The Old Testament Storyline: individual books (texts) as an integrated part of *the* Book (Text)

From Stephen Dempster’s excellent Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible:

The finished Text [of the Pentateuch] had no physical unity since there was no scroll large enough to contain it.  Consequently, it was written on five separate scrolls.  Yet not even the most radical literary critic would dare to claim that the correct sequence of scrolls was unimportant for interpretation, and that the whole – the Text – was not greater than the sum of its five parts – the texts.  Linguistic, stylistic and thematic devices ensured that conceptual unity was established, even if technological limitations precluded physical unity.

Theoretically, physical division does not necessarily imply conceptual disunity, as a glance at a multi-volume work on any modern library shelf will show. Similarly, in ancient Israel, the physical separation of texts did not imply that there was not a Text of which they comprised parts.  The deposit of separate volumes together in one archive was already one means to indicate their conceptual unity.  In Mesopotamia, for example, the Creation Epic and the Epic of Gilgamesh had prehistories as oral Texts before they were reduced to writing. When they were inscribed on the physical medium of clay, this technological limitation required the physical separation of these oral and conceptual ‘books’.  In the case of the Creation Epic, seven clay tablets were used; in the instance of Gilgamesh, twelve.  Sarna (1971) and Hallo (1991) have argued that the important conceptual order in these Texts was maintained by storing them in a fixed sequence on the equivalent of ‘shelves’ in ancient archives.  A physical unity was created to maintain the conceptual unity in much the same way that multi-volume works are stored in a specific order on the same library shelf in a modern library.

When the canon was finalized, a similar type of physical unity was created.  Canonical books were distinguished from other non-canonical works and grouped separately; their order was probably maintained by simple physical juxtaposition.  At the least, it is certain that the Hebrew Bible, despite being composed of many texts, is not for that reason precluded from being a Text.

Pg. 21

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R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

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