The Bible and the Ancient Near East: A Note on Methodology

The Bible and the Ancient Near East: A Note on Methodology January 3, 2015

The Bible was not written in a historical vacuum. It was produced in a world vastly different from our own. To uncover the way an ancient audience might have interpreted a biblical text (or even what its original author may have meant), scholars draw upon archeological and textual sources from the ancient Near East. This approach makes sense. Mesopotamian (and to a lesser extent, Egyptian) texts directly influenced biblical authors, and the archeological record indicates that Israelite culture descended directly from earlier Canaanite practices and traditions, so comparative analysis is one the essential factors in any serious study of the Bible.

Yet as helpful as comparative analysis proves for historical studies, it is essential that interpreters avoid the trap of failing to properly contextualize cultural differences. In his study exploring the religions of ancient Israel, Ziony Zevit demonstrates sensitivity towards this issue. He writes:

“Discussions of Iron Age cult sites in general and of Israelite religion in particular regularly present parallels for comparison from the earlier and much earlier Late and Middle Bronze Ages. Such comparisons allow for a type of perspective from within which similarities, differences, continuities, and discontinuities may be perceived and discussed historically. Some discussions, however, exhibit a strong tendency to presuppose that the cultural meaning and signification of Bronze Age elements such as altars, figurines, or even of particular sacrifices remained unchanged in later periods… [This approach] supports what I consider an overly facile assumption that both earlier and later manifestation of the same element are similar expressions of a common ‘Canaanite’ or ‘ancient Near Eastern’ culture.” Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches (London: Continuum, 2001), 84.

According to Zevit, therefore, a comparative analysis that simply represents Israelite culture as a common Canaanite or general Near Eastern tradition is highly problematic since it falls short in properly contextualizing distinct cultural traditions.

Critical studies have shown that not even biblical theology itself can be interpreted as encompassing a singular theological system without various discrepancies. Therefore, each structure, including those presented in the Hebrew Bible itself, must be carefully evaluated in terms of its own unique set of religious postulates.

As interpreters, we need to take into consideration the possibility of producing a type of “parallelomania” in Near Eastern society resulting in the absorption of various cultural and religious distinctions into a meaningless synchronic whole.

In his critical work regarding comparative analysis, Shemaryahu Talmon has provided a summary of this challenge scholars face and the manner in which some previous commentators have failed to properly clarify unique cultural distinctions:

“In dealing with the fundamental issues concerning the social and religious history of biblical Israel, scholars often revert to a comparison with external ‘parallels’ without the prerequisite definition of a methodology of procedure and before examining the phenomena under consideration in their innerbiblical context.” Shemaryahu Talmon, Literary Studies in the Hebrew Bible: Form and Content Collected Studies (Jerusalem-Leiden: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University-E.J. Brill, 1993), 34.

In contrast to this problematic paradigm, Talmon has presented a helpful clarification on methodology for those seeking to engage in comparative analysis. Talmon argues that “random comparison without reference to the general structure and profile of the overall scale of values and beliefs of the societies involved can only mar and distort.”

In other words, according to the methodology proposed by Talmon, any feature of the Bible must first be investigated and interpreted in its own context prior to analysis in a larger Near Eastern setting. Failure to adopt this model for comparative studies may lead interpreters to a faulty conclusion, as they superimpose aspects of non-Israelite culture into the Bible.

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