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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Areas of Scholarly Interest

From Oracles to Book

Given both the dichotomy and the presumed connection between the socio-religious and the literary phenomena of prophecy, one of the perennial issues in scholarship about prophecy has been the attempt to understand the process by which a presumed body of oracular material was transformed into a prophetic book, and the relationship between the original oracles and the literary deposit in which they now rest. There are two interconnected aspects to this question.

a. Recording the Oracles

At the heart of the issue is the question of how a prophet's words would have come to be written down; and two main answers have been offered to this question. The more widespread opinion depends on a view of prophesying as fundamentally an oral phenomenon: in a society where literacy was limited to certain minority elements of the population, prophets whose messages were addressed to the populace at large would by definition have been oral preachers. Their basic form of address would have been the short poetic oracles that appear in many of the prophetic writings, since such oracles were readily composed by the skilled oral preacher and highly memorable for the audience. Given this scenario, the way that the oracles came to be transformed into written documents would have been through disciples or followers of the prophet, who not only wrote down the prophet's words but subsequently edited them into groups of sayings on similar themes. However, this model assumes that prophets were exclusively preachers rather than writers, and that all their oracles were both conceived and delivered in oral mode, assumptions that are ultimately unprovable. An alternative explanation of how prophetic oracles got into writing is therefore that the prophets themselves wrote down their words; and indeed, Haran (1977) sees this writing as part of the characteristic activity of the figures who stand behind the collections of oracles in the Latter Prophets. He argues that the reason why we have the prophetic books at all is because these people wrote down what they said, and that it is this writing activity that distinguishes them from earlier ‘prophets’, such as Elijah and Elisha, for whom no such literary deposit survives. More recently, too, the traditional stark dichotomy between oral and written media, and the negative value judgements inherent in the way these categories have been applied to prophecy, have been challenged by Floyd in Ben Zvi and Floyd (2000), who points out that works that are intended for oral delivery (plays, sermons, lectures, etc.) may none the less be composed in writing.

b. The Rest of the Material

However, the question of how oracles relate to book is wider than simply how prophetic messages came to be written down. As stated above, it is widely accepted in modern scholarship that the prophetic books contain a good deal of material that probably did not originate with the prophets themselves, not only in the form of biographical narratives about the prophets, but also in the form of additional oracular material. This additional oracular material is identified on the basis of criteria such as content, style, vocabulary, and disturbance of the flow of the passage in which it occurs. Such supplementation of the original prophetic message may take the form of additional phrases or verses here and there, perhaps to link an originally indefinite oracle with a specific historical situation (for example, the reference to the king of Assyria in Isa. 7: 17), or (very commonly) to add a note of hope to a prophecy of doom in the light of changed circumstances (for example, Hos. 1: 10–11; Amos 9: 11–15, both of which consist of unexpected expressions of hope and references to the kingdom of Judah in the context of prophecies of doom against the kingdom of Israel). Supplementation may also take the form of whole chapters, or even large blocks of material consisting of several consecutive chapters, added to an existing corpus of material from a named prophet. The classic example of this is the book of Isaiah, in which scholars have identified as the basis of the book at least three different prophetic traditions from different eras of Israel's history. Within these three basic traditions further substrata from a variety of sources can be identified, so that the total time period over which the book was composed is reckoned at between 300 and 500 years.

It is impossible to know for sure who was responsible for this process of oracular and biographical supplementation, or to identify with certainty the sources of the additional material. In the case of the Isaiah material, the second major block of tradition (Isa. 40–55, also known as Deutero- or Second Isaiah) displays a consistency and cogency which suggests that it probably originated largely as the work of a single anonymous individual over a relatively short period of time, usually identified as the later part of the Babylonian exile; and Williamson (1994) suggests that the same individual was also responsible for combining his own work with the existing Isaianic corpus. However, other instances of supplementation lack such large-scale cogency, and it is often unclear whether the supplementary material is drawing on pre-existing biographical and oracular traditions which may or may not have originated with the prophet himself, or whether it is a purely literary creation—perhaps scribal recording of what had become an accepted interpretation of or rejoinder to a given oracle, or even newly composed material added for polemical or ideological purposes. An example of the latter would be the so-called Zadokite stratum in Ezekiel 44, which was identified by Gese (1957), and which claims that only priests who were descended from Zadok, and not those who were Levites, should have the right to serve at the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. It seems likely that the priests themselves or their supporters would have been responsible for this material. Similarly, it has often been supposed that those who during the Exile edited the books of Joshua to 2 Kings in conformity with the ideology expressed in Deuteronomy prepared an initial edition of the then-known prophetic books on the same basis. The book in which this editing process has been supposed to be most clearly demonstrable and far-reaching is the book of Jeremiah, and a number of specialized studies have addressed the topic, including Nicholson (1970) and Stulman (1986). Finally, different groups of people could have different ideas about what should be included and where in a prophetic book, as is shown by the Septuagint version of the book of Jeremiah, which is significantly shorter than the Hebrew version and is arranged differently in terms of content (for detailed discussion, see Soderlund 1985 and Tov 1997). Clearly it was possible for several different forms of the tradition to be in contemporaneous circulation for a considerable period of time.

