Hebrew Voices #14 – The Name Yeshua in Ancient Babylon (Rebroadcast)

In this episode of Hebrew VoicesThe Name Yeshua in Ancient Babylon, Nehemia Gordon heads to Mt. Scopus for a chat with Dr. Uri Gabbay, a professor at The Hebrew University. Their dialog concerns the history, languages and cultures of ancient Mesopotamia and culminates in a newly discovered cuneiform tablet bearing the name of a Judean exile by the name of Yeshua.

Their dialog yields rich insight into the multilingual society that birthed the world’s first written language. Ancient Mesopotamians spoke to their kids in Aramaic and later in Greek, but they sang prayers in Sumerian and their legal affairs were recorded by scribes in Akkadian—which, like English today, served as an international language.

Before parsing the spelling of Yeshua in Akkadian, Gabbay begins with the basics: why the writing system is called cuneiform, why the Tigris and Euphrates valley provided the perfect medium for writing, and why most of the hundreds of thousands of extant cuneiform tablets are not great literary works (think Epic of Gilgamesh) but rather financial transactions or legal documents from ordinary lives.

“Ordinary” lives such as “Yeshua’s”—a Judean man living in Babylon past the time when most exiles had returned, and who shared an inheritance with four brothers in the autumn of 504 BCE. While Mesopotamian scribes had very standard spellings for Akkadian names, the Yeshua tablet provides case-in-point for how they dealt with a foreign theophoric name such as Yeshua’s that contained sounds the Akkadian language had no letters for. Tune in to learn more about the complex connections between languages and some of the interesting things that happen when cultures collide.

I look forward to reading your comments!

Download The Name Yeshua in Ancient Babylon


Hebrew Voices #14 - The Name Yeshua in Ancient Babylon

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Benjamin Netanyahu: Le ma’an Zion lo ekhesheh, u’l’ma’an Yerushalayim lo eshkot. (For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest. Isaiah 62:1)

Nehemia: Shalom, this is Nehemia Gordon with Hebrew Voices, and I’m here at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Mount Scopus campus, and I am speaking with Dr. Uri Gabbay, who has a PhD in Assyriology. Shalom, Uri.

Uri: Shalom.

Nehemia: Uri, what is Assyriology?

Uri: Assyriology is the study of ancient Mesopotamia, usually from about 3,000 BC to about the 1st century AD, and basically it deals with reading cuneiform tablets in Sumarian and Akkadian.

Nehemia: Wow. That’s a lot of stuff. So Mesopotamia, which today is southern Iraq, or part of Iraq?

Uri: Southern and also northern Iraq.

Nehemia: Okay, Iraq. What is cuneiform, for those who don’t know?

Uri: Cuneiform is a writing system unlike the alphabet we use today. What you have in Mesopotamia is clay. That’s the basic substance which you have in the ground, is clay, because you have the two rivers over there, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and you have the clay right near them.

You take clay, you take a reed, and you press the reed on the clay, and then you get a shape which looks like a wedge. The word “cuneiform” comes from the Latin word for wedge. It’s wedge-like writing.

Nehemia: Wedge-like writing, okay. This is pretty difficult to read. If you pick up a medieval manuscript of let’s say, the Hebrew Bible, assuming the photograph is good you could read it very easily. This, you have to decipher. You have to study it and decipher it, am I right about that?

Uri: Yeah, you’re right.

Nehemia: So this Assyrian language that you mentioned - I don’t know if you mentioned it - but Assyriology is the study of Assyria, and we were talking before the interview, you mentioned that it’s a misnomer. How is it a misnomer?

Uri: It should have been called “Babyolonogy”, or something.

Nehemia: [laughing] Babylonology, I like that.

Uri: But that was too difficult to pronounce. Actually, in the 19th century, when the first excavations were done in Mesopotamia, they were in the north of Mesopotamia near the city of Mosul today, that’s where you hear about all the ISIS thing…

Nehemia: Is that currently under ISIS rule today, while we’re recording this.

Uri: Yes, yes.

Nehemia: Hopefully, by the time you hear this, it’ll will have been liberated or conquered by somebody else, anyway.

Uri: Like, we just saw pictures not long ago, a few months ago, of the ISIS people ruining stuff in the city of Nimrud, which is the ancient Biblical city, Calah, which one of the capitals of the Assyrian Empire. Another capital was Ninveh, and that’s where the first excavations in the 19th century were done by the French and the British. These are the tablets which you will see today in Paris in the Louvre Museum and in the British Museum in London.

Since that was Assyria in ancient times, that gave the name to the whole discipline, although much of the texts are actually from South Mesopotamia, which is Babylonia.

Nehemia: So a lot of the texts you read are Babylonian? You mentioned many of the texts that you read are Sumerian. What is Sumerian? I think some of my listeners might be thinking, “Oh, that’s the Samaritans, or Samaria?”

