Assyrian Vassal Treaty Found at Tell Tayinat

From the Ottawa Citizen:

Canadian archeologists in Turkey have unearthed an ancient treaty written in cuneiform that could have served as a model for the biblical description of God’s covenant with the Israelites.
The tablet, dating from about 670 BC, is a treaty between the powerful Assyrian king and his weaker vassal states, written in a highly formulaic language very similar in form and style to the story of Abraham’s covenant with God in the Hebrew Bible, says University of Toronto archeologist Timothy Harrison.
Although biblical scholarship differs, it is widely accepted that the Hebrew Bible was being assembled around the same time as this treaty, the seventh century BC.
Harrison’s dig at Tell Tayinat revealed tens of thousands of items last summer, including the tablet. It measured 43×28 centimetres, with 650 and 700 tiny lines of script — and was smashed to pieces. Still, at least the pieces were all in one place. Dozens of similar smashed tablets were scattered.

Assyrian vassal treaties have been studied for a century and compared and contrasted with biblical documents, especially the book of Deuteronomy.  As the article says, some scholars believe that Deuteronomy is composed in the style of an Assyrian vassal treaty, which would date this “book of Moses” to the 7th century.  Other scholars find that Deuteronomy has more similarities with Hittite vassal treaties from the Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 BC), which would comport with the biblical dating of the book and not require that it be a fraud, pious or otherwise. 

Kenneth Kitchen has done (and continues to do) significant work on the subject.  In On the Reliability of the Old Testament, he wrote:

Sinai and its two renewals—especially the version in Deuteronomy—belong squarely within phase V, within 1400-1200, and at no other date. The impartial and very extensive evidence (thirty Hittite-inspired documents and versions!) sets this matter beyond any further dispute. It is not my creation, it is inherent in the mass of original documents themselves, and so cannot be gainsaid, if the brute facts are to be respected (pp. 278-88; emphasis original).

The implications of this debate are very significant, and I look forward to Kitchen’s future publication.  And everyone can be grateful for the outstanding work by Harrison and the Tayinat team.  An earlier version of this article includes a close-up photo.

HT: Paleojudaica

Update: The University of Toronto press release can be read here. The 2009 Seasonal Report for the Tayinat Archaeological Project is here (pdf).  Thanks to Joe Lauer for the links.


10 thoughts on “Assyrian Vassal Treaty Found at Tell Tayinat

  1. The "biblical dating" of the book? Last time I checked Deuteronomy didn't have a publication date. Which leads to my next question… Why would it be a fraud if it was written in seventh century?

  2. Ken – the very first words of the book: "These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan…."

    I'm not sure which way you want to go from here. If you're challenging the "biblical dating" of Moses, I would take you to 1 Kings 6:1. If you want to argue that Mose spoke these words in the Late Bronze Age but they were only written down in this book in the 7th century that's something different (and almost no one does that; the whole point of the 7th century dating is that Deuteronomy is "too advanced" for the LB). It's a fraud because it presents itself as something other than what it actually is.

  3. This is a modernist and unnecessarily literalistic interpretation of that passage. Read Thucydides for a less modernist take on the character of speeches in ancient historiography and literature. There is nothing in that verse that demands that the words are dictated from or written by Moses in the Bronze Age. In fact the latter is counter-intuitive even by modern standards because of the third person. Except in Facebook and on blogger comments, I don't know of too many situations in which authors begin their own speeches by writing, "These are the words of PN." If the author(s) abide by and the audience understands the literary conventions at play, it is only a fraud by your standards, not by theirs.

  4. Ken:
    You say: "If the author(s) abide by and the audience understands the literary conventions at play, it is only a fraud by your standards, not by theirs."

    You're going against the grain of mainstream scholarship here, which says that Deut (at least in part) was produced by Josianic loyalists in order to legitimatize the reform. In other words, Josiah and his entourage had an agenda when they produced (again, parts of) the book: they wanted to try to make the people believe that multiple places of worship was already condemned by Moses. You're hard pressed, however, to find any mainline scholars who actually believe that Josiah & Co. were actually "telling the truth" when they produced Deut.

    So, mainline scholarship argues that the author(s) of Deut wanted its audience to believe something which wasn't true. The upshot of this is that if the audience didn't take Deut to be the product of Moses, then they would have been reading the book in a way which was not indented by its author(s).

    "Fraud"–the word Todd uses–is an appropriate word.

  5. Ken – it's not a modernistic reading of the passage. Deuteronomy was held to be the product of Moses *until* the modern period. It's only moderns, for reasons entirely external to the text, who have denied the claims of the book.

  6. @Todd, you are assuming a theory of authorship and texts that largely didn't exist in the ancient world, especially before the classical period. We have very few cases in the pre-Classical world of strong authorship. Texts were transmitted, copied, and recopied within communities of scribes. In the case of the Torah, the attribution originally depends on Moses' authority, not his authorship. In my mind, this is not only where the overwhelming evidence points but anything else turns the whole lot of ancient scribes into con artists and all ancient audiences into a bunch of naive simpletons.

