Book Review

[K:NWTS 20/3 (Dec 2005) 42-46]

Mark S. Smith, Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001. 250 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 1-56563-575-2. $29.95.

The aim of this book may be said to be twofold. First, it reviews the history of topics studied and results discovered in the field of Ugaritology, including its bearing on Biblical studies. Second, it provides an account of the personal involvement of many of the most prominent scholars in the field. In this respect, the work reads much like a "Who's Who" in the field of Old Testament and Northwest Semitic philology. The book's title ("Untold Stories") is drawn from the observation that the history of Ugaritic research is not well documented, particularly with respect to the personal stories of individual scholars.

The book is organized along chronological lines, partitioning the history of Ugaritic studies into four periods (corresponding to four chapters): Beginnings (1928-1945), Synthesis and Comparisons (1945-1970), New Texts and Crises in Comparative Method (1970-1985), and Resurgence in Tools and Method (1985-1999). Although some chronological landmarks distinguish these periods, one could say that each phase corresponds approximately to a span of one generation of scholars.

Each chapter in turn is organized partly by prominent topics of study during the given period and partly by the location of scholars in their respective academic centers, whether by nation or by city. For example, chapter one (Beginnings) includes sections on First Discoveries, Decipherment, and Grammar and Poetry, etc., which are then followed by sections on developments in Europe and Palestine and in the United States. The chapter concludes with additional sections on selected persons and issues of special interest (e.g., W.F. Albright, Monotheism). This organization recurs with each chapter. Chapter two (Synthesis and Comparisons), for example, begins with a section on Text Editions, Language, and Grammar, summarizing the development of tools for textual study. The chapter then proceeds to review developments by location (Europe and Israel, the United States). After this, the chapter moves into a case study of Myth-and-Ritual studies, focusing in greater depth on the question of an enthronement festival in ancient Israel (see below). Chapters three and four continue this pattern of summarizing topics under progress, listing scholars and centers of study geographically, and then focusing on prominent issues of the period.

Smith's contribution is the only book-length treatment of the history of the field. Nevertheless, it should not be mistaken for a textbook on the history of Ugaritic research, because of the extent to which Smith delves into personalities and personal relationships. Instead of tracing the development strictly of ideas and new knowledge, Smith presents a history of scholars, along with salient contributions they made. (Hence, the book's organization follows generations of scholars, not structures of concepts.) On the other hand, Smith's approach yields fascinating accounts regarding the personal side of academia, which after all can have an indirect role in the advance of a field. A noteworthy example described by Smith is the adversarial role E.A. Speiser at times assumed with respect to his student Cyrus Gordon, clearly contributing to Gordon's shifting from Assyriology (his first interest) to Ugaritology (following a suggestion from W.F. Albright). Gordon, of course, went on to produce Ugaritic Textbook, the major and pioneering grammar (Gordon 1998). These sorts of accounts, based on Smith's extensive research into personal letters and unpublished records, give us real insight into the human (and political) side of academic research. It should be noted, though, that this level of anecdotal detail diminishes as the book reaches later periods, resulting in sections that read like mere catalogues.

The application of Ugaritic research to Biblical studies is illustrated by Smith's treatment of the myth-and-ritual school of thought, prevalent in the 1950s and 60s, which viewed both Ugaritic and Biblical texts as written from a setting of cultic ritual. Unfortunately, the approach, resting to some degree on speculation, suffered from lack of sufficient evidence to establish the comparative syntheses claimed (a common problem when drawing literary parallels across cultures). Following points made by Karel van der Toorn, Smith tends to support the thesis, entering into an expression of his own point of view: "Indeed, if we may prune back certain claims ... and adduce further evidence, the core of Mowinckel's rich reconstruction retains merit." He proceeds to defend the theory of a fall New Year's festival (corresponding to the feast of Sukkot), comparable to the Mesopotamian Akitu festival and characterized by a divine enthronement ritual (pp. 85-87). While acknowledging problems with evidence, Smith downplays the difficulties (e.g., p. 87: "Differences are not necessarily an indication of a weak theory.") and leaves us with a generally positive appraisal of Sigmund Mowinckel's synthesis. As the inferences comprising this theory are based on a wide range of assumptions regarding the Biblical text, the religion of Israel, and comparative anthropology (e.g., Frazer's The Golden Bough), this section should be read with caution.

