Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century

  • Mark S. Smith
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Smith, Mark S. Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001. xix + 252 pp. Hardback. ISBN 1-56563-575-2.

This book provides the reader with a history of a discpline that has become an important area of studies in its own right. The sheer number of cuneiform tablets from Ugarit and the cultural and geographical proximity to ancient Israel have made the study of this material perhaps the single most significant enterprise in comparative studies between the Bible and ancient Near East. Even though the field of Dead Sea Scroll studies evokes far more publicity, the resources from the Mediterranean coastal city of Ugarit, dating largely to the 13th century B.C., offer far more in terms of linguistic, cultural, and stylistic illumination of the biblical text. Therefore, Smith's volume is a welcome resource for reviewing this field and its history. Because the discovery of Ugarit and its texts took place only in 1929, the history of research begins at that date. Smith then divides the field into four chronological stages: 1929-1945, 1945-1970, 1970-1985, 1985-1999. This is a reasonable division as it allows for a focus in each period without beceoming a detailed review of the research of Ugarit studies. It also reflects both major events in the world (World War II) as well as major new publications of texts (Ugaritica V in 1968).

In each section Smith outlines the major figures who worked in the fiedl and the universities where Ugaritic was taught. He also highlights on some of the most significant problems, issues, and discoveries that represent each period. In many cases, the history of Old Testament scholarship and its problems runs concurrently with that of Ugaritic studies. Thus the initial decipherment of Ugaritic as a West Semitic language related to Hebrew led to a re-examinaiton of some assumptions regarding the grammar of the biblical text in the first period. In the second period there emerged issues of myth and ritual, which appeared in biblical studies in questions regarding the reconstruction of early Israelite cult, and specific matters such as divine kingship and an enthronement and New Year's festival in the fall. Here Smith culls the discussion and evidence to conclude the importance of an autumn festival for some of the psalms and other biblical texts regarding festivals. In the third period Smith discusses the controversial work of Dahood. As with other scholars, he provides helpful insights regarding his own back and how it may have influenced his method. Smith then provides a judicious evaluation of "parallelomania" and questions regarding the contribution of this scholar. In the final section he is able to incorporate a discussion of early Israelite polytheism, a discussion that allows an encapsulation of his other recent book, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism.

This book is a useful survey of the history of the field. As Smith himself quotes Freedman in reference to the work sometimes reading like a telephone book in its vast listing of scholars, so the book would probably not be enjoyed by the new student in the field. There are simply too many people named and too much detail. There is also a decided balance that reflects Smith's own background. Thus there is a detailed listing of recent Old Testament Ph.D.'s from Yale, including some excellent scholars who, as far as I am aware, have published nothing regarding Ugarit. On the other hand, there are scholars who have published such material but are not listed perhaps because they did not graduate from an institution with which Smith was as familiar. Another reflection of the author's background is his understandable interest in the contribution of Roman Catholic scholars to Ugaritic studies. This is of great interest and a valuable part of the discussion. The same is true of Jewish scholarship. However, not as obvious is the contribution of Evangelical scholarship to the field. Many Evangelical scholars that are mentioned are not identified as such and their names are scattered throughout the names of postgraduate students and others at universities. However, whenone begins to tabulate the names of Evangelical scholars, one realizes that the book does not honestly reflect their ongoing contribution to the field of Old Testament studies. Perhaps even more importantly, Smith fails to appreciate the significant and ongoing interest in Ugarit studies at many Evangelical seminaries and graduate schools. While few of these offered Ph.D.'s, their cultivation of interest in the field and their sending of students to do Ph.D. studies in Ugaritic and related areas at major universities should not be overlooked. Finally, his extraordinary criticism of P. Johnston's Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on the underworld (p. 178 n. 108) seems out of place in an otherwise well-balanced book.

This was an enjoyable book to read and much can be learned about the history of scholars working in the field of Ugaritic studies and about its contribution to the Bible. For the reader with sufficient background, there is much of value to be learned here.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary