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Cameron Freeman

Scribes, Prophets, & Temple Priests: The process of establishing and maintaining Judean boundaries through the canonization of scripture.

In the seventh century B.C.E., during renovations to the Jerusalem temple, the high priest, Hilkiah discovers a scroll which he shows to the king's scribe, Shaphan who takes the written scroll to the king, Josiah: (10)"Shaphan the secretary informed the king, "The priest Hilkiah has given me a book." Shaphan then read it aloud to the king. (11)When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes." (2 Kings 23:10-11). Understanding the significance of the scroll's contents, Josiah implements sweeping religious, political, and economic reforms throughout the kingdom of Judah. What was this scroll that Hilkiah found? Why was this scroll so significant? How did this text acquire the religious authority to be accepted as Torah?

In this paper, I will argue that development of written authority in both the pre-exilic and post-exilic period, was a response by literate elites to cultural circumstances that required boundary maintenance of Judean identity and governance. I will show that this process required neutralizing the oral tradition with scribal texts that would, under the institutional authority of the state and temple priests, eclipse prophetic authority by centering Yahwism in text. Lastly, the accumulation of Second Temple texts will show clear signs that the authority of Torah had been firmly established and grown beyond the boundaries of the temple cult and adopted into legal and civil matters.

Our first historical event concerning the canonization of Hebrew Scripture centers on a scroll found by the temple priest, Hilkiah. Josiah, upon hearing the contents of the scroll, recognizes it as the book of Deuteronomy--signified by the tearing of his clothes which is incited by curses similar to those found in Deut. 28.61 and 29.21.[1] To understand how this written text came into the hands of Josiah, we must first examine the early scribal tradition of ancient Israel.

Ancient Israel was an oral culture where emerging literacy was confined to state elites. Examples of Israelite oral culture are reflected in biblical texts. These examples are an extension of oral performers. Proverbs 1:8, "Hear my child, your father's instruction, and do not reject your mother's teaching." Psalms 10:1-2 also stresses the oral performance, "O give thanks to YHWH, call on his name, make it known his deeds among the peoples, Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works." The oral tradition of early Israelite culture places authority clearly into the mouths of parents passing the traditions of their culture onto their children to be preserved for future generations. Telling stories and singing songs of the people at important events and festivals preserved the oral culture of early Israel. The "Song Moses" in Exodus 15 continues to this day to be recited in the synagogue during morning service and on the seventh day of Passover.[2]

In the writings of ancient Israel, most of the people listed are state officials of some sort-scribes, priests, kings and other bureaucrats. The emergence of writing closely followed the rise of early city-state structures, possibly as early as the Davidic-Solomonic period.[3] With the establishment of the monarchy, royal scribes were an essential component of a king's administration. Scribes kept written records of payments, royal correspondence and accounts of certain temple liturgies.[4] Furthermore, the scribal tradition used written reproductions of earlier traditions to not only teach the student to read, but to educate the scribe in memorizing aspects of their cultural tradition and develop their ability to recite and perform it. Thus, texts were critical in transferring key cultural traditions from one scribal generation to the next generation of scribal administrators and state elites.[5] As Israelite literacy expanded beyond the confines of royal elites and permeated the state bureaucracy, it generated a proliferation of written texts, from which a subsequent development occurred-archives and libraries. The scroll found by the temple priest, Hilkiah suggests that there was a practice of keeping written texts in the temple in pre-exilic times. The power of written text is that nothing need be forgotten; written texts could substitute for memory.[6] Thus, written texts could challenge the oral tradition and compete for cultural and religious authority. Texts in ancient Israel were written for ears not eyes-they were created for an oral performance. Texts were to be read aloud, either to an audience or to oneself.[7] In fact, Deuteronomy 31 instructs public recitation of the book, so when king Josiah promulgated his religious and political reforms throughout Judea, he did so by public disputation: "1Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. 2 The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord" (2 Kings 23:1-2). Furthermore, written texts could be consulted to confirm correct ritual performances, rules and laws, songs and prayers and wisdom sayings. Hence, old texts, like the one Hilkiah found in the temple, were used to authenticate important rituals and their correct performances. Josiah used Hilkiah's text to re-establish discontinued celebrations, such as the Passover festival, which had not been practiced since the days of judges.[8] "(21)The king commanded all the people "Keep the Passover to the Lord your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant." (22)No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah; (23)but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the Lord in Jerusalem" (2 Kings 23:21-23). Thus, Josiah's impressive public reading of the old text not only validated the structure of important rituals, the rituals in turn provided their cultural weight to the texts that prescribed them. This suggests that the textual authority of scripture had ritual origins.[9]

