May_2006_T48I was browsing through some of our cuneiform tablets and spotted this otherwise unexciting receipt. The last two lines are kind of cool though.

The tablet is dated to the 5th day of the month of Addaru in the 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon = 585 BC. This is only a year or two after the final fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jewish elite.

The first capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 597 is mentioned not only in the Bible (2 Kings 25), but also in the so-called Babylonian Chronicle No. 5 (in the British Museum). It reads:

In the seventh year [598/597], the month of Kislimu, the king of Akkad* mustered his troops, marched to the Hatti-land,** and besieged the city of Judah and on the second day of the month of Addaru he seized the city and captured the king [Jehoiachin]. He appointed there a king of his own choice [Zedekiah], received its heavy tribute and sent [it] to Babylon.

This, of course, is the point when the Book of Mormon narrative begins.

The puppet-king Zedekiah did not last long, and ten years later he was captured, blinded and sent to Babylon as a prisoner. He was probably still a prisoner when my little tablet was written.

*”Akkad” was a hoary name for Babylonia.

**”Hatti-land,” ditto for the Levant, or the West in general.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Funny you should mention this — I had the same experience with a cuneiform tablet this morning.

    Wait, no – that was T&S. (slaps knee)

  2. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, king of the lands, is not amused, Evans.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I was wondering when our substantial community of Assyriologist LDS bloggers (second only to lawyers in numerical representation in the Bloggernacle, I believe) was going to get around to commenting on cuneiform texts.

  4. Ed Snow says:

    Cool Ronan. Do you keep these in your sock drawer?

    Seriously, are these items currently on display at Hopkins, or are they locked up for research? Is there a catalogue published with pictures and translations available?

    Emory’s Carlos Museum has a cuneiform text Nebuchadnezzar’s father, Nabopolassar, commissioned upon the repair of the wall around Babylon that was acquired in the 1920s from a James Henry Breasted excavation:

    One of the Emory professors went on the trip where they had to drive around in an armor-plated Rolls Royce with a mounted machine gun to ward off bandits. It’s a fabulous museum. If anyone is ever in Atlanta, I’d be happy to give you a brief tour.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Your tablet actually has relevance for BoM studies. If one looks at the chronological note for the first year of Zedekiah in the 1981 LDS edition of the BoM, you’ll see the year 600 B.C. given. But we know from Babylonian chronological sources (such as your tablet), which are very well established, that the year in question was 597, not 600.

    (Sidney Sperry, in his little known chronological system, gave this year as 601, since he viewed Jesus as being born in 1 B.C., and by his count the 600-year prophecy needed to relate back to 601, not 600. IE from 600 to 1 is only 599 years, not 600. But I digress.)

    There is this glitch on the front end, and the dating of Jesus’s birth (muffed by Dionysius Exiguus, “Dennis the Short”) on the back end of the chronology of the 600 years from Lehi’s leaving Jerusalem to the birth of Christ. There seem to be more years in the Book of Mormon account than will fit between the known chronology of the two events.

    So there is a whole literature responsive to this issue. Some posit lunar or luni-solar calendars; some theorize that Lehi didn’t actually leave until the final fall of Jerusalem a decade later, and then John Pratt of Meridian fame insists that the Nephites followed our solar calendar and the dates are all God-inspired and precise.

    This business of chronology is actually a very interesting little issue.

  6. We have about 50 tablets in the Hopkins collection. We Hopkinsians bemoan the fact that JHU never went on a major excavation-plunder like our friends at Penn and Chicago. Most of the tablets are UrIII Sumerian; we have a few NB economic texts too (like this one) that I will publish when I have time. We’re in the process of putting a catalogue together.

  7. Kevin,

    If the 600 year prophecy is correct, and the Babylonian date is correct (a lot of ifs), then Jesus was born in, say, 2 or 3 AD, no?

  8. Except Herod was dead by then. Messy.

  9. 597 vs 600… Wow. Three years of discrepancy. Somehow I don’t think it’s enough to get excited about. That’s sure close enough to 600 for me. I suspect that, with the apparent
    discrepancy between God’s time and our time, that it’s close enough for Him as well. On the other hand, such a suggestion would probably make my historian husband fall over twitching. :)

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    There is a FARMS paper by Randall Spackman (I think he’s the uncle of my friend and M* blogger Ben) that goes into great detail on all of these BoM chronological issues.

