Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century

By Mark S. Smith
Peabody, Mass : Hendrickson (2001). xix + 252 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 133-135

 Ugaritic studies are sometimes overlooked by evangelicals because they have tended to be more enthusiastic about the Qumran scrolls and recent discoveries like the Tel Dan inscription, the James ossuary, and the more recent Jehoash Inscription. Smith’s volume demonstrates that Ugaritic studies are alive and well throughout the world. The volume is a selective survey of Ugaritic and biblical studies from 1928 to 1999. Proceeding in historical order, four periods are covered: 1928-1945 (between the two world wars), 1945-1970 (post-World War II), 1970- 1985, and 1985-1999. For each of these four periods the author provides a list of basic texts and tools produced, a discussion of major advances, a presentation of the major figures and academic programs, and “an issue representative of the intellectual climate of each period” (7). Smith stresses “questions of grammar, literature, and religion over issues of archaeology and history” (9).

This book has a wealth of anecdotal material about key players in Ugaritic studies. This reviewer found himself drawn into the intriguing web of scholarly interaction between men like Cyrus Gordon, E. A. Speiser, William Foxwell Albright, Theodor Gaster, Marvin Pope, and Frank Moore Cross. Tantalizing tidbits of information open the door for a peek at events in the lives of major Ugaritic and biblical scholars. The following are but a few examples: Frank Moore Cross was a student of Frank R. Blake whom Cross considers “the best language teacher I ever had” (25). Blake characteristically illustrated grammatical phenomena by appealing to Tagalog. Cross commented, “I think I was half through the first term before I discovered that Tagalog was not a Semitic language, and tradition has it that several finished their degrees still under the impression that Ugaritic and Tagalog were sister languages” (43). Godfrey Rolles Driver, son of Samuel Rolles Driver, “was a young prodigy. At age sixteen he helped his father with the 1910 production of Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar” (57). Marvin Pope (author of the Job and Song of Songs commentaries in the Anchor Bible) was a student of William Stinespring who was Albright’s brother-in-law (65). Cyrus Gordon’s tenures at Dropsie and at Brandeis produced Ugaritic programs in which Kenneth Barker, Walter Kaiser, and Edwin Yamauchi participated (76, 77, 79). David Noel Freedman, whose father wrote material for the Ziegfield Follies, graduated from UCLA at the age of 17 (109).

Anyone reading this book will gain a heightened appreciation for the role of Ugaritic in biblical studies. Smith provides a thorough report on works still in progress that will continue the production of quality tools for the study of both the archaeology and the texts from ancient Ugarit. His discussion of major themes helps the reader to understand the scope of Ugaritic studies. In one particular area, that of myth-and-ritual (82-100), Smith’s discussion is heavier and more extensive—perhaps due to his own personal interest and involvement in that area of Ugaritic studies.

Mark S. Smith is the Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University. His books include Laments of Jeremiah and Their Contexts (Scholars Press, 1990), The Origins and Development of the Waw- Consecutive (Scholars Press, 1991), and Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (Scholars Press, 1997).

David Noel Freedman aided in the editing of Untold Stories. He “quipped that the piece sometimes reads like a phone book, with too much detail and too many figures” (8). Those details and many figures were what this reviewer found so interesting. It is a must read for those who love the areas of OT studies, archaeology, and Ugaritic.