September 20, 2006

How to Recognize a Scribal School

Part 4: Evidence for the training of scribes in Late Bronze Age Canaan

After a pause to gather thoughts and information I am at last ready to present my next installment in the series How to Recognize a Scribal School. As I previously indicated, with this post I have divided the proposed megapost on "Evidence for the training of scribes elsewhere in the Late Bronze Age Levant and in the Iron Age" into two more manageable smaller megaposts. I hope no one will be too disappointed if this turns out to be three posts in the end. Anyway, this post will focus on evidence for scribal training in the Near East at places between Ugarit and Amarna with an emphasis on Canaan. As usual, I provide a brief summary at the end of the post just above the references for those of you who would rather not get dirty in all the details and uncertainties.

To recap: In the first post of this series, I took up the use of the formal school tablets from a couple of sites in the Late Bronze Age Near East, primarily Ugarit and Amarna. In the second post, I considered how various literary texts might have been used in training scribes to read and write Akkadian and, in turn, how the scribal schools may have influenced literary texts. In the third post, I discussed "Training in the alphabetic writing system used at Ugarit and training in a second language in the Late Bronze Age." Again, I looked mostly at evidence from Ugarit and Amarna. In this post, I will look at (and for) evidence of scribal training in that geographical region that lies between Ugarit and Egypt. Perhaps you remember that the goal of the whole series is to investigate the possibility of there being a scribal school in Iron I Age and/or early Iron Age II Jerusalem. So it's time to focus a little more tightly on Canaan. This doesn't mean that I will stop looking at texts from Amarna. Many of the Amarna letters originated from places in the very region I want to consider here. As the subtitle indicates, this post will continue to look at the Late Bronze Age. Some of the material below, like the foolhardy attempt to outline a grammar of thirteenth century BCE Canaanite on the basis of nine words, may seem a little off subject. But, since this comes from material that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand, I thought this the correct place to lay the groundwork for dealing with a few difficulties that I will face in the next post.


Let's take another look at EA 30 from Amarna. It is the ancient equivalent of a passport. Moran (1987), 100, translates it as follows:

To the kings of Canaan, servants of my brother: Thus the king. I herewith send Akiya, my messenger, to speed posthaste to the king of Egypt, my brother. No one is to hold him up. Provide him with safe entry into Egypt and hand (him) over to the fortress commander of Egypt. Let [him] go on immediately, and as far as his pre(sence) are concerned, he is to owe nothing. [references deleted]

As van der Toorn, 100, notes, this letter from the king of Mitanni to "the kings of Canaan" implies that all or many of "the kings of Canaan" had someone at court or among their population who could read, a local scribe perhaps. We also know from the Amarna letters originating in Canaan and from some 45 cuneiform texts discovered in Late Bronze Age Canaan itself that there were people who could write at court in many of these petty and not so petty kingships. One of the questions I want to address in this post is, "Where were these local scribes trained?"

The Evidence for Scribal Schools in Late Bronze Age Canaan

If one relies on texts that are diagnostic of scribal schools (lexical texts, certain literary texts, etc.) one gets a preliminary, if very limited, picture of scribal training in Late Bronze Age Canaan. This picture is no doubt severely distorted by the contingencies of discover. There are only five diagnostic texts from four locations. I list them by find location in Canaan from North to South.

1) From Hazor we have a fragment of a tablet with six lines of the Harra=hubullu text on the obverse. The reverse is illegible. This fragment was found out of context. But because of the texts relationship to Emar 542:109'-117' and RS 2.(23)+ii:18-23, Horowitz and Oshima, 73, propose a Late Bronze Age date. Only a Sumerian column is extant. Much like the Harra=hubullu from Ashkelon (see below), this tablet may have been purposefully cut thus increasing the likelihood that it is an exercise tablet. Although not directly relevant to our study, the existence of indigenous scribal education in Canaan did not start in the Late Bronze Age. Omens on fragments of two liver models and an Old Babylonian multiplication table are evidence of scribal schools at Middle Bronze Age Hazor. See Horowitz and Oshima, 66-68, 78-80.

2) From Megiddo comes a large fragment of the Gilgamesh epic. Horowitz and Oshima, 102, say of this fragment,

The present fragment preserves 38 lines from the left side of a middle portion of what appears to be a single column tablet from a western version of the Middle Babylonian period Akkadian Gilgamesh Epic.

They, 105, cite the Hittite Gilgamesh account and a Gilgamesh omen from Boghazköi to explain the writing for Gilgamesh's name, mPAN.MAŠ from dGIŠ.PAN.MAŠ. While a copy of Gilgamesh is not absolutely diagnostic of a scribal school it is nonetheless a very strong indicator. Recall RS 22.219+, "En Marge' de Gilgameš" from Ugarit.

3 and 4) From Aphek, a bilingual (or perhaps trilingual) lexical tablet fragment (Aphek 5837/1) was discovered in the "house of the governor." The same archaeological context produced an undisputed trilingual lexical prism fragment (Aphek 8151/1). The archaeological context is reasonably dated on the bases of a letter from Ugarit to c. 1230 BCE. On the assumption that both the tablet and the prism once contained three languages, these languages were Sumerian, Akkadian and a West Semitic language. Neither text appears to represents a canonical lexical series. Rainey (1975), 127, says of Aphek 5837/1,

Therefore, Jacobsen (Thorkild Jacobsen, who had examined the tablet and communicated his thoughts to Rainey - DES) believes that the tablet had been broken in antiquity and "wet smoothed" by the scribe. The break would account for the loss of the previous column. If this be the case, then it suggests that the text was in fact a school text, an exercise tablet.