The Finished Product

Having expended a good deal of energy in identifying the various strands and layers within the prophetic books, however, scholarship has more recently developed an increasing interest in the final form of the books: that is, in how each overall composition functions as a whole, and upon what principles it was given its present form (in other words, why it has attained its present form, as opposed to the mechanics of how that form might have been reached). There are a number of impulses driving this adjustment of focus. One is the recognition that the criteria used to identify secondary strata are often highly subjective, and that there is in fact no sure-fire way of determining whether or not a given block of material is ‘original’ or ‘secondary’—and if ‘original’, whether it should be deemed original to the book or to the prophet. This point is very clearly indicated by the wide range of scholarly positions that are taken over the allocation of material in prophetic books to their supposed sources. Another rather obvious, but often overlooked, element is the fact that all we have are the books in their final form; despite the sometimes perplexing evidence from other ancient versions, such as the Septuagint, we do not have the books in demonstrably earlier editions that lack some of the supposed later supplementation; nor do we have the supplements as separate bodies of material. Therefore the most obvious, legitimate, and potentially fruitful object of study is the final form of the text, rather than its hypothetical sources or earlier editions.

The major positive assumption behind an approach that attempts to understand the prophetic books in their present form as complete units is that, far from being a collection of random supplementations of an original nucleus of oracular material, the finished books have been purposefully produced and crafted into their present shape. Theories such as accidental association of discrete material because of copying on to a spare space at the end of a scroll fail to account for the verbal, structural, and thematic links that can often be identified between supposedly disparate elements of a book or, indeed, between books. This is an approach to study that has come into its own in relation both to Isaiah and to the Book of the Twelve, where recent scholarship has focused increasingly on highlighting identifiable links between individual components in these two prophetic corpora. House (1990) and Conrad (1991) are examples of this type of approach to the Twelve and to Isaiah respectively, and the more recent essay collections edited by Watts and House (1996) and Nogalski and Sweeney (2000) indicate its growth in popularity. Inevitably, as with the criteria for identifying ‘secondary’ elements in a prophetic book, there is a degree of subjectivity involved in identifying links between components, and the approach raises the difficult issue of whether perceived links can and should be attributed to authorial/editorial intention. However, this in itself does not automatically invalidate the approach, which can provide stimulating new insights, and each individual treatment must be judged on its own merits.

Relationship between History and Prophecy

Standard scholarly approaches to the prophetic writings over the last century or so have recognized that, rather than offering disembodied predictions of the far distant future, prophecy originated as a phenomenon closely linked with its practitioners' contemporary social, religious, and political situations. In view of this, the prophetic writings have sometimes been used rather uncritically as sources of historical information about the situations to which they were addressed. However, it is now being recognized that, as in the case of the Old Testament as a whole, the relationship between text and reality is extremely complex, and that texts do not simply represent reality, but rather manipulate their readers' perception of it. For the prophetic texts, their highly rhetorical, and to that extent propagandist, nature means that they cannot simply be treated as objective or impartial historical source material presenting a faithful reflection of actual circumstances. In addition, the fact that much of the prophetic material uses poetic and metaphorical language means that it is subject to multiple interpretations, which are determined as much by the reader's perspective as by anything inherent in the text. Keefe (2001) demonstrates this principle in her study of Hosea's metaphor of Israel as an adulterous wife, where the picture of the reality behind the metaphor is changed dramatically by highlighting and changing the (often unconscious) assumptions that determine how the metaphor is understood.

Other recent debates over the historicity of the prophetic material have centred on the question of the prophets themselves as historical personages. The issue is particularly acute in the case of Jeremiah, as demonstrated by Carroll's (1981) eloquent rereading of the large amount of ostensibly biographical information in the book of Jeremiah. The major difficulty for all the prophets is the absence of supporting documentation. None of the prophets is attested in material outside the biblical text, and very few are mentioned within the biblical text outside their own book. Indeed, the only prophet for whom traditions independent of his prophetic book have been preserved in the biblical text is Isaiah, who appears in the narrative of 2 Kings 18–20 and briefly in the equivalent passages in 2 Chr. (26: 22; 32: 20, 32). These narratives are repeated in the book of Isaiah. Four other prophets are mentioned in the biblical text outside their own book: Jeremiah appears in Ezra 1: 1; 2 Chr. 35: 25; 36: 12, 21–2; and Dan. 9: 2; Micah appears once in Jer. 26: 18; and Haggai and Zechariah appear in Ezra 5: 1; 6: 14. However, all of these occurrences are dependent upon the prophetic writings, and preserve no independent information about the prophets themselves. The identity of a fifth prophet, Jonah, whose ‘biography’ (the book of Jonah) is clearly legendary, appears to have been borrowed from the passing reference to Jonah ben Amittai in 2 Kgs. 14: 25, who may or may not have been a historical personage. Ultimately, whether and in what sense the lack of substantiating evidence is viewed as problematic for the historicity of the prophets depends on one's view of the nature of the writings themselves, and on whether the lack of substantiating evidence for the particular historical personages is viewed as evidence against their existence.

