Jeffrey Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes and Biblical Theology

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In a series of posts, I plan to blog my way through Jeffrey Niehaus’s recent book, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology. Hopefully this will both draw attention to and generate discussion about Niehaus’s work. The posts will likely be short summaries, and they will generally end with questions that can be discussed in the comments.

 

I’ll first present a terse Summary of a chapter or section of a chapter. The summary is going to be terse because I think you should buy and read this book! I don’t want the summary to be so full that people could conclude that since they read my summary, they don’t need to read the book. The summary will be followed by a Discussion section, where I’ll try to raise issues and pose helpful questions. The semester is in full swing, so there should be plenty of time between my posts for you to buy the book and start reading. 

 

Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology, Chapter 1,  part 1:

Summary:

“Approaching Biblical Parallels in the Ancient Near East”

Niehaus sets out “to understand the parallels between ancient Near Eastern thought and biblical thought” (20). He writes: “Comparative studies have become virtually mandatory for a proper understanding of the Old Testament. But a foundational question to comparative study is this: What is the proper comparative method that will assure true results?” (13–14)

Niehaus sets out three options: 

1) Truth

To use the comparative method, whereby the unknown is compared with the known, “to understand pagan data from a biblical perspective” (16). This is the option he will advocate, first, though, other approaches:

2) The Universal Approach

Exemplified in Sir James George Frazer’s 13 vol. The Golden Bough—“Frazer detected a pattern in the evolution of human thought: from belief in magic through belief in religion to belief in science” (16)

“magic . . . seemed to give [man] control over nature”

“religion . . . projected gods in man’s image who might be appeased and enlisted”

“and finally science, which appeared ‘to revert in a measure to the older standpoint of magic by postulating explicitly what in magic had only been implicitly assumed . . . an inflexible regularity in the order of natural events”

Frazer, Freud, and Jung—“Both Freud and Frazer reduced the complexities of civilization to something essentially natural, simple—and, we may add, trivial” (18, citing Frankfort, Problem of Similarity, 19).

Jung explained parallels of religious thought as arising from a “collective unconscious,” which might be defined as “the storehouse of latent memory traces inherited from man’s ancestral past” (19, citing Hall and Lindzey, Theories of Personality, 80).

3) The Derivative Approach

Babylonian Scholars: Gunkel, Delitzsch, and Company—three possible explanations for the similarities between the Babylonian (Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh Epic) and Hebrew creation and flood narratives: (1) Babylonian dependence upon the Hebrew, which is impossible because the Hebrew narratives are later than the Babylonian; (2) Hebrew narratives dependant upon the Babylonian, which is often assumed but unlikely; (3) Babylonian and Hebrew derived from a common source (21–23).

Gunkel—sought “to understand the biblical Creation account as a fabrication based upon the Babylonian creation myth” (23, noting that Heidel has shown Gunkel’s proposals to be false).

Friedrich Delitzsch—also argued “that significant Old Testament accounts and ideas derived from Babylonia” (25).

Niehaus’s Conclusion: Parting Company—Niehaus proposes better ways to account for the parallels proposed by Frazer and Jung on the one hand and Gunkel and Delitzsch on the other.

The OT preserves the true account, while extrabiblical sources around the world reflect distorted memories of the same.

The OT uses contemporary literary and legal forms as “vehicles of God’s special revelation.”

Some parallels arose “because God allowed concepts that are true of him and his ways to appear in the realm of common grace” (29, noting in fn 52 that unfashionable as it may seem to say so, the Bible asserts that the source of extrabiblical revelation is demonic, citing Deut 32:16-18; 1 Kgs 22:1-28; 1 Cor 10:20; and 1 Tim 4:1).

Discussion:

It seems to me that Niehaus’s starting point here is terribly important, and terribly neglected. It is not fashionable in biblical studies, or anywhere else in our culture, to assert that one has a true position from which everything else is going to be evaluated. But if I understand Niehaus, he is doing just that. It seems to me that everyone does this implicitly, but it also seems that the fashionable thing to do in biblical studies is to play down these issues so as not to offend the reigning secular mindset in the academy. We may also observe that like Beale (in his JETS review of Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation), Niehaus sees more than one possible relationship between biblical material and extra-biblical parallels.

