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Tag: Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible

The Schism Between Biblical and Mesopotamian Studies

“Some scholars of Mesopotamia sought to declare independence from biblical studies in the 1930s, insisting that Mesopotamia be studied on its own terms, even in isolation, but for most people the main interest of Mesopotamian religions lies in their historical interest and comparison with ancient Greece and the Bible.

Studies regularly appear on the Near Eastern background of Greek mythology and culture. Some, such as the work of Cyrus Gordon, are strongly critical of a perceived tendency of Classicists to assume that Greece stood alone in the eastern Mediterranean and was not significantly influenced by Near Eastern (or ‘Semitic’) peoples (Gordon 1965).

With respect to the Bible, the ‘contextual approach,’ advocated by scholars such as William W. Hallo, makes both comparisons and contrasts, recognizing the autonomy and interdependence of ancient Israel and Mesopotamia (Hallo 1997).

This steers a middle course between the extremism of the Pan-Babylonianists and of those who would build a fence around the Bible and claim that Israel was somehow exempt from the dynamic influences of Mesopotamia, the greatest cultural centre in Western Asia during the first millennium BCE.

No serious student of the Bible can ignore Mesopotamian civilization, but the religious experiences of both Mesopotamia and the Hebrews have to be understood in their own terms before they can be profitably compared or contrasted.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 209.

Semites vs. Sumerians

“Each new discovery of cuneiform tablets elicits a wave of publications asserting biblical ‘parallels,’ many of them uncertain and farfetched, even when a millennium or more may have elapsed between the tablets and the relevant portion of the Bible.

The biblical scholar M. Dahood, for example, saw parallels betwen the Bible and cuneiform tablets from Ebla in northern Syria, which date to approximately 1300 years before the kingdom of David. E. A. Speiser insisted that the ‘patriarchal age’ of the Bible was reflected in tablets from Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia (early fourteenth century BCE), although most of his analogies have been discarded in recent years.

The discovery of prophetic documents at Mari (eighteenth century BCE) attracted much discussion, as did comparison of ancient treaties with the biblical covenant.

A subtler interconnection between the worlds of the Hebrews and of the Babylonians was provided by what might be called ‘Pan-Semitism,’ the idea that the Semitic peoples had certain innate mental and emotional characteristics and limitations in common that conditioned their religious values.

A concise statement of this view, which is traceable, for example, to the works of the influential French thinker Ernest Renan, will be found in S. A. Cook’s contribution ‘The Semites, Temperament and Thought’ in the Cambridge Ancient History (1924), chapter V.

Cook held that Semitic thought was verbal rather than visual, emotional rather than systematic or speculative, and so could not have created such a grand astral system of beliefs as the Pan-Babylonianists had imagined underlay modern Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

To Pan-Semitists, Greece, with its alleged superior visual and speculative thought, albeit comparatively shallow religion, was as essential to understanding Christianity as was Judaism.

Scholars wrote of the ‘Hebrew’ and the ‘Greek’ element in Christianity and European culture. The Pan-Semitists bracketed Judaism, Islam and Babylonia as ‘Semitic’ in type, but not Christianity. This left the place of the Sumerians in the equation Babylonian = Semitic difficult to define.

The early twentieth-century historian Eduard Meyer, for example, therefore argued that the Semites were the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia and the Sumerians were later invaders, thereby maintaining the originally ‘Semitic’ character of Mesopotamian civilization.

In the period after World War I, some scholars tried to distinguish ‘Sumerian’ from ‘Semitic’ thought in Mesopotamian culture. Thus discussion of the relations between Babylonia and the Bible proceeded in an atmosphere charged with faith, scepticism and anti-Semitism.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 208-9.

Assyro-Babylonian Studies in Modern Context

“Mesopotamian religion has been of interest to biblical scholars since the discovery in 1872 by George Smith of a flood story in an Assyrian tablet. This proved that non-biblical ancient Near Eastern documents contained material directly pertinent to the Bible. To some thinkers, the uniqueness and integrity of the Bible could therefore no longer be maintained.

Leading philologists, especially in Germany, such as Hugo Winckler, Hermann Gunkel, Heinrich Zimmern and Friedrich Delitzsch, staked out different and sometimes contradictory positions in what became known as ‘Pan-Babylonianism’ or the ‘Astral-mythological’ school. The basic tenet of this group was that the civilization of Israel was essentially Babylonian in origin, including its religious ideas, such as monotheism.

Winckler, for example, argued that Joshua, Saul and David were actually Babylonian astral deities. Zimmern went on to suggest that Marduk was a forerunner of Jesus. Peter Jensen, a distinguished Assyriologist, argued that Abraham, Jesus and John the Baptist, for example, were borrowed from Babylonian mythology and that the Gilgamesh epic, to him a kind of astral saga, was the basis for the New Testament and the Koran.

Outside of Germany more moderate positions were taken, but still implying a strong cultural and religious dependency of Israel upon Babylonia. The extravagant claims of the Pan-Babylonianists eventually collapsed and are not taken seriously today.

A broader and more moderate view held that Babylonia was part of the ancient Near Eastern context of the Hebrew Bible (Lambert 1988). Committed Christian and Jewish scholars, for example, often put the Bible first, so to them ancient Near Eastern ‘parallels’ helped to clarify or even ‘prove’ the validity of the Bible because they were independent witness to biblical passages.

Mesopotamian studies, especially in the United States, became effectively an adjunct of biblical studies. In the period 1880–1940 the majority of leading American scholars in the discipline were Protestant clergymen, very much interested in possible biblical connections.

To some scholars, such as W. F. Albright, the ‘biblical world’ came to include the whole of the ancient Near East. There was therefore no need to separate Mesopotamian studies from biblical studies; they were aspects of the same agenda. In this spirit, Albright could entitle one of his most popular books From the Stone Age to Christianity (Albright 1940).

According to this, Mesopotamian religion was a ‘preparatio’ for the more profound religion of Israel, itself a preparation for Christianity. Today, because of the accumulation of new material, a panoramic grasp of the languages and civilizations of the ancient Near East such as Albright enjoyed is impossible to attain, but Albright’s fundamental approach remains influential, especially among conservative Christian scholars.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 207-8.

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