Friday, 29 July 2016
Communities and Libraries I
Religion and Cultural Memory (tr. Rodney Livingstone),
Jan Assmann, Stanford University Press, 2006, page 72-75
Jan Assmann cites the work of the historian Brian Stock who generated the term 'textual communities' to describe movements throughout history that are (or have been) based around 'highly authoritative texts whose survival and/or interpretation' was unique to them. Assmann explains that:
The characteristics of a textual community are, on the one hand, the use of a basic text to define authority and, on the other hand, the structure of authority and leadership that arises from the ability to handle texts ... Leadership falls to the person who possesses the most comprehensive knowledge and the most illuminating interpretation of the texts.
Assmmann uses the discoveries at Qumran and Nag Hammadi - two great libraries - to investigate how libraries were used as the basis for textual communities. Contrary to what we assume is the purpose of a library today - and was the tradition of the great ancient library of Alexandria - to bring 'variety, abundance and comprehensiveness together to store multiple sources and ideas, to preserve and cherish the wealth of ideas and innovation, these religious libraries contained only what was important and necessary for the textual community. As Assmann writes:
They did not aim at the greatest possible variety and completeness. Instead, they confined themselves to the literature that the community deemed authoritative.
The (small number of authoritative) books were not in library to be read, analysed, discussed or used as critical sources. No, they were to be learned, mastered and applied. Assmann observes:
That applies with equal force in rabbinic Judaism down to the present day.
He may have a point in some of the hassidic sects, whose working libraries are quite small, particular subsets of the total rabbinic corpus, but the whole essence of Judaism is all about (vigorous) debate and argument, so I don't know that I totally support his view.