The Shape of the Writings, Book Review

Title:  The Shape of the Writings
Editors: Julius Steinberg and Timothy J. Stone
Publisher: Eisenbrauns, 2015
Price: $54.50 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: xiii + 370
A common scholarly assertion about the various orders of the books in the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible is that they are late, liturgical, and unstable. Many who note the tight sequence of the Law and the Prophets also hold that the Writings are at best a miscellaneous anthology of compositions with broad similarities and a smattering of shared vocabulary.

Both Julius Steinberg and Timothy J. Stone have challenged these assumptions in recent monographs. In Die Ketuvim: Ihr Aufbau und ihre Botschaft (Hamburg, DE: Philo, 2006), Steinberg examines the Writings corpus as a whole, and in The Compilational History of the Megilloth: Canon, Contoured Intertextuality and Meaning in the Writings (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), Stone focuses on the compilational logic that is at work within the five-book Megilloth grouping.

In The Shape of the Writings, Steinberg and Stone further this project by gathering a series of constructive essays that address this canonical query. In their introductory essay, Steinberg and Stone provide an overview of the critical assumptions and methods that necessarily inform an analysis of the “shape” of a canonical collection. In short, they contend 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.

Defining canon as “a fixed or delimited collection of texts received and recognized as sacred (authoritative) by a faith community” (8), they first address the closure of the Hebrew canon and its tripartite shape as Law, Prophets, and Writings. In particular, they examine the prologue to Ben Sira, the Dead Sea Scrolls, select New Testament texts (Luke 11:49-51, 24:44), Josephus, and 4 Ezra (4-35). They then examine the sequence and ordering logic of the arrangements found in the Talmudic tradition (in Baba Batra 14b) and in the Masoretic tradition (in the Leningrad Codex). For Steinberg and Stone, these are the two most significant ancient ordering traditions. Moreover, “the similarities between these two arrangements far outweigh the differences, and the arrangements of both orders is not random” (49).

This comparative work does not yield a “center” of the Writings, but rather demonstrates that “most books are in dialogue with at least one other book in the collection” (49). In fact, “the canonical shape of the collection foregrounds these relationships” (49). Within this contextual space, the associations are not straightforwardly uniform. Rather, “the nature of this dialogue is varied, with no two relationships the same” (49). The achievement of the Writings corpus, then, is that the collection allows the reader to overhear this diverse dialogue.

 Stone and Steinberg conclude that the Writings “took their character as a collection over a long process in which books were shaped and located, in various degrees, by authors, redactors, and compilers in order to highlight various relationships between books” (49). This process was organic, as the “canonical process is primarily one of growth to maturity rather than a process of trimming or rejecting other texts” (49).

Peter Brandt follows this broad introduction with a detailed analysis of all of the extant literary orders of the Writings found in Jewish and Christian traditions. While acknowledging the wide-ranging variety of these sequences, Brandt maintains in line with Steinberg and Stone that “the multitude of individual orders can be shown to result from only a limited number of multidimensional arrangement traditions” (59).

Several of the following essays address historical concerns, but most of them focus on the shape of the Writings corpus and interconnections within that grouping of books. Stephen Dempster examines the migration of Ruth within the Hebrew Bible and argues that Ruth’s position at the head of the collection before the Psalter is Ruth’s “original home.” Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger highlight the “Davidization” of the Psalter and the impact of this textual emphasis on the book’s overall message. Will Kynes examines the effect of reading Job after the book of Psalms. For Kynes, Job followed by Proverbs creates an important dialectic between two approaches to understanding humanity’s response to God’s ways.

Steinberg then investigates the nature of “wisdom literature” and seeks to show that ordering impacts the way this wisdom tradition is understood in the scope of an Old Testament theology. Stone argues that Ruth’s original location was between Judges and 1-2 Samuel but that it was then shaped to follow Proverbs and begin the five-scroll Megilloth collection. Amber Warhurst discusses the intended “associative effects” (187) of the book of Daniel within the Writings versus prophetic corpus. Hendrik J. Koorevar argues that Chronicles was written as the “intended conclusion” to the Old Testament canon. Georg Steins also envisions Chronicles as a fitting ending to the Hebrew canon, especially in the way that it highlights the continuing function of the Torah. Finally, Stephen Chapman examines the possible citations of “groupings” or “canonical divisions” by early Jewish and Christian writers.

