Volume 35 - Issue 2

Parallels, Real or Imagined? A Review Article of Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology

By William Edgar


When I came to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as a young student in the 1960s, two things struck me. First, under the portrait of one of the founding fathers, the biblical scholar Robert Dick Wilson, was a simple epithet: “I have not shirked the difficult questions.” Wilson was one of the most accomplished biblical scholars of his day.

When I came to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as a young student in the 1960s, two things struck me. First, under the portrait of one of the founding fathers, the biblical scholar Robert Dick Wilson, was a simple epithet: “I have not shirked the difficult questions.” Wilson was one of the most accomplished biblical scholars of his day. He made lasting contributions to the linguistic questions surrounding the OT. He was a sharp opponent of what was then called the higher criticism of the Bible, which used rationalist and naturalist assumptions to investigate the Scripture, often finding it to be inaccurate in its historical claims, and thus substituting more plausible, rational schemes than simply divine inspiration, to explain the text we hold in our hand. Wilson was not afraid to look into the many questions raised by higher criticism. Usually they were legitimate ones, and often they were indeed difficult. But he always was able to answer, “I have come to the conviction that no man knows enough to attack the veracity of the Old Testament. Every time when anyone has been able to get together enough documentary ‘proofs’ to undertake an investigation, the biblical facts in the original text have victoriously met the test.”

The second item that came to my attention as I sat in classes was the way my professors were not limited by their specialties or the department they officially taught under. Edmund P. Clowney, professor of Practical Theology, was one of the best biblical theologians on the planet. John Murray, in Systematics, taught us more about exegesis than some of the biblical researchers. We probably learned more about practical theology from church historian D. Clair Davis than from the practical theology professors. Professor of Old Testament E. J. Young was as good a systematician as any. Meredith Kline, the OT scholar, taught us about biblical ethics. The point is that specialization in one field did not preclude expertise in another. Especially striking was the ease with which theologians handled biblical studies, and, of course, the reverse: the way Bible scholars were at home with theology. This was in part because Westminster was (and is) a confessional institution, wherein each instructor is required to subscribe ex animo to the Westminster Standards. But it was also because in that world of yesteryear there was far less isolation into little boxes where outsiders are not welcomed because of their presumed lack of expertise in a particular area.

Surely today one of the “difficult questions” not to be shirked is that of the humanity of Scripture. And surely an evangelical view where historians, systematicians, and exegetes converge to give us a consensus about divine inspiration in relation to the humanity of Scripture is something we long for. Yet in the larger world of biblical studies, evangelical views are considered obscurantist at best. The reason for that is not simply scholars honestly facing hard questions, nor their respect for specialization. The deeper reason is philosophical. For well over two hundred years mainstream biblical scholarship has dichotomized two kinds of history: salvation history (theology) and observable history (facts). This dichotomy stems ultimately from an exalted view of human reason.

We can conveniently date the beginning of this split with Johann Philipp Gabler’s 1787 inaugural lecture at Altdorf, in which he proclaimed there was a fundamental difference between biblical theology and dogmatic theology. Gabler in effect launched the discipline of biblical theology, which he saw as a historical discipline, which is different from dogma.1 His intention was, typical of the Enlightenment, for biblical theology to prepare for dogmatics, which was based on ideas arrived at through human reason.

Subsequent developments played this out in different ways, but always two principles contrasted: the historical and the systematic. Space prohibits properly rehearsing even the highlights of this juxtaposition down through the decades.2 In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, critical scholarship highlighted the differences between the world of Israel or of the primitive church, and ours. It was deemed impossible to take the text we have in our hands at face value. There had to be background checks that inevitably revealed that the Bible was the product of a culture and history foreign to our usual understanding of the way the text was generated.

