BMCR 2005.05.54

The Ascension of Authorship: Attribution and Canon Formation in Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian Traditions. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 49

, The ascension of authorship : attribution and canon formation in Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian traditions. Harvard studies in comparative literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Dept. of Comparative Literature, 2004. xv, 508 pages ; 24 cm.. $27.50 (pb).

Consider the volume of material published about antiquity in the past month. Is it all accurate? What’s more, is it worthy? How could you possibly know? We rely on the good faith of other scholars, librarians, and authors, our belief in their good intentions bolstered by the reassuring heft of formal methods of citation and editing. Even so, to look at the system that produces these texts and realize, perhaps with wonder, that it is all based on human work induces no small amount of anxiety. We want to get it right and do it well, but knowledge is, famously, subject to entropy. Jed Wyrick’s The Ascension of Authorship observes that concern about the genuineness of texts is a feature not only of our era, but also of antiquity. As he looks at three antique literary traditions and their attempts to guarantee the validity of their texts, W. finds that the anxiety about knowledge and its transmission is not a paralyzing force, but rather a productive one that literally creates the Western idea of authorship.

W.’s project is to describe two strands of textual authentication in antiquity. On the one hand, Jewish tradition canonized texts by associating them with prophetic authors, human transcribers of divine will. On the other hand, Greek grammarians concentrated on attribution analysis to identify correctly an author and his work. The book culminates in the observation that these two strands are plaited together by Christian thinkers, particularly Augustine, and that the resultant weave is the stuff of Western thought about the author. W. postulates that Western concepts of authorship are distinctive because defining an author for a text is a move that at once acknowledges the human individual and defers to divine inspiration.

The route that W. takes to these conclusions is complex and at times frustrating. Chapters double back on themselves, building blocks of the argument are asserted first, then explained in later chapters, and the scope of the book is so wide that totalizing claims are almost inevitable. Perhaps an expert in canon formation in antiquity will find in this book a level of detail and discussion that is reassuring; this reader, however, found the book difficult to follow and the thesis reconstructable only at the end. Indeed, it seems clear enough that in antiquity there were different ways of confirming texts and their traditions, but W. moves from textualization and transmission to authorship rather quickly, without fully theorizing how anxiety about the preservation of texts relates to ideas about those who brought them into being.

In Chapter 1, “The Scribes of the Hebrew Bible,” W. starts with an exploration of Jewish approaches to canonization in antiquity. While most scholars have seen BT Baba Bathra 14a-15b as a discussion of the state of the canon of biblical texts, W. reads it from a different angle, looking at it as evidence of rabbinic ideas about the textualization of the Hebrew Bible. That is, the rabbinic redactors of this passage were not so much concerned with who authored the biblical texts as with who wrote them down. W. says that their choice is telling. “In shifting the discussion to textualization and away from authorship,” this passage accords humans “as small a role as possible in the recording of revelation …. Emphasizing the creative role [of] individuals in biblical composition is inimical to its view of the Bible as a divine compendium” (78-79). For W., then, Jewish sources in antiquity focus on the physical writing out of biblical texts as a way to avoid talking about where these texts came from. This observation is aided by an extended study of the exegesis of Proverbs 25:1 (“These are other proverbs of Solomon that the official of King Hezekiah of Judah copied”) in Second Temple and Christian times. However, it seems that the dichotomy between thinking about authorship and thinking about textualization resides in modern interpretations of passages like Baba Bathra 14a-15b (on the one side, previous interpreters of this passage and on the other, W.). It is possible that early Jewish sources make the case against human authorship, but it is not clear from this chapter.

Chapter 2, “Attaching Names to Biblical Books,” builds on W.’s observation about Jewish attitudes toward authorship and focuses on the reception of David as a writer. W. notes that, while some traditions identify David as the composer of some psalms, others see him as the textualizer or copyist of psalms created by others. The generalized view of David as a poet, the one responsible for the entire biblical book of Psalms, W. says, is a response to a ” horror vacui” that Jews experienced at the prospect of a text unattributed to the person who wrote it down. There is evidence of this, W. argues, in a text found at Qumran: 11Q Ps ends with a list of David’s works, a total of 4050 pieces, far more than can be found in Psalms. Thus, W. argues, we can see in Jewish tradition in antiquity a rush to legitimize books by naming not their authors, but their textualizers.

