British Museum Makes Important Breakthrough In Biblical Archaeology

By 24 Hour Museum | 10 July 2007
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a photograph of an orange hued clay tablet with various symbols scored into it

This cuneiform tablet offers a fascinating window into the past. © The British Museum

An expert working at the British Museum has confirmed the existence of an important Biblical figure after deciphering a cuneiform inscription on a small Babylonian clay tablet.

Austrian Assyriologist Dr Michael Jursa made the breakthrough discovery confirming the existence of a Babylonian official mentioned in the Old Testament and connected to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.

The clay document is dated to the 10th year of Nebuchadnezzar II (595 BC) and names the official, Nebo-Sarsekim. According to chapter 39 of the Book of Jeremiah, he was present at the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC with Nebuchadnezzar himself.

In 601 BC King Nebuchadnezzar marched to the Egyptian frontier where the Babylonian and Egyptian armies clashed with both sides suffering heavy losses. Over the next few years the struggle between the Babylonians and Egyptians continued and in the course of these campaigns Jerusalem was captured (597 BC).

To find a cuneiform reference to someone connected with these remarkable times is rare but evidence from non-Biblical sources for the existence of any individual named in the Bible - other than kings - is incredibly rare.

a colour photograph showing a large neoclassical building fronted by a series of pillars with a lawn in front

The British Museum boasts several examples of cuneiform tablets on permanent display together with a sizeable research collection. © British Museum

Nebo-Sarsekim is described in the book of Jeremiah as ‘chief eunuch’ (as the title is now translated, rather than ‘chief officer’). Dr Jursa’s translation of the Babylonian tablet proves that his name was really pronounced as Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, and gives the same title, ‘chief eunuch’, in cuneiform script, thereby confirming the accuracy of the Biblical account.

“Reading Babylonian tablets is often laborious, but also very satisfying: there is so much new information yet to be discovered,” said Dr Jursa, who is Associate Professor at the University of Vienna.

“But 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.”

Dr Jursa has been studying cuneiform at the British Museum since 1991. It is the oldest form of writing known to us and was commonly used in the Middle East between 3200 BC and the second century AD.

Today there are only a small number of scholars worldwide who can read cuneiform script, which was created by pressing a wedged-shaped instrument (usually a cut reed) into moist clay.

an aerial view looking through a large archway within a library

The arched room within the British Museum where Dr Jursa made his discovery. © The British Museum

Dr Jursa’s work confirms the importance of the continued study of cuneiform. Each tablet is a unique window into the past, allowing a direct link to the people who lived during that period.

“Cuneiform tablets might all look the same, but sometimes they contain treasure," added Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East at the British Musem. "Here a mundane commercial transaction takes its place as a primary witness to one of the turning points in Old Testament history. This is a tablet that deserves to be famous."

Examples of cuneiform tablets are on permanent display in the Museum and the whole collection can be accessed by appointment through the Middle East Study Room. More information on cuneiform can be found at www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/explore/themes/writing

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