These texts, however fragmentary are possibly the latest "school" texts from Late Bronze Age Canaan. I will be discussing them in more detail later in this post.

5) From Ashqelon there is a fragment of a Late Bronze Age, 13th century, lexical text. This text is part of the Harra=hubullu series. It was likely a trilingual, Sumerian, Akkadian, West Semitic, text. However, only parts of the Sumerian and West Semitic columns can be read from the eight extant lines. I will take up some other aspects of this tablet later in this post. Huehnergard and van Soldt, 184-185, suggest that this tablet may have been purposely cut on the left side. If so, such purposeful destruction of the unbaked tablet is evidence that it was, like the tablet from Aphek, an exercise tablet. See also the Hazor lexical text above.

Perhaps this is the best place to address the alphabetic cuneiform abecedary written in South Semitic order that was found at Beth Shemesh (AS 33.5.165, KTU 5.24). I have written about it a couple of other times. It is becoming less and less clear to me what the function of this text and tablet was. The alphabet was written around the edge of a clay tablet in the shape of an axe head. Aside from being an abecedary, it lacks any other indication that it was a school text. For example, the writing conforms to the tablet rather than the tablet primarily being a media for the writing. While I doubt that it was written by a student scribe, I have no clear idea of its function. See Sanders (2006), 150-160, for a recent discussion of this tablet.

From the little data available, we can make a few conclusions. The education of scribes in Canaan was multilingual and relied on classical (canonical) school lists and literature as well as non-canonical training lists. In this way, it does not appear to be significantly different from what we saw at Ugarit or Amarna or many other places in the Late Bronze Age Near East.

A Late Bronze Scribal School in Jerusalem?

I think it is reasonable to extrapolate the evidence for scribal schools found at Hazor, Megiddo, Aphek, and Ashqelon and posit that there were similar schools at other major Late Bronze Age sites in Canaan; Gezer is a case in point. Well, how about Jerusalem? If there were not some considerable controversy concerning the size and importance of Jerusalem in the Late Bronze Age, I would readily add it, without additional evidence, along side of Gezer to the list of places were there is a high likelihood that there was a scribal school in this period. But indeed, there is additional evidence to bring to this question. It is not unequivocal; but it is, in my view, strongly indicative. To be clear on one point, there is no question that there was at least one scribe in Jerusalem in the Amarna Age. The question is, was there a scribal school in the sense that at least one master scribe not only practiced his craft but taught others the craft as well?

For this, we need to return to the Amarna letters. But first, a couple of definitions and explanations are in order. What I am about to say applies to the Amana Age which is that segment of the Late Bronze Age beginning about 1386 BCE and ending around 1321 BCE. Your results may vary but not by more than a very few years. While one can never be sure, it is reasonable, based on other evidence mentioned in this post, that it also applies to the end of the Late Bronze Age. How or, perhaps better, if any of these definitions apply to the Iron Age will be considered in my next post in this series. Without getting into too many details I will offer definitions of and a few comments on "Peripheral Akkadian," "Canaano-Akkadian," and "Canaanite." How this fits into the issue at hand will unfold after the review of the definitions. There is a large and growing literature on the many linguistic aspects of what follows. I hope that I have captured the most important of it and have addressed that part of it that is not supportive of the position I am taking in this post. However, as usual, I advise care on the part of my readers.

First, "Peripheral Akkadian," sometimes called Western Middle Babylonian, was the lingua franca of the Near East in the Late Bronze Age. While there are local variants, it was the language of the international correspondence written in the Akkadian texts found at Ugarit. Judgeing from the text from Aphek and the Amarna letters it was also the language of the Akkadian texts written at Ugarit. It was also the language, with its own local twists, used by the scribes at Amarna when writing to other nations and to their vassals throughout the Near East. There are examples of this language from locations ranging from Boghazköi to Egypt. It is possible, I would say likely, that there were very few native speakers of this language in the Levant other than perhaps a those professional scribes that came west from Mesopotamia. And even thpse Mesopotamian scribes would have seen the peripheral language as somewhat folksy or at least not quite right. But local scribes could read and write this language with considerable fluency and nuance.