By the reign of Josiah, social, cultural and political conditions such as increased literacy, urbanization and political centralization in Jerusalem, had set the stage for the orthodoxy of the book. The Assyrian campaigns and the subsequent destruction of Israel in the north, created a flood of new immigrants into the area of Jerusalem-not farmers or pastoralists who would have likely stayed tied to their ancestral lands, but elites such as, nobles, government bureaucrats, scribes, craftsman and temple priests.[10] This scenario is supported by the large number of epigraphic remains discovered in Judea, including some seven hundred seals dating back to the seventh century B.C.E. which suggest that there must have been a great quantity of papyrus and parchment documents in use at the time.[11] Furthermore, the abundant use of seals suggests that even a limited literacy-the ability to read and write one's name, simple receipts and possibly short letters, had pervaded everyday economic activities.[12] Moreover, the influx of social and cultural elites from northern Judea fostered the growth of urbanization. This demographic centralization had a corollary effect-religious-political centralization in Jerusalem, which had already begun under the reign of Hezekiah earlier in the eighth century B.C.E. (2 Kgs 18:4, 22). By locating the center of state control in Jerusalem it made the temple and palace the heart of the Judean economy. This provoked tribal leaders throughout the Judean state who were marginalized by the political centralization. Furthermore, their antagonism was exacerbated by the religious counter reforms of Manasseh and Amon.[13] Of course the growth of the centralized state required bureaucrats for its effective administration and with it came the rise of texts, individualization and the breakdown of community values. Traditional Judean society was maintained by the oral tradition. The group preserved stories and the tradition of wisdom orally, but the rising textuality of urban Judean culture undercut the oral tradition and gave power to the individual to circumvent the community held traditions through the orthodoxy of the book.[14] It was in this socio-political context that Josiah was able to canonize a scared text and exert power to make sweeping religious and political reforms.

Scholars posit that the canonization of the Deuteronomic text took place 621 B.C.E., the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign.[15] Judean society, wrought with the polluting influences of the north kingdom and with tensions of urbanization and political centralization, was ripe for the implementation of old values and social structure. Josiah recognizes Hilkiah's text as the scroll of the covenant, and by promulgation, reenacts the original Sinai covenant and binds the Judeans, by reciting the text as an oath in a renewal of Yahwist faith: "3The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant" (2 Kings 23:3). Josiah's Book of Deuteronomy makes an ideal template for a national constitution, containing all the official institutions of the state: monarch, judiciary, priesthood and prophecy.[16] The discovery of the scroll hastens Josiah's reforms,, prescribing what reforms needed to take place: centralization of the temple cult and the royal court in Jerusalem, the removal of all symbols, deities and other cults from the temple, and a renewed covenant with YHWH. These measures were designed to strengthen both the monarchy and the priesthood. In addition to Josiah's religious reforms, Hilkiah's written scroll had shifted the realm of writing religious texts to a new social location. Hilkiah's written scroll signified that writing had broken free of state control and was now in the social domain of the priests and temple that could use written text as a tool for religious reform.[17]

With the rise of textuality, the orthodoxy of the book became more than just a liturgical and pedagogical document-Torah, more than the temple or sacrifices, was the real source of power, now in the hands of the temple priests.[18] Oddly, Josiah did not enact on any of Deuteronomy's civil and criminal rules of conduct-a move that would come later in the postexilic period.

Not everyone surrendered to the authority of the text. The fixing of authority by written text had a neutralizing effect on the oral prophetic tradition, particularly the prophet Jeremiah-a contemporary of Josiah. In attempt to make an argument for speech and the authority of the oral prophets, Jeremiah declares: (8)How can you say, "We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us," when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie? (9)The wise shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken; since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what wisdom is in them?" (Jeremiah 8:8-9) Jeremiah makes a clear distinction between the falsely written Torah and the authentic word of Yahweh and rejects the notion that Torah could be contained in a book rather than in the ear of the prophet. Canonization was coup by the temple priests to overthrow of prophetic authority by means of writing and textuality. Jeremiah was naturally concerned and suspicious of written, edited and authoritatively interpreted law that bound priests, scribes and salaried prophets, like Huldah, to the official political and religious leadership. Writing is more powerful than speech; it fixes boundaries and establishes precedents that constrain the improvisational qualities of prophecy. Thus, prophetic powers were brought under control. Canonization pitted the oral prophet against the written Book of Deuteronomy, whereby conflicts would now be resolved by the hegemony of text.[19]

