Thursday, September 22, 2016

Noel Weeks and the Ancient Near East

Esarhaddon, son of Sennacharib
Photo: Pixabay
For those of you who have followed the trends in evangelical Old Testament studies over the past decade or so already know that things are substantially different than they used to be.  When I was an undergrad, my O.T. profs taught that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch and that he intended to record history in Genesis.  The alternative perspective was built on higher criticism, which as I understood it then did not accept the authority or inspiration of the Bible.  Higher criticism was bad, and the traditional understanding of the composition and chronology of the Bible is good.  That's drastically oversimplified, but that was certainly the sense I got.

As I said, things are different now.  There are a great number of evangelical O.T. scholars who appear to have made their peace with higher criticism to a greater or lesser extent.  Particularly when it comes to Genesis, I continually hear rather bold assertions about what the original author or authors intended to communicate.  We are told that the author(s) never meant Genesis 1-11 to be understood as history.  Instead, the primeval stories of Genesis are sophisticated theological commentaries and refutations of myths of the surrounding nations.  How do we know?  Because we have stories and records from the Ancient Near East - places like ancient Egypt or Babylon - that show us striking similarities with stories in the Bible.  Being aware of these parallel stories allows us to see the truth about Genesis 1-11.  These passages teach us truth about the one true God Jehovah by using parables that people at the time would have recognized as parables.  The truth is not in the stories themselves but the "moral" behind the stories.  (Again, this is vastly oversimplified, but I only have so much room in a blog post...)

For obvious reasons (I'm a creationist), I disagree with these assessments, but I have been reticent to join the discussion too publicly, since this is not my field.  I have, however, asked various individuals personally about my concerns, and I haven't received many satisfying answers.  So I have remained quietly annoyed and bothered by these bold claims that essentially say that I just don't know how to read the Bible.

The latest issue of the Westminster Theologicl Journal has an article from Noel K. Weeks, an honorary associate in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney in Australia.  The article "The Bible and the 'universal' ancient world: a critique of John Walton" mentioned an earlier article in WTJ also by Weeks entitled "The ambiguity of biblical 'background.'"  Having read both of these articles, I am immensely relieved to see that there is at least one scholar in the field who shares some of my skepticism.

For one, I have always wondered whether this or that 'parallel' was really anything to be excited about.  My own study of protein evolution as a biochemist has given me some peculiar insight on this problem.  I know how to measure the similarity of two proteins, but I also know that not all similarity is really significant.  Short protein sequences often share surprising similarity simply by chance.

Weeks discusses several specific examples of past claims of parallels with the Bible that really turned out to be not important at all.  I'll let you read his "Biblical 'background'" article for the technical details, but his conclusion there struck a chord with me:
In each case the claimed parallels, and hence the elucidating background, were not what they seemed.  I doubt that anybody will, in the abstract, question that accidental parallels can occur and seeming parallels and thus background could arise from many different circumstances and mechanisms.  That should imply that one needs to be very careful to understand the whole situation of the specific data from one culture that is being compared to specific data from another culture.  My observation is that this kind of careful consideration is generally lacking in the biblical field.
That was my impression as well.  The zeal for finding parallels between Genesis and other stories from the Ancient Near East leads scholars to make big lists, where the majority of similarities are, quite frankly, lame.  As a person trained to recognize significant similarity, I was not recognizing it in this field.  I thought it might just be me, but Weeks agrees.  People are seizing on similarities that are just accidental.

For example (my own example here, and apologies if I get this wrong), several stories from the Ancient Near East depict the creation of humans from clay, which I am told is a striking parallel to the creation of Adam from dust in Genesis 2.  But when I read the rest of the stories in full, the dissimilarities are so overwhelming, I'm left wondering if the 'parallel' is anything other than an accident.  I'm especially suspicious when I remember that some of these cultures are using clay tablets for writing and are obviously very familiar with making things out of clay.  So why should these minor details in otherwise very dissimilar texts be anything other than coincidence?

A second issue that I think is far more crucial is the level of confidence that we should have about these ancient cultures.  To listen to some of these modern O.T. scholars, the answer of how to read Genesis is just obvious.  They've read all the ancient mythology, see, and they are just sure that they know what the ancient cultures thought about things and what the ancient Bible author thought.  That sort of attitude just strikes me as arrogant.  How could we possibly know what a culture 3000 or 4000 years removed from our own really thought, when we are effectively picking through their trash to learn about them?

Weeks argues that the sources from the Ancient Near East are very skewed due to the inevitable quirks of preservation bias.  In other words, the written records we have from that part of the world are a weird and random sample of a larger set of writings and ideas that we don't really have access to.  How can we say that the sample that we now have faithfully represents what an entire culture actually thought or believed?  He has this to say in his "Critique of John Walton:"
Walton is critical of people who read modern assumptions back into ancient texts, but has he escaped the trap himself? Does one have to be an expert in the ancient world to read the Bible properly? How can one establish what was the uniform view of the ANE, given the partial and skewed nature of our sources?
Again, let me remind my readers that I am neither trained nor skilled in the study of the Old Testament.  I am at best an afficionado, and I'm not really qualified to evaluate the work of Weeks.  Nevertheless, I found his articles especially eye-opening and worthy of consideration.  I am happy to recommend them:

Weeks, N.K.  2010.  The ambiguity of biblical 'background.'  WTJ 72:219-236.
Weeks, N.K.  2016.  The Bible and the 'universal' ancient world: a critique of John Walton WTJ 78:1-28.

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