Approaching the Old Testament

Alan R Millard

Themelios 2.2 (January 1977): 34-39.
[Reproduced by permission of the author]



Much contemporary criticism still relies on the conclusions of earlier scholars who tended to study the Old Testament in isolation from its own world of the ancient Near East. Alan Millard, as an Assyriologist, here indicates some of the shortcomings of such an approach, and suggests ways in which the Old Testament may be more responsibly studied in the light of its historical context.

Old Testament studies, like New Testament studies, are separated by some from their companion disciplines of ancient languages and history on the ground of their theological content. The writer does not believe this is acceptable. Primary questions of textual history and criticism, literary and stylistic analysis, historical evaluation and exegesis, demand the same methods of investigation for the biblical texts as for the other ancient documents. The Bible differs in conveying an abiding theological message, but that message comes to us through the text. That message is an extra gift which other texts do not bring to their readers (and it can be rejected like any 'free gift'). The fact of the message does not change the technique of examining the text. Even when a writer had a theological purpose, there is no reason to suppose he worked in any abnormal way.

Accordingly, the subsequent paragraphs comment upon several levels of approach to the Old Testament literature (which inevitably overlap). Where the Word of God is concerned we shall employ every ability to achieve some understanding of it, recognizing that it remains above and beyond us. We should listen to it before we speak about it. Our concern in this paper, then, is chiefly with the first stage of the hermeneutical process, exegesis.

Textual criticism

'These things were written' describes any ancient text-genealogy, love-song, letter, or ration-list, treaty, law, or history, whether in the Bible or without, Israelite or 'Gentile'. To discuss the beginnings of writing in the ancient Near East, the development of various scripts there, and the use made of them, is outside our present purpose, but some appreciation of these matters should be acquired by all who study any document that survives.[1] How scribes performed their task is a more immediately relevant question. When faced with a manuscript or its reproduction we inquire how accurately it was written. Scribal error is a well-attested phenomenon that has been subjected to adequate study in the classical and New Testament texts,[2] but currently needs review as regards Hebrew in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of writings contemporary with the Israelite Scriptures. Beside the commission of error should be set the care that is equally evident. Counting verses and similar checks were not rabbinic inventions; Babylonian scribal tradition encouraged the counting of lines from early in the second millennium BC. Why a scribe copied this manuscript or that may no longer be known, nor why some show corrections while others do not.

The properly critical scholar may suspect a corruption in a text, words omitted, misplaced, or mis-spelt, a phrase or sentence wrongly construed. Then he may propose an emendation to obtain a grammatical form or sense more satisfactory to him. However acceptable the reconstruction may be, it cannot be more than a reconstruction, and so will be hypothetical until a text of good quality is found that gives support. (Even then there should be envisaged the possible action of an ancient scribe making the same alteration as the modern scholar!) Any text, indeed, may contain error, and those may be resolved with the aid of other manuscripts. When the oldest form or most authoritative text is in question only suggestions can be made.

We are saying no more than that the text we receive from antiquity has primacy over our ideas of what it ought to say. When we feel it should give a different sense, we should attempt to reach the new reading only in the light of habits and conditions known to have been in force during the text's history.[3] Particular care is necessary to avoid any change in a text to support a theory of its form or


metre, or putative content, however that is reached.

Evidence from early translations is frequently invoked to aid understanding of the Hebrew text. Indeed, these may indicate a different and superior underlying original, giving an acceptable emendation. Nevertheless, translations are to be used with great caution, for translations did not replace the original in Judaism. As a result, translators enjoyed greater liberty to interpret or paraphrase than modern ideals might envisage.[4] Current research into the Septuagint emphasizes the need to evaluate it book by book, avoiding general conclusions. Moreover, growing ability to separate various recensions of the Greek Bible calls for caution in using them to emend the Hebrew; that may have been done tacitly by the ancient translator. Furthermore, since the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed a variety of Old Testament texts in Hebrew immediately prior to the fall of Jerusalem, it becomes apparent that ancient translations may represent traditions differing from the Massoretic Text, so these can hardly be used to correct the Massoretic Text. Great attention is rightly paid to these deviant texts, for they may tell of earlier phases in textual history, but they should not blind us to the predominance of Massoretic Text type manuscripts amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here is an area for further exploration.

Literary criticism

With a text before us to interpret, what position are we, the interpreters, to adopt for our task? Two levels of interpretation are possible: firstly, what the text is about, what it meant to the man responsible for its present form, that is, its intended meaning; secondly, what the text can reveal about that man and his contemporaries, his sources, and any earlier history the text may have had.

