Michael Hundley Reviews Sara Milstein’s Tracking the Master Scribe
Despite its antiquity, the Bible remains the object of great public interest and scholarly scrutiny. Nevertheless, even the most basic questions about it continue to elude definitive answers. For example, asking who wrote the Bible and when prompts extremely divergent responses even among scholars. This should come as little surprise since scholars have traditionally based their theories on the composite Masoretic text, whose oldest complete copy dates to 1008 CE, more than a millennium after the composition of its constituent parts.
Take, for example, the Pentateuch, the petri dish for biblical scholarship. The vast majority of scholars agree that the text is composite, but when and how it was put together remains a source of strident debate. Scholars begin their investigation with the same text, yet interpret its genesis in conflicting ways. While theories continue to proliferate, two models dominate the discussion: the source-critical Documentary Hypothesis in North America and Israel and the redaction-critical or supplementary model in continental Europe.
The Documentary Hypothesis posits four originally independent literary sources that were later combined into a single text. Its most recent incarnation, the Neo-Documentary Hypothesis, suggests that the four sources were combined at a single time by an editor, who simply served as a compiler, using narrative chronology to effectively paste together the source texts into a single document (see esp. Joel Baden). With careful textual analysis, many Neo-Documentarian scholars believe that they can extract the layers relatively intact.
By contrast, proponents of the supplementary model generally reject the documentary sources (especially the J or Yahwist and E or Elohist sources that extend from Genesis through Numbers). Rather, they focus on thematic blocks (e.g., the primeval narratives, the ancestral narratives and the Moses-Exodus story). Instead of presuming a relatively passive editor, their editors or redactors consistently expanded their source texts, such that each block grew progressively over time. Traditionally, scholars believed that each redactor preserved the material that came before, merely adding her or his own layer on top of it. Thus, for the traditional redaction critic, compositional analysis was a form of textual archaeology. Since each layer was preserved intact, scholars worked backward from the most recent layer to the earliest. By extracting each addition, scholars strove to discover the previous undisturbed layers until, once all were removed, they could identify the original (see the review and critique in Pakkala, God’s Word Omitted).
Scholars have continued to refine their theories, yet with a single late text as the primary evidence, we lack sufficient context and must carefully and creatively fill in the gaps, explaining a lot with a little data. While important and often persuasive, our theories inevitably tend to say as much about us as interpreters as they do about the texts we are interpreting.
While it is no doubt an oversimplification to say that our cultural context causes us to adopt a particular model, I have noted some interesting correlations between context and scholarly methodology in my time living in Israel and Germany. While not an exact parallel, the Documentary Hypothesis with its conflicting sources preserved in one place in some ways resembles the rabbinic traditions of arguing rabbis, whose competing opinions are preserved intact in much of the literature, including the Talmud. As such, it may appeal to Jewish scholars and those influenced by them in North America and Israel. The traditional redactional model has some common ground with German Lutheran culture, in that both tend to preserve what came before with each generation adding its own contribution. As such, German Lutherans and others immersed in their culture and swayed by their influence in Continental Europe may feel an affinity for the supplementary model.
Both models have met with trenchant critiques from within and without. The primary issue has been the lack of external, empirical evidence. For example, we do not have a text that isolates the sources or predates the redactions. To fill this lacuna, scholars have recently given greater attention to analogous texts and textual production from the ancient world (such as other ancient Near Eastern documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, Targumim and non-canonical early Jewish texts) where we do have datable and in some cases multiple versions of the same text. Comparative data demonstrates that, in addition to expansion, there is considerable external evidence for both omission and rewriting. While a tremendous boon to scholarship, these findings have eroded scholarly confidence in a shared pillar of the prevailing theories: the intact preservation of earlier layers, whether the four sources or multiple redactional layers.
Rather than give up on the entire enterprise, biblical scholars continue to search for new avenues and rehabilitate old ones. In Tracking the Master Scribe, Sara Milstein weighs in by comparing Mesopotamian texts with select biblical analogs. In her analysis, she tracks the master scribe, who, in contrast to regular scribes who were primarily copyists, “had the capacity to produce or transform literary texts.” Nonetheless, rather than search for the identities of these scribes, she attends to the evidence left behind of their literary transformations of pre-existing texts, concentrated in the ancient texts’ beginnings and to a lesser extent their ends.
Milstein rightly argues for the importance of beginnings (and endings) in shaping narratives and their reception, given that introductions and conclusions provide a narrative framework. Introductions offer the narrative lens through which we process stories, telling us both what to expect and how to interpret what comes next, while the conclusion informs us how we should process the story, making sense of what has come before. Because of their power to shape a story and its reception, revisions need not be exhaustive. Rather reframing at both ends of the narrative transforms how the audience processes it. While a partial revision may leave inconsistencies between the original story and its recasting, humans have a great penchant for overlooking the inconsistencies and reading the story as coherent. This is true not only as we read stories, but also as we process the world around us. The human brain tends to narrativize the world, combining the disparate events of our lives into a coherent story, imposing order amid the chaos (see, e.g., Fivush, Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self).
With regard to Mesopotamia, Milstein turns to “hard evidence”—that is, texts available in different versions—as well as tensions or inconsistencies present in a single textual witness. Milstein starts her analysis with the Sumerian King List and the epic of Etana before delving further into the Adapa myth and Gilgamesh epic. After examining Adapa in various textual witnesses from the Old Babylonian, Middle Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian periods (ca. 2000 – 600 BCE), Milstein contends that the story underwent an evolution, achieved by changing the beginning and end, while leaving the body relatively intact. The focus first shifts from the South Wind to the human Adapa. In this phase, the tale relates a contest between gods, with Ea’s machinations ensuring that Adapa loses out. Finally, it morphs into a tale of wisdom and quest for immortality in which Adapa eventually becomes the ward of the sky god Anu.
