In this episode of Hebrew Voices, The 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.
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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.
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