Our Old Testament is the final product of a long period during which the documents may have been edited, revised, translated. Much labour has been spent by Old Testament scholars in attempts to trace this story, starting from the fixed form of the texts as they have been handed to us. Regrettably, the fruits of this labour are often unsatisfying. The cause lies in the subjective nature of the arguments used. That may be excusable in part because of the closed nature of the evidence. Yet even taken within their own horizons, the literary arguments used can be seen to be superficial and inadequate. Several scholars have indicated this.[5]

There is, however, some material to provide a standard for testing the approaches made to the Old Testament texts. While the damp soil of Palestine is unlikely to yield lengthy literary texts on parchment or papyrus from the Monarchy period (although one scrap of papyrus has survived from the seventh century BC in a cave near the Dead Sea), the long-established cultures of Egypt and Babylonia have given us many texts. It is reasonable to draw analogies from these documents, for there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the scribal art was carried out in a similar way all over the area of the biblical world.

Written literature already existed in Babylonia in the mid-third millennium BC and in Egypt almost as early, as existing manuscripts witness. Our following observations are drawn from the Babylonian material. Two processes can be traced in the transmission of these ancient texts. On the one hand, some compositions current c. 2500 BC were being copied almost a millennium later with very little change. (Modernization of spelling and grammar was normal, though not mandatory. Through the innate conservatism of writing, these two always lag behind the state of the spoken language, as occasional lapses show.) Other works written out about 1600 BC were still being copied in the seventh century with little change. On the other hand, the effects of revising and editing, and of different streams of tradition, can be seen in many cases. This is possible because copies of basically the same texts made centuries apart have been found. Thus we may read an account of the flood in a copy written soon after 700 BC and its ancestor written almost a millennium earlier, and trace the differences. In series of omens first compiled early in the second millennium BC there is little organization in comparison with the 'canonical' versions of the first millennium BC where a desire for consistency and completeness has been indulged (e.g. balancing a phenomenon of the left-hand by one for the right).[6]

For the Old Testament it is impossible to go far beyond the first century BC in so objective a way - there are no earlier manuscripts. Any hints that the cuneiform texts may give as to the reason for the observable differences between earlier and later


texts may be of value, therefore, as guides in building hypotheses about stages in the development of the Old Testament text. So far no clearly traceable practices have been observed, but study of textual history is still in its infancy in Assyriology.

Striking lessons may be drawn from some exercises that have been conducted on the basis of texts extant from one period alone. An important prayer to the goddess Ishtar was known from a Neo-Babylonian copy (c. 600 BC). By studying its literary form, a leading scholar was led to assign a date for its composition towards the end of the second millennium BC. Then an exact duplicate and a Hittite translation were recovered, copied c. 1400 BC, that indicate a date just before the middle of the second millennium BC as the time of composition.[7] At various times scholars have claimed to trace different sources in the Babylonian flood story on the basis of varying elements and names involved, but with the recovery of additional texts the criteria are proved illusory.[8] To predict the early state of a text on the basis of a later copy alone is risky, if not inadmissible.

Recovery of manuscripts of ancient texts copied at different times may allow us to discern some patterns in the way scribes of the Old Testament period handled their literature. When this can be done there will be a satisfactory model available for literary analysis of the Old Testament. Theories of literary criticism that import attitudes to texts quite unattested in the biblical world or fail to recognize and allow for known ancient practices should be accepted no longer.

The golden calf passage of Exodus 32 can serve as an example (in limited and abbreviated form). A recent article lists 'the more noticeable inconsistencies', and concludes 'the composite nature of the chapter' is 'so apparent'.[9] 'The most significant problem is the uncertainty as to who actually made the calf: Aaron at the people's request, according to verses 1 to 6, or the people themselves, verses 8, 20, or Aaron and the people, verse 35, cf. Dt. 9: 16, 20. In an ancient text just unearthed these variations would present no problem. Shifts of subject are quite in order, especially where an authority and an agent are concerned. In Assyrian royal records great claims are made by the kings, but occasionally it is made clear that a campaign was conducted by one of the generals, not by the monarch himself.

