Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea (Review)

Reconsidering...

The importance of the date and provenance (ie. origin) of biblical books can hardly be underestimated. In many cases, though not always, the task of interpretation can significantly be aided or impeded by one’s understanding of a book’s background. The time and social situation from which a text arises largely informs the purpose of its author(s)/compilers. Prophetic literature is no exception.

James M. Bos in the recent publication of his doctoral dissertation, Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea, seeks to move the clock forward on the traditional date of the book of Hosea. While the “older paradigm” thought Hosea to be an 8th century composition, Bos argues that the book in reality is the product of the Persian period (6th/5th century).

Following an introduction, surveying some older approaches to the background of Hosea, though lacking in my opinion, the book includes five chapters outlining the pillars on which Bos substantiates his argument. These five strands of data set forward for a Persian date include: 1) The level of literacy, or the lack-there-of, in ancient Israel 2) The anti-monarchial ideology of the book; 3) Hosea’s polemic against other centers of worship; 4) The presence of an exile-return theme; and 5) The use of Israelite’s past traditions.

In these five chapters, Bos concludes that the book of Hosea was composed not by an 8th century prophet, but rather, by the Jerusalemite priesthood in the Persian province of Yehud as political propaganda. The book then served to establish priestly authority over against the provincial governor with whom they shared power (164).

While the book asks many of the right questions regarding background and textual issues, the conclusions drawn are predicated upon questionable premises. Bos himself concedes that no one individual argument may persuade all readers of a Persian date, but believes that the collective force of the chapters renders the traditional date no longer feasible (32). While there is not room here to engage each individual argument, I will briefly address two points that I found particularly unpersuasive.

Many of Bos’ conclusions rest on his understanding of literacy in 8th century Israel. Bos maintains that there existed a standardized system of writing that was controlled by the governing institutions. Scribes were trained in the king’s court and produced documents under the authorization of the monarchy. Bos questions whether a government would train and authorize a scribe as critical as Hosea. But if this model of ancient literacy is not shared by the reader, many of the book’s arguments are left without sure footing. It must be noted that though literacy in the ancient world is indeed a difficult issue, not all scholars accept Bos’ reconstruction. Others, such as Alan Millard, are more optimistic about a wider degree of literacy in Israel.

A second point that I found problematic was the discussion of Hosea’s use of Israelite traditions such as covenant and exile. Bos includes a discussion of the date of Deuteronomy, which he relegates to the Second Temple period. While many may point to the recovery of the Book of the Law in 2 Kings 22 as evidence for an early form of Deuteronomy, Bos is skeptical about the historicity of Josiah’s reforms altogether. With a late date of Deuteronomy, Hosea, who references the terms of the covenant, must be a late composition. Again, for the latter to be legitimate one must accept the former. If Deuteronomy, or at least the Deuteronomistic tradition, is visible in the reform movement under Josiah Bos’ argument falls flat.

Regarding the exile theme, Bos states that the situation expressed in Hosea more closely matches that of the Persian period over against the 8th century. Yet this claim largely ignores other early prophetic works that discuss exile themes (of course, Bos would date these works later as well). I find this unacceptable. For those interested in the exile theme, I recommend the massive doctoral dissertation (779 pgs.) written by Thomas R. Wood entitled, The Regathering of the People of God: An Investigation into the New Testament’s Appropriation of the Old Testament Prophecies Concerning the Regathering of Israel (2006). Wood traces the theme of exile from the pre-exilic period, through the Second Temple period, and beyond.

In conclusion, though I found myself at odds with many of Bos’ conclusions, I am thankful for the opportunity to rethink many of my unchallenged assumptions. There is nothing like a fresh perspective to sharpen your own thinking.

boo ole miss

I must also say, and this should have been expressed up front, that Bos now teaches at the rival university (Ole Miss.) to my Alma Mater (Mississippi State University). Though I endeavored an objective review, such deep-seated tensions cannot be entirely suppressed. I hope this did not drive me to be overly critical. But in all seriousness, this book would best serve more advanced students of prophetic literature, pushing them to rethink issues in the older paradigm. Though the thesis may not be persuasive, one will certainly have a clearer perspective as a result.

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8 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Hosea

8 responses to “Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea (Review)

  1. jamesbradfordpate

    Thank you for your review, and your reference to Alan Millard’s work. I have wondered often if there could have been anti-establishment scribes in ancient Israel, and, if so, how.

  2. Millard’s work by no means represents the mainstream perspective on literacy in ancient Israel and Judah. The more recent literature in the field (Rollston, van der Toorn, Carr) suggests literacy was more restricted than Millard’s generous conclusions.

    • I agree that Millard’s view is not the majority position. My point was to question the structure of Bos’ argument. If one does not adopt his particular understanding of literacy (which seems to go beyond Rollston), the whole of his argument falls apart. This is the central premise of his thesis.

      Also, if one does follow van der Toorn, ect., regarding the role of the government in scribal training, how would you handle Hosea’s critical posture towards the monarchy?

      • I don’t find it problematic that a scholar’s argument would rest on such a matter. I imagine he engages the question concerning the extant of literacy in the 8th century, so its not an unchecked assumption. It does not sound like he is arguing anything significantly out of step with the majority opinion. Are you suggesting that his position is significantly beyond Rollston’s? At the end of the day, we all write articles or monographs that would be unraveled if our premises prove faulty. The question is not whether Bos has done this, but rather if he has done so responsibly. If he has, then it seems unwarranted to list this aspect of his work as problematic.

        Furthermore, I don’t think the only way to explain a critical posture toward the monarchy is to posit widespread literacy. You can have a small, elite class of individuals, most of whom are connected to the palace and/or temple, and still have ideological polemics within the power structures that could account for royal/cultic critique. Most importantly, one would need to answer Rollston’s orthographic arguments about script, arguments that do not at present support widespread literacy. In other words, you can’t just “solve” the problem of royal critique without addressing the reasons a majority of scholars have not entertained your solution.

      • Perhaps “problematic” was not the best term in voicing my disagreement on this point. However, Bos’ view necessitates scribal training exclusively under monarchial control. Though I do think this is plausible, I too would allow other classes of individuals who, to various degrees, were literate. The logic of Bos’ argument (simplified) here is: Scribes are the mouthpiece of the king; Hosea says negative things about the monarchy; therefore, Hosea must originate in a different setting. Each reader will have to determine whether they find his detailed argument persuasive, but I am skeptical about his specific reconstruction of 8th century Israel/Judah on this point.

        I appreciate your interaction, Joseph.

      • Scribal education was primarily centralized. That much seems unavoidable given the current orthographic data. I believe it is unhelpful to posit that critical postures toward centralized power structures available to us in written form can only be explained by either widespread literacy or dating material later to avoid the contradiction. These options either disregard the data or underestimate human ingenuity. Something else was going on, and we would do well to explore this in greater detail!

  3. Pingback: Book Reviews (July-August, 2013) | NEAR EMMAUS

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