“The Jewish Critique of Greek Letters,” the third chapter, treats primarily Josephus’ arguments in Against Apion about the relative untrustworthiness of Greek literary tradition. W. shows that Josephus finds the agonistic tenor of Greek writing to be its biggest flaw. Greek historians compete with one another to have the flashiest description of a given event, and this competition by necessity forces some accounts to be untrue. In comparison, a stable line of transmission authenticates Jewish accounts of the past. W. engages some recent scholarship on Josephus by vigorously rejecting the claim that Josephus can be considered a “historian.” While both Tessa Rajak and Shaye Cohen have worked to situate Josephus and his arguments in a Hellenistic context, W. argues that to think of Josephus as doing historiography is to miss the point: “History, according to Josephus, isn’t a category of writing that should have an ‘author.’ It is rather, at its best, a transparent and faithful recording of the events,” preferably by an eyewitness (134). Josephus’ position as a thinker and writer is a bit more complex than W. lets on. First, W. acknowledges that some Greek historians have placed the same value on eyewitnesses that he sees as essential to Josephus’ approach to the past (Thucydides, for one); indeed, later in the book W. writes that Josephus inherits the preference for eyewitnesses from Greek tradition (310). Second, Josephus himself is notorious for multiple accounts of the same events, for example revising his own participation in the Jewish Revolt. For this chapter, W. looks for a Jewish author opposed to Greek tradition and finds him in the rhetoric of Josephus.

In chapter 4, “Biblical and Homeric Textualization According to Josephus,” W. delves further into Josephus’ work. Here, he studies how Josephus compares the creation of the Bible to the creation of Homeric epic, to the detriment of the latter. While the Bible is guaranteed by prophetic succession, Homeric epic depended, at least for a while, on oral transmission. Thus, in Josephus, Homeric epic is less reliable. W. concludes that “the key difference between Jewish letters and the traditions of the Greeks, according to Josephus, was that the Jews wrote down events as they occurred,” while the Greeks relied on oral performance instead of writing. Thus, W. argues, “it now seems certain that Josephus did not value the Pharisaic traditions of the fathers, … the Oral Torah revealed on Mt. Sinai.” This is a complex assertion, and one that deserves more attention than W. gives it. In his own description of his life, Josephus claims to have started living as a Pharisee in early adulthood; there has been debate about whether Josephus is accurately representing his past and what can possibly be made of his claim, but W. does not bring this debate to the reader’s attention. It would have been interesting to read a longer exposition about how the rejection of the traditions of the Pharisees that W. sees in Josephus’ writing interacts with and complicates Josephus’ own assertion of identity with the Pharisaic movement.

Chapter 5, “Peisistratus and Ptolemy,” examines both the story of Ptolemy II Philadelphus’ sponsorship of the translation of the Septuagint and the legend of the retextualizing of Homer’s works by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus. While the first author to mention the Peisistratus legend is Cicero, the fullest account of it, and the text crucial to W.’s argument, is found in the scholia to Dionysius Thrax, dating from the 7th century CE at the earliest. For W., this legend is a foundational narrative for grammarians and analysts of texts, functioning “on an ideological level as an aetiological myth legitimating the highest purpose of Dionysius Thrax’s grammar” (224); that highest purpose is attribution analysis, figuring out whether a particular author can be rightly connected with a given text (277). W. argues here that the Peisistratus legend, however ancient it may present itself to be, was modeled on the story of Ptolemy. W. sees this chapter as establishing “an important stage in the scholarly focus on the connection between individuals and texts” and in particular representing the Greek fascination with linking a text to a particular individual. It is unclear how a text that, in W.’s estimation, works to prioritize one aspect of the Byzantine practice of grammar over another can be the representative of a Greek tradition that is picked up and combined by Augustine with Jewish ideas about divine inspiration. His case would be clearer if the details of the Peisistratus legend in the scholia text were present in some earlier occurrence of this same story.

