A question that for many years sat half-hidden, rarely if ever articulated, in the back of my mind — and no doubt in the minds of many readers with some awareness of ancient history: When did any culture in the ancient Levant start writing “books” as we would recognize them in, say, the first five books of the Old Testament?
It turns out that this question is discussed in a couple of contributions to a volume addressing the anthropologist Mary Douglas‘s insights into the literary structure of the book of Leviticus: Reading Leviticus. A Conversation with Mary Douglas, edited by John F. A. Sawyer.
Now Leviticus is certainly constructed with very ancient — “pre-book” — stylistic features, in particular, the “ring composition”. As Douglas explains:
In Leviticus’ favourite literary form, chiastic composition, the meaning is at the pivot or the middle of a series of parallel verses. On either side of the sections on leprosy there stand supporting verses on human reproduction like steps or like framing pillars. Within the series on a leprous person, two additional afflicted objects are introduced, a leprous garment, and a leprous house. The alternation makes an a–b–a–b pattern as follows:
a Leprosy of a person, diagnosis, 13: 1–46
b Leprosy of a garment, diagnosis, 13: 47–59
a′ Leprosy of a person, declaring clean and atonement, 14: 1–32
b′ Leprosy of a house, diagnosis and cleansing, atonement, 14: 47–53
When body, garment, and house are found in a carefully constructed set of rules, we have been warned. It signals a return to the body/temple microcosm. The reading is also returned to the early conceit of the ‘house-that-Jack-built’, the concentric pattern of one thing placed upon another and another. (p. 177)
An old technique for creating focus is to set up a series of concentric circles. Leviticus frequently places parallel cases in ascending order, so that the last includes the second and the second includes the first. They can be run backwards or forwards with the closure at either end. It is a very ancient formula. In Mesopotamia in the classical period, 2000 to 1500 BCE, the following magic incantation was recommended to wash a mote out of the eye:
Earth, they say, earth bore mud,
mud bore stalk,
stalk bore ear,
ear bore mote, . . .
the mote entered the young man’s eye.
A modern Hebrew example of concentric incorporation is the old doggerel recited by the children at the Passover ceremony:
Only one kid, only one kid, which my father bought for two zuzim . . .
And a cat came and ate the kid, which my father bought for two zuzim; only one kid, only one kid.
And a dog came and bit the cat which ate the kid, etc.
And a stick came and beat the dog which bit the cat which ate the kid, etc.
The English parallel is ‘The House that Jack Built’, which ends with a grand inclusive finale:
This is the stick that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that killed the rat, which ate the grain which lay in the house that Jack built.
Leviticus applies something very like this literary trope in a slow and measured fashion to the layers inside the body of a living being, and also to the body’s outer coverings. . . . (p. 54)
So Leviticus does in one sense remind readers of the earliest written compositions such as poetic epics that employed “ringing” or “concentric circle” techniques that were apparent aides to memory for oral performance. The term parallelism has been coined to discuss this very ancient and universal technique:
We cannot deny that Leviticus is marked with some very ancient techniques. But it is still unlike any other “book” from very ancient times. It is not like an epic poem or list of proverbs that was constructed with such parallelism to assist the memory of the reciter.
Rolf Rendtorff responds to Mary Douglas’s analysis of Leviticus by delineating the characteristics that make it a standalone “book” even though it contains thematic links binding it to the other four books of the Pentateuch. It is a self-contained narrative about the Jerusalem cult and it is made up of a coherent structure, beginning, end, and middle, with the various parts threaded together with structures, themes and images that make it an organic whole.
Kathryn Gutzwiller continues Rendtorff’s discussion but her contribution is as a classicist, an outsider to biblical studies. For Gutzwiller it is important to distinguish the employment of ring composition from the creation of a book per see.
. . . I find another distinction to be necessary as well, one that separates the process of ring composition from the concept of the book.
In modern terms, the word ‘book’ has two different meanings that seem relevant to the topic at hand. The word refers to a physical entity, to pages bound in a volume, but a book is also an intellectual concept, that which is composed to be read as an integrated unit. While the physical entity and the intellectual construct normally correspond, this is not always the case, so that we may have a long book published in two or more volumes, each a ‘book’ in the physical sense. A similar situation prevailed in the ancient world. . . . Books in [the physical] sense existed in Greece at least as early as the beginning of the sixth century, a period of time when the Greeks had extensive contacts with Egyptian culture.
So when did books “in the intellectual sense” begin to appear?
The point at which the Greeks began to compose texts to fit upon a papyrus roll, and so to be books in both senses of the word, is difficult to determine. In all likelihood, the rise of prose literature in the late fifth century is connected with this phenomenon. (p. 37)
We easily think of Herodotus, the historian. Kathryn Gutzwiller suggests Herodotus was a transitional figure. Yes, he wrote an extensive history in prose, but we also know that there were oral presentations of portions of his Histories.
