A Thought on Ancient Near Eastern Literature and the Old Testament

As I re-read the response that Paul Helm made to Peter Enns I realized that Helm has pointed out something I have been thinking about since I took a course on Ancient Near Eastern (ANE)Literature and the Old Testament. For those who may not be aware, there is a whole world of scholarship out there that deals with mythography and mytho-poetic literature. The definitions of these terms are not as straightforward as they appear. Conservative scholars, who are looking at some of the (ANE) writings in order to compare them with the OT writings of their time and genre, general think of the ANE mythography as being “legitimate history writing.” What they mean by this is that regardless of any references to a particular culture’s (e.g. Hittite, Ugarit, Babylonian, etc.) false gods or goddesses (thus incorporating into their writings pagan myth), these writings are meant to represent real, legitimate events or traditions in the lives of these people. In other words, we should not just disregard what they have to say because this is their record of their culturally relative history.

Certain scholars in the Reformed camp (i.e. Enns and others like him) have essentially said, “Look, the Bible was also written in a cultural context and we need to take the other writings of that ANE context into account in order to really understand where the Hebrew writers were coming from and what they meant.” This is a statement that, if it is carefully qualified, we could agree with to one extent or another, however, Helm makes the astute observation that if we are not careful we will allow the extra-biblical evidence to effect our interpretation of the Bible in a way that it makes the bible “culturally relative.” in Helm’s words:

“Professor Enns aims in his book to allow the evidence that he presents ‘to affect how we think about what Scripture as a whole is’ (p.15). Sometimes he writes of allowing facts to affect how we think about Scripture. (p. 67) The problem with this is that the extra-biblical evidence may affect us to varying degrees. For example, it could affect us by making Scripture a wholly culturally-determined and so a culturally-relative phenomenon. If it is wholly culturally relative then its use as a rule of faith and life is similarly so. Its ‘truths’ cannot then span cultures for they are culturally bound.(Like many, Professor Enns has little time for timeless truths, without telling us what such truths are and what is wrong with them). Or the extra-biblical data could merely reinforce and vividly illustrate what the Church has always believed, that the Bible has a human situatedness and authorship as well as a divine inspiredness. Professor Enns never makes it clear which it is to be, but he should not complain if his frequently-expressed desire to revise the evangelical attitude to Scripture tend to confirm some of his readers’ worst fears.”

While there may be benefits to studying ANE literature, there are also many dangers that attend a comparative methodology that a Reformed hermeneutic should not allow. In many ways, the ANE comparative method is the OT counterpart to the comparative method that gives consideration to the writings of second-Temple Judaism in NT studies. While there is much more that can be said, Helm has pointed out one of the chief dangers that we should be aware of while reading theologians that stress ANE cultural relativity.

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