I started Mark Smith’s Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. Ugaritic was a Semitic language in the ancient city of Ugarit, in Syria. A farmer in 1928 stumbled on a stone while ploughing, dug underneath the stone, and found a tomb. (I’m reminded of Stephen King’s Tommyknockers.) More was excavated, and material in Ugaritic was found. Biblical scholars who were familiar with Semitic languages, some of whom had been cryptographers in World War I, went about deciphering the language. They concluded that it had an alphabet, and they began to make sense of the documents in front of them, as they drew from expertise in cryptography and their knowledge of Hebrew.
Ugaritic helped to illuminate the Hebrew Bible. It was believed to be a Canaanite language, I think on account of its similarities to Hebrew, plus it provided more information about gods that the Hebrew Bible associates with the Canaanites (e.g., Baal). Ugaritic literature highlighted similarities between Canaanite religion and strands of Yahwism in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Baal and Yahweh dwelt on Tzaphon—see Psalm 48:3; both battled chaos; etc.). Daniel in Ezekiel 14:14, 20 was understood as Dan’ilu in Ugaritic literature, not as Daniel. Ugaritic also helped scholars to clarify Hebrew vocabulary. There were some shots in the dark, such as H.L. Ginsberg’s argument that the biblical ban on boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was a polemic against a ritual practice mentioned in Ugaritic literature. But Ugaritic has still helped scholars to understand the Hebrew Bible and to situate it in its ancient Near Eastern context.
(UPDATE: Later in the book, Smith talks about scholars who have problems with the label of “Canaanite”, let alone with the classification of Ugaritic as Canaanite!)
Smith remarks that David Noel Freedman told him that this book reads like a phone book in places, and Freedman is right. But I still find the book interesting because it talks about the personalities and relationships of legendary biblical scholars. (The chapter I read today was about 1928-1945.) For example, there was tension between Cyrus Gordon and his teacher, E.A. Speiser (whom I have discussed on this blog before). Speiser thought that Gordon was an arrogant show-off (as did many of Gordon’s young colleagues), and Gordon viewed Speiser as someone who was insecure about being upstaged. (I liked what Gordon said about Speiser, which Smith mentions on page 29: “he was skilled at kissing up and kicking down.”) Gordon liked to pursue big projects (such as writing grammars on ancient languages), when the standard practice was to reserve the big projects for experienced scholars, while the younger scholars gained experience by tackling smaller projects. But Gordon was admired by Speiser and W.H. Albright, for he did have a knack for languages. As Albright wrote, Gordon could speak Hebrew, Arabic, and Syrian and Iraqi dialects.
This book presents examples of “If first you don’t succeed, try, try again”, or “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade”. Speiser did not want Gordon to do projects in Assyriology, for Speiser thought that was his own territory (according to Gordon). And so Gordon pursued the study of Ugaritic. Another figure in Smith’s book is Julian Obermann, who presented what H.L. Ginsberg considered to be a bad paper. But Obermann’s work got better, and it even managed to impress Ginsberg!
I’ll close this post by briefly touching on the debate between Albright and Theophile Meek on monotheism. Albright believed that monotheism was ancient in Israel, going back to Moses, whereas Meek maintained that monotheistic statements first appear in the sixth century prophets. On pages 35-36, Smith (who has written a lot on monotheism himself, and I have blogged about some of his research) states what he considers to be the weaknesses to the two positions:
“Albright…did not address the fundamental question concerning later monotheistic formulations. If Israel were basically monotheistic from an early time, as he claimed, then why did its rhetoric of monotheism appear in clearer, less ambiguous forms only in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E.? And Meek…did not solve the problem raised by the distinctive form of Israelite polytheism, which was certainly a far more reduced form of polytheism compared to the pantheons found in the Ugaritic record.”
In short, Albright did not account for the late appearance of monotheistic formulas, and Meek did not address the point that, even if ancient Israel was polytheistic for some time, it was certainly a reduced polytheism, in comparison with that of other ancient Near Eastern nations. It did not have a huge pantheon, for example.