With multiple versions from multiple time periods, we have before us a wealth of diachronic data on Gilgamesh. Again, while the body of the story remains relatively intact, it was “supplemented massively at the front and back ends.” In the process the protagonist’s sidekick Enkidu, for example, was reimagined as a wild, animalistic demi-god who becomes acculturated to humanity through sexual union rather than being a knowledgeable herdsman. However, his transformation was incomplete, as the partially revised body of the text includes allusions to both his wild and pastoral origins. The text also preserves tensions about the nature of Gilgamesh’s authority and the relationship between the two men. These inconsistencies seem to be a direct result of the partial nature of the revision. “The details in the core text did not need to be omitted in the course of transmission; rather, the introduction simply recast them in new light.”
Milstein’s Mesopotamian analysis is immensely helpful for both Assyriology and Biblical Studies. Since Assyriology generally eschews diachronic analysis, her study helps us to better understand textual (re)production in ancient Mesopotamia as well as gives the reader a fresh reading of the different versions of the stories. It also offers important comparative data from the world in which the Hebrew Bible was written. Her work is especially helpful in demonstrating that the Bible is not unique in its inclusion of inconsistencies (an assumption that many have come to largely because of a general lack of diachronic studies of other ancient Near Eastern texts). Rather, inconsistencies are part and parcel of the production of texts in the ancient Near East, including in Mesopotamia and the Hebrew Bible. Studying the introduction and conclusion as loci of editorial activity likewise indicates that the tendency to preserve tensions may go well beyond the desire to preserve different voices. One could even argue that, at least in some cases, the different voices are not meant to be highlighted; rather, they are allowed to remain because they have been suitably reframed by a new narrative framework. Leaving behind portions of the old also allows the master scribe to borrow the authority of the original while reframing or even subverting its message.
Her judicious approach also warns against reading different versions as standing in direct, often linear relationships to each other, an assumption that biblical scholars often make. For example, Müller, Pakkala, and ter Haar Romeny use “documented evidence of revision,” which, as Milstein rightly notes, seems to imply a direct relationship between versions. Instead, texts, like oral stories, have complicated relationships with each other, such that “even when multiple versions of a text are available, it is unlikely that they are related directly.” Determining their relationship also includes a consideration of the logic of single witnesses, argument, and intuition. Indeed, while helpful (and enviable), having multiple witnesses to a text does not solve all interpretive problems.
When making her case for the Hebrew Bible, Milstein wisely skirts the minefield of the Pentateuch, starting briefly with cases where there is hard evidence—the extra-biblical Community Rule and the biblical Esther—before turning to the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-Kings) for a closer look. Her study of the Gideon-Abimelekh cycle (Judges 6-9) and pieces of the Saul narrative (Judges 19-21; 1 Samuel 1; 2 Samuel 1) relies on identifying and explaining inconsistencies in the final form(s) of the text. She does not, as some have done, suggest that older phases can be found intact. Rather, pieces of the older phases remain, perhaps partially preserved because of the tendency to leave the body of the story intact.
For the Gideon-Abimelekh cycle, Milstein contends that an appended introduction in “Judges 9:1-25 recasts Abimelekh in a negative light, presents Shechem as centralized, and serves as bridge between the old Abimelekh account and the old Gideon account.” The Deuteronomistic introduction at the beginning of the cycle in 6:1-6, she argues, represents the final act of revision through introduction. For the texts related to Saul, Milstein posits an earlier Saul complex including an earlier version of the Benjaminite war (Judges 20-21), “its resolution with regard to the women of Shiloh (Judges 21:15-24), an old Saul birth story (1 Samuel 1), and an account of Saul’s victory over the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11).” The newer introduction in 19:1-20:13 “recasts the complex in anti-Saul terms.” In effect, Milstein suggests that both stories change primary characters from good guys to bad guys, while hints of the earlier layers remain embedded in the reframed narratives. Her analysis of these texts is helpful in providing a new (or at least recalibrated) lens through which to read the biblical texts: revision by introduction (and conclusion) with the body left largely intact, rather than superimposed layers or intact sources. She offers a fresh reading of both text groups, skillfully weaving together the threads in the text to unveil a plausible portrait of its earlier stages. Nonetheless, the connections she makes, especially with the Saulide example, are rather tenuous and other scholars have woven the threads in different ways. Without hard evidence, it is difficult to decide definitively between them. As she notes for Mesopotamia, even with hard evidence, there is no smoking gun.
Since there is no smoking gun in sight, one wonders if we should abandon questions of composition and take up other avenues of investigation. However, while forging other paths is certainly welcome, questions of composition remain necessary if we want to try to read the texts in their historical contexts. In her careful and creative study, Milstein offers new evidence and insight, better preparing the reader to wrestle with ancient texts. At the same time, her evidence and insight shake the foundations we previously thought were firm, leaving us both closer and farther from her beloved and elusive scribes. Because of these and other reasons, Milstein’s study is to be highly recommended, helping us to recalibrate our thinking and inviting the reader to follow the path she has skillfully laid to see what treasures it yields.
Michael Hundley is a lecturer at Central Washington University. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Amherst College, a master of divinity from Trinity International University, a master of theology degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a doctorate from the University of Cambridge. Michael also spent two years as a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published two books as well as numerous articles for academic journals.