Reviews of

The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity

In Canon, Eva MROCZEK, Hebrew Bible, Oxford University Press, Scribal culture, Second Temple, Shelby Bennet on December 11, 2019 at 11:56 pm


2019.12.17 | Eva Mroczek. The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp xi+269. ISBN: 9780190886080.

Review by Shelby Bennett, Trinity Western University.

Eva Mroczek makes a powerful contribution to re-thinking a central concept in Judaism and Christianity: “canon.” She explores and challenges the role and purpose of those who composed sacred texts that fall both inside and outside the covers of modern biblical collections. The book places the reader in the Second Temple period’s literary culture and illuminates a world teeming with scripture, but without a Bible.

The first chapter introduces a dominant theme of the book: the impact of a post-printing press “book” culture on our understanding of the Jewish literary culture that produced the Old Testament and Hebrew Bible. Mroczek argues that anachronistic concepts of canon and “book” still shape biblical scholarship today despite awareness of the issue. Scholars still distinguish “biblical” from “non-biblical” texts in ways that ancients did not and conduct research based upon those constructions of, pre- or misconceptions, of authority and stability. Mroczek uses the “book of Psalms” at Qumran to demonstrate that there was no set order or content for the book of Psalms at that point.

In chapters two and three, Mroczek expands upon ancient ideas of authorial attribution and authority. She suggests that scribes developed literary traditions around founding figures and that these texts gained authority over time. This contrasts with many modern understandings of authorship as it relates to individuality, legitimacy, and authority. In the case of the Psalms, she purports that superscriptions such as ledavid ‘of David’ were not intended to communicate literal authorship, but to indicate that the psalm contributes to a growing liturgical wisdom tradition subsumed under the figure of David. Similarly, she argues that Ben Sira, often considered the first self-identified, documented “author” in Jewish literary history, is more accurately a figure around whom literature developed. Mroczek’s focus on authority and figures suggests that writers of antiquity viewed texts as “projects, not as products” (106). Her conclusions expand a developing conversation with scholars such as Hindy Najman and Kipp Davis (54-56), who emphasize figures as more foundational than texts in ancient Jewish literary contexts.

Chapter four examines how various documents at Qumran depend upon a range of texts as authoritative, some of which later become known as “biblical” (such as Genesis) and some of which do not in the West (such as Enochic literature). Mroczek calls the later biblical/nonbiblical distinction “mental architecture” (118) that was constructed through canonization and publication of categorized “biblical” and “non-biblical” texts. This distinction undermines our ability to understand a pre-canonical culture that viewed texts in horizontal, not hierarchical, relationships to each other.

Finally, chapter five acknowledges that “canon” was not an entirely foreign concept in the ancient Jewish context. Mroczek concludes that while the idea of canonical collections may have existed, the contents were more symbolic than specific. The distinction of “inside” as inspired and authoritative and “outside” as neither is a modern concept and construct. She contends that in the ancient world, divine inspiration and authenticity were broader than any canonical structure. Her argument pushes against the perspective that the canon of Scripture contains all divine revelation (179). Ultimately, she challenges readers to consider that ancient writers held “a different imagined sense of where revelation is to be found and how it is related to the figures who transmit it” (186).

Mroczek makes a compelling case regarding the effect of book culture on the realm of biblical and textual studies. Her work demonstrates that even the physical characteristics of our Bible have created an association of stability and completeness with divine revelation. She artfully leads the readers into a world without such stability, one in which the goal was not to form a canon but to grow traditions.

As the book concludes, a few loose ends indicate possibilities for expansion and further research. While Mroczek bases much of her trajectory and rhetoric on the non-existence of a canon in the ancient literary culture, her final chapter explores the ancient use of numbers to symbolize completion. The value for completion appears antithetical to her original goal of demonstrating an unhindered, unbounded literary world. In the same vein, while the canon may not have officially existed during the Second Temple period, textual evidence demonstrates that certain texts were indeed more central and authoritative than others. While the scope of authoritative texts was surely broader than the eventual biblical canon, those future canonical texts do seem to crescendo in authority in this period.

Mroczek’s contribution is helpful and applicable to modern audiences concerned with the formation of scriptures in light of Second Temple period scribal cultures. She recognizes that the composers of our scriptures did not intend or attempt to capture the sum of all divine revelation into the canon we read today. Instead they were part of a literary culture that allowed for a constantly growing and developing story, not just a fixed and untouchable library.

Shelby Bennett
Trinity Western University
Shelby.Bennett [at]


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