Since those early days, many players have contributed to this way of understanding the Bible. And they have done so with different kinds of emphases. Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932), for example, became the outstanding proponent of the “history of religions school,” in which traditions behind the biblical text and an identifiable Sitz im Leben were posited, proving that the faith and piety of the biblical writers was markedly different from our own. For Gunkel, doctrine was not the heart and soul of religion, but piety.3 Although ostensibly in reaction to this sort of more liberal approach, Karl Barth (1886–1968) in his own way displayed affinities for this dichotomy between biblical data and theology. In his famous commentary on Romans, right in the preface, he explains that the historical-critical method is a necessary preamble to the “venerable doctrine of inspiration.” Although he is anxious to arrive at an inspired Word, history is not to be discarded, he says, even though it might reveal errors or contradictions in the Bible. These errors are not so significant because the historical Scripture is only a lens through which to see the “spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit.”4 Today, with highly detailed investigations into the Ancient Near East as well as Second Temple Judaism, it has become more and more challenging to accept the evangelical position, which insists that history and theology must converge if we can trust the message of the Scripture.

Added to the investigation of the historical background of the Bible are developments in the physical sciences. They suggest a very different cosmology from that of the biblical writers. As a result of assumptions about an ancient earth and the veracity of macro-evolution, biblical scholars, including some evangelicals, have decided that the worldview of the ancient writers is simply “premodern,” obviating the need to reconcile it with modern cosmology. For many, then, the gap between biblical history and dogmatic verities has become nearly unbridgeable. Is it possible to find a way to accept the historiographies, or even the cosmologies of the biblical authors in order to harvest a true and reliable theology?

Be it said that counterpoints to the critical school from more conservatively committed scholars, though minoritarian, have not been entirely lacking. Even in the nineteenth century, researchers such as E. W. Hengstenberg (1802–69) offered a vigorous defense of the historic Christian position. In strong opposition to the critical views of Gesenius and Wellhausen, he proposed exegetical methods strongly committed to the unity of the biblical text and the analogy of Scripture, while at the same time fully cognizant of the challenges involved.5

On the side of Reformed theology, the towering figures of Herman Bavinck and B. B. Warfield weighed in as defenders of orthodoxy but with full attention to exegetical and historical considerations. Bavinck wrote eloquent pages in the first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics defending the inspiration of Scripture and its compatibility with the data derived from textual and historical study. Noting the attacks made on the traditional doctrine of inspiration, he does warn against “closing one’s eyes to the serious objections that careful Bible research derives from the facts it discovers and can advance against the self-testimony of Scripture.”6 But an honest scientific procedure should lead to a corroboration of the highest view of the integrity of the Bible.

Warfield’s strong defense of the inspiration of Scripture, including its inerrancy, did not preclude his acknowledging the role of the human agents of Scripture. He often stressed their importance and discussed the way that the different modes of revelation interacted with human agency, and he could not be compressed into one unilateral gesture, or a Docetic approach.7 And he even accepted, at least to some extent, the analogy of inscripturation with Christ’s incarnation.8 Still, because Scripture is divinely inspired, this means, among other things, that in interpreting it we should seek for unifying elements that betray this divine authorship. When we read a passage but cannot successfully harmonize it with the rest (the analogy of Scripture), this should never call into question the inspiration of Scripture, but only our inability to see how particular passages fit into the whole.9

To be sure, not all of the counterpoints to the excesses of the critical approach are from an evangelical viewpoint. Some came out of Neo-Orthodox theology. Consider, for example, John Bright, who accepted the possibility of errors in the Bible, but still regretted the denigration of Scripture implied in the critical view.10 Many Jewish scholars likewise have objected to the anti-Semitic implications of critical scholarship.11

In the present generation these minority voices are still being aired. More than ever, evangelicals are wrestling to decide how to relate the historical and cultural backgrounds of Scripture to the final text and then to a solid theology. Unless they simply hide away from the issue of background and context, biblical scholars, however committed to the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, cannot shirk the difficult questions.12 Important studies have come out helping guide us into the field of text and context. Yet the field is fraught with dangers.13

Among scholars concerned to lead us, few are more competent than Jeffrey J. Niehaus, whose recent book is under consideration here. He has managed fully to acknowledge the significant parallels between the world of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Bible, while at the same time defending the truth of God’s revelation. He has not shirked the difficult questions, nor has he sunk down into overspecialization. Instead, he has demonstrated that inspiration is not incompatible with being situated in the local context in which the Bible was produced.

