Category Archives: Mroczek: Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity


Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”

by Neil Godfrey

Don’t think of books. Think of open databases, literary projects, both earthly and heavenly archives. Ben Sirach, for example, becomes a generative character or figurehead from whom writings flowed like canals from a river. That’s how Eva Mroczek, Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity, says we should understand the way ancient Jewish scribes (Second Temple and gospel era) thought of their writings and their literary environment.

Revelation originated from the heavens and could never be grasped in all its fulness by any mortal; there was always room for more understanding and knowledge of the spiritual. There were writings that only the chosen few saints had ever seen, writings preserved in the heavens. Enoch was secreted away and continues to write until the time of the end.

A sacred writing could never be bound complete between two covers or within a single earthly scroll. There would always be room for more revelation. Of the making of books there will be no end.

An “author”, at least the inspired author, a heavenly figure perhaps, who sowed the poetry of praise or the sayings of wisdom in a mortal scribe, might spawn many varied works over time. Hence “David” could author countless psalms, only a small sample of which were ever captured for our canon. Other Davidic psalms were extant, some were composed relatively recently. They were all in a figurative sense authored by David since psalms were attributed to him as a way of fleshing out further the character and life of David. It was not so much that David’s name was attached to a psalm to impute authority to the psalm; no, it was rather that David was associated with the psalm to enrich the narrative about David, to transform David in a way to enable him to speak to a new audience. This world of attribution was not unique to the Judea’s:

In fact, such a sense of character-driven literary creativity is attested elsewhere in the ancient world, in some theories about Homer from the Hellenistic period, where the character becomes the affective centre of the poetic creation. Poetry . . . is generated from infatuation with one of the characters, who is prior to, and drives the creation of, the narrative. (p. 56)

So in the case of the Psalms of David. . .

Making psalms “Davidic” is not precisely attribution, as little evidence exists for a claim that David personally composed the psalms, but dramatisation and historicization. But this process of dramatising and historicising psalms is motivated not by the texts of the psalms themselves, but by an interest in the character who comes to animate the texts. It is the desire to reflect and elaborate on particularly compelling aspects of David’s character — David the sufferer, the penitent, the pursued — that is behind the creation of the expanded headings. Put simply, dramatising the psalms in his voice gives this David more things to say. (p. 63)

We are not only talking about the Psalms of David and the different canonical counts of these but of the wider literary world — of writings attributed to Enoch, to Solomon, to Moses, to Abraham, to Zephaniah . . . . .

In many Second Temple texts, we see an awareness of a literary world that is ancient, varied, and not fully accessible. In texts like Enoch, Jubilees, and many traditions about the patriarchs from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, we see the notion of a long history of revealed writing stretching back long before Sinai, and forming part of the stories about Israel’s ancient ancestors. We see scribes recognizing the authority and divine origin of texts like the Enoch literature, Jubilees, and these patriarchal traditions, which present themselves not as derivative of or dependent on material we now call biblical, but indeed, prior to it. And while specific texts that have come down to us, like the Enochic material, are recognizably used in other literature, early Jewish texts also mention many writings that we cannot identify with any extant texts — writings that may have been lost, like the book of Noah, or were always only imagined, like the heavenly Book of Life.11 (pp. 116f.)

The authors of the scriptures (like Jubilees and the Temple Scroll) that not part of our canonical Bible did not appear to view their work as attempts to fill in the gaps or clarify and explain the canonical texts. These non-biblical texts do not present themselves as subordinate to the Pentateuch or Prophets, buy as new revelations from a divine sourceread more »


How sayings came to be attributed to . . . David, Ben Sirach, Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to read Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity and have come across another interesting snippet with relevance to the way the gospel-Jesus tradition took shape.

An intriguing feature found in the writings of the earliest Christian “fathers” is that frequently sayings that we know from the gospel are used by these early authors without any attribution to Jesus or the gospels. Why is that?

Well, Eva Mroczek’s discussion of the Ben Sirach sayings offers a very similar scenario along with a very plausible explanation. Ben Sirach, we have learned, is more than a flesh and blood author sitting in a room writing wise sayings. He is in fact “a representative of a tradition of wise sayings.” So a teacher who somehow developed or learned of a fresh saying that was particularly apt for the needs of his pupils might feel it notable enough to be added to an anthology of Ben Sirach sayings. There was no such thing as a single edition of a closed book of sayings by Ben Sirach. Ben Sirach served as a representative figure of a source of wisdom that flowed like channels and rivers, that grew like fruit on a tree, and so forth. Ben Sirach’s wisdom was not static but always open to new insights and understanding through the wisdom that no one person would ever be able to grasp in all its fullness.

One of many interesting passages explaining one effect of this king of fluid literary culture:

Just as David was considered not so much as the author of a book of Psalms but as an exemplary liturgist, linked to a more amorphous tradition of liturgical material, Ben Sira was considered not only as the author of a concrete and particular book but more generally as a representative of a tradition of wise sayings.

