Archaeology: Babylonian Clay Tablet Mentions Biblical Name
Jeremiah mentioned Nebo-Sarsekim and Nebuchadnezzar, and so did Babylonian scribes. The Times Online reported today, “The British Museum yesterday hailed a discovery within a modest clay tablet in its collection as a breakthrough for biblical archaeology – dramatic proof of the accuracy of the Old Testament.” An article in the Telegraph calls it “a fantastic discovery, world-class find” and includes a picture and full translation of the small tablet.
The great King Nebuchadnezzar had been known from extra-Biblical sources, but Nebo-Sarsekim was not – till now. He is mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3 as one of the officials of Nebuchadnezzar present at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Jeremiah was an eyewitness to these events. Now, the same name has been deciphered on a clay tablet from Sippar, a site a mile from Baghdad, where the Babylonians had a huge sun temple. The tablet, recording Nebo-Sarsekim’s gift of gold to a temple in Babylon, dates to 10 years before the siege of Jerusalem.
The British Museum acquired this small tablet in 1920, but it had never been translated. Dr. Michael Jursa (U of Vienna), one of the few scholars who can read cuneiform script, made the discovery while translating tablets on a research trip to the museum. “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,” he said. Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum added, “If Nebo-Sarsekim existed, which other lesser figures in the Old Testament existed? A throwaway detail in the Old Testament turns out to be accurate and true. I think that it means that the whole of the narrative [of Jeremiah] takes on a new kind of power.”
This story was found on Todd Bolen’s Bible Places blog. Bolen is compiling a list of Biblical characters mentioned in extra-Biblical sources, and says the list is already long; now he can add another one.
Meanwhile, what’s new with the Jehoash Inscription and the James Ossuary? (See 04/21/2003, 06/19/2003.) Dissatisfied with the rush to judgment by the Israel Antiquities Authority that they are forgeries, the Biblical Archaeology Society has pushed for more unbiased analysis, claiming the evidence is strong for their authenticity. They issued a special report this month to bring readers up to date. The full report from their conference of scholars last January is available.
Todd Bolen took umbrage at the Times’ quote of a scholar who responded that the name on the clay tablet means “the Biblical story is not altogether invented.” It is not invented at all, he retorted. The more evidence, the weaker the case of liberal skeptics becomes. This would be a good time to read the book of Jeremiah.
The Old Testament narratives have the feel of history. Sure, there are great stories of adventure, intrigue, relationships, accomplishments, heroes and villains, but they are not just invented stories: the amount of detail provided (names, places, dates, events) is far and above what would be expected in fiction. The details are presented in a matter-of-fact way that has the ring of truth (see, for example, the listings of David’s officers, priests and assistants in I Chronicles). No reader would look at this and think it is made up: it has the look and feel of official documentation.
Names mentioned in the Bible have turned up in inscriptions from Egypt, Moab, Babylon and throughout Israel itself. Another interesting point to consider is that the Bible presents its heroes in all their human frailty. Most inscriptions from kingdoms outside Israel exaggerate their victories and quash their embarrassments: not the Bible. The sins of even David and Solomon are exposed in all their ugliness, right next to other passages describing their moments of victory and godliness. Combined with the detail and the archaeological attestations, this is unprecedented in ancient records.
Today’s news is another small piece of silent testimony, rising from the dust and from the back rooms of a museum, that the Bible told real history about real people and real events. No other ancient “religious” text has so much internal and external corroboration. Israel and its surrounding kingdoms have been plundered and destroyed so many times, it should be understandable that evidence is scattered and fragmentary: think of the serendipitous discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Codex Sinaiticus (almost burned in the hearth by monks), and the Moabite Stone (almost destroyed by nomads thinking it contained gold). Much remains hidden in the dust, but there is enough to give an honest inquirer confidence to take the Biblical record very seriously.
For another look into Biblical archaeology, read Dr. Alan Millard’s 2002 review of the historical and archaeological case for King Solomon’s riches, republished this month on Associates for Biblical Research. (Note that this article predated the 2005 possible discovery of Solomon’s palace, 02/09/2007, 08/09/2005). Solomon lived 360 years before Jeremiah. The farther back in time, the more fragmentary the evidence, but why not consider the Bible as primary evidence? Its record fits the period and the hard evidence we do have. Millard explains why the critics’ argument from silence represents bias, not scholarship.
A good layman’s-level paperback overview of Biblical archaeology is The Stones Cry Out by Randall Price (1997). Many exciting Bible-corroborating artifacts have surfaced in the intervening decade. Archaeological pieces have been falling into place and silencing critics for a long time now. It’s tantalizing to ponder what more discoveries remain to be made among the 130,000 clay tablets still lying untranslated in dark shelves of the British Museum.