The bulk of the book is devoted to showing the parallels between themes in the ANE and biblical revelation. As such it is a fascinating account of some of the major topics in common between the two worlds. One learns a great deal about such themes as God and the royal shepherd; covenant and conquest; city, temple, image; city and temple (abandoned and restored); the covenantal household (destruction and salvation); and the restoration of all things. Many of the strongest parallels to the OT are from Egypt, but also from Babylon, Sumer, and Assyria. All of the themes that emerge for his comparative work are important. Let me mention just two of them more specifically.

First, he explains the idea of conquest with a view to establishing justice on the earth. In Egypt, for example we have the rule of Ma’at, the just order the gods wished to establish on earth through the Pharaoh. And we have the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, whereby Shamash deposits his code of justice and covenant in the Esagila temple. The parallels with God’s purposes at Sinai cannot be missed.

Second, we learn of the significant parallels between temple-building in Egypt and Old Babylonia with their view that the earthly replicated the heavenly, and the Bible’s view of the temple as God’s dwelling place. Niehaus eventually notes the extraordinary fact, not paralleled anywhere, that God will reside in the believers’ hearts through his Holy Spirit (114). In both cases our author concludes with the uniqueness of biblical revelation as it culminates in Jesus Christ. The study is rich and suggestive, page after page.

So, then, what is to be done with these parallels? Negatively, how do we avoid the sort of historicizing we encounter in Gabler and Gunkel? Positively, how may we account for these parallels? Niehaus’s basic premise for the study is simple, deceptively simple. Because there is truth, we can begin with a divine perspective. God has an objective way of looking at the phenomena, which in turn allows us to discover what they are through careful science. A comparative method thus emerges by which the unknown is enlightened by the known. When we proceed in such a manner, we will find numerous parallels between the two worlds. These should neither surprise nor embarrass us, but be expected. And they should instruct us, even inspire us. Put in my own words, all truth is God’s truth.

Niehaus defends his view by comparing the two possible ways to apply such a comparative method (15ff.). One is to fit biblical material into the larger categories of myth and legend. The second is to fit pagan myths and legends into biblical truth. He opts unashamedly for the latter, bowing to “the Bible’s claims about its own historicity.” Those who opt for the former view, he explains, fall into two categories, the universal and the derivative. According to the universal method, espoused by people such as J. G. Frazier of The Golden Bough (1890), Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, it is possible to classify every human myth into an overall scheme. All of them reflect human need, and in human history we observe a progress from magic to religion to science.14

The derivative method, espoused by luminaries such as Hermann Gunkel and Friedrich Delitzsch, states that there is an actual historical dependence of one group of traditions or writing upon another. Both Gunkel and Delitzsch decided that the OT accounts derived from extra-biblical sources. Delitzsch, not to be confused with his father, Franz Delitzsch, believed that the OT contained very poor adaptations of Sumerian culture.15 But how did the ancient cultures influence one another? Take, for example, the creation account (Gen 1:1–2:3) or the flood account (Gen 7–9), which have parallels in Babylonian narratives, such as Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh. It could be that the Babylonian stories were dependent on the Hebrew ones. Or the Hebrew stories derived from the Babylonian. Or perhaps both Babylonian and Hebrew derived from a common source (21).

Much of biblical scholarship has attempted to wrestle with these possibilities. The older critical schools used a kind of evolutionary (or diffusionist) scheme according to which one local culture, say, Egyptian or Babylonian, developed strong cultural traits that then made their way into others, including the Hebrew people. Because the OT was largely edited in the period of exile and the people of Israel were weary, the resulting product was considered to lack some of the vitality of their sources. The other approach, somewhat less evolutionist, posits an independent invention scheme, which states that human beings, made of the same psychology, respond similarly to their circumstances.

Niehaus agrees strongly that there are real parallels, but ultimately rejects both the universal and the derivative approaches because they assume the Bible is entirely dependent on factors other than inspiration. He opts instead for the second overall method that seeks to fit the pagan stories and those from the ANE into the biblical framework. Although he does not give any deeper philosophical or theological reasons for his own approach, he states three working assumptions for it: (1) the OT preserves “true and accurate” accounts of major events, including the creation and flood; (2) because of general revelation, the OT uses literary and legal forms current in the ANE serving as vehicles of God’s special revelation; and (3) parallels exist between the ANE and the OT because of God’s common grace.

