Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible

by Karel van der Toorn

Paperback, 2009



Call number



Harvard University Press (2009), Edition: y First edition thus, 416 pages


The scribes of ancient Israel are indeed the main figures behind the Hebrew Bible, and this book tells their story for the first time. Drawing comparisons with the scribal practices of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, van der Toorn details the methods, assumptions, and material means that gave rise to biblical texts. Traditionally seen as the copycats of antiquity, the scribes emerge here as the literate elite who held the key to the production and the transmission of texts.

Media reviews

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
In spite of these critiques, this volume is extremely valuable. Scribal Culture is a must-read for anyone interested in the issues of the formation, transmission, and standardization of the Hebrew Bible.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jsburbidge
I would like to say at the outset that this is, overall, a valuable and readable book. Its general overview of scribal culture in a broadly pre-literate society is an effective summary (confined to middle-eastern sources, admittedly), and many of its general observations regarding the composition
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of the books of the bible are of equal use.

However, van der Toorn seems to want to jump to conclusions in ways which make it inevitable that some of his conclusions, although possible, are by no means as inevitable as he makes them look; and in other cases, he doesn't seem to think things through carefully. Possible counter-positions are not set out and middle stages in arguments are missing. This may be the result of directing the book towards a general audience rather than a scholarly one, with a consequent over-attempt to make the text more easily readable.

His situating of the biblical scribes in the temple as opposed to the palace is highly reliant on post-Exilic evidence and is not nearly as well-founded as one moves earlier. I'll come back to this when we get to Deuteronomy.

I would like to point out as a more fundamental problem his model of the issuing of editions. He wants to see the MS of a major text as being not only private to the scribal caste but also existing in only one unique copy (so that when that copy is re-copied on wearing out there would be an automatic "new edition" created without competing exemplars).

He has not thought this through. For a text such as Deuteronomy, which is a law text, copies need to be available for local judges to refer to. You can't run a law system with a single central copy of a critical master text. Of course, by the same token, a text which has not been completely "canonized" but which is a reference document can be recalled and reissued as a working text when updated, just as we republish the Criminal Code every year for reference, so in the earlier period the distinction may make a minimal difference. Indeed, a law text in actual use and reflecting a broadly casuistic system pretty well has to be regularly reissued as new instances come up and are decided. (I think he also underestimates the likelihood of a higher degree of substantial variation between the versions of the books in the pre-Masoretic period.)

In addition, I think it unlikely that control over texts operated in the same way during the Exilic period than either before or after. At that time it may very well have been the case that texts held by Levites in exile might have had a much more minimal circulation, since there was no social infrastructure of which they were part.

So, to his treatment of Deuteronomy. His model of re-editions for this book looks to be broadly persuasive in terms of its thematic traits for each level, as well as his observations regarding additions appearing at interstitial points, beginnings and endings. However, there seems to be no very good reason for seeing the original edition — focussed principally on the promulgation of the Josianic reforms — as having an origin in the temple cultus rather than the royal palace — indeed, on the plausible possibility that the Josianic reforms were driven from the palace rather than the temple, it would make more sense as a palace production. (He also skips over what to me is the most interesting question about Deuteronomy, which is the relation of its text to prior oral or written sources, although he handwaves at the relation of part of it to the older texts in Exodus.) The "Torah" and "History" editions (which he plausibly places during the exile on internal evidence) would have been developed outside the Temple context as an ideal text, not as an active law text, as would the "Wisdom" edition. The factor which set the choice of version of text in stone and finally displaced the others would then have been (following his own later argument) the choice of this fourth edition as the version which Ezra included in his Torah to be used as the local law under the Persian authority. In this case he needs no special mechanism to explain the supersession of the earlier versions.

He also makes broad jumps of logic in treating Jeremiah as a type of the prophetic literature. He seems to be quite ready to jump from the specific example of Baruch's relation to Jeremiah to a general scribal / prophetic relationship, despite the facts that (1) the example of Baruch has no explicit parallel in any other prophetic texts and (2) Jeremiah as a book is unusual in many respects and may not be the best exemplar for drawing general conclusions about the prophets. In addition, I think he may gloss over some of the factors which would have led to the production of relatively "authoritative" editions of pre-Exilic prophets during the exile (notably, the prophets who were likely to be reproduced would have been those who predicted and provided an explanatory model for the exile — and these would have been just the ones to be least appealing before the exile as compared to prophets who assured the kings of victory).

The most potentially interesting area for applying the models of scribal culture would seem to me to be the earlier phase of the formation of the bible — the assembly of the oldest sources into more general sources, with attention paid to what parts involved editing at the Deuteronomic History stage and what parts were the output of earlier scribal activity. This would also involve a longer discussion of the different ways in which oral and written sources fed into the flow of documentary creation and revision. However, this would involve focussing on the period of the monarchies (note the plural - by mainly treating the Josianic and later periods he manages to sidestep any differences between the cultures of the two kingdoms) and on the differences between Israelite and Judaean contexts during that period — a topic which van der Toorn at best gestures toward.
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Eric Hoffer Book Award (Winner — 2008)


Original language


Physical description

416 p.; 9.21 inches


0674032543 / 9780674032545
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