Before the Bible

The Liturgical Body and the Formation of Scriptures in Early Judaism

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Judith Newman
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How did ancient Jewish writings become scripture? Judith Newman addresses this old question with refreshing vigor in her recent monograph, Before the Bible: The Liturgical Body and the Formation of Scriptures in Early Judaism. Eschewing wooden methodologies inspired by a search for origins in the hunt for urtexts, Newman proposes instead the adoption of frameworks from contemporary cognition studies alongside models of community identity-building from the social sciences. She brings these approaches to bear on open questions related to the interrelationship between literary texts, prayers, and interpretation in the Second Temple period. Her positioning provides a generative new lens through which scholars can view the histories of these three phenomena refracted through time in relationship to one another.

Newman sets out to show “that the interaction between textual reception and composition framed through individual and communal practices of prayer transformed literary texts into scripture” (1). She seeks an intervention into the dual dialectic between textual reception and composition, on the one hand, and individual and communal prayer practices, on the other, by attending to what she calls the “liturgical body,” where “liturgical” is understood in the wide sense of religious practice—including not only prayer but also fasting and studying (8-9)—and “body” refers simultaneously to the individual acting body and the communal, social body (13). She probes the constituent parts of this structure by examining four representative textual “sites” over the course of her four chapters: Ben Sira’s scribal body in chapter 1 (viz. Sirach 17; 24; 39), Daniel and Baruch’s corporate, exiled bodies in chapter 2 (viz. Daniel 9; Baruch 1-3), Paul’s Corinthian ecclesiastical body in chapter 3 (viz. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11; 8-9), and the Hodayot’s sectarian body in chapter 4 (viz. 1QHa 5:12-6:33; 7:21-8:41; 20:7-22:42; 25:34-27:4?).

Each case study presents detailed textual analysis in support of the original approaches supplied by Newman’s interlocutors. Newman introduces important concepts and terms that can serve as tools for cultivating the fertile ground of rethinking self, experience, text, and performance in the ancient Mediterranean. To name but a few: the process of “decentering” and “reintegration” that works cognitively to secure a strong sense of self, borrowed from the research of neuroscientist Patrick McNamara (28-30); the process of “ritualization of text,” drawn from the work of Catherine Bell (70-72, 100-104, 132-137); the process of “rekeying” cultural codes in new contexts, which, as far as this reader could infer, is drawn from the sociology of Erving Goffman and his heirs (78-80, 89-91); the process of “purposeful forgetting” in the work of corporate memory-making, drawn from Paul Connerton (96-98); and the role of the “liturgical maestro,” a title Newman gives to both Baruch and the maskil of the Dead Sea Scrolls community. If Newman’s application of an array of fresh frames to worked-over material lacks for anything it is that this very range of approaches brought to bear on a small selection of texts (Ben Sira, Daniel, Baruch, 2 Corinthians, and the Hodayot) and in short order means the results of her study are necessarily select and propositional—something Newman herself admits (21, 144). But it must be said that a deeper engagement with any of her theoretical intertexts would likely have been more instructive for any of Newman’s readers already familiar with ritual, memory, or sociological and cultural studies.

For those familiar with Newman’s earlier work, namely her Praying by the Book (Scholars Press, 1999), in which she examines how Second Temple period prayers engaged with a traditional set of literature (i.e., the “scripturalization” of prayer), this new study might feel like turning and facing the other way. While Newman does not suggest, by any means, that she is studying the “prayerization” of scripture, this study proposes the undoing of any neat linear formation process regarding the crystallization of ancient Jewish scripture. The bumpy road between authoritative text and scripture is dotted with instructional texts, narratives, prayers, epistles, and a host of performative settings. Indeed, Newman’s inclusion of the deuterocanonical book of Baruch and, more to the point, the sectarian Hodayot hymns underscores her resistance to any teleology ending in the Jewish and Christian canons. She is concerned with how ancient Jews understood what manuscript traditions show us were pluriform textual traditions in their lived experience. In service of this goal, Newman follows an impulse to uncover the indigenous psychologies of Ben Sira (31-32) and the Yaḥad (115-118), an effort that fits in well with a current trend in biblical studies to find native theories (of text, poetry, etc.) in place of anachronistic scholarly abstractions. The “local theories” of the self that she finds in these sources provide insight into how a textual tradition might interface with various practices in a mutually informative way.

The texts Newman examines were cultural lodestones that taught ancient readers scribal discipline, inspired them to revelation, comforted and guided them in community-formation, and shaped their senses of self and identity. While impressive for its breadth, the range of literary genres examined here also prompts the question of where exactly the line for “liturgical” is to be drawn in the sand. At what point are we no longer talking about “liturgical” practice, even if a conscious broadening of the category is one of Newman’s starting points? Early Christian charitable collection, Qumran scripture study, and sapiential scribal practice all fall outside of traditional scholarly definitions of “liturgy.” But perhaps the blurring of lines between text, prayer, and interpretation requires a concomitant blurring of the lines between genres. Still, a re-situation of the historical picture developed out of Newman’s analysis in her conclusion could have reinforced the methodological decisions Newman establishes in her introduction and provided the reader with a clear alternative to the traditional scholarly model of scriptural formation against which Newman pushes throughout her book.

In the final analysis, there are many commendable features about this book, not least of all its lucid presentation of theoretical intertexts and its editorial cohesion, a welcome accomplishment given that its chapters were originally individual articles. Newman has productively laid out four exempla for thinking about ancient texts in innovative, theoretically-informed, and interdisciplinary ways. Any scholar who wishes to explore the relationship between literature and prayer, scripture and scripturalization, or text and performance in ancient Judaism should now be expected to incorporate the insights proffered by Newman in this exciting and forward-thinking study.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick J. Angiolillo is a doctoral student in the Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Judith Newman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism in the Department for the Study of Religion and Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto.



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