Friday, October 10, 2014

The Compilational History of the Megilloth: Canon, Contoured Intertextuality, and Meaning in the Writings, Book Review

TitleThe Compilational History of the Megilloth: Canon, Contoured Intertextuality, and Meaning in the Writings
Author: Timothy J. Stone
Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2014
Price:  € 64.00 (amz)
Binding: Softcover
Pages: 258
Modern scholarly opinion is that the ordering of books in the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible is late, liturgical, and not stable enough to generate meanings that are in any way verifiable. Perhaps the Law and the Prophets form a tight sequence, but the Writings are at best a miscellaneous anthology of compositions with broad similarities and a smattering of shared vocabulary.

In his revision of a doctoral thesis at St. Andrews in 2010, Timothy J. Stone attempts to counter this type of sentiment sometimes present among biblical scholars of the Hebrew Bible. Stone contends that the books in the Writings were not only collected but also arranged with a particular purpose and with an awareness of a broader canonical context.

To make his case, Stone zooms in on the sequence of the “five little scrolls” of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther (the Megilloth). Stone views the “codification” of these books “into a collection as an integral part of a canonical process rather than a formal feature that is the result of an effort to close the canon, or merely a by-product of technological advances like the long scroll or the codex” (p. 2). More broadly, Stone also seeks to provide a “historical and exegetical investigation into the poetics of canon shaping” (p. 8). Stone thus aims to bring into dialogue the history of canon formation, the hermeneutics of canonical collections, and the function of intertextuality within the Writings.

Before addressing the question of meaningful arrangement of the Writings, Stone lays the necessary groundwork for executing such an analysis. He first deals with the definitional questions about what “canon” means and what the implications of the canon formation process might be for ordering and arrangement (chapter 1). He then describes the collection of the Writings (chapter 2) and also the nature of their arrangement in various textual traditions (chapter 3). Standing on this historical and hermeneutical foundation, Stone addresses the arrangement of Ruth (chapter 4), Esther (chapter 5), and the Song, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations (chapter 6). In this last chapter and in the conclusion, Stone sketches his understanding of the “macro-structure” of these books within the Writings corpus (pp. 204-12).

In a variety of ways throughout the volume, Stone answers three main charges that are often leveled at those that look for meaning in the arrangement of the Writings (and the Megilloth in particular).

Charge #1: The grouping is late and liturgical. While acknowledging that the evidence for the Masoretic ordering comes from a late period, Stone highlights its “ancient roots” (p. 5). He also argues that the “festival cycle” associated with the Masoretic ordering of the Megilloth is actually a development that assumes a previously established sequence (pp. 105-11).

Charge #2: There are too many different orders of the Writings for one to find meaning in any type of arrangement. Stone points out that this assessment is only accurate after the twelfth century CE. Before this time, there are essentially only two orderings in the Jewish tradition, namely, the Talmudic ordering found in Baba Batra 14b and the Masoretic ordering found in the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices (see pp. 102-11). Stone also analyzes the relationship between these orderings and those in the Greek translations (pp. 93-102).

Charge #3: In order to find any meaning in a collection, there must be a single and static ordering. Stone counters that a single static sequence is not necessary for observable and meaningful connections to exist. For him, “a single order does not appear to be requisite for investigation” (p. 210). Though there are important differences between the Masoretic and Talmudic orderings, they can be explained. “If these arrangements were accidental, or unimportant,” Stone contends, “one would expect to find the books haphazardly arranged—this is not the case” (p. 4). Further, if the logic of the sequence is discernable in both orders, then the case for meaningful association is actually stronger.

From Stone’s perspective, if one accepts these historical and hermeneutical arguments, then there is ample reason to reconsider the issue of ordering among these books. In developing a canonical hermeneutic, Stone investigates not only how collections form but also how they function. Stone builds on the work of Brevard Childs (see p. 10, 208), but he also draws on the insights of recent research that attempts to discern meaning at the compositional and canonical level within the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Christopher Seitz on the Book of the Twelve) and in the Writings corpus in particular (e.g., Julius Steinberg and Hendrik Koorevar).

Upon this foundation, Stone develops “a compilational grammar” that encompasses “the various ways in which authors, redactors, and compilers situate and associate books within larger collections” (p. 8). This grammar consists of identifying 1) “catchwords or catchphrases at the seams of contiguous books,” 2) “framing devices” such as inclusios, 3) “superscriptions” that may “indicate a collection consciousness,” and 4) “specific themes that are either continued in a similar manner or reversed to create a sharp contrast across contiguous books” (p. 33). Stone uses this set of criteria to distinguish between “merely intertextual links” and ones that are “compilationally conscious” (pp. 134-35; cf. pp. 208-09). By locating these strategic texts, Stone is able to discern and account for the nature of association within the Writings even in the face of shifts in sequence.

In his analysis, Stone provides a number of helpful images and analogies to illustrate the nature of this “compilational logic.” He envisions a collection as “a small solar system in which each book exerts, to a greater or lesser degree, a gravitational pull on the rest of the system” (p. 7). Because “size and proximity are important forces in the collection,” there is a “kind of magnetism” that exerts pressure on books and draws them “into the orbit of other books” (p. 7). There is movement within such a system, but it is “limited, predictable, and almost always constrained by each book’s relationship to one or more books in the Writings” (p. 7). Rather than an “anthology,” the Writings corpus is more like “a curated exhibition in which works of art are arranged carefully in relationship to one another” (p. 211). This “mosaic” contains “tiles of different shapes and colors” that when “taken together form a larger, if complicated, pattern” (p. 211).

These word pictures contribute to the notion of canon as a mental construct and also help the reader discern the nature of established sequences within a given collection. Accordingly, Esther shifts positions but always follows Lamentations and is juxtaposed to Daniel; Ezra-Nehemiah always appear toward the end; Chronicles and the Psalter move around, but are always structurally aligned either at the head of the collection or as its bookends. For Stone, the fact that these types of movement are limited is “commensurate with the corpus’ compilational logic” (p. 6).

Because of his extensive methodological discussions, Stone is not able to work out his observations about the arrangement of each book. Ruth and Esther get their own chapters, but the Song, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations are treated together. Stone conducts his own “exegetical probes” of the former two while focusing on the secondary literature with the latter three. Many interpreters of these books will want to see more development in these areas. However, Stone anticipates this element of his work and notes a number of suggestive areas for further development (see pp. 5-7, 211-12).

While Stone acknowledges that his conclusions have not reached their final form, what he offers in this volume is an incisive treatment of the Writings rife with interpretive insight. Along the way, he demarcates the dimensions of this type of discussion and demonstrates the connection between the formation and function of canonical collections. Moreover, Stone’s hermeneutical insights will enable interpreters to plumb the depths of the concept of “canonical intention” more fully than in previous studies.

The contours of Stone’s approach and the shape he gives to the analysis of canonical collections represent a considerable contribution to the field. Hopefully, this level of engagement represents the shape of things to come.
Also in JETS 57.3 (September 2014): 599-602

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