The Bible and the Ancient Near East

The Deer Hunt Mosaic from Pella, c.300 BC, credit Wikipedia

The Bible and the Ancient Near East

Christopher Rollston, Susanna Garfein, Neal H. Walls (Eds.), Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of P. Kyle McCarter Jnr., 2022, SBL Press, $119.00, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

The history of ‘Oriental studies’ in America was chronicled by C.W. Meade, in The Road to Babylon: Development of U.S. Assyriology (Brill; 1974). Its European foundations were broad but not unknown. Beyond the arduous efforts of the decipherers of cuneiform, the roots of Assyriology sprouted mainly from seeds sown in the research of Julius Oppert (1825-1905) and Eberhard Schrader (1836-1908). Mesopotamian investigations prompted and accelerated wider studies, some of which appeared in, among others, Beiträge zur Assyriologie and The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, or in the pages of periodicals like The Babylonian and Oriental Record and Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis. The ripest fruits of Assyriology were accessible to persons proficient enough to grasp cuneiform content. Some significant and prolific figures were trained in the school of Friedrich Delitzsch (1850-1922). On the shoulders of those scholars whose scholarship today seems passé, a new generation of creative specialists have made their stand.

Collecting articles in honour of a notable scholar is hardly unusual. Original ideas in his or her areas of interest are often treated therein, although occasionally papers that would not pass the tests of an academic journal’s peer-review are submitted, accepted, then published. Technical fields of study tend to foster esoteric research. The study of Assyriology, Hebraica and Archaeology certainly illustrate this claim, offering disputable ‘scientific’ findings that are based on varied interpretations. The articles assembled here pay tribute to P. Kyle McCarter, the W.F. Albright Emeritus Professor in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. His research is wide-ranging, as can be seen from the editors’ comments (pp.xvii-xviii) and in Christopher Rollston’s Introduction (1-2). Jonathan Rosenbaum surveys McCarter’s considerable contributions to near eastern scholarship (xix-xxv); the latter’s knowledge of Egyptology is acknowledged. At times he delved into Sumerian to supplement his explorations: e.g., see ‘The River Ordeal in Israelite Literature’, (1973), Harvard Theological Review, 66.4.

In the early history of Near Eastern scholarship, epigraphic studies of inscriptions, coupled with paleography, were wedded to biblical research. Pioneer W.F. Albright (1891-1971) forged a pathway through the dense brush of Northwest Semitic woodlands. Upon his death, the expected divorce within these academic fields occurred, each discipline moving in its own direction. Reputable scholars carried on his work. Leading the troop was Frank Moore Cross (1921-2012), McCarter’s doktorvater, who refined Albright’s methods, sharpened his arguments and used them to fashion McCarter and a hundred others for Northwest Semitic study. McCarter converted what he learned from them, went his own way while pursuing similar lines of thought. In the domain of biblical scholarship, McCarter’s (henceforth PKM) deviations are less sensational compared to Albright’s and Cross’ heterodoxies, who both marshalled textual evidence of all kinds for the defense of their views in ways that few Assyriologists or biblical archaeologists of the 20th century were able to do.

PKM’s series of masterpieces began with his PH.D dissertation on The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet and the Early Phoenician Scripts (Harvard Semitic Monographs; 1975). At the University of Virginia, his rise was swift; he penned both popular and academic writings. Historical probes like ‘The Historical Abraham’, Interpretation 42.4 (1988), and ‘The Copper Scroll Treasure as an Accumulation of Religious Offerings’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (1994), were a credit to his occupancy of the Johns Hopkins Chair. He wrote excellent commentaries on I & II Samuel (Yale;1980,1984). His slim volume, Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress;1986) is still cited and deserves to be issued in a new edition. Numerous papers dealing with epigraphy, paleography and other issues have demonstrated his control of puzzling features of orthography, in particular his ‘Paleographic Notes on the Tel Zayit Abecedary’, and edited with R. Tappy, his Literate Culture and Tenth Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context (Eisenbrauns, 2008).

This festschrift is an index of how Near Eastern studies have progressed in the last 40 years. The book contains 30 papers, divided into three sections: Part 1: Bible and Scrolls, Part 2: Epigraphy, and Part 3: Archaeology. There are indices of Ancient Texts and Authors. All the papers are interesting and intelligently written. The Bukān inscription attracts several writers. A few pieces call for attention. Below are certain literary comments and criticisms, followed by the table of contents.

