The Scribes Of Late Bronze Age Jerusalem

Back in September of 2006, I made a valiant effort to adduce evidence for a scribal school in Late Bronze Age Jerusalem. Here’s the evidence as I summarized it at the time.

  • 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 elsewhere, the occurrence of a proverbial sentence in one of the Amarna letters from Jerusalem.

While I found this evidence somewhat satisfying, I doubt that it convinced anyone else. That’s the main reason I haven’t tried to develop and formally publish my thoughts on the subject.
If I were writing that post today, it would certainly contain a lengthy discussion of the Bronze Age Jerusalem 1 tablet fragment just published by Eilat Mazar, Wayne Horowitz, Takayoshi Oshima and Yuval Goren and their discussion of it and the Amarna letters from Jerusalem.
In that early post I quoted Moran (2003), 272, “If we may define the Jerusalem scribe in geographical terms as a ‘northerner,’ he is no less a ‘southerner’ too.” By “northerner,” Moran means that many of the scribe’s usages are similar to those seen in the Amarna letters from Syria and by “southerner” he means tablets primarily from Palestine. In general, northern Akkadian tablets from Amarna have little if any Canaanite interference while southern Amarna tablets have significant Canaanite interference. Excluding tablets written at Amarna itself, generally, the further south one goes the greater the Canaanite interference. I wrote quite a bit about this in that earlier post. In several important ways, the Amarna tablets from Jerusalem are exceptions. Mazar et., (here Horowitz and Oshima) 10, note that the actual sign forms of the Amarna letters from Jerusalem are also northern. They call this ductus “higher.”

Our impression is that the tablets of Abdi-Heba may be characterised as ‘higher’ rather than ‘lower’, in that they most often make use of standard Babylonian forms, for example the Babylonian A, NA and KA forms (see above), although some signs, notably TI, LUGAL and KI, may be classified as belonging to the ‘lower’ western type. Within these parameters, some variation may be noted, suggesting that the available Abdi-Heba letters were not all necessarily written by the same scribe.

They further note, 11, n. 15, other differences among the Jerusalem tablets from Amarna.

  • EA 286-288, lengthier, well executed, sharp tablet edges
  • EA 289-290, shorter, less well executed, rounded tablet edges

If these observations are true and I see no reason to think they aren’t, then as they say, “the available Abdi-Heba letters were not all necessarily written by the same scribe.” The Jerusalem Amarna letters may well reflect the work of two (or more) scribes. Now for the really abnormally interesting part:

Little or nothing on Jerusalem 1 betrays the fact that our fragment is from the west. All this, again, places the ductus of Jerusalem 1 much nearer the ‘high’ end of the spectrum than the ‘low’ end. Yet the differences between Jerusalem 1 and EA 285–290 do not allow us to identify the scribe of Jerusalem 1 with the scribe (or, more likely, scribes) of the Abdi-Heba letters. In fact, it is our impression that the scribe of Jerusalem 1 shows greater expertise than the scribes of Abdi-Heba in EA 285–290.

There are many “ifs” in all this. Should we believe that Horowitz and Oshima have identified three Late Bronze Age scribes at Jerusalem? Even given the rather large set of uncertainties, I think this is a reasonable conclusion. I have more problems with their identifying Jerusalem 1 as a file copy of a letter Abdi-Heba sent to the Pharaoh. The evidence for this seems weaker than the evidence for us now having samples of the work of three different Jerusalem scribes.
Not taking all the ifs into account and launching into my own wild speculation, one way to interpreter the relationship between the three scribes is as follows: The “high” northern scribe of Jerusalem 1 was the academic father, if not the direct teacher of one or both of the other two. In other words, Moran, 274, may not be right that the scribe of the Amarna tablets from Jerusalem was Syrian but his (or should I say their?) teacher may have been. And while the training of the scribes of the Amarna Jerusalem tablets was very northern, their own idiosyncratic practices allowed some southern elements to interfere in their Akkadian. If this is so, then Jerusalem 1, or its text, is older by at least one generation of scribes than the Amarna letters from Jerusalem. Wild speculation? Yes, but remember, this is a blog.
In another post, I will take up the possibility that Jerusalem 1, the letter from governor of Ugarit to the governor at in Tel Aphek and perhaps one or more of Amarna letters served as teaching models. Was scribal pedagogy their original purpose or were they possibly re-purposed? Stay tuned.

Mazar, Eilat, Wayne Horowitz, Takayoshi Oshima and Yuval Goren, “A Cuneiform Tablet from the Ophel in Jerusalem,” IEJ, 60:1 (2010), 4-21
Moran, William L., Amarna Studies, Collected Writings, John Heuhnergard and Shlomo Izre’el eds, Harvard Semitic Studies, 54, Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2003