  11. Does “chronological issues” mean that we (Mormons) say absolutely this is the timeline and everyone else says no chance in hell?

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    As I indicated above, there are different schools of thought and various theories.

    For example, let’s say that the first year of Zedekiah is 597 B.C., and the birth of Christ is 4-6 B.C., which is pretty much the scholarly consensus. The distance between those two events then would be 591-593 years, not 600 years. (600 assumes 600 to zero, but there is no year 0, which is why Sperry put the first event at 601, otherwise you’re saying Jesus was born in AD 1, not 1 BC). So we have between 7 and 9 fewer years between those two events than the BoM says we should.

    But a major problem with all of this is that we don’t know what the Nephite calendar looked like. To say it equated to our modern solar, Gregorian calendar (and some, like John Pratt, do claim this, based on Egyptian precedent) is a huge assumption.

    What if, rather than a 365.25 (approximate) solar year, the Nephite calendar was like a Mayan tun of 360 days, without intercalation. On that assumption, 600 Nephite “years” of 360 days each would be 216,000 days, which, when translated back into our modern solar calendar of approximately 365.25 days per year, equals 591.37 years, or within the revised parameters we set for the chronology based on more recent chronological scholarship.

    This is just one theory; there are others, such as that the Nephites followed a true lunar calendar. But in the end, we don’t really know what their calendar looked like.

  13. We have a new LDS Assyriologist who’s just starting here in Chicago. She did a 1-year humanities MA, and has been accepted to start the MA/PhD program next fall. Being Chicago, they’re still requiring her to do 4 years of coursework…

  14. Costanza says:

    Well what do you expect from the University of Chicago. After all that is where Indiana Jones got his Ph.D.

  15. re # 12, isn’t that a neat little bulls-eye that JS would have had a little difficulty in inventing, genius or not?

  16. Ed #4,
    Tell your pals at Emory that they have the picture upside down!

  17. Ed Snow says:

    I thought is was on its side.

  18. I see that it’s standing on an end. That’s fine, but the photo needs to be rotated 180 degrees. I tried to read it but the signs are upside down!

  19. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, king of the lands, is not amused, Evans.

    Fun response Ronan. I could picture Nebuchadnezzar shaking in his imperial indignation. I also like the beginning line of this post, which is so atypical of most everyday experiences: “I was browsing through some of our cuneiform tablets …”

  20. Something to think about:

    I was reading this article at Wired about “dead formats” and how electronic media formats can become obsolete within a few years. Mind-blowing, then, that clay cuneiform tablets remained, unchanged, the media of choice in Mesopotamia for over two thousand years!

  21. “Except Herod was dead by then. Messy.”

    I once upon a time wrote a paper on the constitutional law of Luke 2, ie what does the legal language in Luke 2 tell us about the constitutional structure of the Augustan principate (or what people thought about the same). If I recall right Herod was also dead by the time of the census referred to in Luke 2, if the census actually occurred when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.

  22. Costanza says:

    There is some debate among scholars as to whether that census occurred at all.

  23. Costanza: When I looked into this for my Roman law class, my impression was that the weight of scholarlly opinion is that the census did not occur, at least not as it is described in Luke.

    There were indeed a couple of Augustan censuses but they were of Roman citizens and had more to do with the reorganization of the equestrian and Senatorial orders in Rome than with Jews in Nazareth. Then there were provincal censuses, but they almost never occurred in the manner described in Luke. Finally, there was a census of Judea during the time of Cyreneus. We know because it provoked a revolt that gets recorded in some of the contemporary sources. What Luke describes seems to be an amalgamation of a provincal census and an Augustan census conducted according to a bizarre procedure and occuring at the wrong time.

    Sorry — the first few verses of Luke 2 happen to be one of the few bits of the NT that I have ever really studied rigorously.

  24. Costanza says:

    That is basically where matters stood when I fulfilled that portion of my Ph.D. program dealing with NT history. I haven’t seen anything in the interim that would suggest there have been any major revisions to the literature that you have summarized.

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