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!!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Q&A with Seth Sanders on The Invention of Hebrew, Part 1

I've spent quite a bit of time over the past year with Seth Sander's insightful book, The Invention of Hebrew. (See earlier post here). A few days from now, there will be an SBL panel discussion devoted to the book.


Hebrew Bible, History, and Archaeology
9:00 to 11:30 
Room: Piedmont - Hyatt RegencyTheme: Book Review: Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (University of Illinois Press, 2009)
Matthew Suriano, University of California-Los Angeles, Welcome (5 min)
John Hobbins, United Methodist Church, Presiding (10 min)
Avraham Faust, Bar Ilan University, Panelist (20 min)
Bruce Zuckerman, University of Southern California, Panelist (20 min)
Simeon Chavel, University of Chicago, Panelist (20 min)
Steven Grosby, Clemson University, Panelist (20 min)
Seth Sanders, Trinity College - Hartford, Respondent (30 min)
Discussion (25 min)

I wish I could make it to the book review panel, but unfortunately, I won't be at SBL this year. The issues raised by Seth's book are supremely important for the future of biblical studies (IMO) and deserve a broader audience, so I spent some time interviewing Seth about the book over email. The first part is below and the rest will be posted in the next day or so second part has been posted here.

1. The central question of your book – why did the Israelites start writing in Hebrew at all – seems so fundamental to the study of biblical literature, yet studies on the origin and composition of biblical texts rarely consider it. Why?
They don't realize it's a question you can even ask. I didn't realize it was a question I could ask. But once you realize that for 2,000 years most Semitic speakers just wrote Babylonian and never showed any interest in writing their own language it starts to look like there's something weird about Hebrew and Ugaritic. Why did these people start to produce literature in a Semitic language? And why did Hebrew survive?
It started to feel like there was a huge elephant in the room nobody was talking about. But I didn't realize there was an elephant until I ran across an article by Sheldon Pollock, “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History.” Pollock makes a very basic point: in most times and places people didn't read or write the language they spoke. The norm is for there to be a universal, supposedly timeless, written language, what he calls a cosmopolitan language, one implicitly intended for everyone no matter who or where they were. Latin is an example.
So why does Israel's language and literature outlast its polity? What Pollock points out is that local literatures are actually invented, usually in reaction to these cosmopolitan literatures. A light bulb goes on and people say, “Hey, why don't we write about our place, our culture?” And what's so remarkable is it seems to have happened in Western Europe around the 10th century CE when people moved from Latin and invented written German, French, and Spanish and in South Asia, when people moved from Sanskrit to Tamil and Javanese. I realized that maybe Hebrew was part of a similar movement but almost 2,000 years earlier. It means that the Bible may have a different historical significance than we've assumed.
2. What ramifications could your conclusions have for the ongoing debate over the origin of biblical literature?
It gives us a secure place on which to stand; it certainly doesn't conclude the debate about when and why the Bible was written, but it may provide the most solid jumping-off point for discussing it. Whatever else you may want to believe, we know that people in Israel and Judah are writing substantial prose texts between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C.E. We can't be sure before that, but there's no reasonable way to dispute that by 800 people are writing in a skillful, standardized form of Hebrew: they're writing prayers and letters and putting their names on seals. But just as importantly, it is not the case that “'twas ever thus;” earlier, it wasn't. We know that something changed for this to happen: they were not putting their names on seals in the 9th or 10th centuries, and the two texts we have from 10th-century Israel are really very different in their level of standardization from the texts from Kuntillet Ajrud. The alphabetical order of the Tel Zayit stone is closer to that of the earlier Izbet Sartah ostracon than it is to the Kuntillet Ajrud abecedaries. Maybe they're doing sporadic or experimental writing in Hebrew in the 9th century, but it hasn't become a standard—you don't need it on a seal to identify yourself or make a document legal. 
What bothers people about the debate on the origins of biblical literature is how extreme the positions can get without any external anchor. One person may say biblical literature started in Solomon's court because it's plausible that you have a serious kingdom with serious intellectual activity in the 10th century. Another person may say biblical literature really started in the Persian period because they see a post-exilic perspective in parts of Deuteronomy. But those two positions are based mainly on exegetical choices--how you choose to read the Bible. Without clear external evidence, both positions run the risk of being just things you choose because they make you feel better about yourself. Unless we can share a common starting point in evidence it's not much more than a shouting match.
 3. Scholarship is a collaborative ongoing effort. Can you name several scholars or schools of thought that were most influential as you developed your thoughts for the book?
The Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock really gave me the idea because he asked such a simple, powerful question, “What makes a literature even possible?” I never saw anyone else dare to ask that. He has a massive, rich book on these issues now, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India. The Classicist Gregory Nagy, who along with Frank Moore Cross was the reader of my undergrad thesis, was the first person I saw who let social theory really play together with ancient texts: he didn't impose theory on Homer to show he was more sophisticated than Homer, but to bring out dimensions of Homer's distinctiveness and, if I can say this, blood—the disturbing, rooted vitality of an ancient document that our careful, pristine treatment can bleed dry. 
The first person to show me how to read language as culture was a linguistic anthropologist named Robin Shoaps. She guided me to a few of the best articles and scholars, where I got ideas for how to rigorously pursue this stuff: the idea that how you speak is as important as what you say, not just a bunch of grammar to decipher in order to get to the “real meaning.” She just did an amazing piece on a very obscene, but theoretically significant, Pseudepigraphon in modern-day Guatemala called “The Testament of Judas.” 
And I would never have been able to even approach any of these texts without my academic grandfather and father, Frank Cross and Kyle McCarter. Both of them have an unusual combination of technical rigor, sensitivity to the material's subtle nuances, and openness to ideas. That Hopkins training gave me some amazing colleagues in my generation like Christopher Rollston, who continued Cross and McCarter's tradition of epigraphic work, but took a huge step forward by using it to make systematic arguments about how scribes were trained in IAIIb Israel and Judah, and Ryan Byrne, who did what I think was the most incisive article on the social life of Levantine writing between the LBA and IA. Even beyond the academic training Cross and McCarter gave, they made it feel like true discovery was always possible, just around the corner, if you kept your eyes open and kept at it.
Seth L. Sanders is Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