We may suspect this was so on other occasions. One version of Sennacherib's records carefully relates the suppression of a rebel in Cilicia by a force despatched from Assyria; another, later, text attributes the conquest to the king himself.[10] Neither is wrong, nor is there inconsistency; the troops and their commanders were agents of the king's will. In other examples fluctuation of person, between first and third, singular and plural, is not significant, on the same grounds. So the problems over the making of the calf resolve themselves. The idol was made for the Israelites, at their bidding, under the guidance of Aaron (verses 1-6). That is the initial narrative. Then Moses in the mountain is informed of the sin, in general terms. Why should Aaron be specified here, verse 8, or in verse 20? He was the agent of the people; in effect they had the calf made, which differs little from making it in a situation like this.

Form criticism

Credit for emphasizing the relevance of the ancient texts in comparative literary study belongs to H. Gunkel. He observed particular areas of content linked with particular formulations, firstly in Genesis, and notably in the Psalms. Analogous patterns were traced in Egyptian and Babylonian religious poetry.[11] The general theory is very sensible; Gunkel's classification of the Psalms gives some helpful insights. Another successful application is to be seen in the study of the covenant form during the past two decades. Recognition of the basic pattern and its concomitants has clarified many passages, and the writer is convinced that yet more can be gained from research into this matter. What is to be specially noted is the order in which the pattern was discovered, first of all in the Hittite texts by V. Korosec in 1931, without any reference to the biblical material, then, long after, applied to the Hebrew sources by G. E. Mendenhall (1954), K. Baltzer (1960), and many others.

Besides using such parallels, Gunkel applied wholesale to the Old Testament premises and techniques developed by students of Indo-European folk-lore. While general comparisons may be in order, each argument deserves a proper test on several ancient Near Eastern traditional tales. As developed in biblical studies, form criticism has tended to become far too rigid and extreme. At least threepropositionsadvanced maybe questioned: first is the ascription of priority to poetry over


prose; second is the assertion that the older the material the briefer it will be; third is the demand for consistency within a unit of composition (a requirement shared by classic literary criticism). Application of these three criteria is an exercise comparable with the mathematical process of discovering the lowest common denominator. A striking case is the form-critical reconstruction of the Ten Commandments. Four commands are short, rhythmic, each with four stresses, and a negative frame, according to the form-critics, so the remainder are reduced and re-cast until they have an identical appearance.[12] Yet the scribes and authors of antiquity were no more bound to a rigid consistency than we are. True, they may have been more strongly tied to traditional forms, but they could use them flexibly. Greetings from one king to another in the Amarna Letters exemplify the sort of variation seen in the Commandments as they stand, as do several other texts. Further, differences between prose and poetic accounts of a single event do not necessarily reveal a development of tradition from the poetic to the prose, as is often believed. Both accounts may have been written simultaneously for differing purposes. Egypt and Assyria provide examples of that, in the Qadesh inscriptions of Ramesses II and in the poem known as the Epic of Tukulti-Ninurta compared with his 'annals'.

Gunkel's work assumed the literary analysis of the Pentateuch crystallized by Julius Wellhausen, and both approaches underlie the development from form criticism made by A. Alt and M. Noth in investigating the traditions of early Israel. In the works of these two scholars there appear strongly the demands for consistency already criticized. Alt took an interest in ancient Near Eastern documents and their value to Old Testament research, yet allowed his work to be controlled by 'interests of exact analysis' and 'ideal patterns' of what can have happened constructed on grounds of historical analogy. Here, too, texts are forced into an alien mould.[13]

Historical criticism

Reading the Law caused Wellhausen great perplexity; there seemed to be so little relationship between its ideals and the impression given by history and prophecy once Israel was settled in her land. So he reached the conclusion 'the law is later than the prophets'. He expounded his ideas so compellingly, utilizing the literary analysis of the Pentateuch and the optimistic notions of progress in human behaviour that had grown during the nineteenth century, that his work has held the field through its brilliant logic and the satisfying way Israel's career can be fitted into a human view of history. Judged on the points already considered, however, his thesis falls: the criteria of literary criticism he used as a basic tool are unsatisfactory, the approach to the text and content arbitrary (especially in the light of ancient Near Eastern material), expecting from them a rigid and consistent thought-world similar to his own.

