Memory in a Time of Prose

Studies in Epistemology, Hebrew Scribalism, and the Biblical Past

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Daniel Pioske
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Memory in a Time of Prose, Daniel Pioske attempts to answer the nebulous question of the origins of the narratives within the Hebrew Bible. The authorial anonymity of the biblical text poses an obvious problem to such an endeavor, evidenced by the unending debates concerning biblical sources which have raged for the better part of the last century. Pioske attempts to breathe fresh air into this stale corner of scholarship through his focus on Hebrew scribalism, memory and epistemology, and recent finds within the archaeological record of the southern Levant. The result is a work which recognizes the giants on whose shoulders it stands, while still providing an innovative—and, more importantly, interesting—study of those responsible for the composition of the texts within the Hebrew Bible.

Pioske spends most of his introductory chapter establishing the methodological framework for what is to follow. The first chapter provides a Foucauldian analysis of the scribal knowledge responsible for shaping the oral and written sources which would ultimately find a home in the Hebrew Bible. The ensuing three chapters are individual case studies which serve to illustrate the theoretical suppositions of chapter 1. He limits his studies to narratives set in the early Iron Age in an effort to “be sensitive to the concerns of the biblical scribes themselves” (7). It is in these chapters that Pioske endeavors to prove that the emergence of vernacular prose writing provided a means for scribes to detail stories of the past which had previously only been shared by a network of oral transmission.

The first chapter of the work, “Hebrew Prose and Stories of an Early Iron Age Past,” seeks to provide an outline for the rise of Hebrew prose in antiquity. As in many other works with a historiographic focus, there is a lengthy methodological comparison between the Hebrew Bible and Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War. Rather than focusing on oft-discussed questions—such as what constitutes history writing and how the historía of the Greeks differs from biblical narratives—Pioske centers his discussion on the sources responsible for the creation of each text. Later, he shifts his focus onto the uniqueness of prose writing occurring in the Hebrew language; as the dominant languages of the period were Akkadian and Aramaic, Hebrew was comparatively less important on an international scale. As such, the composition of these texts provides a unique example of vernacular historical writings. Pioske ultimately contends that the narratives contained within the Hebrew Bible are the result of a cumulative process of oral transmission which ultimately intersected with the rise of prose writing in the southern Levant. Though many historical-critical scholars shudder at the thought of contending with Michel Foucault, Pioske deftly weaves the theories of the philosopher into his own work. 

Chapter 2 provides the first case study of the work, focusing primarily on the ancient Philistine city of Gath—due to the frequent references to this city in important moments within the biblical text, as well as its early date of destruction. It therefore provides a unique case in which the subject of discussion was destroyed long before the references made to it by Hebrew scribes. Citing the destructions of Gath at the hands of Hazael of Damascus and later Sennacherib, which are confirmed in the archaeological record of the city, Pioske highlights the continuity between the description of Gath in the Hebrew Bible and recent material findings. As such, he believes that Hebrew scribes had access to information about the city which could only have come from the Iron Age period; seeking to answer how “place” is defined in memory, Pioske illustrates that the memory of Gath was able to persist in minds of southern Levantine scribes due to its size and political importance, despite being destroyed centuries earlier. 

Chapter 3 provides the second case study of the work, now focusing on the rise of David in 1 Samuel 16-2 Samuel 5. Just as Gath served as the geographic point of reference for the previous chapter, here Pioske focuses on narratives concerning the Philistine city of Ziklag and the Judahite city of Hebron as well as the material remains from each. Rather than focus on minute additions made by unidentifiable redactors, the author attempts to identify the forms of knowledge employed by those who would ultimately be responsible for the composition of the works within the Deuteronomistic History. Unlike the narratives surrounding Gath in chapter 2, here Pioske suggests a mixture of sources coming from both the early (I-IIA) and late (IIB-IIC) Iron Age. Framed with references to Herodotus’s portrayal of the likely-fictional Egyptian pharaoh Sesostris, this chapter provides a means for understanding the origins of the disjointed Davidic narratives in Samuel. The Hebrew scribes responsible for these texts relied both on records from the Iron Age as well as an amalgamation of various historical memories to compose their texts. 

While previous chapters focus on the process of remembering, chapter 4—the final expository chapter of the work—centers on how forgetting and the loss of cultural memory affect historical record keeping. Pioske begins by providing an analysis of several sites dating to the early Iron Age which seemingly were of great import at the time, but which are absent from the biblical text. In doing so, he explores the notion of “passive” and “active” forgetting—terms originally coined by Aleida Assmann; such an approach is unique among recently published studies on memory in the Hebrew Bible.

Text-centered studies lightly bolstered by archaeological evidence are so common in the field today that publishing a new one might actually be less difficult than differentiating the ones that already exist. Rarer are works which employ archaeological evidence in a unique and interesting format. Rarer still are works which are able to employ religious theory in a manner which is not only beneficial for the thesis of the study, but is also easily understood by those unfamiliar with theory-centric approaches. Pioske provides a work which, thankfully, falls into the final category.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raleigh C. Heth is a doctoral student in Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
May 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel D. Pioske is Assistant Professor at Georgia Southern University. His first book, David's Jerusalem: Between Memory and History, was published in 2015.


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