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.


  1. Interestingly, I myself (a very amateur student of Hebrew) have recently been wondering, in a very non-scholarly way, how the grammar of Hebrew has evolved. The structure of the language in the Bible varies greatly from one place to another, the Jewish liturgy even more so. I look forward to reading more of this discussion to shed much light on the subject.

  2. Sounds like a very interesting book. Previously, I appreciated "How the Bible Became a Book" by Bill Schniedewind in which he explores the biblical text for a consciousness of writing as a method of establishing when the Bible was written.