Science in Christian Perspective




Allan A. MacRae, Ph.D.

From JASA 9 (June 1957): 16-17.

Recent developments in Biblical archaeology can be generally divided into two categories: those which relate to written material and those which relate to material objects and excavation of buildings, walls, statuettes, etc.

just at present particular interest attaches to the study of written material. While until recently there has been comparatively little written material discovered from Palestine, the great discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has tremendously increased our knowledge in this field. At the same time these are quite different from the inscriptions which are found in Egypt and Mesopotamia, because hardly any of them relate to contemporary events. Most of the Dead Sea documents are copies of documents written long before, or of rather cryptic rules of a peculiar sect. Consequently, while they are of great interest for many different reasons' they do not throw as much light on contemporary history as do the inscriptions from Mesopotamia and from Egypt.

In Mesopotamia, interest is at the moment not so much concerned with the discovery of new inscriptions, as with an improved tool for the understanding of those already available to us. This consists of the Assyrian Dictionary, the first volume of which has recently been published by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. It is to be a very extensive work involving a score of volumes. This first volume published does not contain words beginning with "A", but with one of the simpler letters near the middle of the alphabet. The dictionary aims to cover all of the available material in the Akkadian language (also known as Assyrian or Babylonian). Since many thousands of tablets have been unearthed, such completeness is impossible of realization, but the dictionary will cover many times as great an amount of material as any previously published dictionary of Assyrian.

Students of. the language and culture of ancient Mesopotamia have been at a great disadvantage through the lack of a satisfactory dictionary. Reliance has had to' be placed very largely on dictionaries that were already extremely old, and some of them had very serious defects. Work on this Assyrian dictionary was begun many years ago, and included an attempt to put all the words in the extant material from ancient Mesopotamia on large cards, with a very considerable amount of context on each card, and then to arrange these cards alphabetically and to study them in preparation for the making of the dictionary.

During a span of several decades the dictionary has had a large number of successive directors and these have varied greatly in their ideas as to how the work should be done. Such a simple matter as the arrangement of the words constitutes a real problem in dealing with a language like that of ancient Babylonia. The language is closely related to Hebrew, so it seems rather natural to arrange the words in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. Yet some of the Hebrew letters are missing and others have fallen together. Furthermore, the effect of ancient Sumerian (a non-Semitic language) upon the writing of the Babylonian, and also the great number of Sumerian loan words which have been taken over, deprive the Semitic alphabet of much of its meaning. It has seemed to many that arrangement strictly in the order of the English alphabet would be more helpful.

Perhaps the most sensible suggestion ever made was to arrange the material entirely in an artificial scientific alphabet such as is used for the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics. This would put similar letters together, instead of having them widely scattered in the alphabet, as they are in English, and would be a tremendous help to the person who is looking for a new or unknown word.

It is not nearly so important, however, that the best possible system of alphabetization be used as that a definite one be settled upon-because this relates not merely to the division of the words according to their first consonant, but also to the matter of the second consonant and the third. In fact, it is particularly here that a really scientific arrangement of letters would be of most help to the student. Yet once the system of alphabetization has been selected, to change it radically would involve many hours of difficult work in re-arranging all the words in the system, not merely the main heads.

This is just an example of the various types of difficulties that faced the students as they worked over the Assyrian Dictionary through the years. Assyriologists who could study directly at the Oriental Institute of Chicago, with access to the cards themselves, had a tremendous advantage over those who had to be dependent on the various lexical helps that were available elsewhere. The first volume of the dictionary is only a beginning, but it is a harbinger of good things to come, and all students of ancient civilization are deeply grateful to the Oriental Institute for bringing this project thus far on its way.

In Egypt also the greater part of the work done last year was in the field of the study of language. Epigraphers of the Oriental Institute have been busy copying inscriptions. Part of their time has been spent in copying inscriptions from monuments that may sometime be covered by the waters of the projected Aswan Dam. The preservation of this material is of great importance for our knowledge of ancient history and it is vital that it be preserved. Another part of the time of the expedition was spent in copying historical in scriptions from Rameses III at the Temple of Luxor. For the Bible student, the study of anything throwing light on the period of Rameses III is of great importance, because it is in connection with him that we learn much about the coming of the ancient Philistines, who play so great a part in the Bible. It would seem that a large group of sea-peoples, of whom the Philistines were one of the most important components, made an attack upon Egypt by land and by sea and were repulsed by Rameses 111, the last of the great native Egyptian warrior rulers. Being repulsed from Egypt, they settled in Palestine, and thus the small but very important Philistine element in Israelite history came into being.

Our knowledge of the Philistines has been very scanty in the past because of the lack of extensive excavation of Philistine cities from the period of their occupation. Some of these mounds were greatly damaged in later periods. Others are covered with much vital material from later ages, which would have to be carefully worked through before it would be possible to get down to the Philistine level. Therefore anything that can be learned from Egyptian monuments about the Philistines assumes an especially great importance to the Bible student.

Philadelphia 17, Pa.
May 7, 1957