Archive for September, 2008

Jeffrey Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes and Biblical Theology

September 17, 2008

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:


“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).


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?