Assyriology and Biblical Studies: Time for Reassessment?

6/9/2005 5:26:33 AM

Biblical scholars since the 1970s have often tended to be ahistorical or anti-historical in approach. This too needs to change. Comparative ancient Near Eastern methods are necessary to bring balance and perspective to biblical studies without being ideologically polemical or apologetic in nature. It is regrettable that some in the past have used comparative methods as a plank in a Christian or Jewish apologetical platform. However, the excesses or aberrations in the past are no excuse for isolation and restrictivism in the present.

Bill T. Arnold
Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Asbury Theological Seminary

April 2005

The information explosion of our generation is continuing unabated. Moreover, scholars and students of the Hebrew Bible must deal with a proliferation of methodologies, resulting in intense pressure toward increased specialization. The new methods and increased data are wonderful and maddening all at the same time. The methods are opening new vistas of research that have renewed our discipline and invigorated a new generation of scholars. On the other hand, the days of the polymath are long gone. Who among us is able to stay current in and publish articles on the Hebrew Bible, Egyptology, Assyriology, and interpretive theory, all at the same time?

These two developments – the data explosion and new methodologies – have renewed within me an interest in an old problem; that is, the relationship between Assyriology and biblical studies. [1] I have gradually come to view the history of the relationship between these two disciplines as very much like the swinging of the pendulum from one apex to another. Over the past 130 years or so, since George Smith announced the discovery of the "Babylonian Noah," scholarship has swung precipitously (or perhaps pendulously) from one extreme to the other.

Initially, of course, biblical scholars turned to the burgeoning body of Mesopotamian data primarily to illuminate the Bible’s language, themes, and political history. Perhaps this was inevitable and necessary for the maturation of both disciplines. Indeed, it may be argued that intense interest in Mesopotamia at the close of the nineteenth century, generated largely by those interested in biblical studies, made the emergence of Assryiology as an independent discipline possible. As an aside, it was said of George Smith, the assistant in the British Museum, who deciphered and identified the flood story of the Gilgamesh Epic, that in 1872 when he realized the significance of the text he was reading, he "jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself." [2]

In those early years, however, the study of Assyria and Babylonia was often valued primarily as a means of illustrating the Bible, depreciating the value of Assyriology, and resulting in "parallelomania" as it was aptly labeled by Samuel Sandmel. [3] Such approaches have resulted in numerous aberrations, which need not be rehearsed here. But certainly one such apex of the pendulum’s swing could be identified in the work of Friedrich Delitzsch 100 years ago. [4] The results of his comparative investigations were motivated by an anti-Semitic and anti-Christian ideology, as well as by German nationalism, all of which is widely recognized and recently reviewed again in the pages of JBL. [5] Since my graduate school days, I had been most influenced by the opposite apex of the pendulum’s swing – Benno Landsberger’s 1926 inaugural address at Leipzig, "Die Eigenbegrifflichkeit der babylonischen Welt." [6] Landsberger sought to place Assyriology on a new path, in which Babylonian culture could be investigated on its own terms.

Recently, Professor Peter Machinist suggested that Landsberger’s Eigenbegrifflichkeit, as fundamental as this concept became in the subsequent history of Assyriology, has nevertheless been inadequately appreciated. [7] This is true partly because Landsberger’s lecture was so compressed in its formulations and because those formulations contained so much that was new to Assyriology. [8] Landsberger’s Eigenbegrifflichkeit may be summarized in two principles, according to Machinist. The concept refers first to fundamentally unique and distinctive features organized into a system, and second to the capacity to produce such a system. Furthermore, Landsberger turned to languages as the key to exploring this process in ancient Mesopotamian culture. Thus, Akkadian and Sumerian, relying on the philosophical and theoretical foundations of Wilhelm von Humboldt, became the primary means of investigating the Babylonian Eigenbegrifflichkeit.

