Albright, Gordon, and the World of the Bible

Two scholars in the twentieth century who used the comparative method to bring back a “more conservative view” of the Old Testament and its historical reliability were Cyrus H. Gordon and William F. Albright.  The disciplines of Assyriology and Egyptology, and related studies of ancient languages and literatures–and biblical archaeology–were rapidly advancing, with Albright and Gordon playing leading roles.  Albright was a Christian, the son of missionaries, who became a field archeologist.  Gordon was a Jew who became a specialist in the languages and literatures that were being unearthed and deciphered by archaeologists and their accomplices.

 Both of these men mastered the literature of three major fields: Assyriology, Egyptology, and the text of the Hebrew Bible.  In the early days of Assyriology and Egyptology, many scholars entered the field from a background in biblical studies and maintained an interest in an knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.  That is no longer so today.

Egyptologists are interested in Egypt in its own right, and the same is true with those who study ancient Mesopotamia.  Further, the two fields are too large to specialize in both.  Most Old Testament scholars get some exposure to Akkadian and some get a small dose of Egyptology as well, but very few become specialists in either field.  Albright and Gordon were two men who had such a command of Akkadian, Egyptian, and biblical literature as to be competent to compare the three fields.

Albright had a grasp of the whole arena of historical and comparative studies, but he had a couple of sub-specialties:  His special contribution in archaeology was pottery.  He perfected the typology of pottery: in other words, the charts that show various styles of pottery with their respective dates and place of origin go back to Albright’s work.  Further, he studies the literature that shed light on bronze age customs and culture, such as the letters from Nuzi.

The more Albright studied the world of the bronze age, the more convinced he became that it fit perfectly with the descriptions in Genesis of the patriarchal age.  Imagine a jig-saw puzzle in which you had three or four people but no background.  Then you discover the background pieces and start fitting them together and you find that the people fit in perfectly.  That is an analogy to Albright’s work on the Biblical world.  One example comes from his studies of the Nuzi (also spelled Nuzu) documents.  There are deeds and contracts that specify procedures for adoption of adult heirs, others that spell out the details of surrogate mother arrangements.  These details fit exactly the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and they come from the same time period.

Albright didn’t specifically engage in textual studies of the Hebrew Bible.  He didn’t particularly try to refute Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis, still less form criticism, he just went in another direction.  His comparative studies convinced him that the traditions about the patriarchs had been passed on for generations with amazing accuracy and faithfulness to the details of their way of life.  Albright was convinced that Abraham and Sarah were real people, that God really did call them out of Mesopotamia into Canaan, that his descendants really did go down into Egypt and come out under the leadership of Moses, and conquer the promised land under Joshua.

Albright established the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as a center for the study of the Bible in the context of archaeology and the world of the ancient Near East.  Albright’s students went on to hold important positions in many famous seminaries and universities.  They formed the Biblical Theology movement which reached its heyday in the 1950s.  This movement emphasized two ideas: “the mighty acts of God” and the difference between Hebrew thinking and Greek thinking.

If Abraham and Moses were real people, then God had really acted in history.  Israel’s faith and therefore the faith of the church is a historical faith, faith in a God who has revealed himself in history, who has acted in the past and will act again in history.  The Bible is not so much a static sacred text but the record and witness to God’s dynamic actions on behalf of his people.

The second idea is that God revealed himself through the Hebrew people, who perceived the world through their language.  Historically, theology took a wrong term (a fall from grace?) when it began thinking in Greek categories.  Greek thought is static.  Greeks think in terms of being and essence.  Hebrew thought is dynamic.  Instead of  being and essences, Hebrews think in terms of relationships and actions.

Moreover, the New Testament, though written in Greek, was written by people who thought in Hebrew.  Therefore, to really understand the language of the New Testament—at least some of the key concepts—we have to translate it back into Hebrew, or ask ourselves what is the underlying Hebrew concept.  So, if we want to understand Paul’s use of terms like “peace” or “righteousness,” rather than going back to Plato for his use of the words eirene or dikaiosyne, we need to go back to Moses or Isaiah and study the words shalom or tsedekah.

Here’s an irony of history: This approach to getting at the Hebrew concept behind Greek words is best exemplified in Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  Sadly, we have to acknowledge that Kittel was a Nazi, and there are anti-Jewish elements in his great work (he was the editor, other scholars wrote the individual articles).  His teacher was Adolph Schlatter, a devout Christian with a love for the Old Testament and an appreciation for Israel’s testimony to Jesus Christ in the Old Testament.  Schlatter developed the word study method in conjunction with his colleague Cremer and exemplified it in his 500 page study of Faith in the New Testament.  The method, which Schlatter taught to his student Kittel was to study the usage of each NT word exhaustively including its use in the NT, in the papyri and Greek inscriptions, in classical Greek, and in the Septuagint—then to study the Hebrew word underlying the Septuagint concept.  Each usage was studied in context, then various uses were categories, and the underlying theological concepts were clarified.

So, it wasn’t actually Albright’s students who produced Kittel’s TDNT, but it illustrates their way of doing theology.