Uri: That has nothing to do with it.

Nehemia: Okay. What is it?

Uri: There are two basic languages, Akkadian, which is Semitic language, and the earlier language in Mesopotamia known especially from the 3rd millennium BC is Sumerian. Sumerian is a language which till today, there is no relative language that was found. It’s an isolated language. But what’s interesting about it is that we do have texts also in Sumerian, 2,000 years after it died, because it was the liturgical and scholarly language of the Akkadian speakers, just like Latin was the liturgical and scholarly language till not long ago.

Nehemia: So you have people who are speaking Akkadian, which is a Semitic language – in other words, Akkadian is a sister language of Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic.

Uri: A cousin. [laughing]

Nehemia: A cousin, okay. I accept that, cousin. In other words, it has many, many common words and common grammatical forms. Off the top of your head, if this word in Akkadian… like the word for dog…

Uri: Right, would be “kalbu,” like “kelev.”

Nehemia: Kalbu, okay. Hebrew, we have kelev. In Arabic we have “kalb”. In Arabic we have “kalav”, and in Akkadian we have “kalbu”. So it’s the same family of languages, a cousin, you say, and the grammatical forms are shared in common. This is why I’m interested in this personally, because if you’re studying the Bible and the ancient Hebrew language, so Akkadian… Often, I’ll look up in the Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary or the HALOT, the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Guys, if you want to study Biblical Hebrew, please don’t use the Strong’s Concordance Dictionary. That’s not a scientific, scholarly dictionary. BDB and HALOT, those are really the two scholarly dictionaries. There will often be a word in Hebrew they don’t know, and they’ll reference some word in Akkadian, sometimes Arabic and Ugaritic. But they’ll often reference an Akkadian word because it’s a related language, and that’s why I’m interested in it.

Uri: It’s not only related, it’s contemporary.

Nehemia: Ah, okay, explain what you mean by that.

Uri: That was the language which was spoken in Mesopotamia during the time the Bible was written, or the stories in the Bible occurred. Not only was it just one place, Mesopotamia, a faraway place. Babylon was the New York of the ancient world.

Nehemia: [laughing] That was controversial, but move on, move on. In other words, you mean it was like the megacity in a sense…

Uri: Mesopotamia was the big culture which influenced other cultures. The Hebrew culture didn’t influence Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia influenced the Hebrew culture over here, because also politically, much of the time it was under Assyrian rule, under Babylonian rule. And even if it was not under political rule, it was under cultural influence. That’s why we have so many Akkadian words which entered Hebrew.

Nehemia: Can you give us some examples of that?

Uri: Off my head, the word “saris”, the word for eunuch, is an Akkadian word.

Nehemia: When I read that in Hebrew, I immediately recognize that as, “That doesn’t sound like a Hebrew word.” What it is in Akkadian?

Uri: It comes from the word “shareshi”, he who…

Nehemia: By the way, saris is usually translated as “eunuch”. For example, in Isaiah 56 we have the promise to the gentile and we have the promise to the eunuch, and the word there is “saris”, this Akkadian word which appears in Hebrew.

Uri: Which means, “he of the head” or “he of the king”. It means “very high-ranked servant”. But in the Assyrian empire, a lot of these servants were castrated.

Nehemia: Hence the word “eunuch”. But not necessarily. In other words, does the word “saris” in the Akkadian original automatically imply he was castrated?

Nehemia: Not necessarily. There’s a lot of controversy about this. Some people say all sharishu in Akkadian were eunuchs. Others say no. In Hebrew it entered usually as a eunuch.

Nehemia: And that makes sense why - without going into detail - in Isaiah 56 it talks about the saris, the eunuch, being a dry tree, he can’t have children. Wow, so there’s an example of an Akkadian word, and that makes a lot of sense because that’s from the Babylonian/Assyrian administration.

Uri: I’ll give you another example. “Heichal”. Heichal is a word in Hebrew, usually for a big structure, either the Temple or a palace. That actually is, in Akkadian, a loan word from Sumerian. This is an originally Sumerian word…

Nehemia: Wow! Which is not a Semitic language.

Uri: It’s not a Semitic language.

Nehemia: And the reason Sumerian is important, you were telling me before, is that the writing system of Akkadian isn’t a native writing system. It came from Sumerian, perhaps the way that the Japanese writing system came from Chinese.

Uri: Exactly. That’s a very good analogy. Cuneiform writing is the first writing in the world, even before the Egyptian hieroglyphs. At the end of the 4th millennium BC, let’s say 3200 BC, we already have cuneiform. We assume that it’s Sumerian. It’s still difficult to say which language it is, but the next step we can already identify it’s Sumerian. Some people say it is, some people say it isn’t. So Sumerian is probably the first language to be written in the world, and this system was then used by the Akkadian speakers.

