Erica Reiner presents an insightful picture of A Leo Oppenheim in her introduction to Oppenheimâ€™s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (xii-xvi). She states that even though Oppenheim gained fame as a philologist, he preferred to refer to himself as a cultural anthropologist. In his pursuit of the culture of ancient Mesopotamia, he was deeply interested in social, economic, and scientific aspects of the culture. Oppenheim published works on ancient beer brewing techniques and glass making. In order to understand these themes Oppenheim gained a respectful competency in these areas of science and technology along with his knowledge of the history and languages of ancient Mesopotamia.
This raises interesting questions: What should we call researchers of the ancient Near East? Are they historians, philologists, cultural anthropologists, theologians, astronomers, sociologists, ecologists, mathematicians, architects, economists, meteorologists, or geographers? With which areas of study does a researcher of the ancient Near East need to be familiar?
At times the study of the Bible and ancient Near East can be overwhelming. There are many languages that one must be able to work with, many cultures that are distinct yet interact with one another, harvest cylces must be understood, political relationships need to be deciphered… In order to deftly work in the field, one must simulatenously be a generalist and a specialist. The niche that a researcher/teacher has carved out for oneself must be thoroughly understood, yet a general understanding of the other disciplines must be present as well.
For instance, in order to understand glass making one must be able to read the texts and the specialized vocabulary that describes making glass. An knowledge of trade routes of raw materials and finished products, the scientific and technological processes, and the archeaological record must be known as well. At times this might seem like a daunting task–an overwhelming flood of information that one must be familiar with and navigate through–and it is. It’s not easy, but its worth it. Studing this time period a challenge that yields rich rewards. Furthermore, think of all the truly rewarding things in your life–how many of those take little effort?
As Erica Reiner has pointed out, studying the ancient Near East involves a lot more than just a mastery of philology. One must integrate the advances of a host of other disciplines into their own study and research. Don’t get overwhelmed at this; just consider it a joy that you are able to venture outside your narrow slice of the world and see what other scolars in other disciplines are thinking. Not only does this give us insight into the ancient Near East, but it will also enrich our own lives by exposing us to diverse fields and new ideas, and thereby combating a tendency of myopia and stifling introspection.