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The Schism Between Biblical and Mesopotamian Studies

“Some scholars of Mesopotamia sought to declare independence from biblical studies in the 1930s, insisting that Mesopotamia be studied on its own terms, even in isolation, but for most people the main interest of Mesopotamian religions lies in their historical interest and comparison with ancient Greece and the Bible.

Studies regularly appear on the Near Eastern background of Greek mythology and culture. Some, such as the work of Cyrus Gordon, are strongly critical of a perceived tendency of Classicists to assume that Greece stood alone in the eastern Mediterranean and was not significantly influenced by Near Eastern (or ‘Semitic’) peoples (Gordon 1965).

With respect to the Bible, the ‘contextual approach,’ advocated by scholars such as William W. Hallo, makes both comparisons and contrasts, recognizing the autonomy and interdependence of ancient Israel and Mesopotamia (Hallo 1997).

This steers a middle course between the extremism of the Pan-Babylonianists and of those who would build a fence around the Bible and claim that Israel was somehow exempt from the dynamic influences of Mesopotamia, the greatest cultural centre in Western Asia during the first millennium BCE.

No serious student of the Bible can ignore Mesopotamian civilization, but the religious experiences of both Mesopotamia and the Hebrews have to be understood in their own terms before they can be profitably compared or contrasted.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 209.

Semites vs. Sumerians

“Each new discovery of cuneiform tablets elicits a wave of publications asserting biblical ‘parallels,’ many of them uncertain and farfetched, even when a millennium or more may have elapsed between the tablets and the relevant portion of the Bible.

The biblical scholar M. Dahood, for example, saw parallels betwen the Bible and cuneiform tablets from Ebla in northern Syria, which date to approximately 1300 years before the kingdom of David. E. A. Speiser insisted that the ‘patriarchal age’ of the Bible was reflected in tablets from Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia (early fourteenth century BCE), although most of his analogies have been discarded in recent years.

The discovery of prophetic documents at Mari (eighteenth century BCE) attracted much discussion, as did comparison of ancient treaties with the biblical covenant.

A subtler interconnection between the worlds of the Hebrews and of the Babylonians was provided by what might be called ‘Pan-Semitism,’ the idea that the Semitic peoples had certain innate mental and emotional characteristics and limitations in common that conditioned their religious values.

A concise statement of this view, which is traceable, for example, to the works of the influential French thinker Ernest Renan, will be found in S. A. Cook’s contribution ‘The Semites, Temperament and Thought’ in the Cambridge Ancient History (1924), chapter V.

Cook held that Semitic thought was verbal rather than visual, emotional rather than systematic or speculative, and so could not have created such a grand astral system of beliefs as the Pan-Babylonianists had imagined underlay modern Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

To Pan-Semitists, Greece, with its alleged superior visual and speculative thought, albeit comparatively shallow religion, was as essential to understanding Christianity as was Judaism.

Scholars wrote of the ‘Hebrew’ and the ‘Greek’ element in Christianity and European culture. The Pan-Semitists bracketed Judaism, Islam and Babylonia as ‘Semitic’ in type, but not Christianity. This left the place of the Sumerians in the equation Babylonian = Semitic difficult to define.

The early twentieth-century historian Eduard Meyer, for example, therefore argued that the Semites were the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia and the Sumerians were later invaders, thereby maintaining the originally ‘Semitic’ character of Mesopotamian civilization.

In the period after World War I, some scholars tried to distinguish ‘Sumerian’ from ‘Semitic’ thought in Mesopotamian culture. Thus discussion of the relations between Babylonia and the Bible proceeded in an atmosphere charged with faith, scepticism and anti-Semitism.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 208-9.

Assyro-Babylonian Studies in Modern Context

“Mesopotamian religion has been of interest to biblical scholars since the discovery in 1872 by George Smith of a flood story in an Assyrian tablet. This proved that non-biblical ancient Near Eastern documents contained material directly pertinent to the Bible. To some thinkers, the uniqueness and integrity of the Bible could therefore no longer be maintained.

Leading philologists, especially in Germany, such as Hugo Winckler, Hermann Gunkel, Heinrich Zimmern and Friedrich Delitzsch, staked out different and sometimes contradictory positions in what became known as ‘Pan-Babylonianism’ or the ‘Astral-mythological’ school. The basic tenet of this group was that the civilization of Israel was essentially Babylonian in origin, including its religious ideas, such as monotheism.

