When we read literature today, we are at least subliminally aware of how various works intersect with other art forms, political events, and the like. My own kids, for instance, love reading fantasy and adventure novels. They readily recognize how aspects of any book they are reading share much in common with other books or films of the same genre. They can read Allende’s Zorro one week and then see a Star Wars movie the next, understanding that Zorro’s sword and Luke Skywalker’s light saber are pretty much the same thing.
When we read the Hebrew Bible, however, our ability to recognize what is drawn from a common, shared cultural repertoire is greatly hampered by certain insurmountable historical problems. The form of our Hebrew Bible is the result of an editorial process known as canonization. A canon is a closed set of works that some group, with sufficient authority, establishes as privileged and exclusive. The criteria for deeming a work worthy of inclusion within a canon can vary considerably.
The most rigorous form of canon is that advocated by a religious community. When the authority figures of such a community establish a literary canon, the ideological values held by the ruling parties shape the selection process. Inevitably, the formation of a canon results in the demise of a great deal of literature.
Thus, it was inevitable that a great mass of literature was lost over time. While we can only have a vague sense of how much was actually lost, the evidence suggests the quantity to be quite sizable. There are, for instances, fragments of some old literature embedded in anthologies or quoted in contemporaneous writings that managed to survive. I wish to draw attention to one remarkable discovery to illustrate just how complicated a matter it is to reconstruct a lost literary repertoire.
The most renowned discovery of manuscripts during the 20th century is known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The parchments found in a variety of caves near Qumran were copied predominantly during the last two centuries B.C.E. They appear to have been hidden in caves around the time that Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 C.E. While the library sequestered at Qumran included every book of the Bible (except Esther), it also preserved writings of different political and religious parties whose identities have since been lost. Some of these fragments are unique. Without them, we would know nothing of their contents’ existence.
Yet other documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls managed to survive in isolated contexts for some time after the fall of the Second Temple. An example of such a work emerged from the remarkable discovery of Jewish manuscripts made toward the end of the nineteenth century at the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat (Old Cairo). There, Solomon Schechter uncovered the synagogue genizah, the traditional storage place for damaged documents that bore Hebrew letters. The common practice was that Jewish communities stashed damaged documents in a genizah until there had been accumulated a critical mass worthy of burial in a Jewish cemetery. For reasons unknown, the Fustat Jews allowed the contents of this unique stash to accumulate from the late ninth century well into the 19th century without ever taking efforts to empty it.
Among the manuscripts, Schechter identified and published a remarkable work called “Fragments of a Zadokite Work” (1910). Nothing of this document was known when Schechter brought it to print. Thirty years later, the Dead Sea area yielded its famous Qumran documents. One container from Cave IV preserved parchments whose content agreed substantially with passages published by Schechter. In other words, copies of the document hidden at Qumran around the turn of the first millennium apparently remained in circulation for so long that a copyist reproduced it for someone in the 10 century C.E. Soon thereafter, it was discarded in the Cairo Genizah.
Without Qumran, we would never have been able to establish the antiquity of this document’s origins. That is, we would simply have assumed its content derived from around the time the manuscript was created. Had only the Qumran but not the Cairo Genizah version survived, we would have believed the document disappeared with the hiding of the Qumran library. With the two together, separated by almost one thousand years, we are left with far more questions than answers. Who knew of this text after the documents at Qumran were hidden? What did they think of it? Why did it survive until the tenth century, but not beyond? Who owned it during the tenth century? Why did they commission its copying? What influence did its content have on those who read it?
None of these questions will ever be answered. But the fortuitous discovery of these two documents teaches a very important lesson: Our knowledge of an ancient writer’s cultural repertoire is very sparse. Before we make judgments regarding the meanings of stories, we need to remember the humble state of our cultural awareness when it comes to the world that produced our biblical stories. Without a broad appreciation of the cultural repertoire from which the biblical writers drew their material, it is difficult to assess how writers stood against the backdrop of their own era.
(David H. Aaron is professor of Hebrew Bible and History of Interpretation at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.)