The Telegraph ran a story the other day with the headline, ‘Tiny tablet provides proof for Old Testament.’
The tablet is a Babylonian temple receipt from 2500 years ago, made out to a person called Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, and what the researcher who read the tablet is suggesting is that this is the same person as mentioned in Jeremiah 39 under the name Nebo-Sarsekim.
The Babylonian official named by Jeremiah is far from a central figure in any part of the Old Testament narrative, and is only mentioned in passing in the account of events when the Babylonian army finally invaded Jerusalem, after a long siege. As Irving Finkel from the British Museum is reported to have said,
“If Nebo-Sarsekim existed, which other lesser figures in the Old Testament existed? A throwaway detail in the Old Testament turns out to be accurate and true. I think that it means that the whole of the narrative [of Jeremiah] takes on a new kind of power.”
I think this is obviously a fair comment, but I wouldn’t go as far as the Telegraph’s headline and treat it as “proof” for the (whole?) Old Testament. At best, it’s corroborating evidence, but as much as I’d like people to accept the whole bible as accurate and reliable, even I can see that the case isn’t watertight.
And on the other hand, it is not the case a person needs the verification of external evidence for the smallest historical details in Scripture before it is legitimate for them to accept it and believe its message.
Jeremiah himself, in fact, believed what was written in the scriptures even though some of it, including some revealed to himself, wouldn’t even happen for hundreds more years into the future. His inability to verify some of the matters of fact he read and preached didn’t hinder him in any way (- and in fact it was possibly the least of his worries in the face of the persecution he was having to deal with; see chapter 38 for a particularly memorable escape thanks to the help of Ebed-Melech). Rather, as can be seen in chapter 32 for example, he just continued his work of communicating what God revealed to him and believing it himself.
So as valuable and reassuring as this kind of corroboration is, at its best it can only leave the contents of Scripture on the factual level, speaking only to people’s minds and rationality. It shouldn’t be a distraction from the main, moral and spiritual, message of Scripture, which demands acknowledgement and approbation not just from the mind, but from the consciences and hearts of anyone who hears it.
It’s only some translations, incidentally, which segment the list of names in Jeremiah 39 in this way. The NIV says, “Then all the officials of the king of Babylon came and took seats in the Middle Gate: Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar, Nebo-Sarsekim a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officials of the king of Babylon,” but the AV lists, among others, “Nergal Sharezar, Samgar-nebo, Sarsechim …”, making Samgar-nebo into the name of one individual rather than a placename and the prefix of someone else’s name. (See here for some more comparisons.) In other words, if you were only familiar with the AV you’d never have made the link between Nabu-sharrussu-ukin and Jeremiah’s list of ‘the princes of the king of Babylon.’ Another good reason not to fall into the trap of thinking that any particular translation is infallible, as I’ve argued here before.