A literary circle in JudahUPDATE (19 June): Duane Smith comments at Abnormal Interests.
By Yaacov Shavit
Modern scriptural research deals, among other subjects, with the questions of the modes of writing and methods of redaction and editing of the books of the Bible, on the one hand, and with the sources the authors availed themselves of, on the other hand. More recently this research has also focused on the questions of what need prompted the writing of the books, who their readers were and how they read them.
Even if we assume that a few copies of the Deuteronomist composition existed, this is a work whose complexity can be grasped only by individual reading, which was not customary in the ancient world (in Greece, for example, it did not start before the fifth century B.C.E. ). Even if we assume that in Judah individual reading began earlier, it is clear that such a reader does not resemble an author, who draws for his work on earlier sources and conducts a conscious dialogue with them. A contemporaneous individual reader could read only five or six lines and would find it very difficult to read ahead or refer back - as could be done in later generations in the codex.
For this reader to grasp the intertextual connections which are found by readers of later periods, he would have had to reread the entire text. Moreover, to identify parallels to and passages borrowed from the different books, or a later commentary on early books - the reader would have had to be in possession of all of them. Individual reading of this kind and the realization of the text in this form are like the expositor and exegete of later generations, or of readers and researchers of recent generations, but were certainly not available to a reader of the First Temple period. That reader did not reread the texts in order to decipher properly their secrets and their intertextual relations, and he did not approach the books equipped with sophisticated techniques and theories about reading and interpretation.
It seems likely, then, that if the authors and editors of the Deuteronomist text wished to imbue the public of Judah with a common consciousness of the past, they could easily have found a more effective and simpler way, and would not have created a text meant only for the cognoscenti. Certainly they would not have made do with a small group of ideal readers who were capable of appreciating the modes of textual shaping, the stratagems, the parallels, the refinements and the contradictions between different and distant literary units, or the rhetorical devices and the existing overt and covert polemic that informed the text.
What we have is a wonderful and singular phenomenon: A large disparity existed between the rare quality of the scriptural work and the reading public for which it was in theory intended at the time of its composition, but which it could not reach. If so, it is impossible not to wonder whether the Deuteronomist composition (and not only it) was not written for its time, but with thought for future generations, and whether it indeed became the formative text of the consciousness of the past only generations after the return to Zion and not "in the present" - that is, in the First Temple period. It was only then that the people of Israel became a community of the book; that is, a community whose world is constructed and shaped by one compilation of texts, which became a "book."
UPDATE: My colleague Richard Bauckham e-mails:
About the piece by Shavit on your blog - It is possible for literature to be written to work on more than one level. A very clear case seems to me the Book of Revelation, which itself implies it is to be read aloud to a group of people, but which has all kinds of intricate cross-referencing, biblical allusion and so forth. It is an exquisitely detailed composition packed with meaning. I suppose that a listening audience could make something of it, and a local skilled exegete would explain more of it to them, but then it must also be meant for Christian prophets or exegetes who would study it in the way the author himself studied the OT prophets.
Deuteronomy would not be unintelligible to a listening audience (which would be anaudience trained to listen) but would also offer more to those who might study it.