Scribal Culture and the Old Testament

Reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria

Reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria

How are we to determine the development of the Old Testament canon, to say nothing of the development and preservation of the Scriptures themselves? The first difficulty is our tendency to view antiquity through the lens of the modern age, and to assume that people lived, thought, and acted much as we do. But this is a tremendous error, for the ancients were quite unlike us.

For one thing, the ancients did not have our fascination with the printed word, and in particular, with individual authorship. The ancients had a much different view of the individual than we do — not individual as a means of distinguishing one person from another, but rather as a person occupying a social role. Karel van der Toorn expands upon this line of thought.

We think of a human person as a unique individual distinct from all other human beings. This view is the outcome of a long historical process. Earlier cultures put much greater emphasis on the social role of the individual. In ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia and Israel, the human person is understood as a character (personage) rather than as a personality (personne). The individual is indistinguishable from his or her social role and social status. (van der Toorn 2007, 46)

Since the ancients didn’t have our fascination with the individual, our concept of authorship doesn’t fit. The ancient author was unconcerned with issues that concern modern publishing, such as “authenticity, originality, and intellectual property.” Instead, the name attached to a document had to do with the authority of the document, rather than authorship in the modern sense. The actual author, in the modern sense, would have been an anonymous scribe. (van der Toorn 2007, 47)

The role of the scribe in antiquity was in part a function of that era’s widespread illiteracy, which was so bad that in at least one case a person was considered literate since he knew how to sign his name.  (Ehrman 2005, 38-39) With few people available who knew how to read, there could be no trade in books. Scrolls, therefore, were primarily a matter for governance and religion, and were kept in the palace and temple libraries. Karel van der Toorn writes:

Scribes wrote scrolls (rather than books) for the benefit of other scribes (rather than for private readers). A book market did not exist, nor were there public libraries; in fact, there was no reading public of any substance. Texts reached the people by being read out loud by someone from the literate elite. Writing and reciting were complementary facets of the scribal craft, and the Bible came into being through the agency of the scribes. In many respects, then, the Bible is the fruit of scribal culture. (van der Toorn 2007, 51)

Conditioned as we are by Hellenism, this scribal culture is foreign to us — so much so that we read our understandings into the scriptures, seeing in them the things that fit our mental model. We are like someone learning a foreign language, and whose brain cannot ‘hear’ the phonetics that don’t occur in their native tongue.

For example, there is a passage in Deuteronomy that provides regulations for the proclamation and behavior of the king once the people enter the land (Deut 17:14-20). This passage is peculiar, because it suggests that God was not opposed to Israel having a king. In fact, not having a king was normative for Israel during the period of the Judges (Jud18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The prophet Samuel was the last judge of Israel when the people asked for a king. And God said to Samuel: “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Sam 8:7). What follows is a passage that details the behavior of the king — his taxation, and the manner of his rule — and provides this in greater detail than the passage in Deuteronomy.

Given this, we may well ask why the passage in Deuteronomy exists if Israel was not meant to have a king. This is not Moses allowing for divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. Instead, we have the Mosaic law explicitly permitting something which under Samuel was a considered to be a rejection of God. Now we can discuss this in light of God’s perfect will vs. his permissive will, but wouldn’t it be easier to suggest the passage in Deuteronomy is a later scribal addition? That perhaps the scribes took down Samuel’s words and added them to the text of Deuteronomy?

Shocking, I know, given our post-Hellenistic understanding of authorship as an individualistic, creative act. But in the scribal culture, books and authors didn’t exist as such. An author was the authority under which something was written, not the person who actually wrote.  Scribes collected, copied, edited, and maintained libraries of scrolls for use in the temple, and in government. It is reasonable to assume that once Israel had a king, certain rules and regulations for having a king were added to the law.[1]

For the ancients, an author was not necessarily someone who wrote, but rather someone who lent authority to the works that bore his name. Given this, the books of Moses should be understood as the books compiled and maintained under Moses’ authority, rather than the books Moses personally authored by his own hand. Just as the book of Jeremiah was transcribed by Baruch the son of Neriah, in like fashion Moses would likely have used an amanuensis to transcribe his thoughts. Given the scribal culture, it should be expected that the original Mosaic material was compiled and edited over the centuries, yet maintained the basic structure and authority of the original  —  if such a thing (an original in the modern sense of the term) could be said to have existed in the first place.


Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

[1] We should note that while Saul was king, he functioned more like a tribal leader. Under Saul, there was no government as such. The same can be said for David. It wasn’t until Solomon that a government existed, one in which the power of the king was delegated to government functionaries whose exercise of power was in accordance with the law.