proving jeremiah

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.

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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.

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5 thoughts on “proving jeremiah

  1. Interesting!

    I fully agree on the whole angle of not proving the whole OT in one fell swoop. That kind of journalistic exaggeration does annoy me though, as even though we freely acknowledge the irrationality, not many non-Christians really get the chance to realise that we *are* able to be rational about it. This kind of thing only prompts some to tally this up as yet another anti-religion excuse, even though its just some journalist making the claim (who, as far as I know, isn’t neccessarily making a claim to be a Christian at the same time.)

    The Bible has plenty to say about truth, and the importance of truth in people being able to judge things correctly…as far as I’m concerned, even anything that exaggerates/misrepresents the truth, is no longer truth as it has the potential to deceive.

    As you say, this is a valuable and reassuring contribution, but sometimes I almost wish it hadn’t been reported when it seems to serve no real purpose: those who believe already are not given any “new belief” as faith is not based on believing historical facts. Those who don’t believe think they are being given extra excuses not to believe.

    Hmm…!

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  2. Based on the moral and metaphysical prejudice that whatever else may be true none of the central claims of Christianity can ever be admitted, the Scriptures are arbitrarily denied the status of historical documents despite the fact that they are some of the best attested and most important historical documents in existence for the various periods which they describe. To retreat into claiming that Scripture’s authority is derived from timeless moral truths rather than statements of astounding historical fact is to sell the pass and surrender the main gate. Scripture only commands our faith because it is inspired by God Who can neither deceive nor be deceived. If it contains a single falsehood it cannot be inspired. It is full of historical claims which we must believe. Its principle purpose is to tell us not moral and metaphysical truths which we could (at least in theory) find out for ourselves, but to tell us what God really did in history and above all that He became man at a specific time in a specific people with a specific history and in revealing Himself revealed that God is three persons in one substance which neither men nor angels could ever have discovered by their own powers and offered an atoning sacrifice which neither man nor angel could ever have offered or accomplished. Unless one is told of these events one cannot avail oneself of that sacrifice. The Gospel may reveal the everlasting and eternal God but it is historical and contingent from start to finish.

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  3. Here’s an example of what Berenike was talking about – a random footnote completely unnecessarily inserted into a book otherwise about the scientific status of the discipline of psychology – “The most striking example of archaeological misdirection is the search for evidence of what were clearly mythical civilisations. … there is at the present time no material evidence of the Old Testament patriarchs (including Abraham and Moses) or early kings (including David and Solomon) or of any of their adventures. … these figures were invented to provide a history of the Hebrew people about the year 700 BCE …”
    (Uttal 2007: 81, a book which I’ve just posted a review of here. )

    That point about the scriptures being “arbitrarily denied the status of historical documents” is completely spot-on – here its contents are declared to be mythical – and not only so but mendaciously so – a kind of 700BC version of Second Life perhaps, except funnily enough none of those hebrews seem to have noticed that their entire past culture had just been made up for them.

    That’s not the only weird digression into religious matters that occurs in that book but it would take a whole nother review to go into them all and in any case i think i’ll refrain so as not to come over too critical of a useful book where comments on religion and biblical archaeology are completely irrelevant to the success or failure of the arguments he’s actually making.

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