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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 68, 2020

WILLIAM M. SCHNIEDEWIND, The Finger of the Scribe: How Scribes Learned to Write the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). Pp. x + 236. Hardcover. US$34.95.

In The Finger of the Scribe: How Scribes Learned to Write the Bible, William Schniedewind presents a case for there being no break in literacy between the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age and demonstrates how the scribal curriculum influenced the way aspects of the Bible came into being.

In his first chapter Schniedewind provides a brief overview of the situation in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age as far as literacy was concerned. The Egyptians were the overlords but while Egyptian scribal practices such as the use of ink, as well as accounting and measuring methods, were bequeathed to those involved in early alphabetic scribal writing, it was Mesopotamian educational practices upon which the latter was based. This is evident from cuneiform texts found in Canaan where, like elsewhere in the Ancient Near East, Akkadian was the lingua franca. Based on archaeological evidence, Schniedewind claims, probably correctly, that when the Egyptian overlords withdrew from Canaan they left administrators and scribes behind. Thus, a vector of transmission existed for the transfer of Mesopotamian educational practices and scribal culture to later generations who did not work in Akkadian, but in the vernacular, and who utilised an alphabet. Subsequent chapters are focused upon finds within Israel that demonstrate a link between the Israelite scribal curriculum and the Mesopotamian one.

In Chapter Two, Schniedewind considers artifacts from Kuntillet ‘Arjud in central Sinai and located on the route from the Red Sea to Gaza. He finds partial examples of abecedaries, lexical lists, numerical exercises, models for letter writing, proverbial sayings, liturgy as well as fragmentary literary texts in plaster that originally were on the walls of the “fortress.” The rest of the chapters are devoted to each of these categories.

In Chapter Three, “Alphabets and Acrostics,” the origin of the alphabet is explored and evidence brought forward showing that it began in the early second millennium in Egypt and spread from there. Abecadaries (the writing of the alphabet) were exercises in scribal education and early examples have been found in Jerusalem, Lachish, Beth-Shemesh, Jaffa, Gath, with the earliest ca. 1100 BCE in Izbet Sarta. Acrostic poems are evidenced in the Bible and Schniedewind thinks they had their origin as school exercises.

Chapter Four is entitled “From Lists to Literature.” Schniedewind demonstrates that in both Mesopotamia and Egypt scribes in training wrote lists of objects, of places, of people etc. In essence these were spelling exercises. Two examples in Hebrew were found at Kuntillet ‘Arjud and he posits that the Gezer Calendar is a lexical list relating to agricultural activities. He also thinks that the much debated inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa (late 11th Century) is a lexical list. In the Bible, lists of various kinds appear and Schniedewind describe them as an “organizing tool” (87). Sometimes they are autonomous lists embedded in a narrative, sometimes lists that provided the impetus for the creation of a literary text.

Chapter Five, “Letters, Paragraphs and Prophets,” describes the next stage of a scribe’s training. Letters, says Schniedewind, were an important part of a scribe’s function. Model letters that could be adapted are known from the cuneiform tradition and Ugarit evidences alphabetic examples. The prophetic messenger formula that appears in the Bible was derived from the letter model. Biblical story telling also made use of aspects of letter writing with the “and now” of the letter being used as a paragraph marker.

Chapter Six, “Proverbial Sayings,” demonstrates that, as well as collections of Proverbs in the cuneiform tradition, individual sayings were written on small round tablets. These, Schniedewind thinks, were memorised. An individual saying embedded in a practice letter has come to light at Kuntillet ‘Arjud and the same saying appeared earlier in a number of non-Biblical writings. Further, there are correlates within the Bible. The original setting of the saying was in diplomatic correspondence and so apparent links between the Amarna Letters and Psalms are explained in terms of scribal culture. Schniedewind also considers Prov 22:17–24:10 and its relation to the Egyptian Instruction to Amenope. He shows that a link must have been forged in the Late Bronze Age. The book of Proverbs itself is a collection of collections.

Chapter Seven, “Advanced Education,” is more speculative. It has often been wondered how and when Biblical writers accessed the great cuneiform works (e.g. the Enuma Elish, the Gilgamesh Epic) that they appear to have been familiar with. In the cuneiform tradition, as evidenced by the colophon to the Enuma Elish, written copies of the great works were read out and memorised by scribes. Schniedewind conjectures that plastered walls found at Kuntillet ‘Arjud and Deir ‘Alla and on which are the remains of writing, functioned as blackboards. Scribes in training, seated on benches, read, then recited and memorised what was written. Subsequently, the themes or some aspects of these ancient classics were used, although re-contexted, in Biblical writings as indeed they were in earlier non-Mesopotamian writings of the Second Millennium B.C.E..

While in places the evidence for what Schniedewind claims is rather thin, I have no doubt that he is on the right track and that what he says will be enlightening to biblical scholars. Future archaeological discoveries are likely to strengthen his case rather than contradict it. Indeed, in a paper (Anne E. Gardner, “The Narratives of Solomon’s Reign in the Light of the Historiography of Other Ancient Civilisations,” ABR 56 [2008] 1–18) I argued that scribal activity in Jerusalem, evidenced in the Amarna Letters, was likely to have been bequeathed to the Jerusalem of Solomon’s time.

Review by
Anne E. Gardner
Yarra Theological Union