In the Persian period, it was the Aaronide priests who resolved the crisis of oral versus written Yahwism. By textualizing "The Word of YHWH", texts such as, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, had coined a new term for "prophecy"-nevu'ah. Originally, "the word YHWH" meant divine prophetic revelation, but the term "word of YHWH" had become accepted as "the Torah of Moses", so a new term was required since the old term had been co-opted by the textualization of the literary tradition.[20] Thus, the "word of God" was now considered "a text" and, as a result, biblical prophecy was eclipsed. The term "Prophet" would now be reserved for scribes and priests who could deliver a divine exegesis of God as encoded in the written word.[21]

Our second story of canonization takes place in the post-exilic period around 444 B.C.E. when the Judean people are in a state of religious and political chaos. This is the time of the model priest and scribe, Ezra, who realizes a new Israel needs to be consolidated around the Torah of Moses. In a highly symbolic public reading of "the book of the law of Moses" (Nehemiah 8), Ezra's ritualized performance of "doing it right, doing things by the book", not only legitimated and elevated the authority of specific ritual practices, but moreover, by cloaking the ritual with blessings and responses, obeisances, and a hierarchical display of community members, it further reinforced the validity of the spoken text.[22] Ezra's public reading of the Torah at Water Gate (a place outside of the temple) inspires the people to stand up when Ezra opens the scroll to read; a move that signifies a shift away from the temple and the exclusive control of the priests (Neh. 8:2).[23] Furthermore, the public ceremony demonstrated a harmonious religious and political relationship between Ezra, as priest and scribe, Nehemiah, as state official and the Levites, as teachers of the Torah (Neh. 8:9). It is important to note, that the people who took the initiative to study and implement the Torah, as it was written down in the scroll, exposed the people to the regulations of the festival, Sukkot. Once again, this example highlights how authoritative texts were used to validate and legitimate specific rituals and practices. In addition to religious affairs, Ezra also expanded the Torah beyond the boundaries of temple and ritual matters and transformed "the ritual book" into a "law book" in order to reform the Judean practice of mixed marriages which threatened the very existence and identity of the Judean people (Ezra 9:11-12 and Deut. 7:3). Ezra, in order to protect religious and ethnic boundaries around the emergent community, implemented sweeping exclusivist religious and political reforms, including: prohibiting intermarriages, expulsion of foreigners, and laws prohibiting work of the sabbath.[24] Furthermore, because the Levites and priests were dependent on contributions, Ezra secures religious and social institutions of Jerusalem with an edict requesting a voluntary temple tax, provisions for regular Temple sacrifices and worship, and wood for the altar's fires which is not prescribed by the Torah.

Ezra was more than just a priest and scribe, he and the Levites were scholars and teachers of the Torah: "(3)On the second day the heads of ancestral houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to the scribe Ezra in order to study the words of the law" (Neh. 8:13). Erza's public ceremony, initiated by the community, reenacts Sinai, whereby the teachings of God are transmitted orally from the written scroll to the Judeans, thus converting the community into "the people of the book." As a result, Ezra widens access to the Torah and its authoritative teachings by giving both men and women an opportunity to hear and receive the written word of the Torah. And, because Ezra was "a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses" (Esra 7:6), the Persian king adopted his mission to create a Judean national law (Ezra 7:26). To achieve his goal, Ezra needed to create an infrastructure that could administer the Torah at the local level. Under the authority of the central temple in Jerusalem, Ezra established a network of regional centres, which would later function as the forunners of synagogues, and appointed the Levite scribal elites to hold regular public instruction of the Torah. Furthermore, Ezra charged the Levites with the task of adjudicating local disputes and made them responsible for the implementation of various administrative duties.[25] Ezra was indeed an innovator, and in a feat of scribal genius, fused various Pentateuchal traditions in one literary text, known as the Law of Moses. However, for the Ezra's book to reach canonization status, it needed the power of the Persian authorities to make the book binding to the people. Thus, Ezra, would be known as the father of Judaism and be forever linked with the restoration of Judean culture in the Persian period.[26]

