Reviews of

The Jewish Literary Imagination in Antiquity

In Book of Psalms, Eva MROCZEK, Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah Coogan, Oxford University Press, review, Scribal culture, Second Temple, Uncategorized on November 9, 2017 at 8:04 am

Mrocz mare

2017.11.23 | Eva Mroczek, The Jewish Literary Imagination in Antiquity. New York, NY/Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780190279837

Reviewed by Jeremiah Coogan, University of Notre Dame.

Before the categories of “book” and “Bible” dominated the literary imagination, Mroczek asks, “What did this literary world seem like to Second Temple writers?” (4). How did the creators and users of literary artifacts organize and conceptualize writing? We note that this literary world of Second Temple Judaism is explicitly textual; Mroczek avoids the temptation to see orality as the only alternative to our familiar models of textuality: she explores literary modes that are “deeply, self-consciously textual, but shaped differently from our own” (5). The question is about the “mental architecture” of the Second Temple Jewish library. “In the Second Temple period,” Mroczek argues, “the ‘Bible’ was not yet a unified textual entity, a specific selection of texts collected into a defined corpus. Instead, we see a rich culture where literary production flourished, there was no fixed canon, and claims to divine inspiration and authority continued in important nonbiblical traditions” (3–4). Of course, Mroczek is by no means alone in suggesting that the “biblical” is an anachronism in the Second Temple period, or in observing that biblical assumptions continues to structure scholarly analyses (“When the Bible is the central text, everything else recedes into paratext, auxiliary material whose purpose is to contextualize and illuminate the biblical” [7]—our concepts of the biblical creates its precursors in Second Temple Judaism). Yet Mroczek perceptively recognizes that the “biblical” is implicated in the “bibliographic”—and thus seeks to unwind a tangled web of assumptions by which these two categories continue to shape modern scholarly perceptions of Second Temple Jewish literature.

The book has five main chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, followed by notes, bibliography, and indices. The examples chosen are familiar ones, enabling Mroczek to engage and challenge significant scholars and their approaches to Second Temple literature. Three of five chapters focus on Psalms (the subject of the original dissertation out of which this monograph developed), but Mroczek also turns her attention to Ben Sira and the concept of the “author” and to Jubilees and “rewritten Scripture.” A rich array of supplementary examples nuance the argument.

In the first chapter (“The Mirage of the Bible: The Case of the Books of Psalms”), Mroczek argues that a Book of Psalms in the Second Temple period — as opposed to varied collections of psalms — is a “mirage of bibliographic unity” (32). In light of various collections of psalms found at Qumran (especially 11QPsalmsa), Mroczek argues that evidence for the Book of Psalms is an illusion created by later developments: “[a] variety of collections […] preserve psalms and psalmlike compositions, in various lengths and arrangements, for pedagogical, exorcistic, interpretive, and liturgical purposes” (15). (One might also note other ways in which “songs” and “psalms” circulated, such as inset hymns in narrative prose — e.g. Deuteronomy 32, Judges 5, 2 Samuel 22 — and, somewhat later, various anthologies of biblical odes.) In fact, Mroczek argues, no conceptual category for a single Book of Psalms existed in the Second Temple period (33). Psalms and psalm collections were imagined as part of an expansive heavenly archive that could be partially instantiated in various ways. Contemporary scholarly debates about the role and formation of the Book of Psalms in the Second Temple period thus presuppose a textual object that did not exist, even in the ancient imagination (34). This reader wonders, however, how the Old Greek version of Psalms fits into this picture; even if its Hebrew Vorlage was only one possible cluster of psalms from a much broader constellation of psalmlike texts, Greek translation quickly became a more-or-less stable bibliographic entity for its readers.

Mroczek’s second chapter (“The Sweetest Voice: The Poetics of Attribution”) continues the discussion of Psalms. Mroczek focuses on psalm superscriptions in Hebrew and Greek, as well as later rabbinic and Christian discussions of David, as a way of interrogating practices of authorial attribution. Rather than a horror vacui, in which authorless texts needed to be provided with (pseudepigraphal) authors, we find “characters in search of stories” (16). Attribution is not about filling a “bibliographic gap,” but about expanding the biography of a favorite character. Attribution is “a poetic and honorific association of a body of texts with a character who becomes more and more powerfully linked with efficacious prayer, beautiful song, and divine favor” (84). In this way, a beloved ancient figure such as David is able to “inhabit new literary homes” (16).