Second, "Canaano-Akkadian," to use Izre'el's (1998b) expression, was the language, again with important variations, used in the letters found in the Amarna archives from Canaanite vassals to the Pharaoh in Egypt. A few texts in this language have also been found in Canaan and elsewhere. As we will see, there is an important geographical pattern to the variations in this language but some of these variations seem to be idiolects of individual scribes and, perhaps, local scribal traditions. For want of a better word, this language is a kind of "pidgin" where, again with exceptions, the vocabulary tends to be Middle Babylonian and the grammar tends to show various levels of Northwest Semitic influence, sometimes referred to as interference. While this considerably understates the complexity of the situation, it does provide a good first order approximation of the realities seen in these texts. Rainey (1996) wrote the definitive grammar on this language in three volumes plus a reference and index volume. While I will refer occasionally to this mammoth work, it is so detailed and so rigorous that it is often hard to see the trees for looking at the leaves. I despair at ever seeing the forest in its pages. Izre'el (1998b) covers much of the same ground in a considerably more compact way. While Rainey and Izre'el differ on several details, these differences are, in general, not important for our considerations. Again, it is unlikely that anyone spoke "Canaano-Akkadian." There is little doubt that the scribes who wrote in Canaano-Akkadian thought they were writing Akkadian and that their correspondent scribes in Egypt could read and understand what they wrote. Likewise, local scribes in Canaan could no doubt read the "proper" Peripheral Akkadian in which the Egyptian scribes wrote. See Izre'el (1987), particularly section 3, for a good discussion of these issues.

Rainey (1996), II, 346, raises an important question.

The underlying question that recurs with every discussion of a peculiarity like this one (the use of hybrid suffixes - DES) in the Canaanites' Akkadian interlanguage is that of origin. When and where did the scribes of Canaan learn to write Akkadian? Obviously, their original teachers had brought to them a very sophisticated knowledge of the finer nuances of Akkadian grammar and syntax.

Rainey does not answer this question definitively. But the obvious answer is that they learned it locally in Canaan at local scribal schools that had somehow lost their intellectual contact with the more finely nuanced Akkadian of the "north." They did see this more orthodox language in some of the Akkadian letters and documents that came to them and they were able to understand it. But their formal training was in Canaano-Akkadian or so it would appear. With a couple of notable exceptions, the further away from the Peripheral Akkadian homeland they worked the more peculiar their language became.

Third, I will use the word "Canaanite" for the (closely?) related Northwest Semitic local dialects that were actually spoken in Canaan. These dialects are known from the Northwest Semitic glosses (as opposed to their principle language, Canaano-Akkadian) in the Amarna letters from Canaan, from a few tablets found in Canaan itself and from Canaanite elements in the Canaano-Akkadian language. As in the case of Canaano-Akkadian, dialectical variations can be seen and, again, some of these variations may be idiolects of individual scribes. Variations seen in the Jerusalem dialect are significant for our considerations. Canaanite differs from Ugaritic and Amorite in important ways. A few of which I will recite below. It is also not proto-Hebrew or proto-Aramaic although it is cognate with them as it is with Ugaritic and Amorite for that matter. I will briefly take up the issue of the relationship between Canaanite and Hebrew/Aramaic in my next post in the series. I have not been able to find a good focused grammatical study of Canaanite alone. However, Sivan (1984) discusses it in considerable detail and it shows up in Rainey (1996) and Izre'el (1998b). Also, Izre'el (1987) provides a very useful discussion. Often Sivan (1984) considers Ugaritic, Alalakhian and "Canaanite" together without clearly indicating (except in notes) which is which. There are a few important and easily documented cases where he shows some of the ways Canaanite differs from Ugaritic and Amorite. The ā > ō is seen in Canaanite but not Ugaritic (Sivan [1984], 25); the proto-Semitic T becomes š in Canaanite but remains t in Ugaritic (Sivan [1984], 50). The issues with proto-Semitic Ś and Š will be taken up when we consider the Jerusalem dialect of Canaanite. There are other differences, including differences in morphology, syntax and vocabulary, between Canaanite and Ugaritic but what I have just presented should be sufficient to support the thesis that they are difference languages. Canaanite is also not Amorite. For example, proto-Semitic T, Ś and Š all become s in Amorite (Sivan [1984], 50). If one wanted to call Canaanite, anything other than "Canaanite," one might opt for "proto-Phoenician." In fact, I believe that one (or more) dialect of Canaanite is the language of those few texts that are written in the short cuneiform alphabet. But that is another issue for a different series.

After that exciting interlude, we can return to the main topic of this post. With regard to Canaano-Akkadian, Izre'el (1998b), 3, puts this issue well,

Geographical variation is dependent upon scribal tradition and scribal education. By and large, there is correlation between the provenance of a letter and its linguistic structure. The farther south one travels in Canaan the more remote becomes a CanAkk (Canaano-Akkadian -DES) text from Akkadian and the closer it becomes to the Canaanite vernacular of the region.

In other words, the further south one gets from Syria, the more likely it is that Canaano-Akkadian will be more Canaanite like and less Akkadian like but it never goes completely "native" if you'll forgive the expression. Of course, Akkadian letters written in Egypt are an exception. They are distantly "northern" in language.

There are several other exceptions to the general rule and the most important one for our purposes is seen in the Amarna letters from Jerusalem. Albright (1944), 26, first pointed out this exception. Moran's 1975 paper is the most complete focused treatment that I have found (I will cite Moran (1975) from his 2003 collected writings as Moran [2003], 249-274). Moran (2003), 249-274, details the often striking differences between the Amarna letters from Jerusalem and other letters of southern origin. These differences include differences in paleography, syllabary, orthography, Assyrianisms, vocabulary and even the style of the postscripts addressed to the scribe who would receive the letters for the Pharaoh. Several uses of glosses are unusual. The vast majority of these differences observed in the work of the scribe from Jerusalem, when compared with his neighbors, indicate a "northern" scribal tradition. As Moran (2003), 250, says, "In short, the Amarna letters from Jerusalem have a large component which we may call northern, and that is their central problem."