Textual directives of the Torah demonstrated their pervasiveness in the proliferation of biblical texts produced later in the Second Temple period. Tobit 1:8; 7:12-13, includes the tithe of first fruits and explains how marriage contracts are to comply with the law of Moses. Torah instructions for cleansing and restoration of the temple in 164 B.C.E. are found in 1 Maccabees, as well as, references to the cause of the Maccabees revolt over non-compliance with Torah mandates (1 Macc.4:47, 53). Observance of purity and fasting rules in accordance with Torah regulations are noted in the book of Judith. Also, an example of how the textual Torah was used for in the practice criminal law can found in the story of Susannah; who, trained in the law of Moses (v.3) is found innocent and when her accusers are proven, by Daniel, to be liars, the community executes them. Thus, we find evidence that the authority of Torah had been extended beyond the boundaries of temple and ritual practice and into the realm of criminal and civil matters signifying the Torah scrolls as symbols of Judean identity and tradition.[27] Furthermore, the evidence of a library corpus of authoritative texts at Qumran lends further proof to the growing authority texts and the scrolls that would comprise the canonized Torah and ultimately define Judaism, as we know it today. The Qumran corpus of Hebrew Scriptures included, in addition to the community's sectarian scrolls, all the texts found in the Hebrew canon, in whole or in fragments, with the exception of Esther. The Qumran library also provides concrete proof of scribal methodologies and practices.[28] Additionally, the Qumran texts found in the Hebrew canon showed little divergence other than obvious scribal errors concerning mostly spelling.[29] Furthermore, the discovery of a library of scrolls at Qumran suggests also that there was probably a temple library in Jerusalem. 2 Maccabees 2:13-15, says: "(13)The same things are reported in the records and in the memoirs of Nehemiah, and also that he founded a library and collected the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings. (14)In the same way Judas also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war that had come upon us, and they are in our possession. (15)So if you have need of them, send people to get them for you." An assumption could be posited, based on 2 Maccabees that the holdings of the Jerusalem library were a protocanonical corpus of texts. Proponents of the library theory-a belief that the canon goes back to the catalogue of sacred scrolls in the Jerusalem temple, posit that scrolls in the Temple were not stored for the liturgical worth but for their sanctity.[30] And, while there is no hard evidence linking the canon with the Jerusalem library, the existence of libraries in ancient Israel, certainly implied that they were an embodiment of a literary and scholarly heritage. Moreover, it also suggests that a condition for a scroll's possible inclusion in the canon must have been on the condition that it was included in the Temple library.[31]

In summary, what started out in Ancient Israel as oral components of stories, songs, prayers, and wisdom sayings, eventually were written down and sewn together by literate priests and scribal elites to form the complexes of the Judean tradition under the institutional authority of temple and state. As Judean urbanization grew so did the literacy rate and with it the number of biblical texts. The hegemony of text, authorized and legitimized by priestly and state elites, broke the oral bonds of the unbridled prophetic tradition in the pre-exilic period and centered "the word of YHWH" in a handwritten scroll that would serve as a divine constitution in post-exilic times of religious and political crisis, and galvanize the boundaries of Judean identity, practice, and ritual. By the end of the of Second Temple period, the vast number of scrolls referencing the authority of Torah on civil and criminal laws, stories and rituals had been firmly established and its application had grown in scope as various sects, such as the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes expanded religious and cultural boundaries of the community. With the demise of the second temple, the Torah's civil laws and narratives rendered ritual instruction impotent. Correct ritual performance was replaced with an impetus to understand and interpret the text correctly--making written scripture the center of worship.

End Notes

1. Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 567
2 Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 53
3. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart. 9
4. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 40
5. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart. 9
6. Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. 15
7. Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. 12
8. Watts, "Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority." 406
9. Watts, "Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority." 402
10. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 95
11. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 99
12. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 100
13. Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 565
14. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 98
15. Bruns, "Canon and Power in the Hebrew Scriptures." 467
16. Bruns, "Canon and Power in the Hebrew Scriptures." 467
17. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 112
18. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 113
19. Bruns, "Canon and Power in the Hebrew Scriptures." 476
20. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 188
21. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book. 189
22. Watts, "Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority." 411
23. Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 696
24. Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 700
25. Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. 250
26. Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. 251
27. Watts, "Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority." 414
28. Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. 11
29. Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. 16
30. Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. 239
31. Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. 244


Bruns, Gerald L. "Canon and Power in the Hebrew Scriptures." Critical Inquiry 10, no. 3 (March 1, 1984): 462-480.

Carr, David McLain. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Coogan, Michael David, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: with the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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

Schniedewind, William M. How the Bible Became a Book: the Textualization of Ancient Israel. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004.

Ulrich, Eugene. "From Literature to Scripture: Reflections on the Growth of a Text's Authoritativeness." Dead Sea Discoveries 10, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 3-25.

Vermes, Geza. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. London: Penguin, 2004.

Watts, James W. "Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority." Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 3 (October 1, 2005): 401-417.