Nehemia: You were mentioning before the interview that it doesn’t always fit with the Akkadian writing system, meaning with the Akkadian language. Can you give us some examples? In other words, they were using an imperfect system, and here’s the example that comes to mind for me. I grew up as a Jew in America, and I said very easily the word “Chanukah” with a Chet. But when I come to write Chanukah in English, I don’t have a Chet. So I can write Hanukkah or Chanukah. There is no Chet symbol in English.

You’re saying basically, when the Akkadians adopted an entire writing system from the Sumerians, it didn’t have all these symbols, and you were mentioning specifically there’s no “ha” sound, there’s no Hey. Is that right?

Uri: There’s no sign for Hey and Akkadian in the beginning may have had Hey, but the language itself, set aside from script, probably lost the Hey too and the Ayin and the Chet, which are very common Semitic consonants, because it wasn’t such a close contact to Sumerian, which does not have these gutturals. It does not have these consonants which you produce from your throat.

Nehemia: Right. So in Akkadian, when you use the Sumarian writing system, you wanted to write Hey or an Ayin, and you wrote it as…

Uri: As a Chet.

Nehemia: As a Chet, wow.

Uri: Let’s say King Hammurabi, which a lot of people know…

Nehemia: Like Hammurabi’s Code.

Uri: His name was probably Ammurabi, but there was no way of writing the Ayin, and then they used the Chet, that was the closest thing that it sounded to them.

Nehemia: Okay, very interesting. So this is a language that’s dead today, right? And it’s dead in a way that Hebrew was never really dead, meaning that there were centuries, maybe more than 1,000 years, where Hebrew wasn’t spoken as a native language, but there were always people who could read Hebrew, and probably always people, at least the scholars, could speak some form of Hebrew, and this is a language that was completely dead.

Uri: Yeah, not only was it dead, it was lost. No one knew about it until the 19th century, when the excavations…

Nehemia: Tell us about how it was discovered.

Uri: Tablets were found, but no one knew how to read them. Then there was this big stone inscription in Iran, a stone inscription of Darius The Great, the King of the Persian Empire.

Nehemia: He’s a king that’s mentioned in the Book of Daniel…

Uri: Right.

Nehemia: …as Daryavesh.

Uri: Daryavesh, right. Darius. He had an inscription written on the side of a mountain, a very big inscription written in three languages – Akkadian, Persian, and Elamite. The problem is, they were all written in cuneiform. What do you do with that? You need to be a very smart guy in order to decipher that, and the guy who deciphered it, his name was Sir Henry Rawlinson in the 19th century, worked on it for about 20 years - I won’t go into all of the details of the story, you can read about it - and was able to decipher the sounds of Akkadian.

When I’m saying the sounds, when we talk about Akkadian, we are very close to what it sounded like, and I will even take a risk and say, we know Akkadian better than we know Biblical Hebrew…

Nehemia: Wow, that’s a bold statement.

Uri: …because we had much more documentation than the Bible, which is only one book. Here, you have hundreds of thousands, if not more, of cuneiform tablets from different periods and from different places, where you can trace different dialects and different genres, and you have much more evidence that scholars worked with. We understand Akkadian, I would say, better than we understand Biblical Hebrew.

Nehemia: We understand it, but even when it comes to pronunciation, you’re saying?

Uri: I would say we know how to pronounce it better than Hebrew. [laughing]

Nehemia: Wow. That’s a bold statement. This isn’t the topic for today, but the way we know how to pronounce Hebrew, as I mentioned, it was never lost, and for example, if you went to every Jewish community in the 1900s and everybody pronounced the letter Mem as a “muh”, then there was no question that – or maybe there was a question – but to the best of what you knew, it was a “muh”. What was our basis for understanding the pronunciation?

You had mentioned that the Behistun Inscription… When you have the Rosetta Stone… So the Rosetta Stone was written in hieroglyphics, which was ancient Egyptian, demotic, which was ancient Egyptian script, and ancient Greek. We knew how to pronounce ancient Greek. Even that, how do we know how to pronounce from people who continued the Greek tradition? How do we know how to pronounce ancient Persian? And the reason I say ancient Persian is that was the key to getting into the Akkadian, right?

Uri: Right. First of all, there were already a few simple and very short Persian inscriptions which were written tri-lingually in different languages. Some of them, let’s say hieroglyphics, which were already deciphered, names and titles of kings. So that was already the first key. The second thing is, the ancient Persian of the Achaemenid kings, the kings of the Persian Empire from the time of Cyrus in 539 BC, for about 200 years, they spoke a dialect which was very close to the dialect which is still consistent, the sacred books of the Zoroastrians till today.

The Zoroastrians have very sacred books which they call “The Avesta”, which is what Zoroaster, the prophet of that religion…

Nehemia: So this was a religion that was founded by this guy, possibly Zoroaster, some time when, approximately?