Part 1 is full of provocative studies. Heath Dewrell investigates the meaning of the word Yahweh in ‘Yahweh the Destroyer: On the Meaning of …’(pp.5-35). His discussion is extensive. Denying that it means ‘he creates’ or ‘he blows’, he cites Ugaritic, Akkadian and other ancient forms to buttress his support for the sense ‘he destroys’. Yet he does not show why Israelites would need to import this particular gist from surrounding polytheistic cultures, nor is he able to illustrate, by forms alone, which one is old, older or oldest. In Fn#1 HD writes “I would like to make explicit that I do not believe that the etymology of Yahweh’s name, or of any word for that matter, necessarily reveals anything about the intrinsic character of the being denoted thereby.” However, in his concluding paragraph (p.28) he states, “I have argued that one should first look both for an etymology that fits what can be  discerned about the character of Yahweh in our earliest sources (i.e. the so-called “archaic Hebrew poetry”)”… . Something is amiss here.

F.W. Dobb’s-Allsopp believes that “Good philology requires good (evaluative) literary criticism” (p.42). Maybe, but when the two are intertwined good results do not always follow. The interpretative models constructed in recent decades were designed to answer questions that were alien to the minds of ancient authors. Consequently, the rhetorical results often now supplied are not even based strictly on literary analysis, but on fictitious imaginings superimposed on ancient texts. One of the best examples of this kind of exegesis in this book is Erin Fleming’s paper on ‘Lovesickness, Love Poetry, and Sexual Violence: Intertextuality…’ (85-106).

Looking into Old Greek, S.L. McKenzie recognized a problem and resolved it by sensibly weighing the evidence in ‘The Priority of the MT Chronology…’.   Eugene Ulrich’s paper, ‘The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition… Daniel 1’ is a solid enough contribution to scholarship. His work is detailed and laborious; but his decisions on the text of Daniel are pre-determined by conceptual flaws which affected his methodology and conclusions. He informs readers that ‘a critical edition is able, word-by-word, to select from the array of manuscripts the reading most likely to have been the original or preferred reading and thus present a pure, error-free, readable text’ (p.191). Classicists who edit texts will find his definition of  a ‘critical text’, and it’s abilities, to be antiquated. For some reason or another, Old and New Testament scholars of Hebrew and Greek have a narrow view of textual criticism. Numerous MSS can perpetuate the same reading, and sometimes conjectural emendation must be applied to a text to address what is patently false, especially if an edition is to be labeled ‘critical’.

Ulrich makes several claims without provision of proof. On page 192, he says, (1) “the MT is not the Hebrew bible text; it is one of the witnesses…”. (2) “There was no specifically Samaritan Pentateuch, rather there was a joint Judean-Samaritan Pentateuch…” . (3) “The Old Greek (OG) is generally a faithful translation of its Hebrew Vorlage, which frequently was not the MT but was simply an alternate Hebrew manuscript.” Further on, commenting on the rabbis following the destruction of the second temple, he says: “ They did not compare and critically select those texts to ensure the best form, but simply inherited one form of each book” (p.194). These claims seem intuitive and lack foundation. If the MT is not THE Hebrew bible, millions have read the wrong one for thousands of years and were unaware that they possessed a false version. It certainly is not unheard of for textual traditions to arise within distinct cultures. So the statement on the Samaritan text is dubious. And the precise textual procedures employed by ancient rabbis is unknown to Ulrich as they were to the Church Fathers and Geonim. In addition, records of all the MS evidence that rabbis had on hand is not extant. So citing Shemayahu Talmon (1920-2010) in fn#12 does not make Ulrich’s assertion factual.

Indeed, the idea that governs Ulrich’s beliefs is the notion that ‘the Dead Sea Scrolls are the crucial factor’ in making a critical edition (p.191). Even so, neither Ulrich, nor any other DSS scholar, knows why the scroll-text readings are not transmitted in Mishnaic documents and are not in use by any Jewish sect today. It still is not known who used in them in ancient times or how, if in fact they were ever utilized. Conjecture on the part the Qumran caves played in these matters is ongoing. Not a few archaeological digs diminished the value of Frank Moore Cross’s (1921-2012) hypotheses on The Ancient Library of Qumran (Fortress; 3rd. ed., 2000). Nonetheless, the notion that the Hebrew Bible presently in use since the Talmudic era does not reflect an accurate text is a necessary theory for leading laypeople to believe that wiser muses, like contemporary DSS scholars of the 1950s and beyond, know better than the Masoretes and know which texts are original to earliest Israel.

