Review: Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible

Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005. Pp. xxxvii + 514. Cloth. ISBN: 9781565634077. $39.95.

Kenton Sparks, associate professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA, has written an important and seminal volume for any student of the Hebrew Bible. It stands alongside the well-known Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ANET) and the more recent multi-volume The Context of Scripture (COS) as a formidable reference work for the cognate literature of the Hebrew Bible. The initial success and reception of Sparks’ volume is evidenced by the fact that it has already undergone its second printing, a mere one year after its release. In the preface Sparks also notes that the work has come to be known as ATSHB, which will no doubt become one of the frequently recognized scholarly abbreviations along with ANET and COS mentioned above.
Prior to the introduction, Sparks provides two useful reference helps for the reader. First is a historical chart, beginning in the Early Bronze Age and spanning the Hellenistic era, which outlines the various periodizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, and Anatolia (for instance, the Egyptian New Kingdom or Hittite Middle Kingdom). The second helpful reference is a series of maps of Egypt, Aram/Syria and Phoenecia, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. By including these, Sparks has made his volume accessible for both the established scholar and the novice in ancient Near Eastern studies.
In the introduction, Sparks sets forward in a thorough yet communicable way what will form the theoretical, operative grounding for his study: an analysis of genre study. Under this rubric he discusses content and theme, language, context (Sitz im Leben), function, form and structure, the material attributes of texts, the mode of composition and reception, and genre and tradition. He concludes this introductory section with a recognition of the eclecticism of his method, seeking to bring together the insights of form criticism, literary theory, nominalism, among others (21). This “heuristic posture” he deems most preferable to the task at hand.
Chapter 1 continues the introductory material by discussing the various Near Eastern archives and libraries in Syria-Palestine, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia. He also offers insightful treatments here on the topics of language and writing within the aNE, as well as issues pertaining to scribes, scholars, literacy, and canonicity. Taken in tandem, all of these introductory remarks help to orient the uninitiated reader into the shear and utter breadth and depth of information contained within the pages of this volume. Detailed bibliographies conclude both the introduction and first chapter.
With a basis for reading established, Sparks moves forward into an analysis of the various literary genres prevalent within the ancient Near East. Sparks devotes a chapter to each genre, and within these chapters the material is organized geographically (Mesopotamian, Egyptian, etc.). The genres covered are: wisdom literature; hymns, prayers, and laments; love poetry; rituals and incantations; intermediary texts; apocalyptic and related texts; tales and novellas; epics and legends; myth; genealogies, king lists, and related texts; historiography and royal inscriptions; law codes; treaty and covenant; epigraphic sources from Syria-Palestine and its environs.
Obviously, no review can hope to do justice to the vastness of Sparks’ study. I wish here only to point out a few of the many significant contributions made by this volume. First, and perhaps primary, are the several-page-long bibliographies that conclude each chapter. To be sure, these bibliographies are not exhaustive, and as scholarship continues to hone its understandings of this literature–and as new literature is discovered!–the bibliographies will grow. John McLaughlin’s RBL review for this volume lists some of the subsequent work that could make its way into updated versions of Sparks’ volume. The bibliographies contain works in English, but also many in French and German, making them necessary starting points for study of the various genres. One should also be mindful of the smaller yet still significant bibliography given at the end of each respective textual treatment. Sparks has surely done his research to compile such a massive bibliography for the various genres more broadly and isolated texts more specifically. Second, each chapter (save for the final one) ends with “Concluding Observations.” To my eye, the most insightful of these is found in the chapter on “Historiography and Royal Inscriptions,” in which Sparks treats historiography and mimesis, anachronism, antiquarianism, fiction, Tendenz, redaction, as well as a section on history writing in ancient Greece and Israel, along with a brief outline of historicity in the Hebrew Bible. These concluding reflections help bring germane issues that emerge within the respective genres together into a cogent, articulate, and brief synthesis. Thirdly, rounding out the volume is a series of indexes–of modern authors, of Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature, of Ancient Near Eastern sources, to English translations in ANET, to English translations in COS, and to museum numbers/textual realia/standard text publications. The cross-references with ANET and COS are perhaps most satisfying for the reader who–wisely–wishes to consult all three works.
In the end, ATSHB is a groundbreaking work that will certainly become a necessary reference tool for any student of the Hebrew Bible and its cognate literature. The preface hints at a forthcoming, second volume that will focus specifically on the Hebrew Bible in its comparative literary context. Those who have and will find ATSHB helpful should look forward with great eagerness to this second volume.
The Table of Contents, a sample chapter, and the Introduction are all available in .pdf form on Hendrickson’s website.
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3 thoughts on “Review: Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible

  1. Phil Sumpter says:

    I’ve started working through this myself and I can affirm its abundent value! Having COS on Logos really makes the difference however. Simply reading about the texts rather than the texts themselves is a tad frustrating.

  2. John Anderson says:

    Phil:

    Certainly. ATSHB is designed, it seems to me, to provide a fuller entrance point and orientation to this literature. Hence, the bibliographies, indexes to COS and ANET. To my eye, it seems to offer more information on many of these texts than do these other sources.

    All in all, I can see this volume getting cited in many a paper of mine!

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