ISRAEL STORY 11 – From oral tradition to written


Collins, Raymond F.  The Birth of the New Testament: The Origin and Develoment of the First Christian Generation.  (Crossroad, New York, 1993).

Dunn, James D.G.  Jesus Remembered.  Volume 1 of Christianity in the Making.  (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2003).

Ehrman, Bart D.  Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament.  (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford , 2003).

Evans, Craig A.  and Emanuel Tov, editors.  Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective.  (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2008).

Farmer, William Reuben.  Maccabees, Zealots and Josephus: An Inquiry into Jewish Nationalism in the Greco-Roman Period.  (Columbia University Press, New York, 1956).

Grant, Robert M. with David Tracy.  A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible.  Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged.  (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1984).

McDonald, Lee Martin.  The Biblical Cannon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority.  (Hendrickson, Peabody MA, 2007).

Metzger, Bruce Manning.  The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration.  (Oxford University Press, New York, 1964).

Neusner, Jacob.  First Century Judaism in Crisis.  (Abingdon, Nashville, 1975).

Pelikan, Jaroslav.  Whose Bible Is It?  A Short History of the Scriptures.  (Penguin, London, 2005).

Rost, Leonhard.  Judaism Outside the Hebrew Canon: An Introduction to the Documents.  (Abingdon, Nashville, 1971)

Rowley, H.H.  The Growth of the Old Testament.  (Harper and Row, New York, 1950).

Schniedewind, William M.  How the Bible became a Book.  (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 2004)

Wurthwein, Ernst.  The Text of the Old Testament.  Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes.  (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1979).


Pirke Avot (The Wisdom of the Fathers) gives this summary: “Moses received the Torah at Mt. Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, the prophets passed it on to the men of the great assembly.”  (Note that the kings are bypassed, as are the priests of the Temple.)

Schniedewind p. 2: “Ancient Israel before the seventh century B.C.E. was largely non-literate.  How does an oral culture like ancient Israel come to express its identity through a written text?  How does the basic orality of early Israel shape the Bible as a written text?  How does the authority of the written word come to supplant the living voice of the teacher and the community?”

Schniedewind p. 3 argues that the movement of literacy out of the palace and temple and into the community at large, making writing and reading part of everyday life, helped transfer the authority of oral traditions to the written texts.

Schniedewind p. 12, 13: “Orally composed literature should not be caricatured as rustic or unsophisticated.  Works such as Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey serve as prime examples of the power complexity, and sophistication that oral literature can possess.  Oral compositions can be complex, and written texts can be simple.  Moreover, even when we begin to have written texts, the oral world leaves its mark on them.”

Schniedewind p. 17: writing it down happened 8th to 6th centuries B.C.E. as part of the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah

Schniedewind p. 18: “The Bible – that is, the collection of canonized books of the Bible as we have come to know them – was produced between the fifth century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E..  This does not mean, however, that biblical literature was first composed or written down during this period; rather, it means that the editorial processes – decisions about which literature would become canonical, the order of the books, the relationships among the books, the editorial frameworks of the books – largely took place during these nine hundred years.”

As the transition happened and then picked up speed there would have been a lot of tension between those invested in the authority of the oral tradition and those investing in the authority of the written.  Some resistance, even among the educated.  Schniedewind p. 15: “The tension between the Sadducees and Pharisees over the authority of the oral tradition should be understood, at least in part, as tension between the literate social elites who controlled the written texts and the more lay population who were largely illiterate.  Oral Torah was egalitarian, whereas Scripture was elitist.”

Schniedewind p. 120: “The original meaning of the Hebrew word torah as “teaching” underlines its orality.  The word meant to teach or to instruct orally and had nothing to do with written texts.  Part of my intent in this chapter is to show how “teaching” becomes sacred text.”

Schniedewind p. 121: “It is a truly astonishing observation that writing has no role in the revelation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19.  Writing has no role in the description of the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20.  Writing has no role in the so-called Covenant Code in Exodus 21-23.  Somehow the story of the revelation in Exodus 19-23 seems unaware that the Torah is a text.”  Moses writes it down in Exodus 24.

There is no clear statement of what the stone tablets had written on them.  Some: the 10 commandments, others all the commandments, others say the plan for the Temple.  (The tabernacle / Temple plans are then given in Exodus 25 to 31.)

Schniedewind p. 135: “Why is textuality so prominent in Deuteronomy, while it is almost absent in Genesis through Numbers?  Fundamentally, it is Deuteronomy that makes the textuality of the Torah a centerpiece of Jewish religion.  It is Deuteronomy that makes Judaism a religion of the book.  In Exodus, torah is oral teaching, whereas in Deuteronomy the Torah is written law.”  (Exodus 24 inserted later, during the reign of King Josiah a scroll – the book of the covenant is found, justifies the reforms)

Pelikan p. 23: “What is lost when the spoken word (as we often say, perhaps more portentously than we realize) is reduced to writing must be balanced against what is preserved in that same process and by means of it.”  We lose tone, expression, pace, etc.  but we may gain much as well.

McDonald p. 15: “The terms Old Testament and New Testament were introduced in the second century C.E. to refer to these two bodies of literature, but they were not regularly used in the church for a body of sacred Scriptures until the fourth century C.E.”