After discussing his views on the career of Abdi-Heba, the scribe's boss at Jerusalem, Moran (2003), 274, concludes,

On the evidence at hand, therefore we must turn elsewhere (away from Egyptian origin or locally origin - DES) and only Syria, somewhere along the border between "Reichsakkadisch" (what I call Peripheral Akkadian - DES) and "Canaanite-Akkadian," remains as a likely place of origin.

His argument rests on two points: Moran's (2003), 273-274, judgment that Abdi-Heba was in some way an outsider and that, therefore, it is likely that his scribe was an outsider also and 2) the undisputed fact that the scribes Akkadian is very "northern." How Abdi-Heba came to be a soldier who also served as governor in Jerusalem is a good question. I have addressed this in an earlier short post. My own view is that, on the evidence, Abdi-Heba could well be a usurper from within the ruling family in Jerusalem. The Amarna letters strongly indicate that he was part of the royal family of Jerusalem (EA 286:9ff and EA 288:15). There is no hint as to where he may have come if he didn't come from Jerusalem. There is certainly no hint that he himself came from Syria or was ever there. There's also no hint that he wasn't in Syria at some time. I see no reason to think, nor does Moran directly imply, that he would necessarily bring his scribe with him to Jerusalem. While the circumstances were certainly different, we know that when RibHadda of Byblos relocated to Beirut he did not take his scribe with him or perhaps more accurately he used a Beirut based scribe (Izre'el [1998], 3). On the other hand, we also know of scribes that were foreign to the place where they worked: for example, Kidin-Gula of Emar and possibly Nahiš-šalmu at Ugarit. But both of these individuals apparently came from Mesopotamia (see Cohen). So I don't think anything is to be gained by speculating about how Abdi-Heba came to power in Jerusalem, except to say that he saw himself as being in his father's house and that Pharaoh is responsible for him being there.

There is another characteristic of the Jerusalem Amarna letters that Moran (2003), 272, notes but to which he does not give sufficient weight: ". . . the presents of a large West Semitic component" in the Amarna letters from Jerusalem. Moran (2003), 273, goes on to say, "If we may define the Jerusalem scribe in geographical terms as a 'northerner,' he is no less a 'southerner' too." But as Sivan (1984), 50, passim, points out, the West Semitic component in the Jerusalem letters is itself unique: proto-Semitic Ś becomes š rather than s and proto-Semitic Š becomes s rather than š. Even if this is only an orthographic convention (see Izre'el [1998], 8 and several others including Moran [2003], 205, 264 n. 51) it represents a significant local departure for which I could find no parallels. It clearly differs from the practice seen in Amorite, Ugaritic or any other Amarna Age Canaanite dialects. Moran (2003), 264 n. 51, notes that "all the problematic cases concern place-names and possibly one or two Canaanite words; there is no confusion of the sibilants in the writing of Akkadian." I am not convinced that "taking the evidence at face value (Moran [2003], 264)," that is, taking the evidence to indicate phonetic variation is weakened by Moran's observation of the lack of support from the use of sibilants in the Jerusalem dialect of Hebrew. There is increasing evidence that Hebrew, Jerusalem dialect or not, was not a direct descendent of Canaanite, more on this in the next post. Of course, local practices in Hebrew may have been influenced by local practices in Canaanite but they may not have been also. In addition, a lot of linguistic change is possible in the over 200 years between the time the Canaanite language, as reflected in the Amarna letters, was spoken in Jerusalem and the earliest Hebrew that was spoken on a regular basis there. While the variants described above could be part of an idiosyncratic practice of the scribe of the Jerusalem Amarna letters, I think it more likely that it reflects the Jerusalem dialect of Canaanite or at a minimum a Jerusalem orthographic tradition when writing Canaanite and Canaanite place names. If so, the scribe of these letters was steeped in the local Canaanite language but trained in a more orthodox, "northern" version of Akkadian. While one might suggest that he was a local product that when away to school, where did he go? Even though his Akkadian is "northern" in the way we have been using the word, Moran (2003), 274, eliminates Egypt; ". . . there is absolutely nothing in the language of the Egyptian scribes that even remotely resembles the interference component, both West Semitic and Assyrian, we find in the Jerusalem letters." I agree. Certainly Moran's suggestion that the scribe was trained in Syrian would account for all of the Akkadian elements, including the Assyrian elements, that are seen in his work but it would not account for the uniquely Jerusalem Canaanite elements (or, perhaps, unique Jerusalem orthography). It is for this reason that I suggest that there was a long standing, who long I do not know, "conservative" Akkadian school in Jerusalem from which our scribe learned his "northern" ways but like other scribal traditions in Canaan over time this "conservative" training gave way to a form of Canaanitization that was noticeably different from that seen in the Canaano-Akkadian from other southern Canaanite cities.

Some additional support for there being a scribal school in Jerusalem may be found in the occurrence of a proverb in EA 288:32-33. See more on this below. To be sure, not much weight can be given to a single proverbial expression; after all it could have been learned somewhere else. However, it's occurrence does give some slight reinforcement to the thesis presented here.

