Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence
James L. Crenshaw. Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1998. x + 320 pp. $34.95 hardback. ISBN 0-385-468891-1.
On the opening page of his preface Crenshaw states the particular interest that motivates this book: "The primary focus of the present study is the nature of knowledge being transmitted from one generation to the next, not the degree of literacy in Israel or the specific location of educational institutions" (p. vii). Indeed this work’s subtitle is intended to reflect the notion of conveying convictions of the wise beyond one’s passing from this life to subsequent generations–i.e., "across the deadening silence" (note p. 3, fn. 3).
Nevertheless, even though the declared purpose is not to concentrate on questions of literacy and educational institutions in ancient Israel, Crenshaw in no way ignores these debated topics. In chapter 1 the author marshals data to demonstrate that literacy in the Ancient Near East was not as widespread as some have believed. In Israel the continual ‘manpower’ demands and economic pressures of an agricultural economy, as well as the lack of social stimulus from the elite for broad education and cultural development, would have served to discourage any significant commitment among ordinary Israelites and Judaeans to formal education. Chapter 3 is dedicated to contradicting those (such as E.W. Heaton, A. Lemaire, and G.I. Davies) who suggest that a network of formal schools existed in ancient Israel (Here he would be in agreement with scholars like M. Haran and S. Weeks). The author argues that the biblical evidence is often nonexistent or ambiguous and that comparative evidence from Egypt and Mesopotamia can only be applied with great caution, because of important differences in cultural and socio-political complexity. The strongest case for formal schooling, he says, can be made on the basis of Palestinian inscriptions (e.g., possible abecedaries, lists, and writing exercises), but even in this instance the evidence is not as persuasive as some have suggested.
The rest of the book is dedicated to pursuing Crenshaw’s stated intent. The remaining chapters provide a host of interesting insights into the ancient educational process that prove to be one of the strengths of the book. Crenshaw probes the nature of ancient pedagogy (ch. 4), as well as the student’s reluctance to learn and temptations to leave the course of training... a tact that was countered by strong and persisitent exhortation, but also apparently with harsh corporal discipline (ch. 5). He presents the wide variety of terminology utilized to describe teaching and learning (ch. 7; note in particular the lists of verbs on pp. 208, 211) and asks whether certain books in Israel’s canon might have served explicitly as texts for advanced instruction, because of their capacity to generate reflection on life (along this line, Crenshaw points out, for example, the editorial comments of the closing lines of Qoheleth and the notice of editorial activity in Proverbs as possible evidence of such a purpose). He demonstrates the different theoretical contributions and perspectives of each of the wisdom books, while at the same time underscoring their shared effort at holding together the tension between the human discovery of wisdom and the need for divine disclosure of that which lies beyond the limitations of reasoning (chs. 9, 10).
Another constructive contribution of this work is the constant comparison and contrast with extra-biblical material: within the Jewish tradition he repeatedly devotes considerable space to Sirach; he also alludes on quite a number of occasions to Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. Finally, the concluding chapter offers a succinct and capable summary of the various discussions of the book.
This reviewer would mention just two shortcomings of this work–the first in regards to format, the other in terms of research methodology. To begin with, there are times when Education in Ancient Israel is a bit repetitive (e.g., discussions on the social locations of the wise, pp. 61-64 and 266-276). This is due to the fact that this book, to a large extent, is a collection of articles and papers presented elsewhere. The resulting unavoidable reappearance of topics dealt with earlier sometimes can make reading a bit tedious. This is a shame, as Crenshaw is an acknowledged and respected expert on the wisdom literature. One would have liked to have enjoyed a more easily flowing argumentation from this scholar’s pen.
The second caveat is more substantive. The reader senses that Crenshaw wants to focus on the learning process at least in part because of the paucity of solid evidence for and the tendency toward circular reasoning in efforts to reconstruct more concrete historical realities such as literacy and the existence of formal schools in Israel. Yet, Crenshaw’s reconstruction of the learning process is based on the interpretation and collation of selected verses and on his dating of the textual material. Is this attempt any more deserving of confidence than the other kinds of reconstructions? Due precisely to the lack of as much evidence as scholars would like to have at their disposal, however, perhaps such efforts are the best one can hope for.
This book can be of benefit to two audiences: those seeking to enlarge their comprehension of the social and intellectual realities of Israel, and others interested in education in general and who desire a more in-depth presentation of education in the ancient world than is often available in standard textbooks. For either group Crenshaw has provided a source of helpful information.