In chapter 6, W. considers how Christian authors appeal to two different figures, “Aristotle and Ezra,” to defend the newly shaped canon of Christian texts. Treating in turn Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius and Jerome, W. shows that attribution analysis was one of the tools Christian thinkers used to evaluate texts and their canonicity. Most often, “Aristotelian methodology” was used to deny the authenticity of an unwanted text rather than to defend that of an accepted text. In cases where an accepted text was being challenged, Christian thinkers turned to the legend recounted in 4 Ezra/2 Esdras about the destruction and retextualization of the Hebrew Bible by Ezra. While Christians took the passage in 4 Ezra to mean that Ezra reconstituted the Bible through divine inspiration after its destruction, rabbinic sources assign less agency to Ezra, saying that he simply changed the script of the Bible. This, W. finds, is typical of the Jewish approach to texts. The use of the Ezra legend by Christian thinkers brought together “Greek and Jewish approaches to authority in explaining Ezra’s accomplishment” and “signaled the development of a very new notion of authorship” (343).

That new concept of the author is, for W., best seen in Augustine’s thought, the topic of the final chapter: “From Canon to Authorship.” As Augustine works through the issues of canonicity, his “delicate balancing of Greek and Jewish approaches to the authoritative list parallels his unique and unprecedented fusion of Greek and Jewish valuations of the role of individuals in literary composition” (344). There follows a meditation on Augustine’s views of texts and their creation, working with parts of City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and the Confessions. Central to W.’s case is Augustine’s discussion of the multiple meanings available in scripture, unlimited by their correlation to the intent of Moses, their author. This is what the book has been aiming toward: seeing in Augustine a novel conception of the relationship between humans and the books they produce, a conception that W. argues undergirds Western thinking about the nature, existence, intentions, and even the famous “death” of the author.

While I have presented my complaints about the substance of the book, I must mention here as well its rather prohibitive formal problems of the book. In addition to the regrettably common typos and omissions, missing page numbers, variant spellings of words and of the names of authors, there are infelicities in W.’s references to the primary texts. I list them here.

W. deals with both Greek and Hebrew sources and in most, but not all, cases, gives both original and translation in his discussion. To represent these sources, the book uses at least two Greek fonts and three Hebrew ones (compare, for example, the Greek of page 27 to the Greek of page 38; for Hebrew, compare pages 40, 41, and 42). I can find no discussion of why this is necessary and can only speculate that the sections of Greek and Hebrew were not typeset for this book specifically but were somehow reproduced from the editions that W. has used.

When a reader who knows both Greek and English or Hebrew and English compares the texts that W. presents, she will find some discrepancies: phrases (in one case, several sentences) of the translation are not represented in the original that W. reproduces (cf. 251-252); in some cases, emphasized parts of the original are not emphasized in the translation, or vice versa (cf. 341); the translations that W. presents are inconsistently cited (cf. the passages W. cites from Baba Bathra in Chapter 1: W. alternately uses the Soncino [Simon] and the Neusner translations, without explaining why, and sometimes gives no translation information.)

Finally, the bibliography is incomplete and difficult to use. It is not separated into primary and secondary sources. This causes no difficulty when it comes to, say, finding W.’s sources for Tertullian; both the LCL edition that W. uses and another English translation appear in entries under “Tertullian.” Simple enough. However, to find information about W.’s texts of Jerome, the researcher would need to look under “Hieronymi” (no other ancient author’s name is left Latinized) for the primary text (ed. Herding, 1879) and “Schaff” for Schaff and Wace’s NPNF translation. Song of Songs Rabbah figures prominently in the discussion of pages 52-58, but the reader does not find an entry for “Song of Songs Rabbah,” “Shir hashirim Rabbah,” “Simon” (the translation cited by W., published by Soncino press, 1939, rep.1971), “Midrash,” or “Midrash Rabbah.” At the entry “Freedman, H. and Maurice Simon,” where the other volumes of Midrash Rabbah published by Soncino are found, there is no listing for this volume. Certainly a scholar of rabbinics would be able to figure out which edition of Song of Songs Rabbah W. cites by looking it up in her Strack and Stemberger, as I did; even if the bibliography doesn’t immediately direct the reader to Jerome’s works, she could simply do a little more work and read all of the entries to find the primary text that W. is using. The reason I draw attention to the formal problems in W.’s book is that, while Josephus may have trusted in the security of the prophetic line of succession and Byzantine grammarians may have reassured themselves about their texts by careful attention to the individual style of each author, we have a different system. Scholars trust one another’s intentions but are comforted by the fact that writers represent their knowledge of fields and sources through consistent and functional systems of citation. The cumulative effect of the inconsistencies and omissions in The Ascension of Authorship is to raise doubt about the carefulness of the author’s research and the care of his editors.