A side note: Because of the eventual importance of Jerusalem in the history of the major western monotheistic religions, it is hard not to think that Jerusalem was always somehow special. In fact, I singled it out here because of its future importance. But, despite that future importance, whatever uniqueness it had in the Late Bronze Age should not be overstated. Every Egyptian vassal in Canaan, in fact, every city and every kingdom in the Levant was unique in someway or other. The current debate on the size and importance of Jerusalem in the Bronze Age is driven in part by contemporary political efforts to minimize or maximize its importance at the beginning of the Iron Age. A paper by Na'aman (1996) provides one of the more adult portrayals of the problems faced in dealing with both the archaeological evidence and the written evidence concerning Jerusalem in the Late Bronze Age and beyond. To be sure, Na'aman has a position, even a political position, but he supports his historical conclusions with a sober assessment of the evidence. Among his several conclusions is the following,

No negative conclusions about Jerusalem in the LB II and Iron I-IIa may be drawn from the results of excavations conducted on the Ophel Hill. Its political position in the hill country in these periods may be established only by the examination of other data (i.e. the Amarna letters for the Late Bronze II period - DES, Na'aman [1996], 304)

His reasons for this conclusion are sound. I'll have more to say about this in the next post.

Have I proven that there was a scribal school in Jerusalem in the Amarna Age? Far from it. However, I believe that the various pieces of evidence converge to provide strong circumstantial support for the existence of the "Jerusalem Academy" in the Late Bronze Age.

To recap, there is

  • Strong diagnostic evidence for scribal schools at places like Hazor, Megiddo, Aphek and Ashqelon
  • Evidence of a unique Canaanite dialect (or orthography) reflected in the Amarna letters from Jerusalem combined with a very "northern" Canaano-Akkadian variation.
  • Remembering that this could have been learned else where, the occurrence of a proverbial sentence in one of the Amarna letters from Jerusalem.

Without establishing a base of evidence and I am not sure that one can be established, it would improper to cite a continuity of scribal traditions into the Iron I Age as additional evidence for a Late Bronze Age scribal school in Jerusalem. As you will see in my next post, the argument that needs to be supported is in exactly the opposite direction.

Post Amarna Age Canaanite as Seen in Texts from Aphek and Ashqelon

I now want to return to the academic texts from Aphek and Ashqelon for two reasons. First, they move us closer to the end of the Late Bronze Age than do any of the texts from the Amarna period. They come from the twelfth century BCE. The Aphek texts are nearly 100 years more recent than anything from Amarna. And while the Ashqelon tablet cannot be dated with the accuracy of the Aphek texts, it is from the same general period. Second, these three texts contain a very small sample of the Canaanite language from this period. While my interests in the Canaanite language is not directly related to the issue of scribal schools there are nonetheless important things to be learned from a brief look at the Canaanite language as reflected in these three texts. The following transliterations rely primarily on Horowitz and Oshima who closely followed Rainey (1975) who Aphek 5837/1 and Rainey (1976) who first published Aphek 8151/1 and Huehnergard and van Soldt, 184-192, who first published the Ashqelon lexical fragment. I reproduce only those portions of the texts that have readable Canaanite words. The ":" is used for the gloss mark and English translations are placed in parentheses.

Aphek 5837/1 (Horowitz and Oshima, 29-30):

Column ii:
9' ]            KÚR : ta-á[r-gi-gu]   (evil doer)
10' ] x KA     GU4 : al-p[u . . .        (ox)

Notes: Rainey (1975), 126, reconstructs the Canaanite for every West Semitic word in the first nine lines. While I believe these reconstructions are likely valid, they are not helpful for our purposes. Rainey (1975), 127, explains the options for the West Semitic word in line 9' and concludes that tārgigu after Akkadian targīgu is the best of several difficult choices.

Aphek 8151/1 (Horowitz and Oshima, 31-32):

1' . . . A].MEŠ             : ma-wu : mu-mi     (water)
2' . . .   GEŠI]N. MEŠ  : ka-ra-nu : ye-nu    (wine)
3'                         . . . :   ša-am-nu :          (oil)
4' (traces of signs only)
5'                         . . . di-iš-pu:] du?-uš-bu (honey?)

Notes: Rainey (1976), 139, followed by Horowitz and Oshima, 32, suggests that the West Semitic word is missing in line 3' because the Akkadian had the same orthography. As Rainey notes, any reading of line 5' is hard to explain. If the West Semitic reading is correct then it implies the Akkadian reconstruction.

Ashqelon 97-50.49.L485 (Horowitz and Oshima, 42-43):

Column i:****
1' . . . ia-ar-h]u             (month)
2' . . . ia-ar]-hi              (within a month*)
3' . . . t]i ia-ar-hi**       (until the beginning of the month*)
4' . . . t]i ia-ar-hi           (until the end of the month*)
5' . . . ma-a]l-sà-mu-ti  (day of the running*)
6' . . . i]a-ar-hi              (new moon*)
7' . . . ša-nu-ti ***        (new year*)
8' (traces of signs only) (month name*)

* The translations are based on other Harra=hubullu tablets, primarily from Ugarit (RS 20.133, unpublished) and Emar (text 541) and follow Huehnergard and van Soldt, 191. Huehnergard and van Soldt, 191, say, "The Ashkelon text follow the Emar version exactly." By this they mean, the sequence of the text and not the content of anything other than the original Sumerian column, which is not extant on Ashqelon 97-50.49.L485

** The hi in line 3' is actually below the other signs and is indented. Huehnergard and van Soldt, 191, call this "run over" line 3a'.