Albright wrote many specialized and technical studies, for example on pottery, paleography, the vocalization of Egyptian hieroglyphs, etc.  His contribution to the general public was the Anchor Bible Commentary.  Albright conceived of the idea and became the first general editor.  The goal was to make the results of new discoveries available to the educated layperson (e.g., a college educated person who might be a banker or biology teacher but also a Sunday School teacher).  The Anchor Bible Commentary was to be a historical commentary, to explain the biblical text in its historical setting, using information from archaeology, history, and linguistic research.

In the 1950s when work on the series began, most people knew only King James Version of the Bible, so a new translation was an important part of the series.  Each volume breaks the text up into manageable portions, gives a fresh translation with footnotes clarifying technical details; then a commentary on the section.  The Anchor Bible was also to be an ecumenical and nonsectarian commentary.  Authors included Jews, Catholics, and Protestants.  There were no doctrinal requirements, but all of the writers have shown an appreciation of the Bible and a respect for the faith of the readers.  The first volume, Genesis, appeared in 1964; a few volumes are still in production.

One or two new volumes have appeared each year since the 1960s, and some older volumes have already been replaced.

In 1998 the Anchor Bible Dictionary appeared.  It is a 6-volume dictionary giving historical, archaeological, and linguistic information.  At the time of its publication it was the most up-to-date biblical reference work available, and is still important.

When you think of William F. Albright, think of biblical archaeology, the Anchor Bible Commentary (ABC) and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ABD).

Think also of his students and their contributions: John Bright’s History of Israel, Frank Moore Cross’s various works on the Dead Sea Scrolls, George Ernest Wright’s The Mighty Acts of God.  Think of the biblical theology movement with its emphasis on the dynamic and relational Hebrew way of thinking about God versus the static and abstract Greek way of thinking about God.


The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago are two universities in the United States that have had important programs in “Oriental Studies,” which means the archaeology, history, languages, and literatures of Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) and Egypt.  They both have great libraries and museums.  They are secular programs, unaffiliated with any theological institutions.  Cyrus H. Gordon went through the program at Pennsylvania, as did several other Jewish scholars.

A unique institution was formed, mostly of Jewish scholars with Ph.D’s from Pennsylvania’s Oriental Institute at Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning, in Philadelphia.  Dropsy became a great center for the comparative study of the Biblical world in the 1950s and 1960s.  One of the most famous faculty members was Cyrus Gordon.

Gordon’s personal contribution to scholarship was his grammar of the Ugaritic language.  Gordon was himself a graduate student in 1929 when the Ugaritic script was first discovered and deciphered.  He studied all the new texts as they became available and wrote the first official grammar of the Language.  It went through several revisions and expansions and was for a long time the standard introduction and reference work for Ugaritic studies.

Ugartit was an ancient city-state in Syria.  Before the site known as Ras Shamra was excavated, all cuneiform texts known were written in a complex syllabic script.  The ancient library at Ras Shamra revealed a cuneiform sign list that had only 29 signs—a genuine alphabet!  It turned out that the language was very closely related to Hebrew, closer than Arabic or Akkadian.  The literature of Ugarit (the ancient name of the city of Ras Shamra) included hyms to Baal and Anat and epic stories of their exploits, as well as story of their legendary king Kirtu.  These were the religious texts of the Canaanite Baal cult, so vigorously condemned by the prophets!

 Not only the language, but the poetic forms, the famous parallelism precisely paralleled the poetry of the Psalms.  In fact Mitchel Dahood, a Roman Catholic Scholar, made extensive use of poetic parallels form Ugartic in his three volume commentary on the Psalms in (you might have guessed) the Anchor Bible series.

 So Cyrus Gordon wrote the book on Ugaritic.  One of his other contributions was a growing suspicion with the Documentary Hypothesis.  His studies of ancient near eastern literature convinced him that the criteria used by Wellhausen for determining sources were invalid.  In fact, they derived from European, Western (ultimately going back to Greek origins) ideas about literature—not from actual Near Eastern literature.  For example, the Baal epics use multiple names for the same gods, and employ frequent repetitions.  The redundancies that European critics took to be sure signs of different sources turned out to be essential features of literature from the Biblical world.

In the 1950s and 1960s an amazing thing happened: evangelical Christian scholars began flocking to Cyrus Gordon at Dropsie College for their advanced training in the languages and literature of the Biblical world.  Like Albright, Gordon mastered the languages and literature of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the lands in between.  He was as at home in Ancient Greek as he was in Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, or Egyptian.  He studied Homer in the original Greek and saw parallels with the heroic age of David and Saul.  He read through the Greek New Testament annually.

Gordon was kind to his Christian students and they responded with affection and admiration.  After receiving their Ph.Ds., Gordon’s evangelical students attained positions of leadership at many evangelical seminaries and colleges.  Many of them also joined the translation committee of the New International Version (some also the NASB).

When you read the NIV, think of Cyrus Gordon, and when you look up facts in the Anchor Bible Dictionary or commentaries, think of William F. Albright.

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