But another question deserves consideration at this juncture: the completeness of the writings, or otherwise. Perhaps it is a disadvantage that the canon of Scripture encourages a feeling of completeness, an assumption that adequate answers to every problem should be obtainable from within it. True as this may be theologically, there are no reasons for assuming it in the historical, linguistic, or literary spheres. Acquaintance with contemporary writings unearthed in the lands around Israel soon brings realization of how small a proportion of the material once committed to writing does survive.[14] Often what we can read presents a partial picture only, composed for a single purpose. Even when two accounts of one event are in our hands, it may be impossible to align them exactly because we lack some vital clues. Consequently, reconstructions based upon such incomplete data can be helpful in stimulating further research only so long as they are treated as hypotheses and not as facts. When new information is made available that calls the reconstructions into question, they are not to be treated as a drowning man's last hope, clung to at all costs. The new may well aid penetration of the old.[15] In many cases of supposed contradiction or discrepancy within the text, improved understanding of Hebrew language and style may also point to satisfactory solutions.[16]

In reading any text it is a grave matter to state the presence of an error without positive proof. Frequently the text in question will be the only


source of evidence and so if it is 'corrected' or treated with suspicion the evidence is destroyed or adulterated with speculation. Where there is only one source of evidence a sceptical attitude towards it may be maintained, but not as a pretext for erecting theories that conflict with that only witness. In the happy circumstance of two texts surviving there may be incongruencies. If so, one does not have to be forced to agree with the other. The danger of the difference being in the mind of the reader deserves consideration continually. Harmonization on the basis of known ancient processes is the next, quite legitimate, historical method. To answer 'I do not know' is no less respectable academically than politically if the alternatives are unsatisfactory!

Without denying that the ancients made false claims and mistakes we should be extremely reluctant to allege the existence of them, in particular (to repeat) when the supposedly misleading information is our only source, rendering any alternative reconstruction completely speculative. Thus Babylonia supplies one case of fairly well-proved forgery, a document appearing to be several centuries older than it really is, providing for a temple's maintenance.[17] Likewise, the recovery of several accounts of a certain battle enables us to see how the Assyrian version has turned a defeat into a victory![18] But both examples can be demonstrated through the aid of other ancient sources, not from themselves alone.

Wellhausen was convinced his opinion was right. The possibility that the canonical works had been written and selected so as to avoid unnecessary repetition was not allowed, nor any weight given to the maxim 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence', problematic though it may be in application. Clearly the prophets were aware of various aspects of the Priestly laws, so since Wellhausen's day even the most extreme have come to agree upon the high antiquity of some passages ascribed to the exilic or post-exilic 'P'.

Again, arguments from language and style are employed,[19] but the effects of such re-evaluation on the underlying view of Israelite religion have yet to be spelt out. While attested ancient practices are not conclusive proof of their equally ancient existence in Israel, the recovery of parallels to one and another of the Priestly requirements supports the possibility of their presence early in Israelite history.[20] All views sceptical of a highly organized religious element in early Israel stem from the view that her career saw a development from simple to complex forms over a long period. As Dr Kitchen has shown forcefully, that cannot be substantiated.[21]

Towards a balanced criticism

To depart so far from the accepted methods of Old Testament study may seem radical. To discount the work at which the majority of Old Testament students have laboured may seem ungrateful. That is not so. We shall not close our eyes to the achievements of the past, so long as we can test and approve their foundations by modern techniques. Where the foundations are found to be insecurely laid, the wall will have to be rebuilt. Some of the old bricks may be re-used, some may have to be jettisoned completely. Again, there is no reproach involved. In every active field of study the same action occurs, whether an entire revolution such as Copernicus fathered, or a radical re-appraisal such as Darwin's work has suffered, or a completely new approach such as has been accepted in Homeric studies. The ancient Near East has been plundered for a century or more to provide 'illumination' for the Bible when, rather, the Bible should be read within its ancient horizons so far as textual, literary, and historical matters are concerned. Old Testament studies cry for release from their chains, and the hammers lie ready!

If the fetters are snapped, which paths lead from the prison to profitable places? Here are seven roads, some already opened, that may prove helpful:

1. Study of Hebrew syntax through modern linguistics; cf. F. I. Andersen, The Hebrew Verbless Clause in the Pentateuch (Society for Biblical Literature, Monograph Series); and The Hebrew Sentence (The Hague: Mouton, 1974).

2. Examination of Hebrew style from the texts themselves, without concern for criteria for dating or distinguishing sources; cf. E. König, Stylistik, Rhetorik, Poetik (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1900) and the papers of W. J. Martin and A. Hurwitz, nn. 5, 16 above.

