Egalitarian Technology: Alphabet, Text, and Class
However, the monopoly of access held by trained scribes was true of a particular kind of text. ....
the cornerstones of cultural continuity and were passed on from one generation to the next. These would include works such as the Gilgamesh Epic, the Egyptian myth of Osiris, or, within the Greek context, the works of Homer and Euripides. These were texts whose creation, reading, and transmission were key instruments in the grounding of class distinctions; one scholar has termed them “long duration texts.” In Mesopotamia, such texts were essentially composed for use exclusively within the domain of the elite scribal culture. Consider, for example, the setting in which the Babylonian creation myth of Enuma Elish would be accessed. While today this text may be accessed by a wide reading audience (thanks to translation and print), this was hardly the case at the time of its composition and use. The tablets that bear this work (and, indeed, all other Mesopotamian texts in our possession) were located in temples or the foundations of palaces, or engraved in other inaccessible places, for example palace archives.11 The text of Enuma Elish was never seen by the common man, but was read by the high priest on the fourth day of the new year festival, Akitu, in the presence of the statue of Marduk, in the inner sanctum of the temple. Its content focuses on the deeds of Marduk, and the reading of the account before the idol served to remind Marduk of his responsibilities toward the world to subdue the forces of chaos.
From time to time, Mesopotamian commoners did have access and exposure to such long duration texts, in the form of the display of monumental inscriptions. Yet the display of monumental writing was a display of royal power. Few could read the cuneiform writing. The alien nature of the script would naturally have served to affirm for the common man his place within the Mesopotamian hierarchy, that is to say, well below the place of the literate scribe and the court he serviced.
In ancient Egypt, too, long duration texts were seen as the sole purview of the scribal class, and as instruments of the entrenchment of class distinctions. Priests and military officials of a certain rank were able to read and write the fairly intricate script and were trained to practice the art of drawing up written documents and to consult and study them.18 Young princes were taught together in schools with the children of high officials. Writing was guarded and restricted in Egypt,
The Pentateuch, it would seem, seeks out the promulgation, the oral publication, of its written texts. In Deuteronomy, Moses and Joshua are instructed to “write down these words and teach them to the children of Israel, that they should be fluent with it” (lit. “place it in their mouths,” Deut 31:19). Scripture continues, “Moses wrote these words on that day and taught it to the children of Israel” (Deut 31:22). It is clear that the writing down was a stage in the process of dissemination. While not explicitly stated, the presence of a corps of instructors is implied, as Moses could not have been the only one involved in the process of instruction.
The use of text as a basis for wide-scale teaching is enshrined in the law of the septennial Hakhēl convocation: “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns—so that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law” (Deut 31:11–12). Several other biblical narratives describe the public reading of passages from the Pentateuch to all Israel (Josh 8:32–35; 2 Kgs 23:1–3; Neh 7:72b–8:18 [ET 7:73b–8:18]). The Bible sees the oral-textual education system, whereby the literate read texts for the consumption of others, as encompassing the whole of Israel. The evidence that the Pentateuch seeks to promulgate its texts goes beyond isolated passages and is deeply woven into its rhetorical fabric.
The system of education that centered around the production and memorization of long - duration texts in Mesopotamia and Egypt is here radically transformed . In those cultures , the education system that surrounded texts was designed to create a literate scribal elite that stood in distinction from the commoners .
Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb ‘ to read ’ as “ to inspect and interpret in thought any signs which represent words or discourse . ” “ To call ” is defined as “ to utter one’s voice loudly , forcibly and distinctly so as to be heard at a distance . ” Yet in Hebrew , these two verbs are designated by the same infinitive : liqr’ō . This implies that the dominant life - setting of qĕrî’â — “ reading ” — was recitation , as found in the verse “ [ Moses ] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people ” ( Exod 24 : 7 ) . 35 In fact , nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there reference to an individual reading silently to himself . 36 The norm in the Hebrew Bible is that texts are composed with the intent of later being read aloud .
The new role for the promulgation of texts within Israelite society envisioned in the biblical passages examined here was, in the first place, a revolution of ideology. I noted Goody’s insight that a culture’s willingness to disseminate its religious literature inevitably reflects an emphasis on the individual within that culture. But this revolution may well have been aided by an advance in the technology of communication: the development of the alphabetic script, and its use by biblical writers for purposes unknown before. As noted, advances in the technology of communication yield diverse implications, depending on the social institutions and the prevailing ideologies of the particular cultures affected. This is no less true of advances in the technology of writing in the ancient Near East. The adoption of the technology of the alphabetic script and its use in creating texts in ancient Israel was a function of a dynamic relationship between technology and the theological and social mind frame of that culture.
