A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Scholars link biblical and Assyrian records.
Austrian Assyriologist Michael Jursa recently discovered the financial record of a donation made a Babylonian chief official, Nebo-Sarsekim. The find may lend new credibility to the Book of Jeremiah, which cites Nebo-Sarsekim as a participant in the siege of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
The tablet is dated to 595 B.C., which was during the reign of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II. Coming to the throne in 604 B.C., he marched to Egypt shortly thereafter, and initiated an epoch of fighting between the two nations. During the ongoing struggle, Jerusalem was captured in 597, and again in 587-6 B.C. It was at this second siege that Nebo-Sarsekim made his appearance.
He ordered Nebo-Sarsekim to look after Jeremiah: "Take him, and look well to him, and do him no harm; but do unto him even as he shall say unto thee." (Jeremiah 39.12)
As the biblical story goes, the victorious Babylonian king departed the city with numerous Jewish captives. Desiring to spare the prophet Jeremiah, he ordered Nebo-Sarsekim to look after him: "Take him, and look well to him, and do him no harm; but do unto him even as he shall say unto thee." (Jeremiah 39.12). Nebo-Sarsekim obeyed these orders by taking Jeremiah out of the Babylonian court of the prison, and ensuring he was escorted home to Jerusalem to live among his people.
Aside from serving in the military, Nebo-Sarsekim evidently also fulfilled religious duties. Jursa was studying Babylonian tablets at the British Museum when he came across Nebo-Sarsekim's name. According to Jursa, the tablet contained the record of a donation to a Babylonian temple, and his interpretation was later verified by curators at the British Museum. However, one can't infer too much about Nebo-Sarsekim's life from this transaction. Museum spokesperson Hannah Boulton states that it would have been quite common for a high-ranking official to contribute religious donations. It is not necessarily the case, therefore, that Nebo-Sarsekim was particularly pious or religious.
The tablet may not reveal information about Nebo-Sarsekim's lifestyle or personal beliefs, but it does lend credibility to the Book of Jeremiah. It is important because it shows that a biblical character did actually exist. Jursa states, "Finding something like this tablet, where we see a person mentioned in the Bible making an everyday payment to the temple in Babylon and quoting the exact date is quite extraordinary." Boulton proposes an even deeper significance, suggesting that the finding may confer credibility to the rest of the Bible. "I think that it's important in the sense that if [his name] is right, then...presumably a great deal of other info in [the Book of Jeremiah], but also generally in the Bible, is also correct."
The tablet is important because it shows that a biblical character did actually exist.
On the other hand, the tablet also exposes the danger of multiple translations. The Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) contain the two main versions of the Book of Jeremiah surviving from antiquity. Scholars agree that the name was translated incorrectly in both of these texts. Vowels and entire syllables were sometimes omitted, transforming the proper Babylonian rendering, "Nabu-sharussu-ukin," into the traditional spelling, "Nebo-Sarsekim," as well as a few variants. Remarkably, Juris showed that the different spellings referred to the same person by using contextual information from the tablet, including the title of occupation and date of transaction.
Spelling variations may seem like a minor problem, but they highlight a greater issue, namely the inconsistency between archaeological evidence and biblical text. One notorious discrepancy involves the 701 B.C. Babylonian campaign against Jerusalem. According to the Bible, Sennacherib, the Babylonian king who reigned from 701-681 B.C., was unsuccessful in his attempt to sack the city of Jerusalem. The Old Testament states that an angel came during the night to kill 185,000 soldiers, forcing Sennacherib and his weakened army to retreat (II Kings 18-19).
King Sennacherib, however, left a conflicting report on an artifact now known as the Prism of Sennacherib. Standing 38 cm high, the hexagonal clay prism contains 500 lines of writing on six columns. In direct opposition to the Bible, it states that Sennacherib captured settlements belonging to the King of Judah, took the king's daughters and enforced a heavy tribute. Both historical accounts cannot be completely correct, but in the absence of further archaeological evidence, historians can only speculate about what actually occurred.
The British Museum's collection of Babylonian tablets could hold answers to this question, as well as other lingering historical mysteries. There are currently more than 100,000 undeciphered tablets housed at the British Museum, containing letters, recipes, receipts, and scholastic works. Scholars have already extracted information about the Old Testament flood story, observations of Halley's Comet, and rules for the world's oldest board game. It is likely that future researchers will come across further information about the biblical era.
Cuneiform experts worry that their unique window to the past is being irreversibly closed by violence in Iraq.
Even so, cuneiform experts worry that their unique window to the past is being irreversibly closed by violence in Iraq, including the current situation and the Gulf War. With countless other cuneiform scripts scattered throughout the Middle East, the British Museum's collection is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, the tablets are easily smashed and broken, making it likely that only fragments of larger scripts will be recovered. Looting is also common, so they may be separated from the archaeological site and artifacts to which they refer. It is difficult to know what exactly has been lost so far, Boulton admits: "I mean we just have no idea really, but the prospect [that something important was lost] is certainly there; and that's why it's such a tragedy that these tablets are being lost all over Iraq at the moment because who can say what might be written on them."
Laura Sexton is an undergraduate majoring in History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine at the University of Chicago.