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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Discoveries in Egypt and Mesopotamia

What made a real impact on the nineteenth-century public imagination was the series of astonishing discoveries made in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Scholarly study of Egypt began seriously with Napoleon's expedition in 1799, and advanced with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics by Jean François Champollion in 1822. Academic work continued through scholars like S. Birch and R. S. Poole at the British Museum, and the French Gaston Maspero and Mariette Pasha. In 1882 was founded the Egypt Exploration Society, which led to excavation at El-Amarna, where in 1887 a peasant woman unearthed an archive of over 300 clay tablets bearing cuneiform inscriptions (James 1982: 95). These fourteenth-century BCE ‘Amarna Letters’, written to the ruling Pharaoh by local rulers in Canaan, with their references to the military activities in Palestine of the habiru, who sounded suspiciously like the Hebrews, influenced biblical scholars' discussion of the date of the exodus from the 1890s to the 1960s, when it was finally accepted that neither the equation of ‘Hebrew’ with habiru nor the nature of the exodus story was as simple as had previously been thought (cf. Coote 1990: 33–93; Na'aman 1992).

Ancient Mesopotamia yielded even more sensational material. In 1843–4 the Frenchman Emile Botta excavated the ancient Dur Sharrukin (‘city of Sargon’, now Khorsabad in Iraq), and found pictorial reliefs from the walls of Sargon Il's palace, which were promptly exhibited in Paris; later a pair of human-headed winged bulls (now in the Louvre) were found flanking the city gate. (Later, between 1929 and 1935, a Chicago Oriental Institute expedition found a list of Assyrian kings from earliest times to 748 BCE.) In 1846–51 the British scholar Austen Henry Layard excavated Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh, revealing the stone reliefs, now in the British Museum, depicting Sennacherib's siege of biblical Lachish. Layard's assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, subsequently found Ashurbanipal's library of 24,000 cuneiform tablets; the cuneiform script of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Old Persian records was deciphered by G. F. Grotefend, H. C. Rawlinson, Edward Hincks, and Jules Oppert. Among Ashurbanipal's tablets George Smith in 1872 discovered the Babylonian story of the Flood (by remarkable good fortune in 1873 recovering the missing portions in Nineveh itself). (Leonard Woolley's claim in 1929 to have ‘discovered the Flood’ while excavating at Ur turned out to be less important, the stratum in question being either a wind-borne dune or the deposit of one of many local floods.) Attempts were made to excavate Babylon by Layard, Oppert, and Rawlinson, but the most important excavation was that of R. Koldewey (1899–1914), which revealed the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar II and its Ishtar Gate. Particularly exciting for biblical scholars was the discovery and decipherment of the annals and records of the ninth-to seventh-century Assyrian kings, and of the Babylonian Chronicle which covered, with some serious gaps, the years 626–539 BCE. References in these to kings of Israel and Judah broadly corroborated the sequence given in the biblical 2 Kings (cf. Grabbe 1997: 24–6). In the following century came the discovery and decipherment of Hittite records in Turkey (1911–13), of second millennium BCE archives at Nuzi in Iraq (1925–31) and at Mari in Syria (from 1934), and of Canaanite documents at Ras Shamra on the Syrian coast (1929). Such discoveries set the Bible in a much wider context and changed the way in which scholars and others saw ancient Israel and its literature and religion; the controversial Babel und Bibel (1902–3) by F. Delitzsch (1850–1922) argued that Old Testament religion was heavily dependent on the Babylonian culture. This went too far; subsequent scholars have tended to derive Israelite religion from its Canaanite context. Clearly, however, Egypt and Mesopotamia were not the only influences upon ancient Israel; Arabia, the Aegean, and Anatolia also played their part.

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