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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Nature and Composition of the Prophetic Books

THE PROPHETIC BOOKS ARE UNUSUAL and complex compositions. While the books undoubtedly do preserve authentic words of the prophets in question, we should not think of the prophetic books simply as transcriptions of the words of prophets. Although much remains unknown about the composition of the prophetic books, it is possible to reconstruct a general picture. Scholars generally agree that the poetic materials of most of the prophetic books originated as oral pronouncements by the prophet to a public audience. These oral sayings were subsequently written down, perhaps by the prophet or a disciple. Various circumstances led to the compilation of these original written collections. A reference in Isaiah suggests that oracles might be written down as a form of authentication (Isa. 30.8 ). The book of Jeremiah describes a situation in which Jeremiah, having been banned from speaking publicly in the Temple, had his assistant Baruch write down a selection of his prophetic words so that they could be taken into the Temple and read to the people (Jer. 36.5–6 ). When King Jehoiakim destroyed the scroll, Jeremiah had Baruch write out another copy, to which they added additional material (Jer. 36.27–32 ). This collection may have formed the nucleus of the book of Jeremiah. (Unlike most of the other prophetic books, Ezekiel may have been composed as a written document from the beginning.) It is unclear if what was written was identical to what the prophet recited, or if the prophet or his disciples even at this earliest stage introduced changes, reflecting the difference between the oral form of a publicly recited oracle versus the written form of a scroll.

Once small collections of prophetic oracles and pronouncements were made, they were subject to further editing, rearranging, annotating, and expansion. Like other biblical texts, these prophetic works did not fossilize. In some cases narratives about the prophet were added; these are both autobiographical (e.g., Isa. chs 6, 8; Jer. 1.4–19; 13.1–11; Hos. chs 1–2; Amos 7.1–7 ) and biographical (e.g., Isa. chs 7, 36–39; Jer. chs 26, 36–44; Hos. ch 3; Amos 7.10–17 ). The occasions for such editorial activity will have differed, but national crises may have prompted some of this process. Most likely, written collections of the oracles of Amos and Hosea, which were originally addressed to the Northern Kingdom (Israel) were brought to Judah after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE, and edited and circulated there (see Amos 1.1–2 n. ). Isaiah of Jerusalem seems to have knowledge of Amos's oracles, and Jeremiah is unquestionably influenced by Hosea. Many of the prophetic books originating before the fall of Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BCE show evidence of editorial additions and reorganizations that reflect the circumstances of exilic and postexilictimes. The book of Amos, for example, now includes material that presupposes the fall of Judah ( 9.11–15 ). The most dramatic example of the expansion and reworking of prophetic materials is the book of Isaiah. Although it contains extensive material from the 8th‐century prophet, chs 40–66 clearly reflect the situation of the Babylonian exile and the subsequent period of the restoration of the Judean community after the exile. Yet even though the book contains materials dating from several centuries, it is unified by a number of motifs, themes, and topics that recur throughout the work.

The complex activity of preserving and developing the prophetic oracle collections reflects a conviction that a prophet's words were not only significant for the circumstance in which they were originally pronounced but potentially relevant for later ones as well. (This notion, which became more significant in the exilic and postexilic period, is very well established in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in later rabbinic literature.) At the same time, the freedom with which later generations could rework the prophetic oracles indicates that the prophets' words did not at first possess the kind of fixed authority that is later associated with canonical Scripture. Although the processes by which the prophetic books came to assume a relatively final form and canonical status are difficult to trace, this probably occurred during the Persian and early Hellenistic periods (the 5th through the 3rd centuries BCE). Most likely, during this time scribal editors added the superscriptions that introduce most of the books, indicating the identity of the prophet (name, father's name, and occasionally other information) and often the kings of Israel or Judah during whose reigns the prophets were active (e.g., Isa. 1.1; Jer. 1.1–3; Hos. 1.1 ). In addition to editorial additions to the individual prophetic books, the smaller prophetic books (Hosea through Malachi) were arranged and edited to form a group known as “the book of the Twelve,” which was copied on a single scroll. By the beginning of the 2nd century BCE Ben Sirach refers to these prophets as “the twelve” (Sir. 49.10 ). The number twelve is symbolic of the twelve sons of Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel, and considerable editorial work was required to organize these prophetic materials into a grouping of twelve. In fact, the book of Zechariah consists of three separate collections (chs 1–8, 9–11, 12–14 ) grouped together editorially. Only the first of these comes from the prophet Zechariah, whereas the other two are anonymous. The final book in the collection, Malachi, is also an anonymous piece, since “Malachi” is not a personal name but a phrase meaning “my messenger,” picked up from 3.1 to serve as the name of the prophet in the superscription.

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