Important breakthrough in Biblical archaeology

Existence of Babylonian official connected with the Fall of Jerusalem and mentioned in the book of Jeremiah confirmed in cuneiform tablet

Working at the British Museum, Assyriologist Michael Jursa has made a breakthrough discovery whilst examining a small clay tablet with a Babylonian cuneiform inscription. The document is dated to the 10th year of Nebuchadnezzar II (595 BC). It names a Babylonian officer, Nebo-Sarsekim, who according to chapter 39 of the Book of Jeremiah was present at the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC with Nebuchadnezzar himself. The tablet thus confirms the historical existence of the Biblical figure. Evidence from non-Biblical sources for individuals named in the Bible other than kings is incredibly rare.

Nebo-Sarsekim is described in the book of Jeremiah as ‘chief eunuch’ (as the title is now translated, rather than ‘chief officer’). 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.

The discovery highlights the importance of the study of cuneiform. The British Museum’s collection contains well over one hundred thousand inscribed tablets which are examined by international scholars on a daily basis.  Reading and piecing together fragments is painstaking and slow work, but cuneiform tablets are our only chance of obtaining knowledge of this fateful period of human history. Other discoveries made whilst examining tablets include an Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story, observations of Halley’s Comet and even rules for the world’s oldest board game.

Dr Jursa, Associate Professor of the University of Vienna, has been studying tablets at the British Museum since 1991. He says of this discovery:
“Reading Babylonian tablets is often laborious, but also very satisfying: there is so much new information yet to be discovered. 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.”

Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, commented: “Cuneiform tablets might all look the same, but sometimes they contain treasure.  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.’

For further information please contact Hannah Boulton on +44 (0)20 7323 8522 or
hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  • Cuneiform is the oldest form of writing known to us and was commonly used in the Middle East between 3,200 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. Each tablet is a unique window into the past and allows us a direct link to the people who lived during that period. 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
  • Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabu-kudurri-usur, 'O Nabu, protect the son') came to the throne in 604 BC, on the death of his father Nabopolassar. The Babylonians had conquered the Assyrian empire having allied themselves with the Iranian Medes. After his coronation in Babylon the new king campaigned in Syria for five months. In 601 BC Nebuchadnezzar marched to the Egyptian frontier. The Babylonian and Egyptian armies clashed and both sides suffered 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). Problems in this region persisted when Zedekiah, the Babylonian-appointed king of Judah, rebelled. As a result, in 587-6 BC Jerusalem was taken again and a large section of the population deported.