Jews, Exile, and the Murashu Archive of Nippur

Jan 6, 2010 at 10:04 AM

In May of 1893, while clearing collapsed debris from a room overlooking the ancient ruins of Nippur, a group of Kaffej workmen made a startling discovery. Buried beneath the rubble they discovered a number of clay tablets.[1] The excavators quickly worked to clear the debris and within a few hours recovered a total of seven hundred and thirty tablets buried beneath layers of rubble.

The location had once been used as a business archive by the wealthy and influential Murashu family of Nippur who lived in the 5th Century B.C.E. – during the reigns of the Persian kings Artexerxes I and Darius II (coinciding with the Biblical account of Ezra and Nehemiah).

Although not commonly known about, the Murashu archive provides invaluable information for multiple areas of study, including the History of Ancient Finance and Commerce, Biblical Studies, Linguistics, Paleography, Onomastics, Archaeology, and more.

An Interesting Twist

The bulk of the inscriptions, aside from a usual cylinder seal impression here and there, are in Cuneiform - similar to other Near Eastern Archives. Yet many of the tablets bear a second inscription or endorsement - a paleo-form of Aramaic - a Semitic and alphabetic language that would eventually replace Cuneiform as the Lingua Franca of the ancient world.

The Paleography of the texts reveals the development of the Cuneiform script – becoming more simplified and abbreviated over time (degeneration).[2] With the simplification of the Cuneiform, we simultaneously witness the development of Aramaic.

Additionally, we see a large number of foreign names and titles introduced into the Babylonian sources. The bulk of “borrowed” words are Semitic in origin due to a growing number of West-Semitic peoples introduced to the Nippur Region.

Jewish Exiles and Biblically Influenced Names

According to Michael David Coogan:

Names [containing] –yaw do not occur in Neo-Babylonian sources before the [Israelite] Exile, and their increasing frequency in the late sixth and fifth centuries can reasonably be associated with the gradual emancipation and increased prosperity of Judean exiles in Mesopotamia.[3]

A large number of these Jewish exiles were carried away by Nebuchadnezzar and settled in the region of Nippur. In fact, an unusually large number of Jewish names known from the Hebrew Bible (especially from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), eventually find their way into Cuneiform texts and inscriptions, including the Murashu archive.

The prophet Ezekiel also mentions in multiple places “the community of the exiles by the Chebar Canal (for example, see Ezek. 1:1)”

These references suggest that the growing number of Jewish exiles began to hold positions of prestige, and conducted business like everyone else. Some references seem to support that a few Jews may even have amassed great wealth which would support the Biblical claim to large contributions of silver, gold and precious goods towards the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (see Ezra 1:5-6 and 2: 68-69).

Despite the distance of time and space, these clay tablets still speak of a story long forgotten. For within the Murashu archive is a wealth of knowledge. Despite their having been recovered now for over 100 years, much work is still to be done. Further study needs to be carried out on the texts, those that produced them, and their influence for us today. Indeed, William Goetzmann of Yale University was on to something when he connected the Murashu archive to that “of a modern mystery full of intrigue.”[4]




[1] H.V. Helprecht, The Babylonia Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. Series A: Cuneiform Texts, vol. ix, 1898. p 13.

[2] Hilprecht, Ibid. 16.

[3] Michael David Coogan. West Semitic Personal Names in the Murashu Documents, (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), 119.

[4] William N. Goetzmann. Financing Civilization, (Taken from a chapter excerpt posted online – http://viking.som.yale.edu/will/finciv/chapter1.htm#wall%20street) 11.

2 comments

  1. Fantastic. Thank you for highlighting this information. The minimalists have been getting too much attention with a negative portrayal of historical evidence for Biblical history.

    I will also keep the Murashu archive in mind as I get into Ezekiel studies.

    Derek Leman

  2. Rabbi Joshua Says:

    Derek,

    Thanks for stopping by. Indeed, the minimalists have been getting quite a bit of attention lately. However, there is also much that can be supported archaeologically.

    A professor of mine noted that the history of Israel is quite supported up to the divided monarachy. It is really there (around David and Solomon) that it starts to get a little more complicated. But, "complicated" does not = 'fiction.'

    That is why I also appreciate many of the blogs you have been posting lately which also look deeper into many of these ideas.