Uri: I think there are a lot of different…

Nehemia: It’s a lot of debate, okay.

Uri: …but sometime between 1000 BC and 500 BC. And already in the Achaemenid Kings’ inscriptions, we see some of the names, let’s say, Ahura Mazda, which is the great king, is mentioned…

Nehemia: That’s the main god of…

Uri: That’s the main god of the Zoroastrians is also mentioned by Cyrus, for example, or Darius.

Nehemia: Okay. But maybe it was Achuru Mazda. We don’t really know.

Uri: They write Achuru Mazda…

Nehemia: They do? Okay.

Uri: …because they don’t have the Hey. But that was another key for understanding, since you have a dialect which is close to it, and you know the roots of the words. From that, they went to the Akkadian.

Now, Akkadian too is a Semitic language, and here Hebrew and Aramaic and Arabic helped us, or the people who deciphered the language. Of course, there was much comparative linguistics invested into it. That’s why it took long, but at the end there are enough keys that show us that the decipherment is correct.

Nehemia: This isn’t to argue, but ultimately if you’re saying we are basing the Akkadian on the ancient Persian, which is based on the Avestan, how do we know how to pronounce the Avestan? Because somebody today can read it, right?

Uri: Right. There’s a tradition, there’s a living tradition.

Nehemia: Ah – so we’re still basing it on a living linguistic tradition, meaning we’re also doing that with Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic to some extent. Wow. Now, I went yesterday to the Bible Lands Museum, and they have the special exhibit which is really cool, because it describes the Jews being taken as prisoners to Babylon, and what they have on display and the exhibit are documents written by and about the Jews when they were in Babylon. They make a big issue there of the personal names, and we were talking about this beforehand, and I’m going to post this photo up on the website, nehemiaswall.com. It’s a photo that I took at the Bible Lands Museum, of different names that they had in the time of the Babylonian exile, and how they were written – that is Hebrew Jewish names, Israelite names – how they were written in the Akkadian system. Can we talk about some of these names?

Uri: Yes, sure. First of all, these documents were only known in the past 10 years or so. We didn’t know about these documents. They were from illegal excavations done in Iraq.

Nehemia: Allegedly. [laughing] There’s no evidence of that.

Uri: …and brought to the West, and now they’re on a long-term loan in the Bible Lands Museum. What was found is a city called “the City of Judeans, Al Yahudu or Al Yakhudu” in Akkadian, because they don’t have the Hey.

Nehemia: And does “al” in Akkadian mean “the”?

Uri: It’s city. No, no, city.

Nehemia: Oh, city, okay.

Uri: Not like Arabic.

Nehemia: Oh, so it’s not the right word for it.

Uri: Al in Akkadian is the City of the Judeans.

Nehemia: The City of Judeans. This was the place in…

Uri: In Babylonia.

Nehemia: In Babylonia.

Uri: In Babylonia, south to the city of Babylonia, the city of Nippur, probably. It’s not from legal excavation, so we only have evidence…

Nehemia: And just to be clear, you don’t know... Normally, when you have a document like this you can say, “It came from Tel Hazor, bucket number 5321, on such-and-such a date,” and here, these just show up on the antiquities market, and the assumption is they were probably maybe pillaged after Saddam Hussein fell…

Uri: Exactly.

Nehemia: …or we don’t know. And there are some international laws because of that, nobody can say for sure where they came from. Is that right?

Uri: According to the names of the cities mentioned over here, and how long it takes them to get to those cities, we can approximately locate the city. So we know it was east of the city of Nippur, but we don’t know exactly which plot it was.

Now, these are very regular documents of everyday life. But what’s very interesting over here is that many of the names have the element “Yahu” in them.

Nehemia: Aha! Now we’re interested. Everyone, slow down on the treadmill and pay attention.

Uri: Yahu is, of course, a rendering of the name of the Biblical God.

Nehemia: I should tell the listeners that you’re a scholar with a PhD, but I see you wear a kippa, and so you’re not comfortable actually saying God’s Holy name, is that…?

Uri: Right.

Nehemia: That’s fine, we respect that.

Uri: It’s written with the letters Yud-Hey-Vav and Hey. There are different traditions of how to pronounce it. But we see the pronunciation in names like Yehoshua. The yeho or yo’ash, yeho’ash, or yo’ash, this yeho, yo is probably close to the original pronunciation of the Biblical God, the name of the Biblical God.

And of course, it’s common in personal names, because personal names in the ancient world are usually small sentences, that God so-and-so gave me life.

Nehemia: It’s like the name “Netanyahu”.

Uri: Netanyahu - that God gave. Natan, he gave, and…

Nehemia: Yud-Hey-Vav.

Uri: …yud-hey-Vav. So, God gave, the Biblical God gave. So that is the type of names we expect that Judeans have. And no other people will give their son a name with the element yehu, because no one else believes in this yehu. So when you find a name which has yehu, yahu, or yo in it, you know for sure it’s a Judean – I’m not going to say Jew yet – but it’s Judean.

