Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cuneiform documents date from the fifth and sixth centuries BCE: the "Al-Yahuda texts"


Saint Joseph's University Ancient Studies program is sponsoring a conference focusing on a collection of recently discovered documents that shed light on a Jewish settlement in ancient Mesopotamia. "Jerusalem in Babylonia: New Discoveries from the Exilic Period," will be held March 21-22 in the University's Campion Student Center.

The cuneiform documents date from the fifth and sixth centuries BCE, and are referred to as the "Al-Yahuda texts," based on the name of the place where the documents themselves say they were drawn up.

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"The phrase 'Al-Yahuda' means 'city of Judah,' which in the Bible refers to Jerusalem," said Bruce Wells, Ph.D., director of the Ancient Studies program and an assistant professor of theology.

What makes the documents so noteworthy, however, is that they weren't discovered in Jerusalem. They were found in modern day Iraq, in the territory that was known as Babylonia at the time they were written. That time was the so-called "exilic period" when a number of people from Judah (the southern part of modern day Israel) were taken as captives to Babylonia.

"The use of the phrase 'Al-Yahuda' tells us that there were enough people in exile that they formed their own town," Wells said, likening it to "Little Italy" communities found in major cities throughout the country.

The tablets are records of normal business matters of the time, including marriage contracts and slavery transactions. They were written by Babylonian scribes and include many Hebrew names, which add weight to the theory that there was a fairly large Jewish population in Babylonia at the time.

"There has been debate over just how many Jews were forced into exile at the time," Wells said. "These tablets provide the first ever substantial evidence for common people from Judah living in Babylon during the exilic period."

Among the conference's six lecturers is Laurie Pearce, Ph.D., of the University of California-Berkeley, and Cornelia Wunsch, Ph.D., of the University of London. Both scholars are currently working to translate and publish many of the texts.

"Once published, they will become an important object of study for Biblical studies, the history of Babylon and early Jewish history," Wells said.

The conference is free and open to the public. It will be held on March 21 from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. and March 22 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, e-mail Wells at bwells@sju.edu, or access www.sju.edu/academics/cas/resources/ancientstudies/ .

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