Canon and Power in the Hebrew Scriptures

Critical Inquiry 10 (3):462-480 (1984)
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Abstract

Thus it would not be the content or meaning of a written Torah that Jeremiah would attack; rather it would be the Deuteronomic “claim to final and exclusive authority by means of writing” . Jeremiah’s problem is political rather than theological. He knows that writing is more powerful than prophecy and that he will not be able to withstand it—and he knows that the Deuteronomists know no less. As Blenkinsopp says, “Deuteronomy produced a situation in which prophecy could not continue to exist without undergoing profound transformations” —that is, without ceasing to be “free prophecy,” or prophecy unbound by any text, including its own. “It might be considered misleading or flippant to say that for [Deuteronomy], as for rabbinic orthodoxy, the only good prophet is a dead prophet. But in point of fact the Deuteronomic scribes, despite their evident debt to and respect for the prophets, contributed decisively to the eclipse of the kind of historically oriented prophecy represented by Jeremiah and the emergence in due course of quite different forms of scribal prophecy” .It is at this point that we reach a sort of outer limit of biblical criticism—a threshold that scholars, with their foundations in literary criticism, their analytical attitude toward texts, and their theological concerns, are not inclined to cross. In any case, it is no accident that the political meaning of the conflict of prophecy and canon has received its most serious attention not from a biblical scholar but from a radical historian, Ellis Rivkin. In The Shaping of Jewish History, a brilliant and tendentious book, Rivkin proposes to treat the question of canon-formation and the promulgation of canonical texts of the Scriptures, not according to literary criteria but according to power criteria. For Rivkin, the production of the Hebrew Scriptures “was not primarily the work of scribes, scholars, or editors who sought out neglected traditions about wilderness experience, but of a class struggling to gain power.”23 23. Ellis Rivkin, The Shaping of Jewish History: A Radical New Interpretation , p. 30; further references to this work will be included in the text. Gerald R. Bruns is professor of English at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language and Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History . The present essay is from a work in progress, Hermeneutics, Ancient and Modern

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