Nehemia: There was one tablet, these are little tiny clay tablets they had on display – and I’m looking here at the book that I got, it’s called By the Rivers of Babylon, it shows the Exhibition. Here, it has an Akkadian cuneiform tablet, and on the side it says in very clear Paleo-Hebrew, “shelemya”, which is a Paleo-Hebrew name. So here there’s no question we’re dealing with a Judean or possibly somebody from the ten tribes – and you could argue both ways – but it definitely is Israelite, because it’s Paleo-Hebrew, and it has the ya element.

So we’re looking here at this tablet, and it has names… like, there’s the name Refahayu, which means Yud-Hey-Vav – I’ll say Hashem for this interview – so, “Hashem healed”, and they write it as Refayama, in the transcription. Talk about that. As we say in Hebrew, “ma pitom?” How it is it that you have yama where it should be yahu?

Uri: Remember that Akkadian has no Hey.

Nehemia: Ah, okay! [laughing]

Uri: It has no H. So you can’t pronounce it. So you have different ways of rendering this H. If the Hey is pronounced, let’s say in Ye-ho-ash, or stuff like that, you will usually write it with the cuneiform sign which has “kh” in it. So names beginning with yeho, and since there’s no O in Akkadian, will be written yakhu. But if you only hear yao, you will usually use the sign ma in Akkadian, which in this period which is the beginning of the Persian period and end of the Neo-Babylonian periods – we’re talking about the 6th century BC…

Nehemia: So, the 500s BC.

Uri: … also has the value wah, okay? And wah and mah are interchangeable.

Nehemia: Explain that for those who don’t know languages.

Uri: If you look at your lips when you pronounce it, or you feel your lips, you’ll see that both wah and mah are pronounced in your lips. The only difference is that when you pronounce wah you let some air out. When you pronounce mah, you don’t let air out. That’s the whole difference between the two consonants, which we usually don’t just associate with each other, but linguistically they’re very close consonants.

Nehemia: In other words, when it said “Refayahu” in Hebrew, and they wrote “Refayama”, maybe it was pronounced Refayawa.

Uri: Or Refayau.

Nehemia: Refayau?

Uri: But they have to have the vowel at the end. I would say it was pronounced “Refayau”.

Nehemia: Okay, meaning that was the dialect of Hebrew that was spoken by these Judean exiles?

Uri: The Judeans, yeah.

Nehemia: Wow. So we have this name, and we talked about this before - one of the names here, of one of the people, his name is Yehoshua, which is Joshua, and certainly my Christian listeners will be interested in this, because they’ve got the name Jesus, which comes from Yeshua, which is Yehoshua, right?

Uri: Right.

Nehemia: So we have this name Yehoshua, Joshua, in this tablet. How is it written?

Uri: It’s written yakhu-u-shu-u.

Nehemia: Okay. Wow. Do we know how they pronounced that in Hebrew? We don’t, basically.

Uri: Yahushua, I would say. There’s no Ayin, which is the last consonant.

Nehemia: There’s no Hey and there’s no Ayin, which are two of the letters in Yehoshua that are lost in the Akkadian language.

Uri: In addition, it’s a lot of… The yahu, the vowels and the consonants are very blurry within it.

Nehemia: Woah, woah, let’s slow down on that. The vowels are blurry. Did they have an O sound in Akkadian?

Uri: No, no.

Nehemia: If there was a name with an O…?

Uri: They would usually render with an oo.

Nehemia: So, whenever I see an oo in Akkadian, I don’t know if it’s an oo or an O?

Uri: Right. You also have to remember that the scribes in Mesopotamia had a very thorough training. And we know about this training since they wrote on tablets and the tablets were preserved. These tablets were found, so we know what the scribal training in Mesopotamia consisted of. And we know that part of the scribal training is learning how to write personal names.

There’s a limited number of personal names, like in any language, and they know exactly how to write it. That’s part of their training. So for Akkadian names they have no question how to write it down…

Nehemia: It was a standard spelling.

Uri: Very standard. Very standard. There were hardly any variants. There were hardly any variants. But when they hear a foreign name, sometimes they simply say, “Okay, what’s your name? I’m writing here the document for you. What’s your name?” He says the name. He doesn’t even understand what’s going on, so there’s a lot of variation in the writing of these names, because they write simply what they hear. It’s not part of their scribal training. So this guy could have said, “Yehoshua”, and he heard “Yaushua”. It’s simply ad hoc.

Nehemia: Explain “ad hoc”. That’s a Latin term.

Uri: It means, it’s simply what…

Nehemia: What you’re doing at the moment.

Uri: …what you’re doing at the moment.

