Biblical Archaeology Review 2:3, September 1976

The Differences Between Israelite Culture and the Other Major Cultures of the Ancient Near East

By Morton Smith

The easiest and most common approach to the question of the relation between the culture of the Israelites as compared with other peoples of the Near East is to point out particular similarities between details of the Old Testament and of other ancient near eastern works. This presents no difficulty: Only one instance on either side is needed to prove a positive statement. Consequently a great many such similarities have been pointed out, and it is time that someone made a full collection of them.

However, when it comes to the question of the differences between Israelite culture and that of the other countries of the eastern Mediterranean, the problem is much more difficult. It is obvious that there are great and important differences between the works in the Old Testament and those of other Near Eastern literatures, but it is not clear how far these literary differences represent differences of the underlying cultures.

Moreover, we encounter a logical embarrassment at the outset: To demonstrate differences usually requires the proof of negative propositions, and proof of a negative calls for a knowledge of the entire literature in which the occurrence of a given trait is to be denied. Such knowledge, however, is practically unobtainable so far as ancient civilizations are concerned, since the material preserved, from even the best known, is only a tiny part of what must once have existed.

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