The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek.
Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2016.
I first saw Eva Mroczek speak at Yale in the fall of 2013. She was presenting on the Psalms at Qumran, making an argument that eventually became the first chapter of her 2016 book, The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. In the talk, she achieved a rhetorical effect that animates her book: the ability to present arguments which are startling, even field-changing, in a way that makes her conclusions seem obvious.
The Literary Imagination takes as its starting point an argument made by Robert Kraft, Annette Yoshiko Reed, John C. Reeves, and others: before canon lists, before the Bible, there was a world of texts and text production that utilized neither books nor canon(s). Mroczek further argues that although this point is largely acknowledged in scholarship, books and canons nevertheless act as the primary metaphors by which many scholars structure their thinking and arguments about ancient Jewish literature. This manifests itself variously: in critical editions that present biblical literature differently from non-biblical literature, in language about books in antiquity, and in teleological arguments about the development of the biblical canon. Mroczek takes seriously Kraft's warnings about the "tyranny of canonical assumptions" (one of her own structuring metaphors) and the attendant misreadings this tyranny engenders. She goes further by offering alternative metaphors to think about antique texts, such as Ben Sira's "canal from a river" or (her own) "authorial personality colonizing new textual areas" (p. 88). Mroczek moves through her argument in five chapters which tackle the existence of the Bible at Qumran, authorial attribution, absent canon lists, and mythical hidden texts, posing compelling theoretical questions to rich, diverse material.
The first two chapters use the case of the Psalms as a lens to view the possibilities of a world without books or authors. At Qumran, though thirty six manuscripts are identified with the Psalms, different orders and lengths are present and none “is a representation of the book of Psalms as such” (p. 26). Mroczek argues in the first chapter that the idea of a stable book of Psalms is a mirage that undermines scholars who view variance or multiformity as a bug rather than a feature of ancient texts, which are more fundamentally open than most scholarship allows for. Similarly, she argues in the second chapter that the idea of an author of the Psalms has led many scholars to identify “David’s writings” with the (stable, Biblical) Psalms, though there is ample evidence of a variety of liturgical, poetic, and devotional texts that are attributed to David. Bringing together manuscript evidence and discourses about writing in ancient texts, Mroczek argues that ancient authorial personas (exemplified by David) are not replaced by or isomorphic with the books attributed to them. Instead, they are wide-ranging figures that exist beyond any single text. In the third chapter, Mroczek considers these arguments in light of Ben Sira, arguing that “the process of textual creation and its later transmission are not separate, but continuous” (112). Ben Sira, though considered to be the first named Jewish author, is minimally biographical and largely figurative, sharing much in common with David as an authorial persona whose wisdom is only partially recorded in any given text. Mroczek argues in the fourth chapter for a horizontal rather than hierarchical reading of ancient Jewish texts. Jubilees, she argues, presents sacred writing as hidden works that are found in an imagined past or idealized future, and is one of “multiple and multiform ways God has communicated with Israel” (p. 154). This writing is not and cannot be fully known. Finally, in the fifth and final chapter, Mroczek looks at the reference to a list of books in 2 Ezra and Josephus, both of which seem far more concerned with the number of sacred texts than the content of the list. Scholars are concerned with the works implied by Josephus’ and 4 Ezra’s, but this is a modern preoccupation that the texts do not share. Rather than the traditional scholarly dichotomy between canonical limits and exegetical creativity, Mroczek instead suggests that there is a tension between canonical limits and limitations, inasmuch as textual totalization is impossible.
Mroczek’s work here is valuable on multiple fronts. In the narrower conversation about Second Temple Jewish literature, she argues convincingly against several regnant narratives, such as the conception of Ben Sira as a historical named author and the correlation between “David’s writings” and the Psalms. She presents a convincing native theory of text production. In a wider discourse on antiquity, she offers an important theoretical intervention by pointing to the problematic use of “books” and “authors” even as metaphors, and the limitations this usage can engender. By performing the kind of different work that she, along with her forebears, have called for, as well as offering different metaphors for scholars to use, Mroczek has created a work that is useful for scholars of antiquity in general as well as students of Second Temple Judaism in particular. Mroczek concludes her book with an exhortation to a deeper re-imagining of texts in Second Temple Judaism. "It is not that, in Second Temple Judaism, there was a proto-Bible- a literary concept similar to the Tanakh, only with fuzzier edges. Instead, there is a different morphology of text, a different imagined sense of where revelation is to be found and how it is related to the figures who transmit it” (p. 186). These texts are always partial, but embedded in a world rife with the potential for future discoveries. Admitting the selectivity and exploratory nature of her book, Mroczek points to the possibilities of alternate selections and studies which can enrich and complicate the picture she has set forth of incompleteness, proliferation, and inaccessibility.
Jillian Stinchcomb is a PhD Student at the University of Pennsylvania.