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Jehovah’s Witnesses

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The Watchtower—Study Edition  |  December 2008

Ancient Cuneiform and the Bible

Ancient Cuneiform and the Bible

 Ancient Cuneiform and the Bible

AFTER mankind’s language was confused at Babel, distinct writing systems developed. People living in Mesopotamia, such as the Sumerians and the Babylonians, used cuneiform. That word comes from the Latin for “wedge-shaped” and refers to the triangular mark made by the stylus that was used to make impressions in wet clay.

Archaeologists have unearthed cuneiform texts that discuss people and events mentioned in the Scriptures. What do we know about this ancient system of writing? And what testimony to the Bible’s reliability do such texts offer?

Records That Have Lasted

Scholars believe that initially the system of writing used in Mesopotamia was pictographic, with a symbol or picture representing a word or an idea. For example, the sign for an ox originally looked like the head of an ox. As the need for record-keeping increased, cuneiform writing was developed. “Signs could now represent not only words but also syllables, several of which could be combined to represent the syllables of a word,” explains the NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Eventually, some 200 different signs allowed cuneiform “to truly represent speech, with all of its complexities of vocabulary and grammar.”

By the time of Abraham, about 2,000 B.C.E., cuneiform was well-developed. In the course of the next 20 centuries, some 15 languages adopted the script. More than 99 percent of cuneiform texts that have been found were written on clay tablets. Over the last 150 years, vast numbers of such tablets have been found in Ur, Uruk, Babylon, Nimrud, Nippur, Ashur, Nineveh, Mari, Ebla, Ugarit, and Amarna. Archaeology Odyssey states: “Experts estimate that somewhere between one and two million cuneiform tablets have already been excavated, and another 25,000 or so are found every year.”

Cuneiform scholars worldwide have the massive task of translation. According to one estimate, “only about 1/10 of the extant cuneiform texts have been read even once in modern times.”

The discovery of bilingual and trilingual texts in cuneiform writing was the key to deciphering cuneiform. Scholars discerned that these documents contained the same text in different languages, all written in cuneiform script. What assisted the deciphering process was the realization that names, titles, genealogies of rulers, and even expressions of self-praise were often repeated.

By the 1850’s, scholars could read the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East, Akkadian, or Assyro-Babylonian, in cuneiform. The Encyclopædia Britannica explains: “Once Akkadian had been deciphered, the very core of the system was intelligible, and the prototype was provided for the interpretation of other languages in cuneiform.” How do these writings relate to the Scriptures?

 The Testimony That Agrees With the Bible

The Bible states that Jerusalem was ruled by Canaanite kings until David conquered it, about 1070 B.C.E. (Josh. 10:1; 2 Sam. 5:4-9) But some scholars doubted this. However, in 1887 a peasant woman found a clay tablet at Amarna, Egypt. Some 380 texts eventually found there turned out to be diplomatic correspondence between rulers of Egypt (Amenhotep III and Akhenaton) and Canaanite kingdoms. Six letters were from ‘Abdi-Heba, the ruler of Jerusalem.

Biblical Archaeology Review states: “The Amarna tablets’ clear references to Jerusalem as a town, not an estate, and to ‘Abdi-Heba’s position as a . . . governor who had a residence and 50 Egyptian soldiers garrisoned in Jerusalem, suggest that Jerusalem was a small hill-country kingdom.” The same journal later said: “We may be confident, based on the Amarna letters, that a city, significant for its time, existed then.”

Names in Assyrian and Babylonian Records

The Assyrians, and later the Babylonians, wrote their history on clay tablets, as well as on cylinders, prisms, and monuments. So when scholars deciphered Akkadian cuneiform, they found that texts mentioned people also named in the Bible.

Says the book The Bible in the British Museum: “In his address in 1870 to the newly formed Society of Biblical Archaeology Dr Samuel Birch was able to identify [in cuneiform texts the names of] the Hebrew kings Omri, Ahab, Jehu, Azariah . . . , Menahem, Pekah, Hoshea, Hezekiah and Manasseh, the Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser . . . [III], Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, . . . and the Syrians Benhadad, Hazael and Rezin.”

The book The Bible and Radiocarbon Dating compares the Bible’s history of Israel and Judah with ancient cuneiform texts. The result? “Altogether, 15 or 16 kings of Judah and Israel appear, in foreign sources, in complete agreement with their names and times in [the Bible book of] Kings. Not a single king is out of place, nor do foreign sources name one unknown to us in Kings.”

One famous cuneiform inscription found in 1879, the Cyrus Cylinder, records that after taking Babylon in 539 B.C.E., Cyrus applied his policy of returning captives to their homelands. Among those to benefit were the Jews. (Ezra 1:1-4) Many 19th-century scholars had questioned the authenticity of the decree quoted in the Bible. However, cuneiform documents from the Persian period, including the Cyrus Cylinder, provide convincing evidence that the Bible record is accurate.

In 1883 an archive of over 700 cuneiform texts was found in Nippur, near Babylon. Among the 2,500 names mentioned, about 70 can be identified as Jewish. They appear, says historian Edwin Yamauchi, “as contracting parties, agents, witnesses, collectors of taxes, and royal officials.” The evidence that Jews continued to conduct such activities close to Babylon in this period is significant. It corroborates the Bible’s prophetic statement that while a “remnant” of Israelites returned to Judea from exile in Assyria and Babylon, many did not.​—Isa. 10:21, 22.

During the first millennium B.C.E., cuneiform existed side by side with alphabetic writing. But the Assyrians and Babylonians eventually abandoned cuneiform in favor of alphabetic script.

Hundreds of thousands of tablets stored in museums remain to be studied. Those that experts have already deciphered furnish eloquent testimony to the dependability of the Bible. Who knows what additional testimony the unstudied texts may still yield?

[Picture Credit Line on page 21]

Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum