Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

J. J. M. Roberts, The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Collected Essays (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002). Pp. xiv + 434. Cloth,  ISBN 1-57506-066-3. US$42.50.

            Roberts’ book is a collection of essays he has published over the last thirty years.  The exception is the previously unpublished essay on Mari prophetic texts.  The primary objective of the book is the elaboration of Roberts’ methodology in using extrabiblical sources to help us better understand the Biblical text.  His essays are organized in a manner that demonstrates the application and illustration of Roberts’ methodology on issues big and small.  That is, big and small in scope, not in importance! 

            A big issue may involve a broad theme such as the topic of myth versus history in the Ancient Near East or it may be a small or specific issue like a verse from scripture that eludes understanding.  Roberts’ approach strives to avoid an oversimplified understanding of extrabiblical texts when utilizing them to shed light on the biblical text.

            Roberts stresses the need for a more rigorous methodology when comparing the “OT” with extrabiblical texts.  Both textual materials should be understood in their own settings before making comparative judgments.  Roberts also encourages biblical scholars to be conversant with fields outside their own discipline.  He acknowledges the biblical scholar’s need to choose and follow the lead of an extrabiblical expert yet he emphasizes there is “no substitute of knowledge of the primary sources.”

            The book is divided into five parts.  In the first part, Roberts lays out some of the “Fundamental Issues” he deals with in his work.  Roberts discusses the textual complex of Ancient Near Eastern sources and how they bear on the various genres of the biblical text.  He also touches on important issues such as our definition of historiography, pointing out how that definition influences our understanding of “myth versus history” and “divine freedom and cultic manipulation” when we compare Ancient Near Eastern texts with Biblical texts.  The essays in the second part of the book, “Themes and Motifs,” illustrate Roberts’ methodology when he deals some of the big issues like the expression the “Hand of Yahweh” or the motif of the “Weeping God.”  Also found in this second part of the book is Roberts’ important essay titled, “The Mari Prophetic Texts in Transliteration and English Translation.”   

            The essays in third part of the book, “Solving Difficult Problems:  New Readings of Old Texts,” demonstrate Roberts’ methodology when it is applied to small issues like the linguistic enigma of verse Psalm 22:17c or the religio-political setting of Psalm 47.  The essays in part four, “Kingship and Messiah” are devoted to an area to which Roberts has devoted much time and work.  Roberts is known as a champion for the “Davidic-Solomonic” origins of the Zion tradition and with these essays provides a mini-handbook on the royal theology of ancient Israel.  In the last and fifth part of the book, “Interpreting Prophecy,” Roberts tackles two difficult subjects: the unending criticism of historical-criticism and, for some segments of Christianity, the future tense of prophetic tradition.  For the critics of historical-criticism, Roberts offers an elegant and balanced defense for the continued role and importance of historical-criticism in the study of the Scriptures.  For those segments of Christianity struggling theologically with the predictive element of prophetic texts, Roberts offers the wisdom he has gained from a life-long study of those texts.  At first glance, this last essay seems out of place in this book but this is just another demonstration of Roberts belief in his methodology.  In this case, the relevance of a balanced and rigorous approach to Biblical study to issues found in the church.

            The synchronization of the book's objective and organization is exemplary.  This book seeks to present and define the comparative methodology of Roberts by primarily illustrating it within the essays of this book and that goal is accomplished in a splendid manner.  Perhaps, this volume will prove more helpful for those students of Scripture who are in an advanced stage in their studies or careers.  Whereas the arrangement of the content is superb, Roberts’ methodology does not go far enough in its comparative treatment of texts from the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible. 

            This book is apparently designed for those who study the Biblical text from a certain Christian perspective and thus limits the range of Roberts’ methodology.  Roberts has a commanding grasp of a vast array of texts from the Ancient Near East but he appears to compare and analyze them in a two-dimensional manner.  Roberts criticizes scholarly work that oversimplifies the contrast between Israelite history and Pagan myth but he does not define what he considers to be truly historical or truly mythological.  What is his criteria for a historical event referenced in a text?

            The latest archeological developments, especially those that may challenge the Davidic-Solomonic claims as found in the biblical text, are not referenced in Roberts’ section on Kingship and Messiah.  Also, despite his efforts to improve comparative methodology Roberts continues to retain the polemic categories of Israelite and Pagan when contrasting Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern texts.  Sperling in his book The Original Torah notes how Greek critics, commenting on Homer and his successors, suggested three kinds of textual reality:  historia, describing what actually happened, plasma, relating imaginary events as if they were real, and mythos, telling what never happened.  Readers who interpret mythos as historia or plasma may incorrectly identify the genre of the text. 

            Ancient texts may be more interested in plasma or mythos over historia for political and theological reasons.  Also, texts may be written to project an earlier historical period for the same aforementioned reasons.  Roberts’ book is a step in the right direction in the field of comparative ideological/theological studies between the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern texts.  Broadening the book’s target audience, including the latest relevant archeological research, and utilizing sophisticated literary analysis could make Roberts’ methodology truly three-dimensional. 

Francisco V. Munoz
Claremont, California