Soon afterwards we have the historian Thucydides who would have none of Herodotus’s popular “tricks”. His work, he announced in his opening, was not a pop piece to entertain for a moment but rather a monument to last forever.
I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. (1.22.4)
Books — in both the physical and intellectual sense — began to appear in the Hellenistic era, explains KG:
Yet the process of gathering and organizing Greek literature, of editing it into divisions or ‘books’ that were coextensive with papyrus scrolls, did not begin in earnest until the first half of the third century. At that time the Ptolemaic monarchs in Alexandria set out to acquire all literary texts in their manifold variations and commissioned leading textual scholars to establish authoritative editions. Earlier Greek poetry was ordered in accordance with whatever principles seemed appropriate (e.g., by occasion of performance, meter, or alphabetically) and then divided into books on scrolls that were numbered sequentially. As a result, the Greeks became accustomed, in the course of the third century, to think of a book in an intellectual sense, not just as a physical entity. From the second century, for instance, there are papyri containing two ‘books’ of Homer on a single roll; they are conceived separately as books in the thematic sense but are bound together physically for ease of transmission. (p. 37)
Ring composition’s disappearance from the book
Ring composition, as we have seen, is by far much older than “books”. Recall that KG suggested Herodotus was a transitional figure and this literary structure is another indicator of that status. Herodotus followed the tradition of the poets by utilizing the traditional ring structure for smaller narrative units:
In the epic compositions of Homer and Hesiod, relatively small narrative units are commonly organized in a ring, while larger structures, like the Iliad as a whole, have also been analyzed on the same pattern. As a basic method of organizing thought throughout the archaic period (and before as well, one assumes), ring composition apparently helped the oral composer remember and structure narrative units and helped the audience to comprehend them in a performance setting. This form of compositional structure continues to be a dominant mode of organizing discourse down through the time of Herodotus, who often forms his larger narrative units in rings with the moral lesson at the center, or pivotal point. In narrating the fall of Lydia in Book 1, for instance, he places Croesus’ misinterpretation of Apollo’s oracles—the king’s all too human mistake—at the turning point of his ring (1.46-56).
But then came the “intellectual paradigm shift” for which the Greeks are famous.
In the latter years of the fifth century, ring composition came to be replaced with other forms of organization we tend to associate with rational or logical thinking, such as linear, chronological narrative or arrangement by type and subtype. The demise of ring composition was connected with the intellectual paradigm shift that took place under the influence of sophistic and Socratic thinkers, who replaced traditional modes of thought with an emphasis on definition and rational argument. (p. 38)
Enter Thucydides’ strictly chronological account and Aristotle’s topic-methodical prose. Ring compositions do make a come-back but as “artistically contrived poetry” such as in Virgil’s Eclogues. The point appears to have been to self-consciously imitate the most archaic styles. There is a giveaway in the remaining manuscripts that lead us to this conclusion, that the use of ring composition was an imitation of a style no longer part of the literary ethos of the day:
[T]his … disappearance of ring composition as a dominant manner of thought … accounts for the absence of any discussion of it in the rhetorical and literary critical treatises of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. (p. 39)
How all of this helps with dating Leviticus
So we have a book, Leviticus. (It has always been referred to as one of the five books of the Torah, using the Greek biblos for book and the Rolf Rendtorff demonstrated that it is indeed an “intellectual” book and not only a “physical” one. Yet it clearly is structured with an archaic technique of rings. Here is Kathryn Gutzwiller’s conclusion:
How does this correspondence [book + ring structure] help us with dating the text as we now have it and with understanding the circumstances of its creation? Although cultural parallels are inexact and somewhat perilous, I would argue it very unlikely that in matters of literary composition the ancient Hebrews were more advanced than their Greek neighbors. If Herodotus’ Histories is taken as an appropriate parallel, it may be assumed that Leviticus became a fixed text at a time when traditional methods of composition were being incorporated into texts that were designed to be preserved in written form. In Greece this process dates to the fifth century, so that Douglas’s dating of Leviticus to the postexilic period seems the earliest possible date. Since techniques of oral composition, including ring structures, have been identified even in books of the New Testament, there remains a very real possibility that Leviticus was given final form, especially in its relationship with other books of the Pentateuch, at a somewhat later date. (p. 39)
Douglas, Mary. Leviticus As Literature. International Edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Gutzwiller, Kathryn. “Comments on Rolf Rendtorff.” In Reading Leviticus: Responses to Mary Douglas, edited by John F. A. Sawyer, 36–39. A&C Black, 1996.
Rendtorff, Rolf. “Is It Possible to Read Leviticus as a Separate Book?” In Reading Leviticus: Responses to Mary Douglas, edited by John F. A. Sawyer, 22–35. A&C Black, 1996.
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