Although not advocating the disuse of the DSS herein, the priority currently given to them in controlling the formation of Hebrew texts is undue. In truth, a critical edition [of Hebrew scriptures] is merely ‘a scholar’s text’, one which reveals individual judgments, however judicious or imprudent, and should not be foisted on observant Jews, but must be compared with other scholars’ critical, Hebrew texts. The promotion of a critical edition need not be based on unprovable claims. As for Ulrich’s reconstructed text of Daniel 1, whereas the apparatus is clear, the commentary is slight. There is no translation. Glosses are needed however, because English renderings of each verse are necessary to show how a critic construes language, syntax and punctuation. In several places new readings are inserted; but lacunae are created too (A comparable and better model for Ulrich’s critical apparatus in the performance of text-critical work is H. Lloyd-Jones: ‘Meropis’ in Atti del XVII Congress Internazionale di Papirologia (1984)). Taking everything into account, it is doubtful that Ulrich’s reconstruction constitutes a first century BC archetype.

The linguistic articles and etymological studies show depth. A plethora of dialects are used for parallels: one looked for Dravidian to make an appearance. J. Huehnergard’s findings regarding bāhûr are upheld by excellent footnotes; R. Woodard builds upon W. F. Albright’s theory regarding Goliath’s name (in Lydian: Alyattes) as Anatolian Indo-European. Woodard believes the author of I Samuel would not have known “that the name diachronically encodes nuances of the raging Indo-European warrior…”(p.250). High marks for his study of cognates. All the authors in this section state their propositions and elucidate them well. The development of words and meanings follow historical lines of reasoning. In the main they preserve themselves from making implausible assumptions; a farfetched analogy appears occasionally.

Part 2: There is much to ponder here. M.G.A. Guzzo’s paper ‘Hypothesis on the Suffixed Pronouns… text of Pyrgi’ identifies the “possible presence of the feminine suffix” in two inscriptions (p.266); A.L. Bean, in ‘A Curse of the Division of Land: a New Reading of the Bukān Aramaic Inscription…’, informs readers that a curse written against anyone who would deface a cenotaph was “a common component of monumental inscriptions” (p.276). Oddly, J.S. Burnett, in ‘The Persistence of El in Iron Age Israel and Ammon’, follows the traditional scholarly reasoning about ‘El’ being a ruler of an ancient pantheon. He follows M.S. Smith’s themes, from Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (OUP, 2001), uncritically. If the term ‘El’ is used generically like the word ‘god’ in English (and it is), then the evidence exists. But one question insistently intrudes. Should near eastern scholars at all times privilege extra-biblical texts over biblical ones and not vice versa? This method has dominated the last 140 years of critical biblical study, viz. D.G. Lyon, ‘The Results of Biblical Criticism’ (1901), The Old Testament Student.

In fact, El’s use within the tradition of Judaism says otherwise. And despite how inscriptions are interpreted nowadays, students of Jewish origins are rarely told that the Old Testament texts in Hebrew that are often cited do not exhibit any Israelite belief in or knowledge of such a status for El which situates him amid a congress of gods. When Burnett describes how “Those poetic biblical texts show a restricted pantheon of deities under El to favor Israel and its national god Yahweh in territorial conflicts in Transjordan” (p.323), nothing could be further from biblical-epigraphic truth.

The next paper was a remarkable examination, full of insight. A Demsky believed the incantation that he undertook for study to be poetic. Rightly so; but in reading through many transliterations of cuneiform texts, it becomes evident that just about any long ancient inscription in prose that is set in verse will prove to be (or look as if it is) lyrical to the one who arranges it so. Demsky avers that the word ‘sphinx’ reached Greece through cultural adaptation from the near east: see his article ‘The First Arslan Tash Incantation and The Sphinx’. In another excellent survey, ‘A Holy Warrior at Kuntillet ‛Ajrud? Kuntillet ‛Ajrud Plaster Inscription 4.2’, T.L. Lewis summarizes data on a text exterior to the Bible that may be “the oldest known Hebrew poem”. K. L. Younger looks closely at the Bukān inscription in ‘Arameans in the Zagros… Evidence.’ The investigation into when Arameans penetrated the Zagros region illustrates the limitations of epigraphy; but in the end when answers cannot be readily had, some academic dogma referring to a region’s supposed linguistic complexity always seems to prevail. Multi-lingualism was ubiquitous in ancient times, whether one writes of the Far East, Near East, Central Asia or Africa. Realizing the ethnically tribal make-up of those lands, could it have been otherwise?

