Book Notice: The Finger of the Scribe: How Scribes Learned to Write the Bible

William M. Schniedewind. The Finger of the Scribe: How Scribes Learned to Write the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 248 pages. $34.95 (hardcover).

William Schniedewind is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Languages at UCLA. Over the years, he has contributed numerous publications exploring the development of the Hebrew Bible. In his latest book, The Finger of the Scribe, Schniedewind seeks to reconstruct the context and development of an early scribal curriculum that would have been used to train the scribes who composed the Hebrew Bible. He argues “that the rubrics of early Israelite scribal education were adapted from the Mesopotamian school tradition at the end of the Late Bronze Age [~12thcentury BCE]” (18). This, he says, was mediated through the Egyptian administration after the fall of the New Kingdom empire.

In contrast to more speculative reconstructions based on hypothetical lines of evidence, the book prioritizes tangible evidence from the epigraphic and archaeological records. Specifically, Schniedewind identifies features such as acrostics (chap. 3), lists (chap. 4), letter formulae (chap. 5), and proverbial sayings (chap. 6) as components of the early Israelite scribal curriculum. These features, he argues, are discernible from inscriptions from various locations, with a notable focus on Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (famously known for the reference to “Yahweh and his Asherah”).

Each chapter presents the material evidence from various sites, connecting the particular feature to the biblical text itself. For example, chapter 4 looks at the function of lists in the Mesopotamian scribal curriculum. While primarily existing to expand the vocabulary of scribes, lists also served an essential administrative function. Scribes would be expected to record lists of people, places, and things. After looking at some key examples, Schniedewind then presents a number of lists in the Hebrew Bible (genealogies, royal officials, cities, nations, foreign officials, etc.) that show what he believes to be the remnants of the scribal curriculum at work.

On the whole, Schniedewind presents an intriguing and well-documented case. The book offers a helpful corrective for those who maintain a late date for the biblical material due to a supposed lack of literacy in an early period. He also provides helpful pushback to the claim that literacy was limited strictly to palaces and temples. If Kuntillet ‘Ajrud is any indication, writing may have been available more broadly (though not widespread) through an apprentice-type model. There is, however, an intentional absence of internal biblical claims of authorship. Cautioning against the use of the Bible to learn about scribal education, Schniedewind contends, “biblical literature is the (sometimes speculative) end of the discussion rather than the beginning” (2). Readers who prioritize the internal claims of the biblical text may take issue with this approach.

While clearly written and organized, the book best serves readers with an introductory-level knowledge of the ancient Near East and epigraphy/archaeology. Readers with a background in Hebrew will also find the book more useful as the author interacts with Hebrew inscriptions. Though not the end of the discussion, this book will serve as a valuable conversation partner in the academic discussion of scribal education in the Levant (the Eastern Mediterranean region that includes ancient Israel).

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. The present book notice was written by Dr. Andrew King, Assistant Dean of Spurgeon College and Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Spurgeon College.


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