Saturday, July 14, 2007

It's the throwaway details that are important

The Telegraph provides one more:
The sound of unbridled joy seldom breaks the quiet of the British Museum's great Arched Room, which holds its collection of 130,000 Assyrian cuneiform tablets, dating back 5,000 years.

But Michael Jursa, a visiting professor from Vienna, let out such a cry last Thursday. He had made what has been called the most important find in Biblical archaeology for 100 years, a discovery that supports the view that the historical books of the Old Testament are based on fact.

Searching for Babylonian financial accounts among the tablets, Prof Jursa suddenly came across a name he half remembered - Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, described there in a hand 2,500 years old, as "the chief eunuch" of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.

Prof Jursa, an Assyriologist, checked the Old Testament and there in chapter 39 of the Book of Jeremiah, he found, spelled differently, the same name - Nebo-Sarsekim.

Nebo-Sarsekim, according to Jeremiah, was Nebuchadnezzar II's "chief officer" and was with him at the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC, when the Babylonians overran the city...

This is a fantastic discovery, a world-class find*," Dr Finkel said yesterday. "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."
Little discoveries do far more for our confidence in biblical historicity than big findings, and the reason for that is that the big things are well-known - and should be expected to be incorporated into any accounts of the period no matter their historical value. We don't use the Bible to prove the existence of Augustus or of Pharaohs or of Sardinia or Syria. We have plenty of proof of their existence outside the scriptures, and the fact that the scriptures mention them does not make them historical or accurate.

But when you find the things that no one knows (or that everyone believes to be otherwise) and it turns out that they match the small details, that is the where you can judge the true historical value of the document. If Jeremiah claimed he was personally captured by a Nebuchadnezzar's Captain of the Guard** and gave us the name, and we can prove the name existed when Jeremiah wrote and was probably lost shortly after***, that means that what Jeremiah was where he said he was and what we are reading is eyewitness testimony.

* Assuming that this discovery turns out to be valid, of course, and there's little reason to imagine it won't. There's nothing magical about finding the name of Nebuchadnezzar II's right-hand man.

** Young's Literal Translation makes his title "Chief Executioner." That had to make Jeremiah feel good.

*** The fact that it is nowhere else mentioned in literature (except 2Kings, where he is mentioned twice but which may be based on Jeremiah) attests to that, though I'm certain it'll turn up again in this pile - maybe many more times - now that it's been found once.

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