At what stage did Israel begin to write down its traditions? When did ancient texts such as Jeremiah begin to be treated as Scripture? Many scholars consider scribal activity to be a late development which turned old, oral, prophetic traditions into ideological texts that served the ruling élite. In this monograph, Chad Eggleston makes a convincing case that the book of Jeremiah was produced from the start with an explicit awareness of its authoritative status as the words of God, and that the textual dimension was always integrated with the oral. The present review draws out points of respectful disagreement, but only in the interests of engaging a sound thesis. (It should be mentioned at the start that this is a Duke University PhD dissertation from 2009—a detail not mentioned in the book itself, so most of the relevant research published since 2010 is passed over, including work by Mark Brummitt, Yvonne Sherwood, David Carr, John Hill, Else Holt, Mark Leuchter, Christopher Rollston, Ehud Ben Zvi, and others.)
Eggleston argues his case in four main chapters. He begins with a helpful survey and analysis of four conceptualizations of scribal activity: (1) that it blunts memory and ossifies religion (e.g., Julius Wellhausen); (2) that it enables critical thought and transforms culture (e.g., William Schniedewind); (3) that it records speech to be spoken again in the future (e.g., Hermann Gunkel), a re-performance for which the text may act as an inexact aide-mémoire (e.g., Susan Niditch); and (4) that it creates a source of new and contradictory meanings decided by the reader (e.g., Robert Carroll). Eggleston’s view is closest to the third of these models, because it recognizes that the oral and the written always coexisted in ancient Israel, though he criticises Niditch for maintaining that Israel transitioned from an early oral phase to a later literate phase (pp. 40–41). In this section, the one point that failed to convince was the claim, on the basis of Jeremiah 8:8’s polemic against lying scribes, that tradents in the first half of Jeremiah were wary of the written word, by contrast with its acceptance in the second half. The evidential basis for such an assertion is simply too thin.
In his second chapter Eggleston analyses references to scribes and writing in the narrative (Jer 8:8; 36; 43:1–7; 45), against the background of scribal culture in ancient Israel. His aim is to demonstrate a tight ‘chain of transmission’ from Yahweh to Jeremiah to the scribes. Eggleston’s major contribution here lies in the way he pushes from the scribes in the narrative to the scribes behind the narrative, which will become a key element in his conclusions about the theological nature of the early Hebrew Bible, a theo-logic that ‘explicitly disallows innovation and extemporaneity in the reading of the prophetic word’ (p. 171). One cannot help but feel, however, that Eggleston has been led by his interest in writing to misconstrue the nature of the links in this chain.
For Eggleston, ‘every link in the chain of transmission (Yhwh, prophet, and of course, scribe) is imagined as a potential writer’ (p. 53). He weaves hints and scraps of text into a tapestry depicting both Jeremiah (29:1; 30:2; 32:10; 51:60) and Yahweh (31:33) as writers, thus legitimising the book of Jeremiah as divine writing. But while Eggleston is right about the existence of such a chain of transmission, he is likely wrong to see it as a written chain. The focus of Jeremiah is overwhelmingly on the spoken word, with written texts the means by which words may be spoken in the future. In Jeremiah 36:4–6, for example, the word Yahweh spoke to Jeremiah is in turn spoken (that is, dictated) to Baruch, who writes it down so that the word of Yahweh may be spoken in Jeremiah’s absence. Jeremiah 36:10–11 may thus be translated, ‘Baruch read by means of the scroll the words of Jeremiah . . . [and Micaiah] heard all the words of Yahweh coming from the scroll’ (see my discussion in A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, NSBT 29 [Leicester: Apollos, 2012], 239). It is the identity of the spoken words that secures the chain of transmission, not the identity of one written word with another. This being said, the fact remains that the book of Jeremiah is a scribalisation of prophecy, and Eggleston’s larger argument is not to be dismissed.
Eggleston moves on to consider scrolls in his third chapter. Here he examines the book’s self-references (‘this book’, ‘these words’) as key elements of a narrative of textualisation, by which he argues that the book’s scribal tradents authorise not just the words behind the text but the text itself (p. 124). Given that the term ‘words’ has a textual meaning (pp. 112–13), the fact that the editors of the final version of the book structured it around two references to ‘the words of Jeremiah’ (1:1; 51:64) deserves more attention; this device would seem to construe all the intervening text as a scroll.
In his fourth chapter Eggleston makes a case for working from the text’s ‘constructed audience’ to find its receiving audience. His search begins by charting the wide variety of Zedekiah’s reactions in Jeremiah 37–39 (pp. 128–32), which eventually points him to the existence of a similarly varied audience in front of the text (p. 148). He also takes the temple location of Jeremiah’s preaching as an indication of an audience at worship. His conclusion—that the book’s audience were hearers of an inscribed word (p. 166)—is sound, but not one that requires this audience to be designed as a portrait of later generations. For example, the probability that later audiences gathered in the temple where they heard scribes reading prophetic texts may be argued historically, but the location of Jeremiah’s preaching does not seem to me to be grounds for this conclusion. After all, Jeremiah’s hearers were hardly model worshippers!
Even so, none of these criticisms invalidate Eggleston’s point that the book reflects upon its own nature as Scripture, and upon its hearers as those directly addressed by the words of God. The main strength of his argument is its dislodging of the wedge between speech and writing. The result is a due caution about our ability to separate out writing from speech, in view of ‘just how difficult it is to distinguish between original oral proclamations and scribal productions shaped to be perceived as oral in nature’ (p. 170). At the same time, Eggleston’s work promotes confidence both in the fidelity of oral performances, and in the antiquity of enscripturated words.