Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures. Library of Ancient Israel.

By Philip R. Davis
Louisville, KY : Westminster John Knox (1998). 219 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 290-291

Philip Davies is Professor in the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, England. In Scribes and Schools he attempts to reconstruct the process of the Jewish canonization of the Old Testament. He readily admits that his approach is primarily sociological (15, 35-36, 41, 54), non-theological (14, 37), and subjective (2, 5, 70, 84). Davies sketches the history of early classical education and its relationship to scribes, archives, and libraries (17-35). In the final chapters of the book, he discusses the contributions of both the Dead Sea Scrolls (152-68) and the rabbinic period (169-84) to the discussion of Jewish canonization. The sociological distance between the elite and the peasant becomes one of the author’s supports for his theory of the canonical process (15). Indeed, it is one of the reasons why he concludes that the “scriptural canon cannot and does not represent an amorphous ‘Israel’ but a set of elitist portraits” (41). Who were the elitists who canonized the OT? According to Davies, they were the Levite scribes in the Jerusalem temple (131-34).

Davies’ sociological investigation into the origins of the biblical canon is accompanied by a redefinition of the terms. Firstly, he supports numerous canons within the corpus of Scripture rather than a single O T canon (38, 40). Secondly, “Bible” is not synonymous with “canon” since there was no Jewish Bible until the Middle Ages (42). Therefore, the use of the term “biblical” in the discussion of the canonization of the OT is “inappropriate” (42). It becomes quite apparent that the author does not believe in the authenticity and inspiration of the OT. He announces that “no scholars believe that the ten commandments were given as written to Moses on Sinai” (3). In fact, Davies declares that ancient Israel is a creation of a later society and that presenting Israel as a society occupying Iron Age Palestine is a figment of the imagination (3). In addition, “the Judean canon’s account of Sam aria [cannot] be taken as reliable” (70). According to Davies, 1 Chronicles 23–27 is “pretty clearly a fictional account of the ancient monarchic administration” (79). Likewise, the “story of the finding of the law scroll under Josiah . . . is a complete fiction” (98-99). Simply put, Davies does not accept the historical reliability of the OT as we have it. He even dares to accuse those who think differently of a “bias about dating” (77).

Given his lack of respect for the historicity or integrity of the OT, it is no surprise that the author of Scribes and Schools proposes a process of canonization which has an equal disrespect for the text: “canonizing does not mean a respect for the fixed text of a scroll, but quite the opposite: to reinforce the canonicity of texts by making them fit better the use for which they are being preserved” (113). In Davies’ opinion, making the texts more fitting involved scribal embellishment of the texts (116). Therefore, the book of Jonah is nothing more than a scribal creation inspired by an allusion to the prophet Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 (118-19). It is but one of the “readable works of fiction” (Daniel, Esther, Ruth, Judith, and Tobit) “written largely for pleasure” (142).

How is it that such fictions were allowed a place in the canon? Davies considers two possibilities: (1) Those books were widely employed in the educational curriculum of the scribal schools; or, (2) their inclusion was intended as a means of loosening the elitist’s control of the canon and to “sanction a wider range of literature held in the temple libraries” (150-51). Canonization of any portion of the OT came about when it was “regarded as being of contemporary relevance” (124). Davies does not think any O T book in its present form dates from even the period of the monarchy (80). He dates everything to at least the Persian period with Deuteronomy being the first book to be written (85).

Before the reader gets very far into Scribes and Schools, he learns that the author does not hold to inspiration, inerrancy, divine revelation, or the miraculous. The author’s decidedly anti-theological stance becomes quite apparent in his otherwise insightful discussion of the canonical views of James Sanders and Brevard Childs (49-53).

Davies’ book is a perfect example of what happens when the OT is deconstructed, removed from its identification with the mind of God, and rebuilt according to the mind of man. It is an exercise in humanistic thinking which assumes that man is the sole authority in defining the content and history of the Word of God.