Context of Scripture | Notes & Review

Posted on July 6, 2009


William W. Hallo, and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., eds. The Context of Scripture, volume 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World. Brill, 2003.
________. The Context of Scripture, volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World. Brill, 2003.
________. The Context of Scripture, volume 3: Archival Documents from the Biblical World. Brill, 2003.,, (link problems currently). Here’s the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society review by David Howard.

context of scripture vol1-3

(Huge thanks to Eisenbrauns for the amazing deal we got on the purchase of this set!)



“Classical and Near Eastern parallels have been used to illuminate the biblical text for as long as there have been biblical studies.” (xxiii) And Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET) has been a staple of that study for decades. “As ever more new texts are made available, the relationship between biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies has assumed an ever growing importance if only as measured by the sheer output of books and articles inspired by their comparison.” (xxv) However, according to Moshe Yitzhaki of Bar-Illan University and his “bibliometric approach”, he “concludes that, at least in the small and somewhat random sample tested, ‘the figures indicate a relatively low use of the research and literature of one field by the other.'” (xxv)

“If his sample is representative, we face an anomalous situation: an ever increasing stream of ancient Near Eastern texts…which is relevant for biblical studies, but a statistical reluctance to employ them. Under the circumstances, a new compendium is called for all the more urgently…a new compendium to assemble the existing renderings, update them where necessary, and indicate their relevance for biblical scholarship.” (xxv)

“The ‘context’ of any given text may be regarded as its horizontal dimension — the geographical, historical, religious, political and literary setting in which it was created and disseminated.”

…translations should serve…not only for comparison and illustration, but for contrast. – Gressmann, quoted in ANET.

“…it is useful to raise questions of category and genre so that, as nearly as possible, like is compared with like. … On a lower level of literary context, due attention is paid to genre (Gattung) and to the associated concept of life setting (‘Sitz im Leben’). … Finally, the questions of where, when and in what direction an alleged borrowing may have occurred is occasionally raised in the commentary, even if the question frequently cannot be answered.” (xxvi)

“It also has its place on a vertical axis between the earlier texts that helped inspire it and the later texts that reacted to it. We can describe this feature of its interconnectedness as its vertical or, in line with currant usage, its intertextual dimension.” (xxvi)

Regarding translation, “one can aspire to match the native terms and idioms with their English counterparts in such a way as to approach the ideal of a 1:1 relation in which each word (and only that word) is rendered by a given English equivalent, each derivative of that word with a derivative of that equivalent. This ideal cannot, of course, be carried out perfectly in practices…”but with the help of a data base, it should theoretically be possible — though difficult in practice — to make the attempt, and to see how many improvements emerge in the understanding, both of the text itself and of its relation to other texts.”

The 2 Samuel 11 provides an illustration showing that “the Uriah pericope is made up, at least in part, of traditional literary topoi or folkloristic motifs, and justify the inclusion of the newly recovered Sumerian legend in the discussion of the biblical treatment of the theme.” Hallo criticizes Regina Schwartz in her treatment of this text because it fails, “not because of its political overtones, but because it presumes the historical validity of the episode, utterly ignoring its literary character. Where but in the Bible could one find national literature preserving the materials for so scathing a self-examination? And within the Bible, where more so than in the ‘court history of David’ in 2 Samuel? And what if the author has not written history, but woven a traditional story of the ‘deadly letter’ into an imaginative recasting of the succession narrative? Familiarity with the motif and its antiquity would at least suggest this alternative possibility.” (xxvii)

This context begs the questions, “can we, in fact should we, separate literary and ideological considerations in assessing ancient sources? Can we and should we divide our sources strictly into literary and historical ones? … I have long pleaded for using literary and historical sources to illuminate each other — treating literary sources as precious aids in reconstructing history, and reconstructing history as the essential context for literature” (xxvii)

What all this “implies is the rejection of any hard-and-fast dichotomy between ‘history’ and literature’ in favor of a recognition that, often enough, history is literature, and vice versa. The old conceit held that biblical literature can be validated as history only when relfected in extra-biblical historical sourcs such as the Stele of Merneptah or the Mesha Stele, but is falsified as history and reduced to ‘mjere literature’ when anticipated or echoed in extra-biblical literary sources such as the Akkadian Sargon Legend or now the Sumerian Sargon Legend. This alone would justify a separation of the comparative material into historical munuments, cannonical compostiions, and archival documents. but the new attitude goes further. It recognizes that hte assessment of a biblical text, so far from ending with the identification of an extra-biblical parallel, begins there.” (xxviii)

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