*** Based on the form of the NU sign seen in Hazor 13:1 and elsewhere, Horowitz and Oshima, 42, read ša-nu-ti where Huehnergard and van Soldt, 191, read ša-na?-ti.

**** Lines 2'-8' of Column ii certainly all contained UGU plus something else.

On the assumption that the West Semitic entries in these three texts represent the same language or nearly the same language, what can we say about that language? The truth is, not much. But a few observations are possible.

First, the nouns are clearly declined using the u for the nominative and i for genitive. The accusative, certainly a, is not represented.

Second, the masculine plural is -umi (mu-mi, Aphek 8151/1:1). If it were not for the parallels that Rainey (1976), 138, points out, we might otherwise expect the form to be -u/ima as at Ugarit and in several of the Amarna letters (eg. EA 146:20 from Trye where "water[s] is spelled mi-ma in a gloss). The parallels to -u/imi are found in EA 252:30 (šu-sú-mi a-bi-ia, "the despoilers of my father") from Sheckem and EA 287:55 (8 LÚ.MEŠú-bi-li-mi harrānāt šarriri, "eight porters for the caravans of the king") from Jerusalem. One cannot be sure that -u/imi is the most common form of the masculine plural in any of these dialects but it does seem to be a form that was used with some words or on some occasions. Rainey (1976), 138, makes this surprising comment,

So the best we can say is that the new Aphek spelling, mu-mi, may represent an attenuation of the final vowel of the plural suffix, *mūma > *mūmi (or mūme?), a possible intermediate stage prior to the complete dropping of the vowel in Hebrew.

I am not sure that Rainey would make that exact statement today but he may be correct that it is the first stage in a more global (Levantine) process of dropping the final vowel of the plural from several languages on the way to dropping case ending also. We will need to deal with a little this issue later in this series as we test to see if a bridge can be constructed from Late Bronze Age scribal practices to Iron Age scribal practices.

Third, the word malsamūti in Ashqelon 97-50.49.L485 is understood by Huehnergard and van Soldt as an "abstract noun based on malsamu and formed with the afformative -ūt (attested in both Akkadian and Hebrew)." Friedrich and Röllig, 99, note that the suffix -t (īt/ūt) also occurs in Phoenician. The suffix of this noun is reflected in ha-at-nu-ta in the fifteenth century BCE letter found at Ta'anak (2:24 [EŞ 2789]) which was from Rahov, perhaps tell Rahov in the Beth-Shean Valley. Hatnūtu/a/i is also known in Old Babylonian. For that reason, not much can be made of the Ta'anak example. However, ri-pu-ú-ti (ripûti) in EA 269:17 is likely a West Semitic word meaning "medication." Based on the personal name, Milkilu, this tablet came from Gazru (Gezer).

Fourth, if the reading is correct, and this is a big IF, then du?-uš-bu in Aphek 8151/1:5' may represent a form of this noun with the same order of the consonants seen in Akkadian. This is likely a metathesis of the proto-Semitic root, *DBŠ; see Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic [become black or brown, honey color]). On this, see Rainey, 1976, 139. Should we read the Canaanite dušbu? As Rainey correctly says of this word, "Under the present circumstances, all suggestions must be conjectural."

Seeking parallels with the vocabulary itself, we find only three word that are otherwise not part of proper names that have parallel in other Canaanite or related sources. For the first two of these, I have relied in part on the Glossary provided by Sivan (1984), 185-295, but, in an effort to be brief (believe it or not) I have not included the many interesting cases where some of these forms are imbedded in proper names in texts from Ugarit and elsewhere that he cites. See also Hoftijzer and Jongeling (1995) which Izre'el (1998a) reviews and supplements in important ways. The diligent reader may what to check out the relevant proper names.

  • For ia-ar-hi, Sivan, 289, cites a close parallel from Alalah (AT 188:24), ya-ar-hi.
  • For mu-mi (water[s]) we find mé-e-ma in EA 148:31 but mi-ma in line 13 and again mi-ma in EA 155:10. In addition, I have already noted mi-ma in EA 146:20 from Trye. It is worth noting that the examples from EA 148:31 and 155:10 are both preceded by an abbreviation for MEŠ, the plural determinative.
  • For ša-nu-ti we find ša?-na!?-tu4 in a polyglot vocabulary from Ugarit. See Heuhnergard (1987),182, for detailed reference. The Ugaritic column for this line in RS 20.149 III:1 is unreadable.

It's hard to know what to make of these observations. There is very little to go on and one cannot be sure about possible issues of local variants in dialect. Perhaps one can see some evolution in language. For example, ūtu/i/a as apposed to ītu/i/a in abstract nouns, umi as opposed to uma in masculine plurals. If we add šanūti as opposed to šanātu/a/i to our list of evidence, and look in it as an abstract noun (feminine plural?) suffix it is just possible that we can see a preference for ū over a. In the case of proto-Semitic a and ā, there is a tendency for a and ā to become o in Phoenician (Friedrich and Röllig, 29-31). Far more evidence is required before one will be able to make very strong statements along these lines.

