Saturday, November 20, 2010

Q&A with Seth Sanders, Part 2

As I sit here in WI reading the many blog, Facebook, and Twitter updates from the 2010 Great Bible Scholar Gathering in Atlanta (also known as the SBL Annual Meeting), I keenly feel my absence with the WI temp around 30 degrees on a bright sunny day and the high in Atlanta predicted around 70. As promised, here is the second part of my interview with Seth Sanders, author of The Invention of Hebrew (part 1 here).

4. How does your work compare to other recent work on writing and scribal practice in the ancient world? 
There's been a series of great books asking what larger-scale scribal institutions in Israel and Judah would have looked like: An important one people may not have heard of is Nadav Na'aman's Hebrew book The Past that Creates the Present, the most in-depth look at how history-writing began in Hebrew. Bill Schniedewind's How the Bible Became a Book, crucially, looks at history-writing from the point of view of material culture, avoiding the circularity of taking scribes' own accounts as the truth. Van der Toorn's Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible and David Carr's Writing on the Tablet of the Heart use our richest sources of data: Mesopotamia and Egypt, where they could afford to pay thousands of people to spend their lives copying texts. 
I part ways with them in not trying to reconstruct a big scribal culture. Because when you base your reconstruction on the existing late Iron Age evidence you get a different picture than when you go from either Mesopotamia or the Bible. There may have been really different approaches to writing in the alphabet and the Levant. One clue: at Ugarit, where we have tons of texts, we don't have a single verbatim duplicate text. Now, what does that have to do with the fact that in biblical narrative, nobody ever quotes anyone verbatim? 
BTW I'm glad you didn't use the word “literacy” in that question. [For why, see more from Seth here.] 
5. How have recent discoveries in Iron Age archaeology and epigraphy such as the Qeiyafa ostracon affected your view of the development of Hebrew? 
Surprisingly, they seem to be confirming it. Those hundreds of new excavated uninscribed seals and bullae from the 10th and 9th centuries suggest ever more strongly that nobody was using Hebrew seals as logos or legal devices til the Iron Iib. Qeiyafa is also a wonderful example of what I was imagining because it shows such a crisp break between the Iron Iib and what came before: the script is left to right or top-down and resembles 12th or even 13th century forms. So paleographically it has no direct connection with Iron Age Hebrew. The content is even more ambiguous, since good scholars read it as either a letter or a name list. And the dating is the most remarkable thing: if it's late, as the excavators argue based on limited radiocarbon data, then you've got a big fortress in the 10th century with a writing tradition pretty far from Hebrew as we know it. Which would suggest a big change during the 9th century, maybe an invention? But Lily Singer-Avitz's interpretation of the pottery conforms with the paleography and suggests it's earlier, more what we'd expect from the Iron I. I wasn't expecting evidence like that to pop up right when I finished the book!
If you're in Atlanta, don't forget to catch the book review panel tomorrow morning at 9:00 am!!

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