Teaching Morality in Antiquity

Wisdom Texts, Oral Traditions, and Images

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T. M. Oshima, Susanne Kohlhaas
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company KG
    , March
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This edited volume, Teaching Morality in Antiquity, includes eighteen articles (fourteen English; four German) which were originally presented at an international workshop on the teaching of morality in the ancient world held at the University of Leipzig in November of 2016. The essays are grouped into seven separate subsections, providing a wide range of content and methodological approaches. Contributions range from more traditional textual analyses, such as essays on wisdom traditions in ancient Egyptian texts (Jan Assman, 19–38; Alexandra von Lieven, 175–181), to methodologically innovative studies assessing ancient moral perspectives through the lens of modern cognitive scientific approaches (Yitzhaq Feder, 253­–264; Karolina Prochownik, 264–287).

One encountering this work will be surprised to find the title of the volume to be a bit misleading. Despite the use of the term morality, there is little information pertaining to either defining “morality” or the establishment of a system of what could be called “moral behavior” within the context of the ancient world—largely the pre-Hellenized ancient Near East in most cases. Further, the volume includes sparing information regarding the pedagogy of any such moral system or behavior or those responsible for it (a notable exception being that of Alan Lenzi, 60–69). Instead, we find that the contents of the volume focus far more on wisdom and wisdom literature in the ancient Near East (v). This is difficult terminology within the context of contemporary scholarly discussions (see the many essays in Will Kynes, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Wisdom and the Bible, Oxford, 2021). However, the contours and complications of this terminology are addressed in multiple contributions, particularly that of Yoram Cohen (41–59).

In looking to the different subsections within the volume, most display a coherence in subject matter, which provides a unified and coherent presentation. Though each of the essays in section four (“Moral Teaching in the Book of Job”), for example, discuss different aspects of the Job narrative—ranging from the utilization of rhetorical devices in Job (Edward Greenstein, 137–149) to a moral-theological assessment of the work (Ludger Schwienhorst-Schönberger, 164–181)—all three essays serve to increase one’s understanding of the biblical wisdom tradition. This remains true in most cases from section to section.

However, some sections lack this same coherence, with essays assessing texts from contrasting chronologies, genres, and textual traditions. Such is true for section two (“Comparative Studies of Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Texts”). For example, in “Weisheit in den Königsepen aus Ugarit” (70–91), Herbert Niehr discusses the role of wisdom traditions at Ugarit. Despite the lack of conventional wisdom texts within the extant Ugaritic literary tradition, Niehr asserts that two of the major Ugaritic epics—the narratives of Aqhat and Kirta—evidence a concern for wisdom among the local literati. The essay is primarily a collection of instances in which the characters in these epics, both human and divine, act wisely or display a notable lack of wisdom. It then compares instances in which there is thematic overlap between these texts and traditional near Eastern wisdom texts, such as the case of the suffering of Kirta and righteous sufferer in the Mesopotamian Ludlul bēl nēmeqi.

However, the reader might wish that Niehr had more explicitly outlined how his own perceptions of wisdom/wise behavior in these epics help us understand the native Ugaritic view of these issues. Within the same section, Lenzi looks to the short didactic Mesopotamian poem known as the Counsels of Wisdom. Through his analysis of the text, he asserts that Counsels of Wisdom was intended to assist scribal trainees in navigating the uncertain transition from one’s familial home to the scribal home. As such, the wisdom outlined in this text is highly specific, intended only for a certain “white-collar” subset of ancient Mesopotamian society.

As can be seen, the disparate nature of the subject matter in the individual contributions proves difficult for the presentation of the larger work. While each of the essays included in this volume assuredly served as notable contributions in their original conference setting, the breadth of the essays betrays a sense of discontinuity from chapter to chapter. Having leveled this critique, it should be noted that it is rare for one to sequentially read each of the contributions in a published volume of conference proceedings. As such, the discontinuity is of little consequence for those seeking out individual essays, as the general quality of the contributions will surely be useful to anyone seeking out information on a particular topic covered.

The range of methodological approaches, particularly those found in the final two chapters (Feder, 253–264 and Prochownik, 265–288) were a welcome contribution to the volume. Though this reviewer is more accustomed to traditional historical-critical assessments of the texts of the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible, the inclusion of new methodological perspectives should be welcomed warmly into the scholarly conversation.

In sum, this work serves as an excellent contribution to the study of wisdom and wisdom literature in the ancient world. The breadth of the topics addressed within this volume suggests that the individual essays will be utilized by a wide range of readers seeking out more particular subject matter than one might find in introductory level texts or surveys.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raleigh Heth is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
May 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

T.M. Oshima is an Alexander-von-Humboldt fellow at the University of Leipzig in Germany.

Susanne Kohlhaas is a research assistant at the University of Leipzig in Germany.


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