J. Hackett’s paper on ‘Tinit” stands out. C. Rollston’s article on the Yeša ‛yah[û] Isaiah Bulla is typical of his research: meticulous and skeptical of initial public reactions to artifacts. In this case his caution is extended to statements about E. Mazar’s (1956-2021) ‘editio princeps’ of the bulla in Biblical Archaeology Review (Feb. 2018).

Comments on Part 3: Archaeology are omitted.

The final submission, ‘Afterword: Reflections on Provenance and Authenticity’, by H. Shanks addresses what is suitable or unsuitable for publication. C. Rollston (and others) do not believe that scholars should publish unprovenanced artifacts. He holds strong opinions about it as H. Shanks shows, thinking that unprovenanced material should be accompanied by a ‘special symbol’ which would signify to readers its questionable status. The implementation of Rollston’s view would prevent public notice of untold numbers of fragments: e.g., the Bukān Inscription. His concerns, however, are duly noted. Yet a scholar of equal eminence, Aaron Demsky, in a brief survey entitled ‘Reading Northwest Semitic Inscriptions’ in Near Eastern Archaeology 70:2 (2007), wrote of the importance of primary and secondary contexts of inscriptions. He issued his verdict: “I  would not dismiss a document from consideration if it was without a proper provenance” (p.69).

Volumes like these are educational and influential. Gains made in Assyriology and Northwest Semitic studies in the last century and a half led to seismic shifts in how  scholars construed Old Persian, Akkadian and other dialects. From a linguistic point of view, several Semitic idioms, still spoken in the Middle East, have aided in developing an understanding of words previously misunderstood. Worlds that were once unknown to modern minds are now accessible to persons who indeed comprehend extinct languages. This era is surely one of enlightenment. New tones are heard through these word-studies. There are no grand narratives, and the perspectives of some authors are such that one wonders why ancient texts [i.e. in the Bible] ever are used as a reference tool for any point of departure in a discussion. As cited in Hendel’s paper, ‘Exodus, Conquest, and…’

“archaeologists, Egyptologists, and biblical historians agree that the exodus and conquest narratives are not consonant or reconcilable with actual historical events”. Further on, he cites William A. Ward (1928-1996) who said, “From the Egyptian viewpoint, the Old Testament narrative records a series of earthshaking episodes that never happened” (p.117).

Many of them do indeed ‘agree’; but many others deviate from the same academic tradition that they hold in such high regard. Opposing views are scarce: e.g., the work of Egyptologist K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003). The consensus among the bulk of these contributors and among the ones they quote give the impression that there are no first-rate Assyriologists, Egyptologists or Semiticists who could or would believe their cynical [“critical”] theories to be spurious while simultaneously maintaining that certain episodes, viz. the exodus, held in the Hebrew canon are true. In the quest for truth, more than one writer goes in for bizarre speculation to question the veracity of biblical passages and the trustworthiness of Biblical accounts. Although transcriptional forgeries were touched on, one looked for instances where epigraphers recognized that texts outside of the Hebrew scriptures could be presumed to exhibit false statements also. All the texts are taken on trust. Evidently ancient writers of cuneiform did not have reasons to tell tales when referring to historical events.

Aside from philology, it is uncertain what a clergyperson could gain from studies in a graduate department of near eastern studies if he or she was more than agnostic and serving somewhere other than in a Reformed synagogue, university chapel or a shrinking denominational church. Several authors in the festschrift do not grasp or simply disregard the basic historical tenets of ancient Jews. When scripture is cited, even in part 3, limpid clarifications do not come naturally to the authors; an exception is J. C. VanderKam, ‘Early Developments in Levi Traditions…’. Words like ‘mnemohistory’ in biblical research are trendy but vacuous. Moreover, several authors opted for over long titles. A bibliography of McCarter’s publications is not provided. It was refreshing, though, to find that more than one author interacted with the work of Albright. His research remains valuable on every near eastern issue he considered.

Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin scripts are on display. A few line drawings are given. Some pictures are blurry. Others are well-defined. Still, seeing that it is the 21st century, it is difficult to understand why an app or program cannot be developed for publishers that would display actual cuneiform scripts in the sentences instead of all the transliterations; facsimiles would be better than nothing. The ‘original texts’ would permit readers to juxtapose what is transliterated/ translated by interpreters with what was really inscribed by the ancient author.

