Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review
S. A. Nigosian, From Ancient Writings to Sacred Texts: The Old Testament and Apocrypha (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2004). Pp. xvi + 270. Paper, US$18.95. ISBN 0-8018-7990-6.
S. A. Nigosian acknowledges at the outset that he has not written a commentary, theological study, or history of Israel. Rather, a guiding premise of his book is that the “the Bible is deeply connected with nonbiblical traditions” (xiv), and the primary task he sets for himself is to identify and explore those connections. The work is therefore best understood as an attempt to read and interpret the biblical material in light of its wider literary and cultural context.
The five main chapters of the book divide the material under discussion into familiar categories based on content or genre: Pentateuch, history, poetry and wisdom, prophets, and apocrypha. These are preceded by an opening chapter that presents a clear and well-written treatment of important background information on the invention of writing, translations of the Hebrew text, and the development of the canon. This section is a useful overview that addresses key issues of the development of the Hebrew Bible without being too technical or theoretical. In other words, it is the sort of thing that will help students who are beginning academic study of the Bible orient themselves to the field.
The book’s final chapter, titled “Biblical Authors, Editors, and Scholars,” seems somewhat out of place and would more appropriately be located at the beginning. Here Nigosian treats a number of topics that would be useful for the reader to know prior to the discussions of the various sections of the Bible. Why wait until the end of the book to introduce information on ancient Near Eastern topography, geography, and history? Wouldn’t it be more helpful if the reader knew from the outset how and when scholars tend to date biblical texts? These matters are mentioned and alluded to throughout the course of the five central chapters, so the decision to discuss them more fully at the end is an odd one.
Although he tends to paraphrase biblical texts a bit too much in places, Nigosian provides some very fine analysis and fresh insights throughout the book. The section on the biblical legal codes is quite well done; here and elsewhere he is conversant with the various views put forward by scholars and the consensus positions that have been reached. The material on Isaiah is particularly well presented and it serves as a model example of why attention to context is essential when studying the Bible. Similarly, the analysis of the book of Esther demonstrates how awareness of the differences among the textual traditions can raise important questions and open up new ways of thinking about how the Bible has come down to us. Another strong component of the book is the chapter on the apocrypha, which offers brief overviews of works to which most readers will have had very little prior exposure. Strangely, though, Nigosian here abandons the approach he adopts throughout the rest of the book and does not discuss this material in light of similar literature found elsewhere in the ancient Near East.
It is this consideration of the extra-biblical literature that is at the heart of Nigosian’s enterprise, and the overall impression it leaves on the reader is a mixed one despite his concluding assessment. “We have demonstrated that the authors of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha (or Deuterocanon) borrowed from the neighboring civilizations of the ancient Near East.” (214) This statement is true in some cases, but certainly not in all. Nigosian is on the firmest ground when he considers those ancient Near Eastern texts that have long been recognized by scholars as somehow cognate to the Bible, like Enuma Elish and the Babylonian flood stories. But when he ventures farther beyond the “canon” of that literature, his position is often less tenable.
For example, it is not really the case that the account of Joshua’s conquest in Josh 12:7-24 parallels the inscription describing Merneptah’s defeat of his enemies on his famous stele (74-75). Similarly, the comment that the tales of Samson’s powerful acts can be related to the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in Babylonian literature can give the false impression that there is more connecting them than simply the presence of superhuman strength, a feature found in all kinds of stories from many different times and places (86). It is the same thing with Nigosian’s attempt to see a parallel between the account of David’s defeat of Goliath and the Egyptian story in which Sinuhe describes how he kills an Asian enemy (93-94). Elsewhere, Nigosian makes a more compelling case for the possibility that the biblical writers borrowed from their neighbors, but those just mentioned, and others like them, appear to be examples of shared use of standard conventions or features rather than outright copying.
Even in those places where the connections seem questionable or not as certain as others, this book is valuable because it reminds the reader to always keep in mind the question of context. As the title suggests, the category “Bible” is the result of a complicated process that led down many roads. Nigosian’s work can assist us in trying to reconstruct part of that journey.