Winckler, for example, argued that Joshua, Saul and David were actually Babylonian astral deities. Zimmern went on to suggest that Marduk was a forerunner of Jesus. Peter Jensen, a distinguished Assyriologist, argued that Abraham, Jesus and John the Baptist, for example, were borrowed from Babylonian mythology and that the Gilgamesh epic, to him a kind of astral saga, was the basis for the New Testament and the Koran.

Outside of Germany more moderate positions were taken, but still implying a strong cultural and religious dependency of Israel upon Babylonia. The extravagant claims of the Pan-Babylonianists eventually collapsed and are not taken seriously today.

A broader and more moderate view held that Babylonia was part of the ancient Near Eastern context of the Hebrew Bible (Lambert 1988). Committed Christian and Jewish scholars, for example, often put the Bible first, so to them ancient Near Eastern ‘parallels’ helped to clarify or even ‘prove’ the validity of the Bible because they were independent witness to biblical passages.

Mesopotamian studies, especially in the United States, became effectively an adjunct of biblical studies. In the period 1880–1940 the majority of leading American scholars in the discipline were Protestant clergymen, very much interested in possible biblical connections.

To some scholars, such as W. F. Albright, the ‘biblical world’ came to include the whole of the ancient Near East. There was therefore no need to separate Mesopotamian studies from biblical studies; they were aspects of the same agenda. In this spirit, Albright could entitle one of his most popular books From the Stone Age to Christianity (Albright 1940).

According to this, Mesopotamian religion was a ‘preparatio’ for the more profound religion of Israel, itself a preparation for Christianity. Today, because of the accumulation of new material, a panoramic grasp of the languages and civilizations of the ancient Near East such as Albright enjoyed is impossible to attain, but Albright’s fundamental approach remains influential, especially among conservative Christian scholars.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 207-8.

Specialization of the Priesthood

” … The growth of the temple organizations along the lines above set forth naturally resulted in a differentiation of priestly functions. Besides a number of general names for priest, such as sJiangu, enu, “votary” and ummdnu (expert), with gradations of rank as indicated by the title shangu makliTihu, “high priest”, we find over thirty classes of priests recorded in the material at our disposal.

The “exerciser” (mashmashu or dsMpu) is separated from the “diviner” (baru, literally “inspector”), and these two from the “singer” (zammeru), “anointer” (pashishu), and “musician” (Ualu, lallaru, naru, etc.) and from the “snake charmers” (mushlakhkhu) , who formed a class by themselves and perhaps had other functions than the name suggests. Each of these had numerous subdivisions such as “libationist” (ramku, nisakku), “anointer” (pashishu), [5] “dream interpreter” and “oracle” (sha’ilu) and others such as urigallu, and the abkallu, abarakUu, whose exact functions still escape us. [6]

Women also took a large part as priestesses of one kind or another in the temple service [7] as singers, “howlers” (chanting the lamentations), musicians, exercisers and furnishing oracles. We find also several classes of holy women leading a secluded life in special homes which would correspond to our cloisters and nunneries, and who were regarded as constituting in a measure the harem of the god to whose service they were dedicated.

Some of these were “sacred prostitutes”, and it is in connection with this class of priestesses that rites were practised in the temples which, while probably regarded as purely symbolical to promote fertility among mankind and in the animal world, were unmistakably obscene, or at least degenerated into obscene rites.

In addition to the purely religious duties in connection with the temple service, the priests were also the scribes, the judges and the teachers of the people all three functions following naturally from the religious point of view involved in writing, in legal decisions and in knowledge in general.

The tradition once established, the priests continued to act as the official scribes in the case of the thousands upon thousands of legal and commercial documents that have come down to us from all periods, though, to be sure, in later days we occasionally come across a scribe who does not appear to have been a temple official.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 272-3.

The Rise of the Priests

” … Corresponding to the growth of the temples, we find the organization of the cult extending its scope; and with this extension, the steadily increasing power and authority of the priests. In the small beginnings of the Euphratean cities, the priestly and secular functions no doubt rested in one and the same person.

The ruler of a city or district, as we have seen, [3] was regarded as the representative of the deity. As such he stood in a special relation to the deity, acting as a mediator between the latter and the people, while upon his good standing with the god, the general welfare of the people depended. On the very ancient monument of Ur-Nina [4] we find the ruler himself offering the libation to the god, though behind him stands an attendant who is probably a priest to assist in carrying out the rite.