Nehemia: I don’t know if you know this, but I was an English teacher in China for a year. I did this exercise – it’s a very common exercise – where I read a text to my students and had them write out what they heard. The words are so foreign to them, I read them Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “We don’t need…” How does that go?

Uri: “We don’t need no education.”

Nehemia: “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control.” Many of them wrote, “We don’t need no fart control. We don’t need no fat country.” It made me think of this. Maybe he said, “Yehoshua,” and the Akkadian scribe, what he heard was, “Yakhu-u-shu-u.”

Uri: Right.

Nehemia: We don’t really know. So in a sense, can you really take these and reconstruct the Hebrew that was spoken 2,500 years ago?

Uri: I wouldn’t take this to reconstruct the Hebrew. You can see even with the name of Jesus, which is Yeshua, that something happened to that Hey, right? You had different dialects.

Nehemia: That’s in Hebrew.

Uri: In Hebrew, okay.

Nehemia: The Hey drops.

Uri: Okay, these exiles may have come from different parts of Judea, so maybe some of them pronounced it a bit differently. I wouldn’t use this to reconstruct the Hebrew. But I think it is very clear that when you see a yama or a yakhu, you’re talking about yahu or ya’u. So I over here would say this is certainly a way of rendering the divine name in cuneiform writing.

Nehemia: In other words, Yehoshua could have been Yaoshua, is what you’re saying? But it also could have been Yahushua.

Uri: Or Yoshua.

Nehemia: Or Yoshua. Oh, so it could have even been Yoshua? And they still could have written it potentially the same way? So this can’t be the primary source of deciphering, I guess?

Uri: No, but it’s the first time we meet these Judeans right after they were exiled.

Nehemia: This is exciting, because we’re definitely dealing here with what we call “theophoric names”, meaning names that have the name of a god, and specifically the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and that’s pretty cool. So talk about this name.

Uri: Yeah, that’s very interesting, because it shows that still the scribe – I’m going to explain in a second – knew that when he heard Yehoshua, the first element is the name of a God. How did he know it? Because in the cuneiform writing system, there is what we call a “determinative”, which is a sign that stands before something else but is not pronounced.

So before every name of a god they will have a sign which was originally a star, because the gods are in the sky. Over here, what’s interesting is before the name Yehoshua, or a different name over here which begins with yakhu, with yehu, we have this determinative, which means that the scribe understood that all these names here, with yahu, yau, this is a god. He understood, even not…

Nehemia: Not the person he’s talking to is a god, but there’s a god element within the person’s name?

Uri: Yeah.

Nehemia: Wow! And there’s a special symbol there that you called a determinative, which isn’t pronounced, that indicates that the…

Uri: It’s not pronounced. It’s only…

Nehemia: This yahu part…

Uri: …on the level of script.

Nehemia: When you read it, you realize, this man whose name is Netanyahu, that the yahu part is the God part.

Uri: Sure, yeah.

Nehemia: Oh wow, that’s pretty cool. We could probably talk for hours about these names. Tell us some other stuff. What are these documents that you find? What’s the typical document that you’ll be reading in Assyrian? I think what probably trickles down to the public is really exciting things, like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Is that the typical thing that you…?

Uri: It’s not the typical. I deal more with literary and religious texts, but actually most of the texts we have are texts that belong to the daily life. Since these things were written on clay, they are preserved. From other cultures, also things were written, but they were not preserved. So most of what we have is what we call “legal or economic texts”, transactions between people. I sell you something, I need a document for that, so we write it down and that’s preserved.

We have rations for workers. A lot of administration is what’s preserved. So a lot of the Assyriologists actually deal with administration. Most of the documents we have are administrative, and when I’m talking about most, it’s hundreds of thousands.

Nehemia: Hundreds of thousands of texts.

Uri: But still, since it’s simply preserved, since we have so many tablets in the world, so also the small percentage of literary and religious text is much more than what we have from other cultures.

Nehemia: So tell us about some of the literary and religious texts you deal with.

Uri: I deal with prayers, most of the time, that were sung in the temples in Sumerian, even though some of the texts I deal with are from the 1st century BC.

Nehemia: Really, that late?

Uri: That late.

Nehemia: So there’s somebody in the 1st century who’s singing in this dead language. What language would they have spoken then?

Uri: Good question. Presumably, they spoke probably with their kids Aramaic or even Greek.

Nehemia: But they sang their prayers in the temple in Sumerian?

Uri: In Sumerian. And when they wrote to each other, they wrote in Akkadian. So this is a multi-lingual society.

Nehemia: Wow! So what does a prayer in a pagan temple in the 1st century BC sound like? [laughing] What are some of the elements that they talk about in there? Is it very similar to Jewish prayers?

Uri: Yes. The prayers I deal with – and it’s not all the prayers – are actually lamentations. They lament the destruction of other temples or the same temple in history. Very, very similar to the Book of Lamentations. I, and others too, would say that actually the Book of Lamentations in the Bible is influenced by this literary genre of liturgical lamentations.

