Semites vs. Sumerians

by Esteban

“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.