However, despite the unquestionably literary character of the prophetic material in the Old Testament and the elusiveness of the individual prophets with whom it supposedly originated, the very existence of the prophetic books, and of narratives about prophets elsewhere in the Old Testament, implies a distinct phenomenon behind them, as hinted earlier. This view is supported by the existence of prophetic phenomena in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, most notably at Mari in Mesopotamia in the eighteenth century BCE. Once again, of course, the only evidence is literary—namely, collections of oracular messages in official archives—and it is notable that the Mari archives contain nothing like the extended books of prophecy in Israel. Although it is unwarranted to postulate direct influence of the prophecy at Mari upon that in Israel, not least because of the enormous gap in dating and the differences in written prophetic residue between the two societies, the existence of a related phenomenon in a neighbouring area makes its existence in Israel comprehensible as part of a common religious world-view. Ringgren (1982), Malamat (1987) and Gordon (1993) offer survey treatments of the Mari material, plus additional bibliography, and the collection of essays edited by Nissinen (2000) offers a recent survey of prophetic phenomena in the ancient Near East more generally. The major problem with attempted comparisons between Israelite and other types of ancient Near East prophecy is the very small amount of information that is available about the other types. If only an incomplete written deposit survives, it is very difficult to say anything sensible about the phenomena themselves, and the safest comparison is at the level of the texts rather than at the level of what kind of activity might have produced the texts.

The idea that prophecy in Israel can reasonably be regarded as an actual religious phenomenon as well as a literary one is also supported by modern anthropological studies documenting the existence of individuals who display ‘prophetic’ behaviour; and this has led to attempts to locate the Israelite phenomenon in its appropriate social setting using sociological and anthropological models. Wilson (1980) and Petersen (1981) are good examples of this kind of approach. The major difficulties with attempting sociological analysis of prophecy on the basis of the biblical text are, first, the lack of field evidence (there are no Israelite prophets to observe or question); secondly, the incomplete and partial nature of the written biblical evidence, which cannot be assumed to be describing prophecy for its own sake; and thirdly, the enormous time and cultural differences between the Israelite setting and modern examples that might be used for comparative purposes.

Linked, although somewhat obliquely, with the issue of social location and role are the types of speech forms used by the prophets. As in other areas of biblical scholarship, the identification of the literary forms within the prophetic corpus and the recognition that particular forms originated within particular social settings tended to lead inexorably to the conclusion that the prophets must have functioned within the social spheres from which the forms in the books originated. But the existence of a given form in a literary work should not automatically be assumed to reflect a corresponding social situation. It is more than possible for forms to be used purely for rhetorical impact in contexts other than those in which they originated. Hence, the same difficulties as already noted attend this attempt to locate the prophets in a given social sphere: namely, the lack of conclusive evidence and the complex nature of the textual phenomena.

Topics of Prophecy

The basic concept of prophecy is that of a message from God which needs to be delivered either to a particular individual or (more often) to a group of people, whether that group is a subgroup of the nations of Israel and Judah or the nation(s) as a whole. Often the message is a condemnation of perceived sin that warns the group in question of the need to amend their ways if they are to avoid punishment; at other times, most famously in the book of Ezekiel, the message is an interpretation of social and political disaster in terms of punishment for sin, and thus functions as a theodicy in order to maintain and justify continued belief in God despite adverse external circumstances. The kind of sin that is condemned varies from prophet to prophet. For some it is social injustice (especially Amos and Micah), whereas others have a more religious bias and condemn idolatrous or hypocritical worship. The once popular view that the prophets were anti-cult by definition is, however, an overstatement that arose out of the view of cultic worship as a legalistic degeneration, and the desire for Protestant Christianity to see itself as the fulfilment of the prophetic ideal. There is also condemnation of alliances with foreign powers—perhaps because such alliances were seen as almost inevitably leading to religious compromise—and indeed, a persistent tradition of oracles against foreign nations, the purpose and function of which is explored by Raabe (1995).

However, not all of the prophets' messages are warnings of doom and destruction. There are also promises of hope and restoration, which in the first instance are addressed to specific situations (most clearly, in the promises of restoration after the Exile found in Isaiah 40–55 and Ezekiel), but which subsequently take on a more generalized character and point to an indefinite time in the future when God will make everything right again for his people. Thus, the phenomenon that begins as a specific response to specific circumstances gradually becomes loosened from its historical moorings, developing a vocabulary of stock images in order to portray a time of eschatological bliss.

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