarchic time included some writing. Writers that harp on oral tradition as a reason for doubting any pre-exilic written religious material are proponents of fallacious interpretations of the Bible.

1.1. Methodology
1.2. Archaeology and Hermeneutics
2.1. Introduction
2.2. Beginning of literacy
2.3. Development of literacy
2.4. Ancient Schools
2.5. Objects with writing on
2.6. Inscriptions
2.7. Writing materials
2.8. Sanctuary literacy
2.9. Spread of literacy
2.10. Summary
3.1. Introduction
3.2. Definitions of scribes
3.3. Functions of scribes
3.4. Specialised service
3.5. Most ancient scribes
3.6. Priests and Levites as scribes
3.7. Manuscripts
3.8. Editing and copying
3.9. Language dating
3.10. Summary
4.1. Introduction
4.2. Pre-monarchic writing
4.3. Torah writing incidents
4.4. Post-Mosaic writing incidents
4.5. Monarchic writing incidents
4.6. Authorship of the monarchic historical books
4.7. Writing incident of King Saul’s time
4.8. The writing incidents of Davidic era
4.9. The writing incidents of Solomonic era
4.10. Writing incidents of the Divided Monarchy
4.11. Sources used by compilers
4.12. Summary
5.1. Literacy
5.2. Scribes
5.3. Pre-exilic writing in the Bible
5.4. Final conclusion

Related Posts