Bible is the first written history of a people , and as such may be said to reflect a new vernacular politics .
Berman, Joshua A.. Created Equal How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought Oxford University Press.
THE ANTIQUITY OF THE GREEK ALPHABET
The Greek alphabet and its principal offshoot, the Latin script, belong to classical rather than to Semitic studies. However, since the origin of the Greek alphabet and its derivation from the Semitic alphabetic script can be discussed only on the basis of a thorough knowledge of the evolution of the Semitic scripts, the problem of the antiquity of the Greek alphabet should be regarded as an intermediate field, relating to both Semitic and Greek epigraphy.
There is a consensus among scholars regarding the West Semitic origin of the Greek alphabet; however, its earliest use among the Greeks is still a subject of controversy. The consensus is based on four points:
(a) According to Greek tradition, the alphabetic characters phoinikeia grammata (Phoenician letters) or kadmeia grammata (the letters of Kadmos) - were introduced together with other arts by the Phoenicians who came to Greece with a person named Kadmos.
(b) The names of the letters, alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc. have no meaning in Greek, but most of their Semitic equivalents, alef, bet, gimel, dalet, etc. are Semitic words.
(c) The letter sequence in the Greek alphabet is basically identical to the Phoenician (= Hebrew and Aramaic) alphabetical order.
(d) The earliest Greek letter forms are very similar, and some even identical, to the equivalent West Semitic letters.
Early History of the Alphabet, Joseph Naveh, The Magnes Press, Hebrew University 1997
Alphabetical accrostics in the Bible and later Piyyutim and prayers
Psalm 25, Psalm 34, Psalm 37, Psalm 111, Psalm 112, Psalm 119, Psalm 145,
THE PURPOSE OF ALPHABETIC ACROSTICS
Why were these acrostic poems written? Or, why were these poems written in an acrostic structure? If this external form does not carry much weight, as suggested by most translations, why did the original authors go through the painstaking process of writing these poems keeping to this structure? I agree with Seppo Sipila that the sheer beauty of the text must be looked at as well, and that a translation that does not covey the beauty of the poem, makes the text poorer (Translators’ Workshop, Baku, Azerbaijan, 21 April 2008).
Since we are studying these Hebrew alphabetic acrostics thousands of years after they have been written, it seems that we have to agree with Longman (1993:86) that the purpose of Hebrew acrostics can only be guessed. I feel that I. G. P. Gous, in his article: ‘Reason to believe: Cognitive strategy in the acrostic Psalm 34’ (1999:456), approaches this question in a way that is creative and meaningful. Many possible solutions have been offered why acrostics were written, but we lack an explanatory theory, which could help us decide about the validity of the interpretations offered. Gous then proceeds by 516 Van der Spuy: Hebrew Alphabetic Acrostics OTE 21/2 (2008), 513-532 applying theories from the Cognitive Sciences in order to offer a more plausible theory for explaining the possible reasons for the existence of acrostics.
Making the reader cognitively aware of the features will enhance the insight into possible reasons why the poet had constructed the acrostic. When being cognitively aware of the structure of an acrostic poem, one realizes that the alphabet has a well-defined order, it provides a finite structure and it communicates the sense of a complete unit and wholeness, and consequently helps the process of memorization. It is a skilful and attractive way of showing that God covers everything from A to Z, Aleph to Taw. It shows both the poet’s love for the Hebrew language and his poetic skills.
When referring to Biblical acrostics, the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971: 230) mentions that acrostics fulfilled several important functions. It simplified learning by heart because of the logical order of the beginning letters of the lines. It helped the student to prevent mistakes and deletions by knowing which letter came next. When listing the following features, I do not imply that all these features have been in focus in the mind of the poet at all times. Certain features may be in focus in certain poems, by certain poets, for certain purposes. The following is a list of possible features that are found in alphabetic acrostics. 1 Mnemonic feature When discussing Biblical Hebrew alphabetic acrostics the mnemonic feature is the most commonly mentioned feature. In The Jewish Encyclopaedia, Israel Abrahams, referring to alphabetic acrostic passages in Hebrew literature, describes mnemonics as certain sentences, words, or letters used to assist the memory. He explains that acrostics were employed for mnemonic purposes and for helping people to recite these passages (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=750&letter=A Accessed 30 March 2007).