Nehemia: Wow! How could that happen? In other words, whoever wrote Lamentations, whether it was Jeremiah or whoever, was he literate in Akkadian? Is that how this happened? How could such a thing happen?

Uri: That’s the big debate, and we have no answer for that.

Nehemia: What’s your answer?

Uri: My answer is complex. I don’t know what to tell you. I think some have been literate, but others, this is simply what we call a “cultural influence”. Israel is under the cultural influence, at least in some things, of America and of Western Europe. So when we wear clothes or when we watch a movie, even if a movie was done by an Israeli producer, what he has in his mind is how to make a movie in Hollywood. He uses that. So the influence is sometimes even unconscious. It’s simply this is the cultural load which you have on your shoulders, and then you use it.

Nehemia: That’s really interesting when you say movies, I have this friend from Hungary, and there’s a famous Hungarian movie that he absolutely loves, which is cows out in the field for eight hours. It’s an eight-hour movie. So there’s an example where he doesn’t have the Hollywood preconceptions of the movie is between 90 and 120 minutes, and there’s a story arc. What you’re saying is that somebody in ancient Israel could have made the eight-hour cow movie, but in the case of Lamentations they made the more common lamentations type of… this is how you lament the destruction of the Temple. Fascinating!

Uri: Right. Or they used it as a template and then put different content in it. But the structure is the Mesopotamian structure, the same similes you’ll find…

Nehemia: But you definitely have examples of small cultures influencing the big culture, and then it’s disseminated throughout the world from the big culture. I’ll give the example of Waze, which is an app that was made in Israel, and now you could be traveling around Pakistan using Waze, but it didn’t come from Israel, it comes from iTunes, which is based in California. [laughing] Meaning, even though it started in Israel…

Uri: Right. Culture is a complex...

Nehemia: You could have a small culture that gets to New York, or Silicon Valley, and then it disseminates around the world. So maybe you did have some Israelite culture influencing Babylonia, but by and large you’re saying this was a Babylonian culture that they were influenced by, an Akkadian culture, and I remember one of the things I studied back when I studied archaeology was the el-Amarna writings, which were in Egypt... Tell us about them.

Uri: If you have the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu. He wants to write a letter to the President of Egypt. Bibi Netanyahu speaks Hebrew. He writes in Hebrew script. The President of Egypt speaks Arabic, and he writes in Arabic script. But he’ll write the letter to him in English using the English script. That’s exactly what you have in el-Amarna. So you have the letters from rulers in Canaan, even…

Nehemia: Before the Israelites came.

Uri: Before. But even letters written in Jerusalem, where they spoke Canaanite, and they’re sent to the Pharaoh – that’s in the 14th century BC – who I’m sure spoke Egyptian, and wrote hieroglyphs, or had people writing hieroglyphs to him – but the letters are written in Akkadian, in cuneiform, because that’s the lingua franca. That’s the international language.

Nehemia: Well, this has been a fascinating discussion. Dr. Uri Gabbay of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, thank you so much. Wonderful, thank you so much. Shalom.

Uri: Thank you. Thank you.

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Show Notes:

Dr. Uri Gabbay teaches Sumerian, Akkadian, and the history and cultures of ancient Mesopotamia in the department of Archaeology and the Ancient Near East in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His research focuses mainly on the temple cult and liturgy of Babylonian temples in the second and first millennia BCE, as well as on the learned traditions of ancient Mesopotamian scholars.

The image above is of the "Yeshua Tablet" on display as part of the "By the Rivers of Babylon" exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. The tablet describes the division of inheritance between five brothers who were all Exiles from the Kingdom of Judah living in Babylonia, at a time when many Jews had already returned to the Land of Israel. The document is dated to the 7th of Tishrei, Year 16 of Darius, which corresponds to the Autumn of 504 BCE. The 4th line mentions a Judean Exile named Yeshua, written in Cuneiform as Ya-chu-u-shu-u. A close-up of the name Yeshua is presented below along with a character-by-character transcription.

The name Yeshua written in Akkadian as Ya-chu-u-shu-u on a tablet at the Bible Lands Museum.

A closeup of the name Yeshua written in Cuneiform as Ya-chu-u-shu-u on a tablet at the Bible Lands Museum.

The-Name-Yeshua-in-Ancient-Babylon-Transcription-1000pxDr. Gabbay explains the way the name Yehoshua/ Yeshua is written in Cuneiform on the tablet displayed at the Bible Land Museum:

A "scientific" transliteration is: m.dia-ḫu-ú-šu-ú
The "m" is a determinative for a personal name, i.e., an indication that what follows is a personal name. Then another determinative, indicated here by "d" precedes the divine name which is the first element in the name. The ḫ with the small curved line below it indicates the sound "ch", i.e., the way we pronounce the letter het in modern Hebrew, since Akkadian does not have the sound "h".

