Discoveries and Scholarship

No this is not about the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon’s Decoder Ring, the Essene Secret Handshake Manual, or the Gospel of That Guy That Sorta Heard Jesus at the One of the Sermons on One of the the Mounts But Was Too Far Away To Understand What He Said And Consequently Got Everything Quite Entirely Wrong But Has A Following Anyway And Is Now Quite Wealthy.

As part of a very interesting project that I began some time ago, I’ve been looking into the publication dates for various ideas related to Biblical Studies, the dates for the decipherment of ancient languages and their writing systems, the dates for the discovery of important ancient texts, and so on. One of the most intriguing things that this investigation continues to reveal is that many ideas taken for granted in Biblical Studies have turned out to be actually anything but critical in origin. Many such, however, had become academic orthodoxy before some very important and relevant discoveries, namely nearly all of them, which should really have called into question a number of these orthodoxies. That, however, never happened.

Conclusions were reached, have remained in place and have been long deemed nearly unquestionable, regarding, for instance, the Documentary Hypothesis in the Pentateuch. Much ink has been spilled on these subjects, and many careers devoted to them. However, many such foundational critical lynchpins were developed in a textual vacuum, in which the scholars working on them used ingenuity, common sense, and familiarity with Western concepts of literary logic, particularly based on Classical models, to arrive at these conclusions. All of this was done in an almost complete and utter absence of Ancient Near Eastern comparative data. The Bible until the mid-nineteenth century was a singularity, a peculiar remnant of the ancient world, the only surviving voice of the East dating prior to the Birth of Christ. It would not remain so. Yet once all that revolutionary comparative textual data appeared, there should also have been a correspondingly revolutionary reworking of studies concerning Biblical literary conventions, yet such really didn’t occur.

Linguistically speaking, the most important textual corpus in relation to the Hebrew Bible is that of the Ugaritic Texts, which weren’t discovered and published until the 1930s and afterward. Yet, long prior to this, Western standards of literary logic were employed in reading the Hebrew Bible in order to discover “parallel accounts,” “doublets,” and the like. Yet the Ugaritic and even other ancient texts provide us with texts that similarly don’t follow Western standards of literary logic. Repetition has many uses, and was in particular a now well-recognized ancient Eastern literary device, at both the level of sentence (as in the case of double- or triple-stich proverbs and psalms) and also at the level of narratives (as in Assyrian royal inscriptions, Ugaritic narrative poetry, and Hebrew “historical” narrative). That means no Wellhausen/Documentary Hypothesis, no J, no E, no P, no D, as currently understood. That leaves us perhaps twelve books written by everyone who hasn’t assumed the Hypothesis as fact and thereby missed a good portion of the ancient Hebrew author’s intent, artistry, and integrity. I exaggerate, but not by far.

In all this, I am entirely confirmed in my impression that application of the contextual approach advocated by William Hallo and company (see his programmatic statement “Compare and Contrast: The Contextual Approach to Biblical Literature” pp 1-30 in The Bible in the Light of Cuneiform Literature: Scripture in Context III, Edwin Mellen Press, 1990; a somewhat different version is included as chapter 3 of his The Book of the People [Scholars Press, 1991]) is the only consistently valid approach in current usage, one which takes into account not only the information gleaned from the different textual sources (a superficial treatment of sources that is a particular failing of many works), but also the literary structure of these literary creations, their own known context, and how these compare and contrast with the Biblical texts, not simply in content. One of the things that one will notice about this approach and those participating in it is that it is all quite recent, of primarily the last three decades or so. I would not be averse to, aside from primary texts, chucking out everything from before about 1980, especially the hidebound inheritance of “critical orthodoxies.” Some icons deserve to be smashed. Back to the texts!

Anyhow, I’m finding it a very interesting project. Who knows where it will lead….


  1. Kevin,

    Hallo has been a very big influence on me. I used most all of his written sources in my dissertation and in fact modeled my dissertation after his method. He is quite the Assyrian scholar and in fact does battle with Lemche quite often.


  2. Yes, Joe, he is quite the exemplary scholar, isn’t he? He makes a fine model! I’ve only got the second and third volumes of the Scripture in Context series. The fourth is hard to come by, and the first is in paperback, but I’d rather have hardback, so I keep my eye out for that. Of course, I bought the Context of Scripture volumes each as soon as they were published. The first volume was the most expensive book I’d ever bought up to that point. I must say I was/am somewhat disappointed by the COS series. What it presents is presented exceedingly well, but Pritchard’s ANET still wins for coverage. His Book of the People is a fun little read, if you haven’t seen it. It’s basically an introduction to the Pentateuch for Jewish religious readers.

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