Science in Christian Perspective
Allan A. MacRae, Ph.D.
From: JASA 12 (September 1960): 21-23.
The great public interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls (to which two of these columns have been devoted) has in the popular mind shoved into the background other recent archaeological discoveries, some of which are at least as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among these, one of the most significant was the discovery of the group of materials that is now spoken of as the Ugaritic texts, but was formerly generally designated as the Ras Shamra texts. If it were not that we are living in a period of so many great and varied discoveries in archaeology, the discovery and interpretation of these texts would have ranked as one of the most outstanding and interesting developments in the whole story of antiquity.
Ras Shamra is a place on the northern coast of Syria, where the remains of an ancient city have been unearthed. This city was called Ugarit, a name already familiar to archaeologists from mentions in Egyptian and Hittite documents.
In 1929 the distinguished French archaeologist, C. F. A. Schaeffer, who was about to visit certain archaeological places in Syria, then under control of the French, stopped at the headquarters of the Department of Antiquities. As he was leaving, the Direc tor remarked rather casually: "On the way to the place that you are to visit first, you will pass near a spot called Ras Shamra. For some years the natives have been informing us that they believe there are ancient remains buried there and that we ought to excavate. Usually such local people know nothing whatever about such matters and their suggestions are not worth following up. However, these people keep asking, and so in order to quiet them it might be good if you would just Stop and look around there on your way." Schaeffer stopped at Ras Shamra and was so impressed by what he found that he carried on excavations there that continued for a number of years.
At Ras Shanira, Schaeffer found a library containing hundreds of clay tablets, in an altogether new type of cuneiform writing. Most cuneiform writing is based upon the system originated by the Sumerians early inthe third millennium B.C. This system has about 300 common signs and quite a few less common ones. Most of the signs represent syllables, though many indicate entire words. On the tablets found at Ras Shamra only about 30 different signs were used. Copies of a few of the -tablets were soon printed and distributed to various scholars.
One day Professor W. F. Albright, who was then the Director of the American School of Oriental Research at Jerusalem, received a paper from Germany in which there was an article by Professor Hans Bauer of the University of Halle, reporting on his study of the Ras Shamra material, and stating his belief that the language it contained was a Semitic language. He worked out a suggested interpretation for about two thirds of the signs, but not enough to be able to make much headway in -the reading of the language.
Dr. Albright took the German paper and went to the headquarters of the French Dominicans in Jerusalem, a group of men who had for many years been doing excellent work in the study of Palestinian archaeology. There he showed it to Pere E. Dhorme, whom he knew to be interested in this type of subject. Dhorme told Albright that he had already himself done a good bit of work on the published Ras Shamra material and had worked out about two thirds of the signs. It so happened that Bauer had worked out a good many signs that Dhorme had not been able to interpret and that Dhorme had interpreted a good many that Bauer had not understood. Putting the two together, it was found that it was now possible to begin active work interpreting the texts.
It is interesting to note that Dhorme had acquired facility in deciphering strange messages through experience gained as an expert with the French army during World War I in interpreting enemy codes. And Bauer had performed the same sort of work in the German army at that time. Thus men who had been enemies now co-operated in a peaceful advance in our knowledge of ancient civilization.
It was possible to make sufficient progress in the work of interpretation to show beyond doubt that Dhorme and Bauer had indeed foundithe true secret of the meaning of the signs. It proved to be an alphabetic type of writing-one of the first alphabetic types in history I It is now certain that alphabetic writing of the -type that we use for the English languag
developed from a system that began in southern Palesti-ne in the second millennium B.C. The Ras Shamra signs bear evidence of being an artificial sort of writing, with wedge-shaped marks arranged in orderly fashion to indicate various letters. Quite evidently it was invented by someone who was familiar with the alphabetic type that had developed shortly before, from which all -of the types of alphabetic writing in the world today have sprung. Thus if our Latin system of writing should be described as a grandson of the earliest type of alphabetic writing, the Ras Shamra system should be called its stepchild.
The language in which these tablets are written is closely related to -the Hebrew of the Old Testament. They can be dated to the fifteenth and early fourteenth centuries B.C.
The Ugaritic tablets contain quite a variety of types of material, many of them being mythological poems about Canaanite gods and heroes. They give us a vivid picture of the Canaanite religion of Ras Shamra in the fifteenth century B.C.
Previous to this discovery almost all that was known of Canaanite religion consisted in the references to it in the Old Testament, which often refers to the leading god of the Canaanites under the name of Baal, and to their leading goddess as Asherah, translated "grove" in judges 3:7; 1 Kings 15:13; 18:19; 11 Kings 21:7; 23:4, 6, 7 in the King James Version. Both ol these names occur frequently in the Ugaritic tablets. The Old Testament refers to their religion as a very corrupt and sensuous system of worship, against which the Israelites were very strongly warned. The Ugaritic texts contain several long Canaanite epics, which depict the activities of their gods. These corroborate the picture that the Old Testament gives, showing that it was a religion with many gross and offensive features, very inferior to the ethical monotheism of the Old Testament.
The Ugaritic texts have added to our knowledge of the history of that part of the world, and have vastly increased our understanding of its religion and culture. At many a point they corroborate the Biblical picture of the Canaanite religion.
During the last fifty years there has been a constant effort to find the origin of Christianity or Judaism as a development from some purely human or natural background. This trend, which has lately been conspicuous in the attitude of certain writers toward the Dead Sea Scrolls, has also exerted a very strong influence upon - the attitude of many students of the Ugaritic texts. Much has been made of the fact that the literary syle of some of the Psalms and of certain portions of the prophetical books has much in common with the literary style of these epics. However, this is surely what one would expect in view of the fact that the languages are very similar and that literary style tends to spread easily from, one place to another, particularly when the languages are closely related.
Starting from the similarity of literary style, some recent writers have gone on to note similarities of expression in reference to deity or deities, and to infer that a great part of the Old Testament is based upon a knowledge of this Canaanite material. On close examination of the material itself, it is necessary to write "not proven" against most of these assertions. It is entirely possible that the culture of the Israelites was affected to some extent by the culture of the Canaanites. And from the Ugaritic texts we get help in the interpretation of words and of cultural activities depicted or alluded to at various points, in the Old Testament. But when it comes to religion, the relation is one of antithesis, rather than of similarity. The alleged close similarities usually prove on investigation to be based upon a rather forced interpretation, or upon comparing things which may be verbally similar but which in the light of context are utterly distinct in their meaning and significance. The Ugaritic material has already been helpful in interpretation of Biblical words, and will be even more so in the future. But the attempts to show that the Bible was a development from the religion of Canaan, rather than a revelation from the God of creation, when examined objectively and scientifically, prove to be quite without foundation.