What is Akkadian?

When I tell folks about the material that I work with, people understand what I mean by Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Biblical Hebrew; however, far fewer people know what I mean by “Akkadian” or “cuneiform.” So, in this blog post, I will concisely define “Akkadian” and “cuneiform.”

“Akkadian” is primarily a semitic language which was used in ancient Mesopotamia. The most well known literature originally written in Akkadian is the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

Because Akkadian was around since the 3rd millennium, though, it developed like any other language. So now, for example, scholars refers to different dialects of Akkadian, such as Old Babylonian, Old Assyrian, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and more. Each of these titles reflects a single language (Akkadian) with various dialects which were spoken in different time periods and locations.

How do we know, though, that Akkadian was a spoken language in ancient Mesopotamia and how do we determine the dialects? In the 19th and 20th centuries, archaeology in the Middle East became popular. As folks discovered ancient Mesopotamian artifacts, part of these artifacts was an abundance of dried clay tablets with a cryptic script. This script was called “cuneiform,” referring to the wedge shaped incisions on the clay tablets.

See, for example, this receipt tablet:


When this script was decoded in the 19th century, scholars realized that the language reflected in the cuneiform script was Akkadian. As more texts were discovered throughout Mesopotamia, this picture became more complicated. Sometimes the cuneiform script is used for languages other than Akkadian. Such is the case for Ugaritic, Hittite, and Elamite.

In short, Akkadian is a language. It was written in cuneiform, a script which looks like patterns of wedges on the surface of a clay tablet.  And although cuneiform was typically used in Akkadian, the same writing script is also used in some other languages.


Summary and Reflections on Onomastics Training Week

This previous week, I attended an Onomastics Training Week in Venice, Italy. The program was sponsored by Leiden University and funded by an ERC project at Leiden University. Click here to read more about the Persia and Babylonia ERC project.

After the Neo-Babylonian Network meeting on Monday, Tuesday-Friday consisted of a series of lecture concerning personal names and family names in Babylonia during the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. Put simply, two primary questions were addressed. First, how do we identify the language of a personal or family name? Second, by tracking the spread of those names, how can we begin to better understand the social-economic situation in Babylonia?

Throughout the week, the following topics were presented:

  • A general introduction to how onomastics work (Caroline Waerzeggars)
  • Babylonian names
  • Names of women in Babylonia
  • Babylonian family names
  • The spelling of Babylonian personal names
  • Assyrian person names in Neo-Babylonian texts
  • West Semitic, especially Aramaic, personal names in Neo-Babylonian texts
  • Hebrew names in Neo-Babylonian texts
  • Elamite names in Neo-Babylonian texts
  • Egyptian names in Neo-Babylonian texts
  • Anatolian names in Neo-Babylonian texts
  • Old Iranian names in Neo-Babylonian texts
  • Greek names in Neo-Babylonian texts
  • Problematic names in Neo-Babylonian texts

Although one may initially argue that the work is all unnecessary, complicated scholarly study concerning the linguistics of names, it is much more than that. This is because the Neo-Babylonian period in Babylonia was a period of great diversity, especially with voluntarily immigration and forced immigration, namely “exile” or deportation. So, by understanding the original language of personal names, and therefore (possibly) the origin of the individual, we can begin to track patterns in how such groups are represented in relation to others within economic texts and administrative texts. Subsequently, by synthesizing this material, we can illustrate the economic and social conditions of various immigrant groups. Consequently, we can write a more nuanced history of that period (NB and Persian) in Babylonia.

For those interested in the Hebrew Bible and Judeans, this is extremely important work. Much of the social and economic situations in Babylonia do, after all, impact the social and economic situations in the Levant, and thereby Judah. Therefore, in order to develop a better understanding of Judah during the NB and Persian periods, it is necessary to engage in work like socio-onomastics. For, socio-onomastics provide a way to track the economic and social situation in Babylonia. Subsequently, one may track how the situation in Babylonia ripples out and impacts other regions, such as the Levant and Judah.