In some ways, Landsberger was a reaction to the state of Assyriology in the 1920s, especially Delitzsch’s lectures 20 years earlier. I think it instructive to compare the two, while carefully avoiding an overly simplistic polarization between them. Comparing Delitzsch and Landsberger provides an opportunity to reflect on where we are today and where we should go from here. Landsberger was an effort to reverse the lineage of "Babel und Bibel," and his paper was almost the opposite of Delitzsch’s approach. Indeed, the venues in which the two presented their arguments illustrate the differences between them. It is hard for us today to imagine the international fame that came to Delitzsch as a result of his lectures and the ensuing debate. I am reminded much of the recent furor caused by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. In many ways, Delitzsch was the superstar of a century ago, especially in the newly formed German empire, in which scholars were revered in ways we can only imagine. By contrast, Landsberger chose to make his case in his inaugural address in 1926, when he was appointed Professor Extraordinarius (Associate Professor) of Assyriology at the University of Leipzig. It was subsequently published in a rather obscure journal but nevertheless became a benchmark of the study of ancient Mesopotamia due largely to the work of a group of Assyriologists influenced by Landsberger.

Professor Machinist has reminded us that we currently are not faced with a choice between Landsberger’s "distinctive conceptuality," on the one hand, and comparative methods on the other. Rather, we must combine them, and we must do both in an intentionally self-conscious way. The most significant progress in recent years toward this goal have been the theoretical foundations for a comparative method established by William W. Hallo. Although some have objected that Hallo’s work is tantamount to a return to an era in which biblical relevance becomes a criterion for evaluating the importance of Mesopotamian (or Egyptian!) texts, I believe this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of his approach. [9] Hallo himself has expressed his indebtedness to his teacher, Landsberger’s "conceptual autonomy" (as he translated it), and describes his (i.e., Hallo’s) "contextual approach" as a "personal response" to Landsberger. [10] Indeed, Hallo avers that those who, in the name of Landsberger’s Eigenbegrifflichkeit, went beyond merely turning back the excesses of the comparative approach but began to imply the irrelevance of biblical studies for Assyriology and vice versa are guilty of "throwing out the biblical baby with the Babylonian bath." [11]

A properly defined and carefully circumscribed comparative approach (contextual-contrastive, etc) is needed for the benefit of both disciplines. I have found one particular view helpful: that which Jack Sasson has recently proposed when considering the nature of the socioanthropological analogues between Mari and the Bible. Relying on Jonathan Z. Smith’s use of biological categories, Sasson distinguishes between "analogies" and "homologies." [12] The former is useful in the absence of direct genetic or genealogical connections between the objects of comparison, as for example, when one compares "blood sacrifice in Greece and Israel or divinatory techniques in Mesopotamia, Etruria, China, and Meso-America." Here the purpose of the comparison is to understand better a feature of one culture through exploration of another. Such analogies have little to do with chronology or historical affinities between the comparators. This is often what is meant by sociological analogies employed in biblical scholarship and needs rightly to be critiqued, or at least used with caution. The primary problem here is that many of the comparators are modern primitive cultures, which however are frequently contiguous with modern advanced or partly advanced cultures. The degree of contamination caused by this contiguity is impossible to determine and makes the potential for such analogies less useful. By contrast, "homologies" are comparisons between cultures that share proximity in space, language, and time. So for example, in Sasson’s discussion, Mari and Israel are just such cultures since they share a physical region and a family of languages. [13] Moreover, the end of Old Babylonian Mari culture was separated from the beginning of Israel’s culture by a few centuries in most chronological schemas. So an homologous approach explores features of comparator cultures in an attempt to explain how those features may have been transmitted or borrowed from one to the other (from Mari to Israel, in Sasson’s study, because Mari was the earlier). Similarly, in a recent article, I have investigated Babylonian "analogues" to Israel’s tribal society, by which I mean the more precise homologous approach in that I considered Israel’s culture in light of other Semitic tribal groups in southern Mesopotamia. [14]

I believe we need to be more intentional in defining and outlining criteria for a comparative methodology. Assyriologists today are often isolated and tend not to consider comparative issues due to a cultural climate in the academic community, perhaps still as a result of the excesses of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perhaps in this way, Assyriology has not overcome the controversies of the Delitzsch and Landsberger years. All of this needs to change, and we need to see comparative methods as a sub-discipline, or at least as a legitimate ancillary discipline with its own set of research criteria.

Similarly, biblical scholars since the 1970s have often tended to be ahistorical or anti-historical in approach. This too needs to change. Comparative ancient Near Eastern methods are necessary to bring balance and perspective to biblical studies without being ideologically polemical or apologetic in nature. It is regrettable that some in the past have used comparative methods as a plank in a Christian or Jewish apologetical platform. However, the excesses or aberrations in the past are no excuse for isolation and restrictivism in the present.