In his dissertation, Maloney (2007:47) also states that the alphabetic feature is a feature of consonance, which is a form of alliteration, cohesion and mnemonics. If the mnemonic feature was one of the main reasons for writing these poems in this form, could we transfer this aspect in a translation? Would it not make it much easier to learn these passages by heart if one knew that the next sentence, verse or paragraph began with the next letter of the alphabet? In what ways can this concept be transferred in a translation? If one followed the Hebrew alphabet, the cognitive knowledge of what the next letter will be, would be lost. Therefore following the Latin alphabet would make more sense. This will be discussed later on. Van der Spuy: Hebrew Alphabetic Acrostics OTE 21/2 (2008), 513-532 517 2 Enumeration feature Maloney (2006:34) further relates to the above-mentioned aspect by saying that acrostic passages provide a structure, stimulus and a boundary for ‘enumeration’. It provides the poet with a structure and prevents him from piling up too long a list in a poem, which is often possible in religious literature like laments, petitions, etcetera.
The Jewish Heritage Online Magazine (www.jhom.com accessed 19 Jan 2008) quotes Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, Shocken Books 1991, where Rabbi Yizhak of Vorki was asked: ‘Why on the Day of Atonement is the list of confession of sins arranged in alphabetical order?’ He replied: ‘If it were otherwise, we should not know when to stop beating our breasts. For there is no end to sin, and no end to the awareness of sin, but there IS an end to the alphabet.’
3 Feature of completeness, wholeness, totality Kimelman (1994:52) quite convincingly reasons that from a poetic point of view Ps 145 has a very strong perception of unity. The acrostic appeals to the eye, the alliterations to the ear and the Hebrew word ‘לכ’ (all) combine and strengthen the concept of unity, completeness and totality. It produces a unified sensory experience. Burden (1987: 170) agrees that the alphabetic structure of Ps 145 is fully supported by the contents and theme of the poem to highlight the feature of completeness and totality. The alphabetic framework enhances the inherent theme of the poem. Wilt (1993:203) argues that the fact that the alphabetic acrostics cover the alphabet from A to Z (Aleph to Taw) indicates completeness, a wholeness that can be seen in the external form. Poetic form, contents and message are quite often intertwined. For instance, Ps 111 indicates that we should praise Yahweh from the beginning to the end. Ps 119 makes it clear that the Law of the Lord covers our whole life from beginning to end. Referring to Lamentations, Wilt (1993:203) agrees with Gottwald that the alphabetic acrostic indicates that God is present in totality. The subject is exhausted in its totality. This fits with what is said by Rabbi Shimoni (2004:472) showing that these passages indicate a wholeness, totality, not only of the poem, but also of life. Rabbi Yalkut Shimoni (2004:472-488) explains that these alphabetic acrostics indicate that God covers every aspect of life from A to Z, or Aleph to Taw, better known in our day as the Greek expression: God is the Alpha and Omega. Gous (1999:461) argues from a cognitive point of view that the notion of completion is quite plausible, since the expression ‘from A to Z’ is quite well known. When the reader becomes cognitively aware of the fact that the poem 518 Van der Spuy: Hebrew Alphabetic Acrostics OTE 21/2 (2008), 513-532 consists of an alphabetic structure, the reader will expect the next letter, but he will also naturally expect the poem to end at the last letter of the alphabet.
See: Hebrew Alphabetic Acrostics – Significance and Translation ROELIE VAN DER SPUY NORTH WEST UNIVERSITY, SOUTH AFRICA AND SIL INTERNATIONAL
Story of the Ba'al Shem Tov
One Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov was praying together with his students in a small Polish village. Through his spiritual vision, the Baal Shem Tov had detected that harsh heavenly judgments had been decreed against the Jewish people, and he and his students were trying with all the sincerity they could muster to cry out to G-d and implore Him to rescind these decrees and grant the Jews a year of blessing.
This deep feeling took hold of all the inhabitants of the village and everyone opened his heart in deep-felt prayer.
Among the inhabitants of the village was a simple shepherd boy. He did not know how to read; indeed, he could barely read the letters of the alef-beit, the Hebrew alphabet. As the intensity of feeling in the synagogue began to mount, he decided that he also wanted to pray. But he did not know how. He could not read the words of the prayer book or mimic the prayers of the other congregants. He opened the prayer book to the first page and began to recite the letters: alef, beit, veit - reading the entire alphabet. He then called out to G-d: "This is all I can do. G-d, You know how the prayers should be pronounced. Please, arrange the letters in the proper way."
This simple, genuine prayer resounded powerfully within the Heavenly court. G-d rescinded all the harsh decrees and granted the Jews blessing and good fortune. see here.