Pilot Forum: Revelation Before the Bible

Breaking and Rethinking the Boundaries Between Biblical and Nonbiblical Literature

This forum attempts to chart a powerful but unnamed phenomenon equally at home in biblical and non-biblical Jewish literature. Already evident in the Deuteronomic literature of the exilic period, scholars like Najman, Levinson and Zahn have demonstrated that this phenomenon stands equally behind texts like Jubilees and the Temple Scroll. Indeed so powerful is this creative mode that it can be easily recognized on both sides of the anachronistic boundary between canonical and noncanonical, perhaps because it is essential to them both–yet we have barely begun to chart its course and powers. As Mroczek has shown it is more than either interpretation nor canonization. Indeed biblicists such as Stackert have most clearly shown how it is a way of creating literature that does not just build on or dialogue with an earlier text or tradition but meticulously retells, adapts, corrects, and even tries to become its predecessor. While this phenomenon has long been recognized in the Bible, our concepts of biblical literature including notions of canon, scripture, or “inner-biblical exegesis” cannot explain it since as Zahn has shown, their creators were by definition not yet aware of being part of a Bible.

Our goal is to try and see this territory with new eyes, to map out its key features and chart its terrain through case studies designed to illuminate its most striking contours. Questions include:

Genre: One essential aspect of this phenomenon is how it cuts across not just the biblical/post biblical divide but other generic divides like narrative versus law versus exegesis. As narrative, this phenomenon occurs in Deuteronomy, but it also occurs in the collections of both Leviticus (the Holiness source) and Deuteronomy in legal terms. Yet texts like Jubilees, the Temple Scroll, Chronicles, the Qumran New Jerusalem text, and probably the Genesis Apocryphon also all partake in it. Does it have generic features?

Pragmatics and Power: In a now almost forgotten essay, Hartmut Stegemann suggested we define apocalyptic not in terms of a set of mandatory vs. optional formal features (the approach that was to prove most influential via Collins’ useful Semeia volume) but as an act, an attempt to take or reshape the form of a canonical revelation. Sometimes this assertion of power happens to the extent that new works of this sort claim like Jubilees to be temporally and ontologically prior to their predecessors , more original than their original and closer to the source than their sources. Other times they make different claims–is there an underlying pragmatic pattern?

Comparison: What Does it Tell us About Ancient Judaism? Those of us who study Hebrew Bible or early Jewish literature may immediately recognize this pattern, but it has become so natural to us that we haven’t yet reflected on how distinctive it might be. Did Mesopotamians have rewritten Gilgamesh or rewritten Adapa? There were retellings, but there is little sign of such pointedly revisionary ones, and likely not ones that involved extensive harmonization. In Classical literature Dennis Feeney and others have long described Roman literature as calqued on Greek in a free way, but the Aeneid is not a usurpation or precise retelling of the Iliad. In Hebrew this phenomenon is most clearly and extremely manifest in what we might call the genre of “biblical“ law more “biblical” than the original, like the unambiguously divinely spoken Temple Scroll and Jubilees, or patriarchal narratives framed as coming directly from the patriarchs like the first-person testimony of the Genesis Apocryphon. Yet may just be the most extreme examples of a broader and older pattern including the ideals and techniques that produced first Deuteronomy then Chronicles.


Definition: it will be helpful to define this phenomenon better because it shifts some of the excessive weight off of useful but overloaded and inherently anachronistic concepts like inner biblical exegesis. Surely the phenomena of commentary and exegesis are crucial and take distinct forms in Hebrew but may be comparatively the least distinctive aspects of ancient Hebrew literary productivity. Where does this type of literary and practical relationship fit in the spectrum Levinson has analyzed in terms of abrogation or replacement, what Sommer has discussed between allusion, interpretation, and other kinds of transformation, and Zahn has critiqued in our understanding of rewritten Bible, and what Mastnjak has more recently differentiated in terms of Prestige versus authority. In his Mimesis, Eric Auerbach talked about a binding command that nevertheless cannot be obeyed, and what is interesting here is that even when the predecessor text is treated as divine and authoritative it seems like it actually cannot compel obedience, but demands to be transformed.

Plan: Our goal is a productive and diverse forum that puts new proposals and the work of early career scholars in positive and creative dialogue with the deep history of scholarship and more established scholars. We are beginning with a set of presentations with both written and audio (podcast) discussion, but participants will be able to join this multi-year project at different points and in multiple ways.

Our roster of discussants, presenters, and participants includes

Jonathan Ben-Dov

Elena Dugan

Jae Han

David Lambert

James Nati

Annette Yoshiko Reed

Seth L. Sanders

Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg

Loren Stuckenbruck

Molly Zahn

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