Now, because the Hebrew Bible was at least compiled in the Persian period, it is imperative to understand the historical developments which lead to the serialization of the Hebrew Bible. An understanding of the historical developments ultimately provide insight into the underlying social and economic situations in the Levant which contributed to how scribes framed and understood the Hebrew Bible.

Reflections on “Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative” by Mieke Bal

At base, narratology “is the theory of narratives, narrative texts, images, spectacles, events; cultural artifacts that ‘tell a story'” (3). What Mieke Bal offers, then, is a basically a method for describing narrative. It is divided into three, large chapters: “Text: Words,” which focuses on how to describe various levels of texts; “Story: Aspects,” which focuses on various aspects of a narrative fit together; “Fabula: Elements,” which focuses on how chronology works in a narrative. Each chapter is full of helpful terminology, fleshed out with thorough discussion, which can easily be utilized for describing narratives in Near Eastern and Biblical texts. In this reflection, though, I will only focus on a few things which stood out to me.

First, Bal describes the levels of narration (pp. 44-56). Here, she describes various ways in which levels of narration may be understood depending on the particular text. In terms of my own work, this is interesting on one front. As is any literature, the Hebrew Bible is teeming with levels of narrative. The most basic example appears at the beginning of much prophetic literature, such as Micah:

(1) The word of Yahweh came to Micah, a Mosharite, in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, when he had a vision concerning Shomron and Jerusalem. (2) “Listen, all you peoples // Pay attention, Oh land and all within it…”

In this text, the speaker of vs. 1 is clearly distinct from vs. 2. Whereas vs. 1 is spoken by an external narrator, vs. 2 is spoken by the character. One way we can identify this is because the shift from a 3MS verb (the word came) to a 2MP and 2FS verb (Listen… Pay attention). Now, although this is a very basic example, the same narratological technique is used through the Hebrew Bible and all literature. I am  pointing it out because attentiveness to various layers of narrative can clarify confusing or problematic elements of texts.

Second, the issue of levels in narration is interesting for grammar, as a few scholars as discussed the issue of embedded text in light of the Hebrew verbal system (cf. Pardee, 2012). In 1 Sam. 1:20, for example, a waw-retentive PC can introduce a circumstantial clause which is embedded into the narrative line (Pardee 2012, pg. 303). This use of a waw-retentive PC in BH is common. Thus, it appears that analysis in terms of morphosyntax of biblical Hebrew can overlap with narratological concerns. And while they should not be conflated into one thing as analytical categories, it appears to me that narratology is a fundamental aspect of any language, BH included.

So, in Bal’s discussion on what marks personal and impersonal language she distinguishes between I/you and first and second person (personal) and he/she and third person (impersonal). Although these are only the first two distinctions she provides, it stands that narratology is (may be?) a fundamental aspect of BH, for BH uses grammatical person markers. The implication is that BH has narratological components built into it.

Third,  Bal’s description of how one defines an “event” was interesting in light of the Hebrew verbal system. According to Bal, an event is “the transition from one state to another state, caused or experienced by actors” (182). She continue on by describing three criterion for defining an event. What I am interested in seeing flesh out, though, is how her understanding of “event” does (or does not) fit with the H stem in BH. Roughly defined, the H stem expresses is causative. Drawing from my memory (I don’t have access to the three major grammars at the moment), I wonder how often the causative notion connotes an event (i.e. the transition from one state to another state as part of the fabula in a narrative) as opposed to a mere process, unimportant to a fabula.

These are just musings. I am still working them out in my head. So, if you are unsure of what I am saying, don’t worry. I am also not sure what I am saying.


MA is (almost) Complete

I just finished my final exam for my MA at University of Chicago in Bible. Next week, I will attend an onomastics training week in Venice, Italy. When I get back, I will officially graduate

Before applying to PhD programs, though, I will be taking off about 2 years. In that time, I hope to be more active on The Biblical Review, especially in terms of providing introductions to a variety of ancient texts. That said, I hope whoever is reading this starts to see the fruit of my time at U of C.


