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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Literature of the Ancient Near East

Choon-Leong Seow

Biblical literature grew out of the cradle of world literature, the ancient Near East. It was in this region that what is arguably humanity's earliest writings are found in the hieroglyphic texts of Egypt and ideographic writings of Sumer from the fourth millennium B.C.E. It was here, too, that the earliest alphabet, to which the English alphabet can ultimately be traced, was invented in the second millennium B.C.E. Although not even two centuries have passed since the world first became acquainted with the ancient languages and civilizations of the “fertile crescent,” their discovery has forever transformed our understanding of the cultural milieu of biblical literature. The bulk of the texts have come from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and, to a lesser extent, Hatti, the home of the Hittites in Anatolia. A fortuitous discovery of an ancient tomb at a site on the Syrian coast, just across from the easternmost tip of Cyprus, led to the excavation of the Canaanite city of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) with its vast collection of texts. Epigraphic materials (inscriptions) have also been found throughout Syria-Palestine, although these are not nearly as impressive.

The number of extant ancient Near Eastern writings has become exceedingly large and diverse; multi-volume translations of the literature of Egypt and Mesopotamia have been produced. Less extensive editions for the Hittite and West-Semitic inscriptions (that is, those written in Ugaritic, Aramaic, Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects) have also appeared, but other texts remain accessible only to those who read the original languages. The materials include graffiti, abecedaries (alphabets or alphabetically-arranged materials), stamps, seal impressions, tax receipts, lists of various sorts, letters, hymns, love songs, laments, prayers and various liturgical texts, votive and commemorative inscriptions, as well as comprehensive law codes, detailed annals, prophetic collections, and tales worthy of the designation “epic.” The variety is noteworthy, but what is more remarkable is the sense that one is dealing not just with isolated texts, but literature. The people of the ancient Near East seem to have been aware of the value of their texts as literature, for they took great care to transmit and translate the “classics” of the region, adapting and adopting the apparently well-known works as they saw fit. So one finds evidence of interdependence in the writings of each civilization.

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Oxford University Press

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