By Dalya Alberge in London
July 12, 2007 01:00am
Tablet dating from 595 BC deciphered
Names figure in court of Nebuchadnezzar
Figure was 'witness to turning point' in history
THE British Museum yesterday hailed a discovery within a clay tablet in its collection as a breakthrough for biblical archeology - proof of the accuracy of the Old Testament.The cuneiform inscription in a tablet dating from 595 BC has been deciphered for the first time - revealing a reference to an official at the court of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, that proves the historical existence of a figure mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah. It is rare evidence in a non-biblical source of a real person, other than kings, featured in the Bible. The tablet names a Babylonian officer called Nebo-Sarsekim who, according to Jeremiah 39 was present in 587BC when Nebuchadnezzar "marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it". The cuneiform inscription records how Nebo-Sarsekim lavished a gift of gold on the Temple of Esangila in the fabled city of Babylon, where, at least in folk tradition, Nebuchadnezzar is credited with building the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. British Museum staff are excited by the discovery.
Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the Department of the Middle East, said: "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." The discovery was made by Michael Jursa, associate professor at the University of Vienna, on a research trip to the museum.
"It's very exciting and very surprising," he said. "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." Since 1991, Dr Jursa has been visiting the museum to study a collection of more than 100,000 inscribed tablets - the world's largest holdings. Cuneiform is the oldest known form of writing. During its 3000-year history, it was used to write about 15 languages, including Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite and Urartian. There are only a small number of scholars worldwide who can read cuneiform script. One of them is Dr Jursa, who yesterday said the British Museum tablet was so well preserved that it took him just a couple of minutes to decipher. This one - which is 5.5cm wide - was acquired by the British Museum in 1920, "but no one realised the connection," Dr Jursa said.
"They didn't really read it." It was unearthed from the ancient city of Sippar, where there was a huge sun temple, about 2km from Baghdad. On hearing of the discovery yesterday, Geza Vermes, the eminent emeritus professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford, said such a discovery revealed that "the Biblical story is not altogether invented". "This will be interesting for religious people as much as historians," he said.
The Times, London, in The Australian