The third chapter (“Like a Canal from a River: Scribal Products and Projects”) turns to consider Ben Sira, who figures in modern Jewish imaginations as the first self-identifying, individual Jewish author. By paying careful attention to the metaphors Ben Sira uses for his own activity, as well as to differences between Greek Sirach and Hebrew manuscripts of Ben Sira from the Cairo Geniza, Mroczek seeks to dismantle this idea as an idealistically modern construct. Instead, she argues, Ben Sira does not present himself as an originary author. His book is a deposit of received wisdom, an ongoing multigenerational project that enables its own expansion, neither original nor complete — not dissimilar to the multiform shape of psalm collections in the Second Temple period (113). (Here Mroczek is in productive conversation with Brennan Breed’s recent Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History [ISBL; Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014].) Even in rabbinic literature, “Ben Sira” more often denotes a particular wise individual than a text. Mroczek brilliantly argues that the “Ben Sira” of the text functions as a sort of pseudepigraphic hero with a constructed “I” comparable to the “I” of the Hodayot (e.g. 98); this insight might open up further vistas for considering the role of the eponymous or attributed author in Jewish antiquity. Mroczek’s attention to shifting metaphors for literary production — watercourses, gleaning, growing trees — supports her claim that Ben Sira was understood in antiquity as an ongoing project, a database or archive of wisdom. While there is a danger of reifying these new metaphors in place of the bibliographic ones that Mroczek seeks to decenter, they also enable fresh insight into ancient processes of writing, reading, and collecting texts.

After three chapters that redescribe books and authors in the Second Temple period, the fourth chapter (“Shapes of Scriptures: The Nonbiblical Library of Early Judaism”) turns to a broader question: the relationship of the books to the conceptual library of Second Temple Judaism. For this reader, the most engaging part of the chapter was Mroczek’s discussion of the modern bibliographic creation of “pseudepigrapha”; the publication history of these texts has reinforced a sort of paratextual status, in which a diverse library of Second Temple texts support and expand the Bible. By considering a number of Second Temple texts that discuss books and writing, Mroczek argues that the biblical was not always at the center of the literary imagination. Here she problematizes at the concept of “rewritten Scripture.” While acknowledging that “rewriting” has a certain heuristic value in describing phenomena of textual production, Mroczek challenges the idea of “rewritten” texts as a distinct category: they are “not merely rewriting but also—simply—writing, since all cultural products draw on past utterances” (8). Nor does rewriting mark its products as derivative or subordinate or the prior texts as authoritative or superior. Taking her cue from the “heavenly tablets” of Jubilees and the work’s numerous reference to various texts (often missing or absent), Mroczek considers Jubilees as a sort of etic sketch of the Second Temple Jewish library. The corpus of revealed books which we encounter is radically open — and this is not because “other” books could be added to some list, but because the entire concept of list-making was absent. Some books in the conceptual library are permanently inaccessible and mysterious; others, presently unknown, might yet be revealed.

Mroczek returns to the Psalms in her final chapter (“Outside the Number: Counting, Canons, and the Boundaries of Revelation”), which takes up the question of enumeration: Does number designate closure or a definite list? What is the poetic and bibliographic function of counting? Mroczek begins with the “eighty-one” books of the Ethiopic canon. Despite the traditional significance of the number, it remains persistently unclear exactly which eighty-one books should be included; the number expresses a concept of completion rather than any particular collection of contents. The “one hundred fifty” psalms pose similar problems. Codex Leningradensis (the basis for the modern BHS) actually numbers only one hundred forty-nine. At several points, the Hebrew and Greek traditions disagree about the extent of particular individual psalms, and yet they know that the total must be one hundred fifty. The so-called Psalm 151 makes matters somewhat more complicated. Sometimes it is simply called an epigraphos, but it is often titled a “psalm” and sometimes even numbered — but remains, always, conceptually supernumerary. Similar observations apply to the psalms typically numbered 152–155 in Syriac. Mroczek turns, finally, to the numbering of books in the Hebrew Bible. Josephus’ twenty-two and 4 Ezra’s twenty-four books often attract notions of canonicity as evidence for a proto-Tanakh. Yet it remains unclear if a specific list of books is intended at all, rather than a gesture toward an alphabetic symbolism of completeness. Even after the Jewish (and Christian) literary imagination begins to think in terms of lists and number, texts outside the number continue to be understood as authentic, revealed, and authoritative: the “heavenly archive [was] never full reflected in available texts” (18).

Mroczek’s superb monograph succeeds in offering a fresh and creative engagement with the literary landscape of Second Temple Judaism. Mroczek’s prose is lucid, her arguments creative, her metaphors enlightening. The project remains firmly grounded in literary sources and physical artifacts from the Second Temple period, but also draws fluently from modern book studies (especially Robert Chartier and D. F. McKenzie), rabbinics, and early Christian literature. Mroczek demonstrates that the metaphors which structured the literary landscape of ancient Judaism reveal perspectives that differ in crucial ways from contemporary bibliographic and biblical assumptions. Not only modern categories of physical bookishness, but also modern categories of authorship, publication, and text itself do not do justice to the evidence from Jewish antiquity. Scholars of ancient Judaism and related fields will need to contend with the book-historical questions which Mroczek poses.

Jeremiah Coogan
University of Notre Dame


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