Royal Apologetic in the Ancient Near East

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Andrew Knapp
Writings from the Ancient World Supplement
  • Atlanta, GA: 
    Society of Biblical Literature
    , November
     466 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Royal Apologetic in the Ancient Near East, Andrew Knapp sets out to bring clarity to the somewhat disparate and occasionally contradictory approaches to ancient Near Eastern apologies evidenced in previous scholarship. Knapp’s stated goals are to systematize the approach to ancient Near Eastern apologetic using insights from modern genre theory and then to demonstrate this systematized approach in several case studies. While there is certainly room left for further systematization, Knapp has succeeded at completing the lion’s share of this work, and his study may rightly form the starting point for all subsequent treatments of ancient Near Eastern royal apologies. His work provides an important framework for interpreting the semantic and rhetorical content of apologetic and propagandistic texts as well as for elucidating the situations from which they arose. Knapp’s methodology and his exemplary applications of it in his case studies are a significant contribution to the study of ancient Near Eastern literature and are well-worth the reader’s careful consideration.

Knapp defines apologetic as “propaganda produced as defense against specific attacks upon a person’s character or conduct” (359). He especially highlights that apologetic is a literary mode rather than a genre. According to Knapp, apologetic is a transhistorical and transcultural form of rhetoric that arises in response to attacks on a particular individual. It is not a specific genre of literature, however, and so there is no need to explain its appearance in multiple periods and cultures as the result of cultural contact, influence, or transmission. This understanding has the advantage of avoiding the major pitfall of earlier comparative studies of apologetic in the ancient Near East that tended to assume similarity suggested dependence. As a result, Knapp’s approach can be applied to texts from any culture or period without need of explaining how the mode of apologetic arrived there. 

Knapp provides seven case studies of ancient Near Eastern royal apologetic to demonstrate his approach: the Proclamation of Telipinu, the Autobigraphy of Hattusili III, the Traditions of David’s Rise and Reign, the Succession Narrative of Solomon, the Tel Dan Inscription of Hazael, the Accession of Esarhaddon, and the Rise of Nabonidus. Knapp himself refers to this collection of studies as an anthology, and the reader may choose to read one or more individually without the risk of missing essential information from the other chapters. His purpose of analyzing texts from many different periods and cultures is to prove that his approach to apologetic can serve as an analytical tool in many different contexts. Each case study consists of four parts: a review of the circumstances of the king’s accession, the text in question, an apologetic analysis, and a determination of the original Sitz im Leben of the text. In general, these are all excellent analyses of the apologetic aspects of the texts Knapp has chosen as well as the historical situations underlying them. In addition to providing an informative overview and analysis of each text for the interested scholar, Knapp’s anthology is such that it would lend itself readily to courses on ancient historiography, propaganda, or religious/political texts from the ancient Near East.

The reader should note one aspect of Knapp’s approach in particular that may welcome critique, however. Because Knapp defines apologetic as defense against “specific attacks,” he proceeds to reconstruct the attacks being responded to in each text. However, the only evidence offered for the historical reality of these attacks is the apologetic text itself, which typically makes no direct mention of any accusers or specific accusations. Knapp admits that this reasoning is somewhat circular but proceeds with his reconstructions. It is certainly possible that the accusations he proposes may have been levied, but the current state of evidence renders them simply possible rather than probable. It may thus be desirable to adjust his definition to include responses to “potential attacks” rather than only “specific attacks.” “Specific attacks” are ultimately outside the scope of what his method can reasonably confirm. Without additional evidence of particular accusations, those engaging with Knapp’s case studies or those who may wish to adapt his method should approach the reconstructions of his apologetic analysis with appropriate caution.

Potential readers should also note that Knapp’s analyses of the Traditions of David’s Rise and Reign and the Succession Narrative of Solomon present a slight deviation from the structure of his other case studies. Rather than provide the text and translation as in other chapters, Knapp extensively reviews previous source critical approaches to the biblical texts and finally provides a source breakdown of his own. This is followed by a summary of the text Knapp intends to analyze. While this helpfully demonstrates how Knapp delineated which parts of the text he would analyze, it feels disjointed from his other chapters and may provide more detail than every reader can appreciate. Those readers who are invested in source critical questions surrounding the books of Samuel-Kings will find these sections very helpful, however, while those who are not can easily skip to Knapp’s apologetic analyses and still understand his arguments.

Ultimately, Knapp is successful in his two goals of creating a systematic approach to ancient Near Eastern royal apologetic and demonstrating that approach through several exemplary case studies. His approach to apologetic avoids the pitfalls of previous analyses of such texts and is well-grounded in current genre and rhetorical theory. His case studies are well-worth the time of any interested reader, and they can be read just as well as independent studies rather than chapters in a book if the reader does not care to peruse them all. While Knapp’s method has some limitations, he never claims it to be anything more than a means of analyzing the apologetic rhetoric of particular royal inscriptions. As long as this limitation is observed, Knapp’s approach will be well-worth adapting in future treatments of ancient Near Eastern apologies as well as propaganda more generally.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy Hogue is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Knapp received his Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University.


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