This book contains inexhaustible riches and is a fitting tribute to P. Kyle McCarter. It will occupy a unique place in near eastern studies. One hopes that PKM will continue to produce the kind of superb studies for which he has become well known.



  1. Kyle McCarter Jr. as Teacher: Musings from Grateful Students, Christopher A. Rollston, Susanna Garfein, and Neal Walls………………….xvii

Brilliance Fulfilled: P. Kyle McCarter Jr. and His Contribution to Near Eastern Scholarship and Scholars, Jonathan Rosenbaum ……………………………xix

Introduction, Christopher A. Rollston ……………………..1


Yahweh the Destroyer: On the Meaning of הוהי,  Heath D. Dewrell ……………………………………………………………………………….5

For the Love of Words in The(ir) World(s): Theorizing Biblical Philology,  F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp ………………………………………………………………………..37

Joseph and His Allies in Genesis 29–30,  Daniel E. Fleming ……………………..67

Lovesickness, Love Poetry, and Sexual Violence: Intertextuality and Inversion in 2 Sam 13:1–22, Erin E. Fleming……..85

Exodus, Conquest, and the Alchemy of Memory, Ronald Hendel ……………107

The Etymology of Hebrew bāḥûr, John Huehnergard …………………137

First-Person Reference by Name in Biblical Hebrew, Yoo-ki Kim………………………………147

 דיגנה דיוד : The Political Theory behind David’s Rise, Andrew Knapp……………………163

The Priority of MT Chronology in Kings, Steven L. McKenzie……………….185

 The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition and a Sample Edition of Daniel 1,  Eugene Ulrich ……..191

Early Development in Levi Traditions: Malachi and Jubilees,  James C. VanderKam…………..205

Biblical Qinʾâ as a Social Phenomenon: A Case Study of Genesis 26 and Ezekiel,  Erin Guinn-Villareal …………….217

On Goliath, Alyattes, Indo-European Wolves, and Lydian Lions: A Reexamination of 1 Sam 17:1–11, 32–40,  Roger D. Woodard…………..239


Hypothesis on the Suffixed Pronouns Used in the Phoenician Text of Pyrgi, Maria Giulia Amadasi Guzzo ……….257

A Curse of the Division of Land: A New Reading of the Bukān Aramaic Inscription, Lines 9–10, Adam L. Bean …….275

The Persistence of El in Iron Age Israel and Ammon, Joel S. Burnett………………………..297

The First Arslan Tash Incantation and The Sphinx,  Aaron Demsky ……………………….331

vii The Carthaginian Deity Tinit, Jo Ann Hackett……………………………..347

 The A9 Aramaic Manuscript from Ancient Bactria Revisited,  André Lemaire …………….357

A Holy Warrior at Kuntillet ʿAjrud? Kuntillet ʿAjrud Plaster Inscription 4.2, Theodore J. Lewis……………….367

The Yešaʿyah[û] (“Isaiah”) Bulla and the Putative Connection with the Biblical Prophet: A Case Study in Propospography and the Necessity of Methodological Caution, Christopher A. Rollston ……………409

Traces of Canaanite Letters in LB Strata at Tell Halif,  Joe D. Seger……………….427

Heroes of Lost Memory: The Times and Places of the rpuʾm in the Ugaritic Texts, Mark S. Smith …445

Dagan and the Ritualization of First Fruits at Emar,  John Tracy Thames Jr. ………………463

Arameans in the Zagros: The Cuneiform and Aramaic Evidence    K. Lawson Younger Jr. …..475


Lachish in the Context of Ancient Near Eastern Studies,  Yosef Garfinkel……………………..505

 Proto-Aeolic Capitols and the Queen of Heaven,  Pamela Gaber………………………………….523

Touch of Ebal: Tesselated Identity in the Historical Frontier of Iron I, Baruch Halpern ….535

Turning Hippos into Ducks: Avian Artifacts in Ivory,  Ron E. Tappy ………………………575


Afterword: Reflections On Provenance and Authenticity,  Hershel Shanks…….627

Contributors ……………………………………..635

Index of Ancient Texts………………………..639

Index of Authors ………………………………669

Darrell Sutton  contributes regularly to QR on biblical, classical and near eastern themes, likewise on the scholarship and poetry of A. E. Housman


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1 Response to The Bible and the Ancient Near East

  1. David Ashton says:

    A critique of this erudite quality is most welcome.

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