As early, however, as the days of Gudea (c. 2450 B.C.) the ruler himself is led into the presence of the deity through the mediation of a priest. Gudea is so depicted on seal cylinders and other monuments, and presumably therefore the marked differentiation between priest and ruler thus illustrated was at the time an established custom of long standing.

The mediatorship may, indeed, be set down as the chief prerogative of the priest in Babylonia and Assyria. With this as a starting-point, his other functions as sacrificer, as exerciser, as inspector of the liver for the purpose of ascertaining the disposition of the deity, as astrologer and as diviner in general, interpreting birth-signs, dreams, and furnishing the answer as to the meaning of all kinds of occurrences that deviated from the normal or that in any way aroused attention, may be derived.

The people could proceed as far as the inner court of the temples, where an altar stood, but beyond that the priests alone could venture, and the rulers only if accompanied by a priest who as the privileged servitor of the deity had access to the divine presence.

Intercession is thus a distinguishing function of the priest, as a corollary to his role as mediator.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 271-2.

Temples of the Cults

” … We have already indicated, in connection with the discussion of the chief figures in the pantheon, the tendency to group around the cult of the patron deity of an important centre the worship of other gods, and we have seen that this tendency goes hand in hand with the political expansion of such a centre, but that the centre is apt to retain a considerable portion at least of its religious prestige even after the political decline has set in.

The force of tradition, playing so effective a part in religion everywhere, would help to maintain rituals and practices once established, even if the conditions giving rise to such rituals and practices no longer prevailed. Confining ourselves to the larger centres and to those best known to us, like Nippur, Lagash, Uruk, Ur, Kish, Eridu, Sippar, Babylon and Borsippa in the south, and Ashur, Calah and Nineveh in the north, we note the gradual extension of the area within which the main temple stood to become a more or less extensive sacred quarter.

So in Nippur E-kur, the name of Enlil’s sanctuary, becomes such a designation to include the temples and shrines erected to the numerous deities grouped around Enlil and brought into a relationship of subserviency to their master, as his sons, daughters, servants, body-guard, ministers and officials. Similarly in Babylon, E-sagila, as the name of Marduk’s temple, grows to be a spacious quarter with numerous sanctuaries, large and small, to Nabu, Ninmakh (or Ishtar), Shamash, Ea, Nergal, Ninib to name only the most important.

The general arrangement of these temples, as we shall have occasion to see in more detail in the chapter on the architecture and art, [1] was in all cases the same, following an ancient prototype which provided an outer and an inner court of almost parallel dimensions, with a corridor leading from the inner court to the innermost smaller chamber, reserved for the priests and the rulers and in which, enclosed in a niche, the image of the.deity in whose honor the temple was erected stood.

Grouped around the three divisions was a series of rooms, varying in number according to the size and importance of the edifice, for the accommodation of the priests and for the administration of the temple, while in the case of the largest centres, special buildings were erected as store-houses for the temple possessions, stables for the animals, and dwellings for the numerous attendants and officials incident to the growing complications of the larger temple organizations. A feature of the main temple in every centre that was never lacking was a stage-tower, consisting of from two to seven stories, and placed either behind or at the side of the temple proper.” [2]

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 269-70.

Divination and Dreams

“The three systems of divination which we have analyzed all entered directly into the religious life of the people and illustrate some of the religious practises which were maintained, like the incantation rituals, throughout all periods. The longing to pierce the unknown future, to pull aside the veil which separates us from a knowledge of coming events, is so strong in man as to have all the force of an innate quality an instinct of which he himself only gradually becomes fully conscious.

It plays an unusually prominent part in the religion of Babylonia and Assyria, indeed so prominent as to justify us in asserting that by the side of the ever present fear of the demons, the significance attached to omens was the most conspicuous outward manifestation of the religious spirit of the people taken as a whole.