By contrast, Smith's review of Mitchell Dahood's approach to elucidating Biblical texts based on Ugaritic vocabulary is more realistic (pp. 158-165). Dahood is well known for exhibiting a lack of methodological control in suggesting new interpretations to Biblical passages based on alleged parallels in Ugaritic grammatical and lexical forms. (Smith cites colleagues' estimates that at most only about 10% of Dahood's comparative proposals may be correct.) Smith's exposition is helpful in showing how even a judicious use of Ugaritic in studying the Hebrew Bible was subsequently diminished in part by the adverse effects of this one prolific scholar's uncritical mistakes.

One drawback of the book is this unavoidable focus on the application of Ugaritic literature and linguistics to Biblical studies—though this tendency naturally tracks the history of the field. Nevertheless, there is an important relationship between Ugaritic linguistics and the larger field of comparative Semitics, i.e., the historical linguistic reconstruction of the family of Semitic languages. To be sure, Smith does touch on this at times, for example, in his final chapter when he discusses whether Ugaritic may be classified as "Canaanite" (pp. 195-197). (Yet, even here the question shifts between linguistic classification and the designation of cultures.) The connection with comparative Semitics can be appreciated when we remember that Ugaritic texts are not vocalized, so that accurate linguistic understanding requires one to reconstruct the missing vowels. This task demands the exercise of comparative Semitic reconstruction, which in turn requires genetically classifying Ugaritic among the Semitic languages. Indeed, comparative Semitics and Ugaritic language study cannot rightly be separated. (These issues are not raised when Smith reviews opinions on vocalizing Ugaritic [p. 157].) Moreover, this historical linguistic work is indeed the necessary foundation for any comparative study of Ugaritic and Biblical Hebrew language. The tendency of Smith's survey to focus elsewhere shows itself, for example, in the positive but passing allusions (pp. 131, 157) to Huehnergard's crucial study on Ugaritic vocabulary found in syllabic cuneiform (i.e., Mesopotamian cuneiform, which indicates vowels) (Huehergard 1987), a work that provides an important basis for correct Ugaritic vocalization.

The extensive research that went into this relatively short book (238 pages) is reflected in the great length of bibliographical notes at the end of each chapter, by one tally adding up to 83 pages. It has been observed (Wyatt's review) that these notes would be more useful were they organized into an alphabetically sorted bibliography. In fact, Smith has provided separately (not mentioned in his book) a bibliography pertaining to Ugaritic and Biblical Hebrew grammar (Smith 2004). Currently available on-line, it is organized topically and extends to 152 pages—a useful key to entrance into the field, where so much is scattered in journal articles. The combination of Untold Stories and the Bibliography constitute an essential tool for study in Ugaritic, as well as related areas of Old Testament studies.

Despite some of the cautions expressed here, this book is overall an exceptional reference on Ugaritic studies. The book is doubtless an essential guide to Ugaritology, especially as it relates to the Hebrew Bible. Though the work reflects some of Smith's specific interests and so is not intended as a complete history of ideas, it provides a useful survey of a great many scholars and their bibliographical output. It should be approached then as a "Who's Who" in the field, rather than an analytical outline of research as it progressed. Given the diverse and scattered nature of the bibliography of Ugaritic studies, this is an important purpose, served well by Smith's wide-ranging research. Any student seeking to become oriented in the main stream of scholarship from the discovery of Ugarit to the present day will find this book (and the companion Bibliography) immensely helpful.


Gordon, Cyrus H. Ugaritic Textbook. Analecta Orientalia 38. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1998.

Hess, Richard S. Review article. Denver Journal 5 (2002). Available on-line (as of 8/1/2005): /0103.php.

Huehnergard, John. Ugaritic Vocabulary in Syllabic Transcription. Harvard Semitic Studies 32. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987.

Hunt, Joel Herbert. Review article. Review of Biblical Literature 07/2003. Available on-line (as of 8/2/1005):

Smith, Mark S. A Bibliography of Ugaritic Grammar and Biblical Hebrew Grammar in the Twentieth Century. May 2004. Available on-line (as of 8/1/2005): (in PDF, Microsoft Word, and RTF formats).

Watson, W.G.E., and N. Wyatt. Handbook of Ugaritic Studies. Handbuch der Orientalisk (Erste Abteilung) 39. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Wyatt, N. Review of M.S. Smith, Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 4 (2002-2003). Available on-line (as of 8/1/2005)::

Scobie P. Smith
Redmond, Washington