I say kudos to Niehaus for throwing down the gauntlet. Fodder for discussion: 

What might be the best argument against the procedure Niehaus adopts? 

Assuming that one is seeking to conform one’s worldview to the teaching of the Bible, are there other options than the one Niehaus embraces? 

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5 Responses to “Jeffrey Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes and Biblical Theology”

  1. Discussion of Niehaus’s Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology « For His Renown Says:

    [...] Check it out, and I hope you’ll join the discussion! [...]

  2. Garrett Wishall Says:

    Niehaus’ argument is echoed by scholar and Southern Seminary professor Peter Gentry, per the Introduction to Old Testament class I am taking with him currently.

    The strongest argument against it is God does not exist.

    Other options from a biblical worldview: God doesn’t need help from the pagan culture and there is not a connection between the literary structure of Scripture and that of the pagan culture. Niehaus’ argument makes more sense than this, for Scripture does not take space to explain the stipulations and regulations of the covenants and laws. It just lays them out, seeming to assume a prior knowledge of the literary and legal forms being used.

  3. Charles Halton Says:

    I’m looking forward to this series since I’m set to review this book for JETS–I haven’t yet received the book so I don’t have too much to add yet.

    However, as to your first question. I would think some might object to the presuppositional starting point that Niehaus takes–assuming that the biblical material is “truth.” Some would see this as fideistic and rather arbitrary. In other words, it would be the standard critique that it is a form of hubris to claim that one knows truth in the face of such diversity of data and opinions. Then, they might claim that the ANE material that the bible supposedly draws on is fictional (some such as Brichto claim that it was never intended to be taken literally anyway) and therefore the biblical material is fictional as well. Then, I would think they would try to address whether the biblical writers knowingly or unknowingly adopted fictional material. I think that representatives from both non-believing and “evangelical” camps (possibly Goldingay, Enns, Kent Sparks…) alike would be comfortable with some forms of this approach.

    As to Beale’s proposal, I definitely agree that there is more than one way in which biblical and extra-biblical material can relate to one another. I would add that I don’t see the three approaches that Niehaus outlines as mutually exclusive, but rather, they could be a mixture or located along a spectrum. For instance, the biblical account of the flood could point to all three of these theories at the same time: the biblical account is the true retelling of a story that is located in near universal consciousness of the ancient world but the biblical account derives some of its language and structure from ANE accounts both to facilitate communication but also as a foil to interact/correct other ideas.

  4. Exegesis and Theology » Blog Archive » Hamilton on Niehaus’ Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology Says:

    [...] Jim Hamilton has a helpful post on Jeff Niehaus’ Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology. [...]

  5. Aaron C. Rathburn Says:

    I think that it depends on the audience. As Charles is saying, if the research is catering toward trying to come to some scholarly consensus among Christian scholarship and secular, then it would be frowned upon to take a “(1) Truth” approach.

    That being said, I honestly (and I believe, rightly) believe that this is (1) the only method that one really *can* take, and (2) that it is indeed the best and most appropriate.

    First, it’s the only method we can take as regenerate Christians, because we simply know it to be true, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. We can struggle to “pretend” that the Genesis account is not God’s “true” version, but we ultimately cannot get around the presupposition that it is the Word of God.

    Secondly, I would say this is the (a) best and (b) most appropriate way of doing it to begin with. Starting with appropriateness; it is God’s revealed, inspired, and true word. Because we already *know* this (cf. point 1), it is therefore appropriate to employ this predisposition, and indeed, even explore it to its utmost and full capacities. And it is the best method, because we have the living Spirit of Christ indwelling in our hearts, transforming our minds to the mind of Christ. Christian scholars (and indeed, any Christian pursuit) should be at the pioneering forefront of their fields, blazing the trail for others to follow (and even if followers are secular, they must then change and compensate research to fit within their epistemological presuppositions).

    This isn’t popular, but it is simple. It is actually only Enlightenment-thinking and 20th-century Modernity that expects us to “neutralize” our faith, and start from a “clean slate” with no bias. The true fact is (as revealed by postmodernity) that there is no neutrality: even secular, atheist scholars all have a bias, and objectivity is a myth of empiricism.

    In light of that, Christians need to reclaim a bold, kerygmatic proclamation that the Bible is the genuine, true, revealed oracles of Yahweh, the mighty and living one true god and creator of the universe.

    -ACR

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