Another issue must be broached before we move on. The written language is in all likelihood more conservative than the spoken language. This observation applies to Canaanite itself. The written language may from time to time give hints of how the local language was actually spoken. However, we can never be completely certain that we are seeing clearly through the writing to the vernacular language. In the next post, it will be necessary to deal with a few linguistic phenomena like the loss of case endings in most (all?) West Semitic languages. Is it possible that case endings and final vowels on plurals were already gone from the Canaanite vernacular when these three school texts were written and that forms like *mūmi/e are subtle indications that this had already happened and not, as Rainey suggested, "an intermediate stage prior" to their loss?

Evidence for Wisdom Traditions is Late Bronze Age Canaan

In 1943, William Albright called EA 252:16-19 "an archaic Hebrew proverb." Moran (1987), 305, translates it "Moreover, when an ant is attack, does it not fight back and bite the hand of the man that struck it?" This is not far from Albright's translation, "Further, if ants are smitten, they do not receive (the smiting passively) but the bite the hand of the man who smites them." While few if any would call this a "Hebrew proverb," archaic or not, these days, it does seem correct to call it a Canaanite proverb. The language is more Canaanite than Canaano-Akkadian and the saying has the general characteristic of a proverb. It may well reflect a Canaanite tradition. One can see other "ant" proverbs in Proverbs 6:6 and 30:25 but they are not really parallel examples of the Amarna Age proverb from Gezer (?). van der Toorn (2000), 107, catalogs seven other proverbs. I follow Moran's (1987) translation.

  • "For lack of a cultivator, my field is like a women without a husband" (From Byblos letters EA 74:17-18; 75:15-17; 81:37-38; 90:42-44). Marcus (1973), 281ff has pointed out various Mesopotamian parallels as well as others (apud Moran [1987], 144. Sorry for the apud, I thought I had the Marcus paper but I cannot find it. I decided to go ahead with the post because it would require another trip to UCLA's library to see the paper and the several days' delay that goes along with it. There has been enough delay.)
  • "Like a bird trapped in a trap [gloss: cage], so am I in Gubla" (EA 74:45-48; 79:35-38; 81:34-36; 105:8-10 [but with reference to Şumer] and 116:18-19 ["It is like a bird in a trap (gloss: cage)," again with reference to Şumer])
  • "Now you are going to come into an empty house" (EA 102:11-12 from Byblos) But compare EA 316:18-20 from Yurşa, "There was nothing in my house when I entered it" and Ta'anch 2:6, "I have entered an empty house." There is at least one Old Assyrian parallel (see Moran (1987), 175, n. 3. "Empty house" may imply the loss of secession to the throne (see Moran [1987], 348, n.5).
  • "Should we go up to sky [gloss: ša-me-ma] or should we go down to the netherworld, our head [gloss: ru-šu-nu] is in your hand." (EA 264:15-19, from Tagi of ?)
  • "I am situated like a ship in the middle of the sea" (EA 288:32-33, from Jerusalem). The Akkadian here shows no definitive sign of Canaanitesms. While I could not find a direct parallel, I saw struck with the image portrayed a few passages from the Egyptian "Journey of Wen-Amon." For example 2:74-75, "So, he loaded me and sent me away from there, from the harbor of the sea, and the wind drove me to the land of Alashiya (See Fisher's, 58, for this translation.)." One is also remained of the likely quite late Proverbs 30:19c and to a lesser extent Proverbs 23:34a where the image is very different.
  • "One brick may move from under its partner, still I will not move from under the feet of the king, my lord." (EA 266:19-25 [Tagi] ; 292:13-17 [Adda-danu]; 296:16-22 [Yahtiru]) While EA 292 mentions Gezer in a favorable light, I'm not sure that van der Toorn, 107, is correct in seeing all three of these tablets as being from Gezer or even from the same place. Note that EA 296:16 glosses SIG4 (Akkadian libittu) with la-bi-tu, otherwise it is written SIG4TU<.
  • I have become like a (bronze) vessel [gloss: pot] given in pledge" (EA 297:12-14 from Gezer. Here I deviate slightly from Moran [1987], 339, better to illustrate the use of the gloss, sí-ri).

Any one of these, except possibly the "ant" proverb in EA 252:16-19, taken alone would not amount to much. But together, they are indicative of a wisdom tradition in Late Bronze Age Canaan. It is noteworthy that EA 81 from Byblos uses two proverbs one following the other. I do not mean to imply that they were in this order in some collection of wisdom sayings; rather my point is limited to the observation that multiple sayings were known from a single place. It is also noteworthy that several of them have Mesopotamian parallels. As I discussed in an earlier post, wisdom literature is part of the common property of scribal traditions and scribal schools in the Near East.

The Problem of the Shechem Letter

A cuneiform letter was discovered in 1926 at Tel-Balaţa (Shechem). The controversy that it has engendered and the fact some think that it illuminates scribal training in Canaan requires that I address it here.