Along the way, Niehaus states, perhaps surprisingly, that one of the sources for OT parallels to the ANE is the “activity of deceiving, demonic spirits” (177, 179). He does not develop this idea in much detail because, as he notes, the Bible does not either. But he states it nevertheless. However, in fact, there is a much more positive reason for the presence of the parallels under consideration. God’s overall rationale for these parallels, some coming before, some after the biblical themes, is to help prepare his people for the extraordinary intrusion of divine revelation into history. As he puts it, “the purpose was to make such ideas somewhat familiar to God’s people so that, when he actually broke into the historical plane and acted, his acts would be recognizable against their cultural background.” He adds, “God’s revelation was so dynamic and (in his holiness) so challenging (cf. Exod. 20:18–19; Deut 18:16) that a background preparation for at least some aspects of that revelation was necessary for his people” (30).

In my judgment this approach is an excellent first step. It is enormously helpful to face these numerous parallels between the ANE and the Bible, and, rather than being embarrassed by them, to show how they relate to God’s purposes, culminating in Jesus Christ. The book presents a real feast of themes and events that tie the ANE to biblical revelation. Yet I wish a second step had been taken. It is true enough that by his general revelation and common grace God makes ready a people for his special revelation. But is this because he would then “break into the historical plane”? I worry about the Kantian implications of this view, which sharply contrasts a “noumenal” realm from the “phenomenal.” Of course, this is the last thing Niehaus intends. But would it not be better to state that both general and special revelation work together, not against the backdrop of history, but within the very fabric of history? Otherwise, do we not fall into the “derivative” approach unwittingly?

Furthermore, I think certain questions need to be raised about the parallels themselves. Niehaus does not interact much with skeptics of parallelism. For example, he makes no mention of Noel K. Weeks, who has written eloquently about how to understand the affinities between some of the ancient cultures.16 He asks, just to take one example, how legitimate are the discoveries of parallels between Egyptian parity treaties and OT covenant treaties of conquest. Weeks does not deny any connection at all, but questions whether the Egyptian model is significantly similar to that of Semitic people.17 To begin with, the evidence for such documents is itself tenuous. But even in the documents we may have, from the Hittites and from the Amarna letters, there is no reference to treaties at all. Nor do they speak of a “father” and “son” relationship between the Pharaoh and his vassal, except in a problematic letter (#44). Yet some biblical scholars have rather easily assumed that Semites and Egyptians were living in the same universe.

The deeper question raised by this kind of challenge, one that Weeks raises, is that of philosophical or theological assumptions. On the diffusionist supposition, many scholars, including a few evangelicals, see strong ties between the Mesopotamian outlook and various biblical accounts. This is claimed, for example, of myths of origins, but also of many other approaches to God’s dwelling with humankind. But the diffusionist model makes us blind to the variety of ways these cultures viewed life and the cosmos. Upon closer examination, it turns out that there were many culturally and regionally specific outlooks, including myths of origins, in the different civilizations of the ANE, making it very difficult to show any kind of straight-line influence of one or another on the Bible. Not to deny the parallels of course. They are there. But what exactly are the influences and affinities between these different cultures?

More importantly, this challenge against a too simple kinship between ancient cultures, including the Hebrews, reminds us of something not as well stressed by Niehaus as it could have been. God’s revelation was as often as not critical, indeed, sharply judgmental against the local cultures surrounding Israel. The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness, according to Rom 1:18, and one sees that exhibited on nearly every page of the OT. To give just one example of where more could have been said: When Jeremiah “implies divine abandonment,” as is suggested (125), it does appear to parallel other forms of abandonment in the ANE. And Niehaus does affirm that the Lord’s words of judgment through Jeremiah respond to the false confidence that Israel exhibited that assumed God could never abandon his people. Yet why not raise the larger issue of God’s purposes in judging the very sinful cultures of the ANE, especially when Israel sinfully accommodates them? That way, in addition to the “symphony of parallels” and “shared theological thought” we could underscore the remarkable uniqueness of biblical revelation.