McDonald p. 17: “Rabbinic Jews (second to the sixth centuries C.E.) not only adopted a fixed collection of Scriptures, but also a fixed text because of their methods of interpretation (known as “midrash”) in which special laws and teachings were derived from the textual details of their biblical books.  A fixed text aided in interpretation and application.  Later, vowel points and musical notations were added to the text to preserve its textual authenticity, and this gave way to the production of the Masoretic text (MT) of the HB, the standard text appealed to by both Jews and Christians today.  Christians apparently had no interest in a fixed text and did not attempt to produce one until much later in church history.”

McDonald p. 18: “Many factors played a role in the complex history of the formation of the Bible, including the origin of the notion of sacred literature itself, the processes that led to the recognition of that literature, and the final fixing of a closed collection of sacred literature.”

McDonald p. 18: “There is no evidence from the time of Jesus or before that either the Jews or the followers of Jesus were even remotely interested in the notion of a closed collection of sacred Scriptures, and this is what makes any investigation of such notions in the time of Jesus so challenging.”

McDonald p. 21: “The Jews believed that Moses proclaimed the words and ordinances of God (Exod 24:3) and that he was commissioned by God to write them down (Exod 34:4, 27).  They believed that God himself was the writer of the Decalogue, or Ten commandments (Exod 34:1, Deut 4:13; 10:4).  In time the Jews came to believe that the laws of God were written and preserved in sacred writings, and this belief played a pivotal role in the development of their notion of a revealed and authoritative Scripture.”

McDonald p. 21: “According to Farley, the basic properties of Scriptures include for both ancient Judaism and early Christianity at least four essential ingredients: (1) they are written, (2) have divine origin, (3) communicate the will and truth of God, and (4) function as an enduring source of regulations for the corporate and individual life of the people.”

McDonald p. 23: “The OT Scriptures (the limits of which in the time of Jesus were not yet precisely defined) were viewed as authoritative in the early Christian churches (e.g. Matt 21:42, 22:200; 26:56; Luke 24:32, 44; John 5:30; 1 Cor 15:3-4), but the matter of when the NT literature began to be given the same status as the OT writings in the ancient churches is difficult to determine …  However, it can be said in advance that when the early churches began to place the Christian writings alongside the OT Scriptures as authoritative religious documents of the church, the transition to their recognition as sacred Scripture had begun.”

Process of authoritative use is underway in NT of the OT when “in order to fulfill” etc. is incorporated

McDonald p. 28: “For the rabbinic schools, eventually the whole of their oral tradition became Torah and was treated as sacred, even if the written Scriptures were given priority.  In regard to the HB, the Torah always had priority over the Prophets and Writings, and in the rabbinic tradition, the written Torah had priority over the oral Torah, even though both are sacred to the Jews and in practice Talmudic law became as important as biblical law.”

McDonald p. 29: “The church inherited its collection of OT Scriptures from first-century Judaism before its separation from the synagogue.  The writings that the mostly Pharisaic Jews believed were sacred before this parting of the ways are the same ones that the early Christians also acknowledged as Scripture.  This collection was largely, but not completely, formed before thee time of Jesus, and included the Law, the Prophets, and an imprecise collection of other writings.”

For the NT: oral traditions of Jesus led to writing them down within a few decades (70-100) led to the texts having “normative value” for the church led to them being identified as Scripture and solidified into a canon later (170 to 180).  Once identified as Scripture the process of changing, editing, etc. stopped.

McDonald p. 74: “It is widely acknowledged that the Law was recognized as sacred Scripture in Israel no later than approximately 400 B.C.E. (the latest time for dating the reforms of Nehemiah), and most scholars agree that it probably started sooner during the reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 22-23), but then became more substantial following the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The Law, or “law of Moses,” as Ezra called it, may not, however, be the same as the Pentateuch, which contains far more than laws or regulations, including the Genesis stories of beginnings.  In those days, there was no notion of closed canon of Scriptures, but the Law was undoubtedly recognized as Scripture for these postexilic Jews, even if their sacred writings were not yet called “Scripture.”

Wurthwein p. xviii: “The text to be interpreted must first be established – it is not already defined.  The available witnesses to the text must first be examined in order to reconstruct a single form of the text which we can assert with confidence to be as close to the form of the autographs as scientific principles can lead us, if not (ideally ) identical with them.”   TEXTUAL CRITICISM.  On virtually every page of the OT or NT there are variations in the text in some surviving manuscripts.  It takes great scholarly effort to discern which manuscripts have the best texts.  In Greek the Nestle-Alandt text is the ‘textus receptus’ or baseline, in Hebrew it is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.  Translators start with these, on basis of their own work may selectively use alternatives.

Wurthwein p. 5: The scripts used in writing changed over the early centuries.  Phoenician-Old Hebrew script the ancestor, gave way to square script in 4th to 2nd centuries BC.

As they were written down scrolls of leather were used – which limited length.  Then came papyrus which led to codices which ultimately led to bound books.

Wurthwein p. 16: “We would know nothing about the varieties of text which circulated in the previous centuries if it were not for the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Nash Papyrus, the Septuagint, and above all the Biblical texts from Qumran.”

Dunn p. 130, 131: “What we actually have in the earliest retellings of what is now the Synoptic tradition, then, are the memories of the first disciples – not Jesus himself, but the remembered Jesus.”   How he was perceived, teachings  “as they impacted on the individuals who stored them in their memories and began the process of oral transmission.”

Dunn point out – if Jesus said something more than once, did something more than once – there is no such thing as an “original” to try to discover or work back to.



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