I started Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy. I actually read and blogged through this book over a year ago, but I did not think that I captured the essence of the book—in either my reading or my writing. As I look back at my old posts, I think that I absorbed more of the book than I thought, but I’ll still reread it because (1.) it won’t take me that long, since I’m reading 100 pages a day, and (2.) maybe I can solidify my understanding of certain issues in this particular reading. An issue that I have visited and revisited on this blog is writing and prophecy. Since people in the ancient world may have needed sponsors in order to be scribes, how did the writings of the anti-establishment prophets manage to survive and get written? This book actually tackles that question.
My impression, at this point, is that the prophetic books were organized in Israel’s exilic or post-exilic period. As far as I can tell, every author in this book so far assents to that point—even those who think that parts of them were written before the exile (such as R.E. Clements, who argues that Isaiah wrote a memoir, which we can detect within First Isaiah). That means that anti-monarchic, anti-cultic prophecies that were made before the exile—prophecies that probably would not be tolerated by the establishment—could have been written down during or after the exile, after the establishment had been destroyed or humbled, and the prophecies had been validated by events. The purposes of prophetic books could have included archiving or explaining the past (i.e., how Israel got to be in exile), religiously edifying and offering hope to the masses, or scribal education.
But how were the anti-establishment prophecies preserved? James Crenshaw argues that they were preserved orally by prophetic schools, for we see the importance of prophetic schools in the preservation of prophecy in such passages as Isaiah 8. But Philip Davies is skeptical about this. If a prophetic school preserved prophecy, then why is there such a dearth of legends about the literary prophets (i.e., Isaiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Joel, etc.)—the sorts of legends that we see regarding Elijah and Elisha, which many scholars have said reflect transmission within prophetic schools? On a similar note, Davies asks, why are many of the literary prophets unmentioned in the biblical historiographic books, if there is a long line of transmitted oral traditions about their sayings?
Davies does not appear to dismiss the possibility that parts of what we see in the prophetic books go back to Judah’s pre-exilic period, however, for his thesis is that oracles (maybe even pre-exilic ones) were preserved in the sanctuary and collected together into books, some well-edited (such as the Book of Jeremiah), and some not well-edited and thus confusing. These oracles then were elaborated upon by scribes, who sought to clarify or give coherence to them, or even to assign them to certain times in Israel’s history. But Davies seems to be skeptical about the oracles being passed on within prophetic communities. Regarding the anti-establishment element of prophecies, Davies posits that scribes made social critiques by putting their own concerns into the mouths of ancient prophets—so that they wouldn’t get in trouble for directly attacking the establishment. At the same time, Davies maintains that elements of the prophetic writings manifest an establishment viewpoint—particularly in their support for an Israelite empire—and this comes from a scribal imprint.
A question that recurs in the book is whether or not we can identify oral elements in the prophetic writings. John Van Seters criticizes Robert Culley and Susan Niditch’s argument that we can, but I got a different impression from Culley’s essay from what Van Seters got. Granted, Culley and Niditch contended that an oral prophecy for the purpose of performance may have certain characteristics—such as repetition—yet they also appear to argue that written prophecy can imitate oral style. That coincides with Van Seters’ argument that written prophecy can imitate oral techniques, and that prophecy can be written down and yet be orally performed. Van Seters may be right in his interpretation of Culley and Niditch, for he is an experienced scholar. But, if Culley and Niditch are indeed saying what Van Seters says they are saying, then they are undermining their own arguments by some of the points that they themselves raise.