It seems to me we have here a great opportunity in biblical studies as elsewhere to speak to the “Christ and culture” issue. Too often we have been satisfied to look at ways in which God’s revelation is accommodated to human culture. This is not wrong of course. John Calvin spoke of God’s “lisping” to accommodate us.18 And Niehaus does not fall into the snare of acknowledging only a one-way cultural influence. But the other side of it is that God is busy transforming culture. He stands over culture as its creator and redeemer as well as judge. This is not so much a reproach, as one book cannot accomplish too many purposes, as it is an encouragement to take the next step and commend the uniqueness of revelation, stemming from the unique and self-authenticating God of the universe. True enough, all truth is God’s truth, but that does not say quite enough about the authoritative, clear, necessary, and sufficient manner in which he has revealed himself.

  1. ^Oratio de justo discrimine theologiae biblicae et dogmaticae regundisque recte utriusque finibus, repr. in Opuscula Academica II (Ulmae: n.p., 1831), 179–94. Those of us in conservative evangelical circles would claim that “biblical theology” in the tradition of Geerhardus Vos had very different origins and very different philosophical commitments.
  2. ^Such histories abound. One that is still valuable, though twenty years old, is Henning Graf Reventlow, “Early History and the New Beginnings,” in Problems of Old Testament Theology in the Twentieth Century (London: SCM, 1985), 1–43.
  3. ^See, for example, Hermann Gunkel, “Ziele und methoden der Erklärung des Alten Testaments,” Monatschrift für kirchliche Praxis 4 (1904): 46. In this he is heavily influenced by Ernst Troeltsch, although without the latter’s radical secularism.
  4. ^Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans (6th ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 1.
  5. ^His masterpiece is undoubtedly Christologie des Alten Testaments (1829–35; 2nd ed., 1854–57; trans. R Keith; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1835–39), also in Clark’s Foreign Theological Library, by T. Meyer and J. Martin (1854–58).
  6. ^Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena (1896; trans. John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 420.
  7. ^See his “The Biblical idea of Revelation,” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Nutley: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948), 71–102.
  8. ^Ibid., 162. Warfield notes that the incarnational analogy is helpful as a general reminder that divine and human factors can work together, but pressed too far the analogy leads to unreasonable conclusions, such as believing there is a hypostatic union between the divine and the human in Scripture, clearly not the case. See Paul Wells, “The Doctrine of Scripture: Only a Human Problem,” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (ed. G. L. W. Johnson and R. N. Gleason; Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 38–40.
  9. ^“The Real Problem of Inspiration,” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Nutley: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948), 219–20. Much later, at Westminster Seminary, the pursuit of harmonization as the only way to observe the unity of Scripture was somewhat modified by Raymond Dillard, who suggested that apparently discrepant historical narratives could be due to authorial choice of historiography to fit the purposes in view, rather than simply a different set of emphases. See his “Harmonization: A Help and a Hindrance,” in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, a Challenge, a Debate (ed. Harvie M. Conn; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 163.
  10. ^See, for example, his A History of Israel (1959; repr., Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000).
  11. ^For example, Cyrus Gordon, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (1953; repr., New York: Norton, 1998).
  12. ^I realize there are those who would make a sharp distinction between infallibility and inerrancy in an effort to avoid holding Scripture to a standard that is not appropriate. See, for example, Andrew T. B. McGowan, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007). Among other claims, McGowan says that “inerrancy” is more of an American issue, rather than a European one, a debatable assertion at best. For our purposes this argument is not important.
  13. ^A recent controversy at Westminster Seminary over Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), has served to highlight the problem. An attempt to clarify exegetical techniques of the biblical writers in the light of the surrounding cultural and historical context, supporters found the book within the bounds of the subscription vows required of Westminster Seminary professors, whereas critics did not. For obvious reasons I do not wish to make comments here on the virtues or deficiencies in this book.
  14. ^This approach is common to many views. One can think of Claude Lévi-Strauss in his numerous works, including Tristes Tropiques (New York: Penguin, 1992). See also the venerable Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1987).
  15. ^His view is in fact anti-Semitic. See his Babel and Bible (London: Williams and Norgate, 1903).
  16. ^See, for example, Noel Weeks, Admonition and Curse: The Ancient Near Eastern Treaty/Covenant Form as a Problem in Inter-Cultural Relationships (JSTOTSup 407; London: T&T Clark, 2004).
  17. ^Ibid., 99ff.
  18. ^Institutes 1.13.1.

William Edgar

William Edgar is Department Coordinator and Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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