LXX Reader Edition by William Ross

I have been keeping a secret. Now it’s out. For the last several years, I have been working alongside Gregory R. Lanier (RTS Orlando) to produce a “reader’s edition” of the entire Septuagint. And finally, it’s (almost) finished. It’s been listed on ChristianBook and will be available in November. You are probably familiar with the […]

via Book Announcement – Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition — Septuaginta &c.


Reflections on “The Early History of God” (2nd Edition) by Mark Smith

The Early History of God  was a seminal work first published in 1990, wherein Mark Smith attempts to construct a history of god. Published in 2002, the second edition provides references to additional work from between 1990 and 2002. His basic goal is accomplished. He does well in presenting a history of ancient Israelite religion which employs relevant Canaanite evidence, demonstrating how Israel was remarkably similar to its neighbors. In time, though, various cultural and political factors led to the progressive establishment of monotheism, wherein Israel become truly unique among its neighbors.

In general, I found the book the be interesting; however, I struggled with getting on board with Mark Smith’s methodology. For example, his book is primarily focused on the Hebrew Bible and extant texts (i.e. inscriptions and Ugaritic materials) in order to construct a history of Israelite religion, particularly the history of God. For many of his claims were based on  Ugaritic literature, employing it as a way to understand the cultural inheritance taken on by ancient Israel, a Canaanite inheritance. In doing this, though, he often resorts to discussing “old traditions” rather than contemporary reflections on contemporary problems. This is a problem because new ideas tend to emerge from reflection on contemporary problems, even if older material is employed. Of course, claiming that older material, like texts, was employed in the case of ancient Israel is problematic because such material is not extant.

For example, he notes that a change in practice “reflect a religious reaction against Israel’s old Canaanite heritage” (146). Similarly, he claims that the language of Ps 29 “perhaps derives ultimately from old theophanic language of the storm” (143). In either case, the idea of “old” is problematic. For while it may have reacted to or been derived from something older, that elides an attempt to describe how the scribe himself conceptualized it. So, for example, did the scribe see himself as employed contemporary language, or maybe reacting against as contemporary concern? 

What this comes down to, then, is less an issue of reference that something is derived from an older traditions; instead, the issue is about the precision of terminology. In attempting to describe what may have occurred in history, for example, it would be helpful to employ a different term than that which describes the origin of such an idea through history. By distinguishing between the two, a more precise construction of the history of Yahweh would emerge.

Concerning the matters of Yahweh’s representation as sun, or the astralization of Yahweh, I found Other Keel and Christoph Uehlinger’s (1998) discussion to be much more convincing and helpful for understanding that development.

Reflections on “Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel” by Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger

In Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger provide a thorough discussion of the history of Judean and Israelian religion through the lens of iconography. In particular, they focus on seals because they are “more or less public artifacts and can thus serve as a sensitive seismograph to detect subtle shifts in religious history” (10). Why their approach ultimately yields results that are similar to the Hebrew Bible, the positions and arguments for the history of the region end up being very nuanced.

It covers the Middle Bronze Age IIB up to the Persian period. Although such an early starting date may be questionable for some it is the point at which “we can deal with a cultural continuum in Palestine that extends all the way to the time of the emergence of the Hebrew Bible” (17). Notably, though, he is against using too much Ugaritic material because of the geographic and chronological distance. Even so, the Middle Bronze Age IIB is assuredly chronologically distant from Iron Age Palestine. Subsequently, the logic as to why he is against the use of material from Mari, Ebla, and Ugarit becomes questionable.

As for the volume itself, it is, without a doubt, one of the most important volumes for any Hebrew Bible scholar. The history of religion which it reconstructs is based on dated, material evidence, whereas the Hebrew Bible is a bit more problematic. For this reason, all Hebrew Bible scholars should have a working knowledge of Palestinian iconography. For, as Keel discusses in the introduction, iconography is part of the constellation of symbols which is presented in mythic form. The jobs of the scholar is to describe these symbols. Therefore, by having a working knowledge of iconography, one has access to the symbols within ancient images, which may impact how history is constructed and texts are analyzed.