This conclusion is strengthened by the knowledge that we now have of other forms of divination, such as pouring a few drops of oil into a basin of water, and according to the action of the oil in forming rings and bubbles that sink and rise and the directions in which they spread, conclusions were drawn of a more or less specific character, and suggested by a more or less artificial association of ideas with the action of the oil bearing either on public affairs or on private matters, according to the questions asked of the diviners, to which they were expected to give an answer. [1]

Within the other category of involuntary divination where the sign is obtruded on your notice, falls the importance attached to dreams, the interpretation of which formed in fact one of the most important functions of the Babylonian-Assyrian priests acting as diviners. References to dreams are frequent both in the older and later inscriptions of Babylonian and Assyrian rulers. [2]

A majestic figure reaching from earth to heaven appears to Ghidea in a dream ; it turns out to be the god Ningirsu. A female figure also rises up with a tablet and a stylus who is the goddess Nisaba.

The sun mounting up from the earth is explained to be the god of vegetation, Ningishzida. Various utensils and building material and an ass to carry burdens which the ruler sees in his dream leave no doubt as to the interpretation of the vision. It is the order to Gudea to build a temple according to the plan drawn on a tablet by a second male figure appearing to him, and who turns out to be the god Nin-dub. The interpretation is given to the ruler in this instance by the goddess Nina as whose son he designates himself.

Ordinarily, however, it is to a priest to whom rulers and people go to learn the meaning of dreams, in the belief that dreams are omens or signs sent by the gods as a means of indicating what is about to happen ; and even in Gudea’s case we may safely assume that the interpretation ascribed to the goddess directly was furnished to him through the mediation of the priests.

At the other end of Babylonian history, we find Nebuchadnezzar and a goddess appearing to Nabonnedos, the last king of Babylonia, in dreams to explain certain strange signs that had lately been reported. In the inscriptions of Ashurbanapal, the great king of Assyria, there are several references to dreams.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 266-7.

Chimeras in Babylonian-Assyrian Divination

” … The factor of fancy manifests itself in these handbooks of the Babylonian-Assyrian diviners in a form which is especially interesting, because of the explanation it affords for the widespread belief in antiquity in hybrid creatures such as satyrs, mermaids, fauns, harpies, sphinxes, winged serpents and the many fabulous monsters of mythology and folk-lore.

We have long lists of the young of animals having the features or parts of the body of another animal. Instead, however, of being recorded as a mere resemblance, an ewe giving birth to a lamb having a head which suggests that of a lion, or of a dog, an ass, of a fox or a gazelle, or ears or eyes which suggest those of another animal, it is stated that the ewe has given birth to a lion, dog, ass, fox gazelle, as the case may be.

In the same way, since it often happens that the face of an infant suggests a bird, a dog, a pig, a lamb, or what not, the fancied resemblance leads to the statement that a woman has given birth to the animal in question, which thus becomes an omen, the interpretation of which varies according to the ideas associated with the particular animal.

A lion suggests power and enlargement, and therefore a lamb or an infant with a lion-like face points to increase and prosperity in the land and to the growing strength of the ruler, and is also a favorable sign for the stall or house in which such a creature is born.

PLATE XXXIII

The Tree of Life with Assyrian King and with winged creature as guardian and fertilizer of the Tree — Symmetrically repeated.

The Tree of Life with Assyrian King and with winged creature as guardian and fertilizer of the Tree — Symmetrically repeated.

Favorable ideas, though of a different order, are associated with the lamb, pig, ox and ass, whereas with the dog as an unclean animal in the ancient as well as in the modern Orient, the association of ideas was unfavorable, and similarly with the serpent, wild cow and certain other animals, the interpretation refers to some misfortune, either of a public or private character, and occasionally of both.

This feature of a fancied resemblance between one animal and another and between an infant and some animal was the starting-point which led, through the further play of the imagination, to the belief in hybrid creatures and all kinds of monstrosities. The case of an infant being born with feet united so as to suggest the tail of a fish is actually recorded in our lists of birth-signs, and from such an anomaly to the belief in mermaids and tritons, half human and half fish, is only a small step, rendered still more credible by the representation in art which convents the resemblance to a fish tail into a real tail.

Since we have the direct proof [2] of the spread of the Babylonian-Assyrian system of divination from birth-omens, as of the two other systems above discussed, to Asia Minor, Greece and Rome, there is every reason to believe that we are justified in tracing back to this system the belief in fabulous beings of all kinds, though it may of course be admitted that there are also other factors involved.

We find this belief in Babylonia and Assyria, where we encounter in the ancient art hippocentaurs as well as bulls and eagles with human faces, and in the Assyrian art the winged monsters with human faces and the bodies of bulls or winged human figures with eagle faces. The process once begun would naturally lead to all kinds of ramifications and combinations.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 263-6.

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