“History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition” by Niek Veldhuis

CuneiformNiek Veldhuis. History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record (GMTR), Volume 6. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014, pp. 524, 79.00 €.

In a comprehensive overview of cuneiform lexical lists (See , “What is a Lexical List“), Niek Veldhuis (Ph.D. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 1997; Professor of Assyriology at the University of California, Berkley) traces the developments within the lists from the Archaic Lexical corpus up to the Late Babylonian period. Simply put, he traces lexical lists as knowledge, which he analyzes as “a social phenomenon, as something that people use to pursue their material, social, and cultural goals, embedded in a historical context” (6). Thus, through his work he draws out how shifts and developments in the cuneiform lexical list corpora reflect social-historical conditions.

Chapter One introduces the basic framework standard to any academic work: trajectory, introduction to the topic, history of research, and resources. Chapter Two analyzes archaic lexical lists and, after arguing against their purposes as world order or teaching tools, explains the standardization and transmission of the corpus as construction of scribal identity through a constantly changing environment. Struggling with a broad geographical spectrum of data and lack of regional consistency in the All-Babylonian, Regional, and Local traditions, Chapter Three concludes that third millennium lexical texts do not provide enough data to fully contextualize knowledge within its own context. Shifting to a period in which significant develops were made, Chapter Four analyzes the Old Babylonian (or Amorite) period’s geography and nature of lexical texts in order to provide a theoretical Old Babylonian scribal curriculum, three major uses of lexical lists (scribal curriculum; scholarly handbooks), and to emphasize the precedent of long term effects of the writing revolution.  Distinguishing between the Middle Assyrian and the International Period, Chapter Five explores how lexical traditions in the International Period were appropriated with local variations through international relations, textual traditions, and scribal teachers. Shifting to the Middle Assyrian Period, Chapter Six examines the fundamental changes to the cuneiform lexical corpus, namely the value of the tablet over the scribal community, and their role in establishing and defining stakes regarding the power and legitimization of Neo-Assyrian dynasties. By the Neo- and Late Babylonian periods, lexical texts are no longer the locus of intellectual creativity, Chapter Seven argues, but a tool is scribal school curriculum to further the study and development of texts like celestial sciences and horoscopy. Finally, Chapter Eight synthesizes the information and succinctly summarizes the lexical traditions in regard to three categories: writing, knowledge, and power, categories which allow lexical texts to “sing their own little part as one voice in a choir” (429).

Study of lexical texts is an incredibly specialized field of Assyriology, a point Veldhuis recognizes and emphasizes. For that reason, his contribution to Assyriology is extremely valuable because, for him, the lexical corpus is merely one voice in a choir of voices. His study states the purpose of being a starting point for more nuanced studies of different periods of history that utilize the full range of over-specialized fields within Assyriology. Rather than falling into glorifying his area of extreme specialization, he encourages scholars to synthesize specialized fields.

Although his study did not focus on or even mention biblical literature, it provides an important framework for broadly understanding the scribal community and role of scribes during the range of ancient Israelite existence. While specific points of relations may be difficult to construct, if not impossible, it does help to contextualize certain practices and records within ancient Israelite historiography and folkloric traditions. Needless to say I look forward to how biblical scholars contextualize ancient Israelite scribal communities and praxis in light of Veldhuis’ expansive analysis of 4,000 years of lexical lists.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this work as a reference source. Most people will not read through it, as I did; however, any research regarding scribal communities or reconstruction of certain regions in history should interact with the analyses by Veldhuis.


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