The need is perhaps more urgent today than ever before in the history of our disciplines. While we may speculate about the nature of Assyriology and archaeological investigation in a post-Saddam Iraq, the current political situation tragically makes it impossible to know what the future holds. The years 2003 and 2004 will become a watershed period in the history of Assyriology. I suspect our successors will look back on these years as the beginning of a new period of intense investigation and research, which makes this an opportune moment to reflect upon and consider our comparative approaches. As the people of Iraq struggle to emerge from post-war devastation, it can only be hoped that opportunities for further research of Iraq’s heritage will become a reality and will contribute to the reconstruction of that great land.


  1. Partly the result of writing an introduction to the Babylonians for non-specialists for an SBL series entitled "Archaeology and Biblical Studies," a title which itself is suggestive of the need to return to the issue of the relationship between these disciplines; Bill T. Arnold, Who Were the Babylonians? (SBL Archaeology and Biblical Studies, 10; Atlanta/Leiden: SBL/Brill, 2004).
  2. T. C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence (London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications, 1988), 70, n. 33.
  3. Samuel Sandmel, "Parallelomania," Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962): 1-13.
  4. His famous lectures, "Babel und Bibel" were delivered 13 January, 1902, 12 January 1903, and 27 and 28 October, 1904.
  5. Bill T. Arnold and David B. Weisberg, "A Centennial Review of Friedrich Delitzsch’s ‘Babel und Bibel’ Lectures," Journal of Biblical Literature 121/3 (2002): 441-57.
  6. Benno Landsberger, "Die Eigenbegrifflichkeit der babylonischen Welt," Islamica 2 (1926): 355-72.
  7. Peter Machinist, "Assyriology and the Bible: Benno Landsberger's Eigenbegrifflichkeit Revisited" (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Ga., November 23, 2003).
  8. Private communique, February 26, 2004; and due partly also to the translation of it as "conceptual autonomy" in the English translation of 1976; Benno Landsberger, The Conceptual Autonomy of the Babylonian World (trans. Thorkild Jacobsen, Benjamin R. Foster, and Heinrich von Siebenthal; Sources and Monographs, Monographs on the ancient Near East 1/4; Malibu, Calif.: Undena Publications, 1976). Perhaps "distinctive conceptuality" is a better translation.
  9. For survey of the criticisms, and Professor Hallo’s response, see William W. Hallo, "Sumer and The Bible: A Matter of Proportion," in COS 3 (xlix-liv, esp. xlix).
  10. Hallo, "Sumer and The Bible: A Matter of Proportion," esp. l and liii. He thus defines his contextual approach as being made up in equal parts of comparison and contrast, and of setting the biblical evidence both in its vertical dimension as the product of historical kinship with precedents, or intertextuality, and in its horizontal dimension as an expression of the geographical context in which it is set.
  11. Hallo, "Sumer and The Bible: A Matter of Proportion," l.
  12. Jack M. Sasson, "About ‘Mari and the Bible’," RA 92 (1998): 97-123, esp. 98-99. Sasson, in turn, expressed indebtedness to Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianity and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 47.
  13. Sasson, "About ‘Mari and the Bible’," 98-99.
  14. Bill T. Arnold, "What has Nebuchadnezzar to do with David? On the Neo-Babylonian Period and Early Israel," in Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations (JSOTSup 341; eds. Mark W. Chavalas and K. L. Younger; London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 330-355; this study differs from Sasson’s recent contribution in that he compared more specific phenomena between Mari and Israel (onomastic, lexical, idiomatic and ethnic comparisons), while I offered more general socioanthropological and institutional comparisons and did not restricted my overview to Mari; Sasson’s approach bares similarities with the earlier efforts of Abraham Malamat, who speaks of a typological approach in distinction to a genetic one (e.g., "Aspects of Tribal Societies in Mari and Israel," in La civilisation de Mari; RAI 15, ed. J.-R. Kupper [Liège: Université de Liège, 1967], 131; and cf. André Lemaire, "Mari, the Bible, and the Northwest Semitic World," BA 47 [1984]: 101-8).