This collection of essays is significant for several reasons. On a micro-level, the individual essays themselves contain substantive treatment and reflective insight into issues of book-level meaning and the effect of ordering and association among the Ketuvim. Many of the essays point to the given author’s more substantial research in the field, representing a window into broad swaths of scholarship. In this regard, the English translation of four previously untranslated German articles is a most welcome feature (e.g., Koorevar and Steins). Though these particular articles are the most dated contributions (Steins: 1996; Koorevar: 1997; Brandt: 2001), they each represent research that has directly impacted the current discussion.

On a macro-level, these essays collectively champion an often-underrepresented emphasis. The contributors believe that the shape of the Writings collection has hermeneutical implications for the interpretation of the individual books and the theological message of the grouping as a whole. They advance arguments on both the historical formation of the Ketuvim as a discrete corpus and also the contours of the collection. Consequently, this volume is a helpful entry point into the canon discussion in general as well as the Writings corpus in particular. Moreover, under the banner of this broad approach to the Hebrew canon, there is also lively dialogue (and sometimes even genuine debate) between the contributors.

For example, Stone and Steinberg set the shared agenda for the volume, but within their introductory essay, they fall on different sides of several important debates (see 3, 40). For example, Steinberg’s starting point is the Talmudic ordering (40-46) and Stone’s is the Masoretic ordering (47-51; see also 177n8). Steinberg follows the consensus and views the Megilloth as a later liturgical development (152), while Stone argues for this grouping’s ancient roots (see 47n197; 50-51). Steinberg argues that the Ben Sira prologue attests a tripartite Hebrew canon around 130 BCE, though Stone’s conclusion is “more modest” (12n49). Stone is comfortable with the notion of “context-sensitive redactions” of the individual books in the Writings, while Steinberg is “rather hesitant” (49n208). Far from a distracting element, these methodological tensions demonstrate the strength of their overall approach as it accounts for minor and even substantial disagreement over the interpretation and significance of textual evidence.

In this vein, the critical responses at the end of the collection by John Barton, Tamara C. Eskenazi, and Christopher Seitz highlight and amplify the diversity represented in the essays. The contrast between Barton’s and Seitz’s response to the broader approach taken in this project is particularly illuminating and instructive. After articulating several points of agreement, Barton maintains that the analysis in this volume presents more puzzles than patterns (315), and the question of “order” is only appropriately understood as a feature of “reception history” or even “reader-response criticism” (316). Barton concludes that “there comes a point beyond which some collections do not constitute a unity of any kind” and is “inclined to think that this is true of the Writings” (316).

By contrast, Seitz reviews each essay in the volume and brings this conversation into dialogue with his own research. Significantly, Seitz concedes that in his previous work, he “probably overstated the individuality of the witnesses in the third division as being what characterizes this division, given the thorough evaluation provided in the present volume for the different arrangements and associations” (338). 

Seitz also highlights that this volume is nevertheless supportive of his broader insight that “the associations that mark the main canonical section (Torah + Prophets) are of a thicker nature than what we see in the Writings” (338). Thus, Seitz views the work of these essays as a slight corrective and substantial confirmation of major aspects of his canonical approach to the Writings.

Accordingly, The Shape of the Writings summarizes an important area of Old Testament scholarship and also sets an agenda for further study. Though one might suggest that many of these case studies are only sketches and still require serious exegetical, theological, and historical development, this is part of the function of the book. These essays do not represent the “final form” of this discussion but represent a lively project that will hopefully garner an increasing amount of attention and draw more participants.

Carefully considering the work of this volume will prompt readers of the Writings to explore more fully the contours of this corpus, from Ruth’s threshing floor to Ezra-Nehemiah’s re-built walls. Let them go up!
Also in JESOT (forthcoming)
Book Review
November 11, 2016


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