The range of interpretation of this letter has been very broad indeed. There is even controversy about the age of the tablet itself. For example, based on several signs and one instance of mimmation, Horowitz and Oshima, 121, suggest that it is Old Babylonian and therefore date it to the Late Middle Bronze Age. They are not alone in this dating. Others such as Demsky, largely on the basis of lexical and archaeological evidence, date it to the Late Bronze Age, specifically the 14th century BCE. Rainey (1996), III, 74-89, notes the use of a subordinating conjunction typical of the Amarna letters. But the real controversy is about the subject of the letter and if the letter has nothing to do with scribal training then I do not need to attack the subject of date here. There is a fairly substantial literature on this tablet. Horowitz and Oshima, 121, list the works that need be consulted. For the sake of simplicity, I will consider the Demsky and Horowitz and Oshima interpretations.

The focus of the dispute is on lines 10 and, most importantly, 11, plus, for the sake of continuity, 12 and 13. Demsky, 168, who thinks this tablet is an important source of knowledge about scribal training in Canaan, reads these lines,

10) şú-ha-ru-ú ša it-ti-ya              The Children who are with me
11) il-ta-na-ma-du                        continue to learn
12) a-bu-šu-nu ù um-ma-šu-nu     I am their father and their mother
13) ka-la [umimi an-ni-]ka-a         every day alike [ . . . ]

On the other hand, Horowitz and Oshima, 121, read these lines

10) şú-ha-ru-ú ša it-ti-ia              The junior attendants who are with me
11) il-ta-na-ba-ţù                         keep on suffering.
12) a-bu-šu-nu ù um-ma-š[u-nu   Their fathers and th[eir] mothers
13) ka-la [šu-nu . . . . . -k]a-a      all of [them are/have . . . y]ou!

Note, Horowitz and Oshima number Demsky's line 13 "Reverse 1." To aid in the comparison, I have used Demsky's line numbering above.

Independent of how line 13 is restored, two items make up the crux of the argument: 1) who were the şuhāru in line 10 and 2) what is the reading and meaning of the verb in line 11? First, şuhārû do not appear to be simply children but young servants in training or as Horowitz and Oshima, 72 and 121, call them "junior apprentices/attendants." They are a special class of children and youth. Of course, they may indeed have been scribes or student scribes as Na'aman (2004), 94, suggests. More important is the reading of il-ta-na-ma/ba-du/ţù in line 11. On the one hand, if one reads the fourth sign as MA and takes the last sign as du (it could be read either du or ţù) then an understanding of "they continue to learn (from lamādu)" is in order. This is how Demsky and some others read this word. On the other hand, if one reads the fourth sign as BA, one is more or less forced to read the last sign ţù and interpret the line, "they keep on suffering" from the somewhat unusual labāţu. Horowitz and Oshima, 123, did an independent collation of this tablet and compared the MA/BA signs in this line with the comparable signs in lines 2, 3, 7, 9, 12. They concluded that the sign in line 11 should be read BA. The Horowitz and Oshima, 122, reading must be respected. Therefore, there is nothing in this text other than the word şuhāru that in anyway reflects teaching or learning. Everything about this tablet reflects a strong complaint about neglect by the person to whom the letter was addressed toward both author himself and certain şuhāru that are with him.

Summary and Conclusions

There is diagnostic evidence in the form of school texts from Late Bronze Age Hazor, Megiddo, Aphek and Ashqelon for local scribal schools in Canaan. At least some of the Late Bronze Age Canaanite scribes studied at one of these centers. The contingencies of discovery allow one to surmise that there were other such centers. The education of scribes was multilingual and relied on classical school lists and literature as well as non-classical training lists plus local and international wisdom traditions. It is not clear how, or if, local literary traditions, other than wisdom, were used. In this way, scribal training does not appear to be significantly different from what we saw at Ugarit or Amarna or many other places in the Late Bronze Age Near East. There is strong, if circumstantial, evidence that suggests a scribal school at Jerusalem in the Amarna age. This evidence primarily consists of the unique characteristics of the local Canaanite dialect or orthographic.

As witnessed by texts from Aphek, bilingual or even trilingual training continued to the end of the Late Bronze Age. Training in reading and writing the local Canaanite dialect was part of a scribes formal schooling in the Late Bronze Age.

In the next post I will look at Iron Age evidence for scribal training in Canaan and environs.


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Albright, William F., "A Prince of Taanach in the Fifteenth Century B. C.," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 94, Feb., 1944, 12-27

Cohen, Yoram, "Kidin-Gula - The Foreign Teacher at the Emar Scribal School," Revue d'Assyriologie, XCVIII, 2004, 81-100

Demsky, Aaron, "The Education of Canaanite Scribes in the Mesopotamian Cuneiform Tradition," in Bar-Ilan Studies in Assyriology, Jacob Klein and Aaron Skaist eds., Jerusalem: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1990, 157-170

Fisher, Loren, Three Egyptian Stories: Sinuhe, The Enchanted Prince and Wen-Amon, Willits, California: Fisher Publications, 2006

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Na'aman, Nadav, "The Contribution of the Amarna Letters to the Debate on Jerusalem's Political Position in the Tenth Century B. C. E.," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 304, Nov., 1996, 17-27

Na'aman, Nadav, "Four Notes on the Size of Late Bronze Age Canaan," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 313, Feb., 1999, 31-37

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Posted by DuaneSmith at September 20, 2006 07:54 PM | Read more on Scribal Schools |

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