3. Exploration of new approaches to literature; e.g. structuralist - P. Beauchamp, Création et sépéra-


tion. Etude exégetique du chapitre premier de la Genèse (Paris: du Cerf, 1969), and several papers in Vetus Testamentum, Supplement 22 (1972); 'literary themes' - M. Liverani, Orientalia 42 (1973), pp. 178-94, Vetus Testamentum 24 (1974), pp. 438-53 and elsewhere.

4. Application of form criticism without attention to 'source' analysis that might cut across the forms.

5. Evaluation of biblical themes and practices as they stand in the light of the ancient Near East (e.g. supposing the tabernacle and laws of Leviticus to be phenomena of the thirteenth century BC).

6. Demonstration of the common cultural heritage Israel shared with her contemporaries in many spheres (cf. the paper cited in n. l).

7. The converse of 6, demonstration of peculiarly Israelite traits by comparison of views on deity, sacrifice, history etc.; for history cf. B. Albrektson, History and the Gods (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1967), and the responses by W. G. Lambert, Orientalia 39 (1970), pp. 170-77 and Oudtestamentische Studien 17 (1972), pp. 65-72.


[1] See, for the present, 'The Practice of Writing in Ancient Israel', Biblical Archaeologist 35 (1972), pp. 98-111.

[2] See B. M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament[2] (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968); P. Maas, Textual Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958); E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), chs. v, vii.

[3] For discussion of a mistaken attitude in this sphere see 'Scriptio Continua in early Hebrew: ancient practice or modern surmise?' Journal of Semitic Studies 15 (1970), pp. 2-15.

[4] This last comment should be followed through the essays of D. W. Gooding, e.g. TSF Bulletin 56 (1970), pp. 8-13; Relics of Ancient Exegesis (Society for Old Testament Study Monograph Series 4, Cambridge University Press, 1975). When the currently live question of re-interpretation (rélecture) within the Old Testament is considered, this should be kept in mind, too.

[5] See briefly D. A. Hubbard, art. 'Pentateuch' in NBD; W. J. Martin, Stylistic Criteria and the Analysis of the Pentateuch (London: Tyndale Press, 1955) [Now online at: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/pentateuch_martin.pdf]; A. Hurvitz, 'The Evidence of Language in Dating the Priestly Code', Revue Biblique 81 (1974), pp. 24-56.

[6] See E. V. Leichty, The Omen Series šumma izbu (New York: Augustin, 1969).

[7] See E. Reiner and H. G. Güterbock, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 21 (1967), pp. 255ff.

[8] Compare J. Laessoe, Bibliotheca Orientalis 13 (1956), pp. 95ff. with W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atrahasis. The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

[9] L. G. Perdue, Biblica 54 (1973), pp. 237-46.

[10] Cuneiform Texts 26 (London: British Museum, 1909), 10, nn. l, 15.

[11] For a convenient summary see H. Gunkel, The Psalms: a Form-Critical Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967).

[12] See E. Nielsen, The Ten Commandments in New Perspective (London: SCM Press, 1968).

[13] Cf. examples in a review, TSF Bulletin 65 (1973), pp. 14, 15.

[14] For a demonstration see E. Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), pp. 160f.

[15] As exemplified in the case of Tirhakah and Sennacherib's invasion of Palestine where the idea of two Assyrian invasions is maintained by John Bright despite the removal of its basis through advances in Egyptology. See K. A. Kitchen, 'Late Egyptian Chronology and the Hebrew Monarchy' in Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 5 (1973) (The Gaster Festschrift), pp. 225-31.

[16] See, for example, W. J. Martin, ' "Dischronologized" Narrative in the Old Testament', Vetus Testamentum, Supplement 17, Congress Volume, Rome 1968 (Leiden: Brill, 1969), pp. 179-86.

[17] There is a similarity with the False Decretals of the medieval church. See E. Sollberger, 'The Cruciform Monument', Jaarbericht ... ex Oriente Lux 20 (1967-8), pp. 50-70.

[18] A. K. Grayson, 'Problematical Battles in Mesopotamian History', Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger, Assyriological Studies 16 (Chicago University Press, 1965), pp. 337-42.

[19] A recent study is F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Harvard University Press, 1973), pp. 293-325. On the question of 'priests and levites' see D. A. Hubbard's entry in NBD, pp. 1028-34.

[20] For one case see J. Milgrom, 'The Shared Custody of the Tabernacle and a Hittite Analogy', Journal of the American Oriental Society 90 (1970), pp. 204-9.

[21] TSF Bulletin 64 (1972), pp. 2-10.

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