Non-biblical evidence for individuals named in the Bible is rare, particularly for people who were not royals. But an ancient Babylonian tablet provides further proof that a king and his servant — both named in the Book of Jeremiah — existed in the 6th century B.C. according to an announcement by Assyriologist Michael Jursa.
According to an announcement by Assyriologist Michael Jursa and the British Museum
, the small clay tablet from the museum’s collections bears the name of Babylonian officer Nebo-Sarsekim. In chapter 39 of the Book of Jeremiah, this individual is described as being with King Nebuchadnezzar II at the siege of Jerusalem in the year 587 B.C.
Jursa, a visiting associate professor from the University of Vienna, discovered the find while analyzing the tablet’s cuneiform script, which was produced by pressing a wedge-shaped instrument — probably a cut reed — into moist clay. The tablet turns out to be a 595 B.C. bill of receipt acknowledging Nebo-Sarsekim’s payment of over 1.6 pounds of gold to a Babylonian temple.
Jursa said that "finding something like this tablet, where we see a person mentioned in the Bible making an everyday payment to the temple in Babylon and quoting the exact date is quite extraordinary."
Both Nebo-Sarsekim and Nebuchadnezzar were players in key historical events with repercussions still felt today. Prior to the 587 Jerusalem siege, the Babylonians had allied themselves with Iranian warriors.
After Nebuchadnezzar’s 604 B.C. coronation, he campaigned in Syria for five months. In 601 B.C., he and his troops marched to the Egyptian frontier, where the Babylonians and Egyptians battled for many years.
During the course of this struggle, Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. Zedekiah, a Babylonian-appointed king of Judah, later rebelled, which led to yet another Jerusalem siege in 587-586 B.C., during which a large segment of the population was deported. Arab-Israeli tensions in the region have continued until the present day.
In fact, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein made links between himself and King Nebuchadnezzar in speeches and by use of billboards that showed Hussein shaking hands with a drawing of the ancient king, according to Aaron Brody, assistant professor of Bible and archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion and director of the Badè Museum.
"Nebuchadnezzar vanquished surrounding nations, so Hussein wanted to draw parallels with his own reign and that of the former Mesopotamian leader," Brody told Discovery News.
Brody thinks the tablet represents "further verification that certain historical elements within the Book of Jeremiah are valid."
He said this time period in the Bible, around the 6th century, is among the least disputed among Biblical scholars. The Old Testament’s 9th century Assyrian texts are also believed to contain historically accurate information. Other parts of the Bible, however, such as those that describe earlier events from the 10th century, are still hotly debated.
The British Museum tablet even suggests that some Biblical translations were adjusted to fit altered moral standards. Nebo-Sarsekim is described on the tablet as being Nebuchadnezzar’s "chief eunuch." Eunuchs were castrated in order that they might supervise harems, sing at a higher pitch, or perform certain civic, social or religious functions without posing much of a threat to leaders.
More modern versions of the Bible had listed Nebo-Sarsekim as being a "chief officer," but it is now believed that "chief eunuch" was indeed the correct, original title given by Jeremiah.
Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, agrees that the tablet is important.
"Cuneiform tablets might all look the same, but sometimes they contain a treasure," Finkel said. "Here a mundane commercial transaction takes its place as a primary witness to one of the turning points in Old Testament history."