Review: Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible (Sparks)

Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005), 476 pages.
I would like to thank Baker for providing me a review copy.
Baker
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Overview

As the subtitle suggests, this book is a guide to the background literature, not a collection of texts. Sparks has organized the Ancient Near Eastern material by topic into fifteen chapters (e.g., “Hymns, Prayers, and Laments,” “Apocalyptic and Related Texts,” “Epics and Legends,” “Law Codes,” and “Treaty and Covenant”). Likewise, each chapter is subdivided by culture or location (e.g., “Mesopotamia,” “Ugarit,” “Egypt,” etc.). Sparks begins his chapters with an introduction, usually about a page in length, and ends them with concluding observations and a general bibliography, together usually about five pages. Within the chapters Sparks briefly summarizes ANE texts related to the topic and follows each summary with a bibliography, which includes transcriptions, translations, and secondary sources. These summaries run from between a paragraph in length to one or two pages.

Response

Sparks’ volume is an incredible resource for anyone wanting to do serious study of the ANE. The material is thoughtfully organized, making it a useful reference work for students and scholars of the ANE. Sparks’ bibliographies of each individual text and his general bibliographies are thorough, giving anyone an instant entre into the secondary literature. As I noted above, the book does not include any primary sources, though the title could easily give the opposite impression.

The helpful summaries provide a quick overview of the primary sources on a particular topic and from a particular region. Often ANE texts are difficult to understand or even read because of their fragmentary nature, but Sparks’ summaries are written clearly and concisely. However, Sparks adopts the “cut and paste” view of the Old Testament. His summaries often claim that one ANE text is obviously the source material for various biblical passages or concepts. Scholars have long noted similarities between various ANE and OT material, such as the creation story and the flood story. Sparks goes beyond that, though, and sees dependence on almost every page of the OT. One is left with the distinct (and inaccurate, in my opinion) impression that the OT authors borrowed extensively, unashamedly, and often uncritically from other ANE texts. A full critique of Sparks’ conclusions would require a point-by-point refutation, of which I am incapable. It is worth noting, though, that this approach is what John Walton appropriately calls “parallelomania” in his excellent book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Walton notes various problems with the method that Sparks adopts, and instead offers his own method of comparative studies focused on the “conceptual world” of the ANE, leading to exegesis of the biblical texts. In contrast, Sparks is primarily interested in demonstrating that the OT contains little that is distinct from the ANE and in fact much that this identical with it (in his opinion).[1]

Conclusion

This book is invaluable for any serious scholar of the ANE. It is a great aid, both for its brief summaries and for its extensive bibliographies. Critical and confessional scholars alike will find it useful. However, it will be of little value to pastors or seminary students who are not planning to go into ANE studies. Students of the OT will have limited use for it, though their time would be better spent reading the primary texts or reading a synthetic (and confessional) book like Walton’s. Also, Sparks’ comments about the OT authors “borrowing” from the ANE should be critically evaluated.

I give this 4 ½ stars in accomplishing its purpose to be a guide to the background literature, but I would note that such high marks do not indicate agreement or even appreciation for many of Sparks’ comments in his summaries with regard to the OT dependence on ANE texts.


[1]See God’s Word in Human Words by Sparks for his comprehensive and systematic attempt to undermine the uniqueness of the Bible.

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About Peter Green

I am a doctoral student at Wheaton College. My dissertation is on vineyard imagery in the Old Testament, particularly as it is used to convey the theme of Creation to New Creation. My interests are (in no particular order): biblical ethics, epistemology, apologetics, sacramentology, science and faith, biblical theology, OT theology, biblical political philosophy, and intertextuality. I consider myself to be in the historic Reformed tradition, and attend a PCA church. I graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary--the PCA's denominational seminary--and hope work for Reformed University Fellowship, which is the PCA's campus ministry, following my PhD studies.
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