Because of this character’s reputation, new sayings “accumulated around and circulated in his name,” some of which made it into the “popular anthologies.”94

Other sayings found in Ben Sira circulated without attribution to this figure, as part of a large “amorphous body of sayings” that circulated “atomistically and anonymously.”95

Labendz summarizes this complexity: “The contents of Ben Sira were spread within the rabbinic community. They were preserved and remembered with varying degrees of accuracy, and sometimes they were conflated with other wisdom sources. The title of the work was attached to a variety of wisdom traditions, only some of which were actually in Ben Sira.”96

(p. 112, my formatting)

Gospel revisions — as we see from Mark to Matthew and Luke, and Mark to John — with variants in sayings attributed to Jesus, sayings in Fathers that appear to come from non-gospel sources yet are found in the gospels, and the anonymity of the gospels in their original form . . . . So many simplistic explanations have been popularized through “faith-based scholarship” or apologetic writings, but more enlightening explanations come from a growing understanding of the literary culture of the Second Temple era and century following.



The Teacher of Righteousness and Understanding the Authority of Fiction

by Neil Godfrey

One of the books I am currently reading is The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek and I was intrigued by her discussion of how the scholarly community have debated the historicity of the “Teacher” who speaks powerfully of his experiences in the Thanksgiving Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many scholars have identified the Teacher of Righteousness (otherwise known from the Damascus Document) as the author of these hymns. Notice, for instance, the introduction to the Thanksgiving Hymns by Wise, Abegg and Cook:

The intensely personal tone of the songs known commonly as Thanksgiving Hymns stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the scrolls. The author speaks of himself in the first person and recounts an agonizing history of persecution at the hands of those opposed to his ministry. In addition, the writer describes having received an empowering spirit granting him special insight into God’s will (1QH3 4:38), opening his ears to wonderful divine mysteries (9:23), using him as a channel of God’s works (12:9), and fashioning him as a mouthpiece for God’s words (16:17). Indeed, in col. 26, he claims that no one compares with him, because his office is among the heavenly beings. These are bold affirmations for any leader, reminiscent of various messianic claimants of both ancient and more recent history.

The unique personal presentation of the work and the self-conscious divine mission of the author have led many researchers to conclude that the psalms were written by the Teacher of Righteousness himself. Some students have attempted a more refined analysis in order to isolate “true” Teacher psalms at the center of the collection (cols. 10—16 according to one, 13—16 in the eyes of another; see Hymns 10—13,15—20,23), noting that the themes of personal distress and affliction as well as the claim of being the recipient or mediator of revelation are especially strong here. Only one thing is sure: the debate will continue.

Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr, and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, 2005. pp. 170-71.

Eva Mroczek is writing about literary/philosophical character of Ben Sirach and finds a parallel with the Teacher of Righteousness who is sometimes said to be the author of the Thanksgiving Hymns among the Dead Sea Scrolls. From pages 98 and 99:

Another example of such a rhetorical strategy is the so-called Teacher Hymns in cols. 10-17 of the Hodayot or Thanksgiving Hymns from Qumran. These first-person compositions have been read by some Qumran scholars32 as the ipsissima verba of the Teacher of Righteousness, an enigmatic figure who appears as a founder and leader of the sectarian community in some Qumran texts. The hymns, then, were imagined to be the creative autobiographical work of this putative individual, and were mined for information about this mysterious figure’s life. For example, Michael Wise has extracted from these hymns not only data about the Teacher’s life, persecution, and exile but also insights into his spiritual life—and even his name.33

But over time, as Max Grossman has shown, scholars began to question the idea that the Teacher of Righteousness is the “author” of these texts—that this figure is a historically locatable individual who can be imagined as an individual creator of the textual products of the Qumran community.34 With regard to the poetic Thanksgiving Hymns, it is doubtful that they can be used to reconstruct the historical and interior life of a specific individual. An excellent critique of the tendency to read the Hodayot as autobiography comes from Angela Harkins,35 who argues that such a reading is rooted in Romantic ideas of individual authorship that are foreign to Jewish antiquity. . . . 

But no specific historical figure can be reconstructed from poetic hymns: they use familiar images and literary tropes, including first-person references to suffering and persecution that are not to be understood as biographical accounts of specific historical experiences. The “I” of the hymns can, instead, be understood in other ways . . . . The first-person voice is perhaps representative of the “office” of an inspired community leader and the ideal, exemplary teacher, rather than reflective of a specific historical personality.37 Or, as Harkins suggests, it is a “rhetorical persona” to be actualized by the reader in ritual performance: the reader embodies the “I,” and the text becomes an “affective script for the reader to reenact.”38

Okay, time to check out some of those end-notes. read more »