New Leaven on the New NIV

Making my way through the hundreds of unread posts in my feed reader, I found a couple of good posts about the new NIV over at New Leaven.

T.C. has drawn my attention to the fact that NIV2011 played it safe with the gender issue (which was my main criticism of TNIV - I still think it went too far). He also points out a site by Robert Slowley that has posted some stats comparing the NIV 1984, TNIV, and NIV 2011. T.C. has also compared several texts from Romans where new NIV has more theological clarity than old NIV. Check out his posts for more details!

The NEW and "Improved" NIV is . . .

driven (IMO) more by a desire to sell more Bibles and maintain the market share of NIV in light of competition from HCSB, ESV, and NLTse than by any real need for another English version. It is clear that the translators are less interested in revealing the linguistic and literary complexity of the biblical world than with maintaining an ignorant public's faith in the accuracy of the putative original language and text. My opinion is based on the quote from Douglas Moo shared here by Joseph Kelly and reproduced in part below.
When the books of the Bible were first written, they captured exactly what God wanted to say, in the languages and idioms used by the ordinary people of the time. Those first readers of God’s word could understand the meaning of what God was communicating in the form that God chose to say it—the Hebrew and Greek that were the languages of that time.
This is perhaps the greatest oversimplification of the issues of writing, literacy, and vernacular speech vs. scribal language that I have ever seen/heard/read from an educated Bible scholar. Disappointing but not unexpected considering the audience.

Responses to the translation (now available online) have proliferated around the biblioblogosphere this week. A helpful roundup of some of the posts is at Near Emmaus. I have not yet had time to look closely at the translation to see how it compares to earlier NIV or if it fixes what I disliked about TNIV. John Hobbins offers an analysis of their translation of Ecclesiastes 11:1-2. Rick Mansfield has offered his initial thoughts on the translation.

I'm sure there are more, but if this is an issue you're interested in, there's plenty to read already.