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Ur and Jerusalem Not Mentioned in Ebla Tablets, Say Ebla Expedition Scholars, James D. Muhly, BAR 9:06, Nov-Dec 1983.

Mathematical Tablets from EblaAccording to Genesis 11-28–31, Abraham was born in the city of Ur. Contrary to earlier reports, the name Ur does not appear in the mid-third millennium cuneiform tablets uncovered at the ancient city of Ebla, now in Syria. That is the latest word from Ebla’s Italian team of archaeologists and epigraphers, who toured the United States last spring. This revision is the most recent of a long series concerning the contents of the tablets, especially as they relate to the Bible.1

The name Jerusalem is another withdrawn claim. There is no reference to Jerusalem in the Ebla tablets, the Italians say, nor is there any mention of Megiddo, Lachish, Shechem or the Biblical Cities of the Plain. The city of Kish does appear in the texts, but not Uruk, Nippur or Assur.

The Italian lecture team last spring included Professor Paolo Matthiae, long-time director of the Italian Expedition to Ebla, and Professor Alfonso Archi, the new chief epigrapher of the expedition.a Archi replaced Professor Giovanni Pettinato, who is independently publishing texts of Ebla tablets of which he has photographs.

The members of the Italian Expedition were in the United States for about six weeks and gave a series of wide-ranging talks at schools and museums from New York to California.

The Ebla texts describe a world focused on Inner Syria in the mid-third millennium B.C., said the Italian lecturers, with no reference to Palestine or Egypt and with only little interest in Mesopotamia. The emphasis of the lecturers was on Ebla as a Syrian site and upon the importance of the archaeological and textual evidence for our understanding of Syria in the Early and Middle Bronze Age. (The Middle Bronze Age levels date to about 2000–1600 B.C.)

During the past few excavation seasons, the archaeologists at Ebla have moved from the Early Bronze Age levels to the Middle Bronze Age levels where only a few new texts have been discovered, the Italians reported. The great collections of cuneiform tablets—found in 1976—all come from the Early Bronze Age building known as Palace G. The Middle Bronze Age levels have been equally rewarding, though with finds of a very different nature. The most spectacular Middle Bronze discoveries have been not tablets but grave goods, like ivory artifacts and gold jewelry, from several rich royal tombs that the excavators believe might provide evidence for a cult of ancestor worship at Ebla during this period.

Publication of the tablets themselves by the Italian Mission to Ebla is continuing. What has been published to date are basically economic or administrative texts, together with a few lexical texts. These texts are, for the most part, written in Sumerian (that is, with Sumerian cuneiform signs) but are obviously meant to be read (pronounced) in Eblaite. The tablets are fairly easy to read but exceedingly difficult to understand. Before the texts were published, many claims were made for their contents—for example, that they referred to Sargon of Akkad, that the name of the Egyptian Pharaoh Pepi II appeared and that all the Cities of the Plain were mentioned. Many of these claims are now simply best forgotten, said the members of the lecture tour.

According to the Italian lecturers, the world of the Ebla tablets is the world of the mid-third millennium B.C., while the Old Testament is based in the first millennium B.C. The Italians cite the very influential recent work of such scholars as Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters who find nothing earlier than the first millennium B.C. in the composition of the books of the Old Testament, including the book of Genesis. The Italian lecturers believe that this view will come to dominate Biblical scholarship. They stress that this development is taking place quite apart from anything connected with Ebla.

Unfortunately, although more and more Ebla texts are being published, these include precious few of those said to contain passages or references related to the Bible. The way to put to rest the excessive claims that were made for the tablets shortly after their discovery is to publish those tablets on which the claims were based and then give the correct readings, with appropriate commentary. For the most part, these tablets—for example, those alleged to mention Ur and Jerusalem—have not been published.

What has happened with the Ebla tablets is, unfortunately, exactly what happened with several other major textual discoveries of this century, such as the Ugaritic texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Linear B tablets in Mycenaean Greek. In each case there was a period of wild enthusiasm with everyone wanting to get into the act. Claim and counterclaim followed one bizarre reconstruction after another. One classical scholar, convinced that the ancient Greeks could write nothing but great poetry, thought he had discovered the poetic metrical system for the poetry of the Linear B tablets—no mean achievement when one realizes that these tablets are administrative texts connected with the wool industry, the flax industry, coppersmithing and the manufacture of perfumes and unguents.

The point is that there seems to be a period of fantasy, almost a silly season, through which we must pass following every great textual or epigraphical discovery. Scholars share the vanities and insecurities common to all humanity. When asked for their opinion by a reporter from the New York Times, Time magazine or BAR, few can resist. The fact that they know nothing about the subject has never hindered most scholars from contributing to the general confusion.

With Ebla, I hope we are now past this trial by fire. If the past is any indication, there will now be a move in the opposite direction, from irresponsible enthusiasm to narrow conservatism. Scholars will refuse to go beyond the precise letter of the text. And the general public will soon lose interest in what is going on at Ebla. But the site is far too important to let this happen. To judge by the efforts the Italian Expedition members are now making, they are determined to continue popularizing the discoveries made at Ebla in the best possible way.

To allay suspicions that changes in interpretation of the finds reflect a refusal to have anything to do with ancient Israel or the world of the Bible, those tablets that supposedly formed the basis for the unfounded claims should be published.

It should be added, however, that archaeological work at Ebla is inevitably political, in the sense that all archaeological research in the Middle East is political. One is working in a highly charged atmosphere, and everything that takes place is in some way connected with politics. Every archaeologist must also be a skillful diplomat or he will not survive. Very basic questions as to where one does or does not work are often determined entirely by political considerations. Syria at the present time provides a very favorable climate for archaeological research, and work is expanding there on an unprecedented scale. It is in the interest of all archaeologists to do everything possible to ensure the continuation, even the expansion, of current work in Syria.

In the Bronze Age, Syria was the most important area in the entire Levant. What happened in Palestine during the Bronze Age is almost always a reflection of what was occurring or had occurred shortly before in Syria. Yet we know very little archaeologically about Syria during this time span. We are just beginning to excavate the major sites. There is much to learn. Many scholars believe that in the decades to come the major discoveries in Near Eastern archaeology will probably be made in Syria. It will be interesting to see what happens.

a. Other members of the lecture team were Dr. Gabriella Scandone Matthiae, an Egyptologist who specializes in the contacts between Ebla and Egypt; Professor Stefania Mazzoni Archi, a pottery expert who is studying the ceramic connections between Syria and Palestine; and Dr. Frances Pinnock, who has made a special study of the lapis lazuli trade and evidence for contacts between Syria and lands to the east of Mesopotamia. The lecture tour was arranged by The International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, under the direction of Professor Giorgio Buccellati.

1. See the following in BAR- “Assessing Ebla,” BAR 04-01, by Paul C. Maloney; “The Politics of Ebla,” BAR 04-03, by Adam Mikaya; “Syria Tries to Influence Ebla Scholarship,” BAR 05-02, by Hershel Shanks; “Ebla Evidence Evaporates,” BAR 05-06; “Interview with David Noel Freedman,” BAR 06-03; “BAR Interviews Giovanni Pettinato,” BAR 06-05; “Are the ‘Cities of the Plain’ Mentioned in the Ebla Tablets?” BAR 07-06, by Alfonso Archi; Books in Brief, BAR 07-06, reviews of Ebla- An Empire Rediscovered by Paolo Matthiae and The Archives of Ebla- An Empire Inscribed in Clay by Giovanni Pettinato.

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