The Yeshua Tablet discussed in this episode is published in: Filip Vukosavović, By the Rivers of Babylon, Bible Lands Museum, 2015, page 114

Amazon-By-the-Rivers-of-BabylonBrown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon

Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament

Verses Mentioned:
Isaiah 56:3
Daniel 5:31

  • Sharon says:

    This is wrong
    first, is not written in hebrew but in old Akkadian

    Second: is not yachu- a
    But yahoshu because in Akkadian doesn’t exist the áyin ע

    The specialist in in Akkadian says that the jewish didn’t understand the Akkadian language but aramaic this is the reason why is found aramaic translations in the Akkadian tablets

  • Isaac Torres says:

    Thanks so much for your Time and research it’s a Gift for those like my self looking for Answers

  • Queruvim says:

    Hebrew is the most ancient alphabet and idiom. Douglas Petrovich has proved this already!

  • jehovajah says:

    Where do I begin!
    Firstly the mimation. Is it a part of speech like a dative or accusative or is it a diminutive plural? So ilu, plural ilui or ili, sometimes not clearly distinct from ilium,ilim.
    Maybe I have my answer but spell it out, please.

  • Very Interesting Nehemia Thank you for sharing this.

  • Janice says:

    At the beginning of your program; PM Netanyahu is speaking in Hebrew. Please tel us what is he saying.

  • Rita Bojorquez says:

    My heart keeps doing somersaults when I hear this info, Thank You. (I downloaded the Podcast and keep hearing it. I get the same reaction from the heart).

  • Karen Powell says:

    So this would explain why people say that Daniel was a eunach.But,he may not have actually been a physical eunach.Which leaves open he is a higher position,he could be a physical eunach or could be like Jeremiah he doesn’t have offspring because he is in captivity.Since YHVH does not make it as an issue to point it out.It’s left open. You can have a personal name or title.I don’t have a problem with it being Jesus/Yeshua. Because,would he be THE SEED,The Prophet. The son.Yah Saves and confirms his promise to mankind.

  • daniel says:

    Fascinating – and you never cease to amaze me with who you bring and what is discussed. The ‘Lamenting’ form of music or prayer being assimilated made me think of Jazz and how it migrated north – and then from the aftermath of two world wars had a huge influence on British rock, Rhythm and Blues and “Blue-eyed Soul”, all which turned around and influenced another generation of American musicians.

  • Ari'el says:

    So the name of Ha’Mashiach could be Yahushua, seeing the Akkadian had all names containing Elohims name beginning or ending as Yahu.

  • Mary Yeh says:

    I am in great awe at this very wonderful interview! Thank you, Nehemia, for exposing Strong ‘s. I will be searching the other titles you mentioned for my personal study of Biblical Hebrew and Akkadian to keep learning. Dr Uri is a fount of knowledge! Babylonology. I would love you to interview him again on the Judean names found on the cunniforms and their beautiful meaning of belonging to the Blessed One: YHVH. I listened to this program 5 times I loved it so much! It is permanent in my phone to hear over and over and over. I can’t thank you enough!

  • Roger Farrah says:

    Help me with the word Muthlabben in Psalm 9.

  • Janice says:

    Very interesting. To think people killed each other over they gods, maybe just didn’t understand each other language.

  • Erin Hunter says:

    I have to wonder is anyone else here’s that we have not truly been handed down the true interpretation or Scripture’s to date. It seems that too many diverse idea’s has come to us from a secret submission. Doesn’t anyone wonder why we do not hear the Almighty speak today???
    Something very strange is happening here on earth.
    Interested in others feedback too.

    I really want answers because I am definitely interested in getting facts.

    • MaryAnne says:

      Yes, I wonder! And know we are told “not to add or take away” but do we really think our adversary cares about rules?! He has definitely had his hand in the translations I believe. There is a certain amount that YH_H would not LET him mess with, but do I believe every word is from him… no (and I ask for forgiveness
      if I’m wrong).

    • JD says:

      He does speak to people still. I kept asking how one might I know the difference between His voice and The still Small voice that could be our own thoughts. One day I heard His voice loud and clear. It was a Warning That came to pass Within minutesYou will know if you hear his voice

  • MaryAnne says:

    I always learn so much from your discussions, and I appreciate you! Can you tell me where this painting above comes from, it’s very interesting, I’ve been studying old art because I think we can learn a lot from them too 🙂 I wonder what the scene is telling us, and it always fascinates me how artists paint baby Yeshua with blonde hair!

  • Elizabeth Mangin says:

    Hi Nehemia could you please tell me which are dictionaries for Biblical Hebrew


  • Shoshannah Congdon says:

    Fascinating! Thank you.

  • Rick Winkler says:

    Thank you, Nehemia. This broadcast is another gem.