    @Benj, it is true that many scholars see it as a fraud because they associate specious motives to Hilkiah's alleged "discovery" of it in the temple at the time of Josiah. Nevertheless, if there is fraud at work, then it would be Hilkiah's doing. The text itself reflects the conventions of the ancient world in which such texts were constantly being written and rewritten. The attribution of words to Moses would not have been seen by the scribes themselves as the exact, verbatim words of Moses. Instead, those words would have been understood as standing in the tradition related to Moses and therefore claiming and in this case carrying the authority of Moses (at least to the extent that a given community accepted a text as authoritative). The scribes therefore were justified in pointing this tradition into the mouth of Moses. As Thucydides even in the classical era makes plain, scribes took for granted that direct speech was an opportunity for interpretation. It's also consistent with the fact that in more mundane documents and administrative texts we find scribes encouraging the reader/orator to speak eloquently on their behalf. Moreover, in Deuteronomy, the legal material also represents an age-old practice of updating, expanding, and revising laws in the tradition of a lawgiver. There's nothing fraudulent about that, except to the modern mind that thinks books have to have an author and are published and copyrighted at a given point in time, and if a revised edition is issued then you need the second author to identify himself and a new publication date given. Geez, these scribes were not Random House. The degree to which books were ascribed to certain individuals depended entirely on authority and the perceived continuity of tradition. Deuteronomy quite clearly presents a legal tradition reflecting a later context of kingship and centralization. It quite obviously updates and revises laws to that end (and other ends) and ingeniously situates the narrative framework on the cusp of entering the land. Just as with myth, the scribes weren't interested in historicity as we are; instead, they were interested in truth as they understood it. If it was true, historicity was irrelevant (which is not to say that authentic historical traditions aren't preserved–they obviously are). Again, that's not fraud… it's just a different way of understanding how literature, history, law, and intellectual property rights work.

  7. My point is this: I think the post reflects a false dichotomy that assumes Deuteronomy is only authentic if it was written by Moses and fraudulent if it wasn't, not least because it does not even claim for itself Mosaic authorship. My sense is that a majority of scholars would agree that that is a false dichotomy. Indeed, even the Catholic Church has given its imprimatur to scholarship that asserts "pseudepigraphal" authorship for books not only of the Old Testament but also the New Testament. "Pseudepigraphy" was so prevalent in the ancient Near East that one would be hard pressed to suggest that it was always perceived by either the scribes or the audiences to be fraudulent, so much so that term "pseudepigraphy" is itself unnecessarily pejorative.

  8. Ken – concerning your last sentence in particular, I think there is far less evidence than some believe. The scholarly premise is that the ancients were easily fooled, and I do not accept that. In Donelson's study of Pseudipigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles, he writes of both Christian and non-Christian works, "No one ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know a single example."

    For biblical documents, the single most important factor for their authority was their authorship. The early church (to use one example where we have more evidence) was very concerned about pseudonymity, and they rejected all they deemed to be such. There are other examples in the non-Christian world, but even if there were none, the whole nature of Israelite prophecy and the uniqueness of divine revelation puts it in a different category.

    With Deuteronomy (and other OT works), it is striking how concerned the writer was with historical details when, according to moderns, they didn't understand truth the way that we understand truth (e.g., we would consider Deut 1:3 to be a flat lie if it on the 1st day of the 11th month Moses did not proclaim these words, whereas they didn't care).

    Another thing with Deuteronomy is that the book itself condemns to death anyone who would do scholars claim was done – a 7th century writer create this work and put it into the mouth of Moses (cf. Deut 18:20). If I was the pious forger, I certainly wouldn't have made that up! For lots of other things, I can see someone later inventing, but why create a history that makes you look so bad? Why deny Moses entrance into the Promised Land? Why create laws no one ever obeys? Why tell me that the Emites used to be called Rephaites (2:10), etc. If it was written in the 7th century, it's a fraud. And had someone dared to try, they would have known it in an instant. I imagine that if the ancients peered ahead into our world today, they'd know very well who has a problem discerning what is true and what is not.

  9. Todd, I don't think you are understanding the nuance of my position. Your arguments assume strong authorship was the norm and demanded by both scribes and audiences when it manifestly was not. The tradition of anonymous and pseudepigraphical work is widespread–a simple look at the Septuagint, the DSS, or Charlesworth's volume is sufficient to prove that point. It's also possible to examine parallel literature in Canaan, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia, which also often eschews strong authorship. In general, works were often accepted if the community deemed them in continuity with the tradition.

    I see nothing in Deut. 18:20 that condemns a scribe writing the work in the seventh century. That being said, if I was a pious forger that's EXACTLY the sort of thing I would include–in fact I would include a stronger statement–in order to give the work the aura of "authenticity". I would also include dates and obscure "historical" facts to achieve verisimilitude. Nevertheless, I do not see it as invention in the way that you are suggesting that I would. It's more akin to something like David McCullough's John Adams, except where oral tradition or sources were not available or in direct speech, the ancient historiographer/scribe had license to present the "spirit" or "meaning" of what he thought would have been said or done or what he thought it applied to his present.

    Regarding the early Church fathers, I agree they were concerned with authorship. They were the first to really demonstrate an interest in strong authorship as a criteria for canon. The irony, of course, is that they appear to have incorrectly attributed several works, esp. Matthew and John, which were written anonymously! If God had been interested in strong authorship as a criteria for authority, he failed big time. He should have inspired the biblical writers to sign their documents or get copyright. As it stands, there is so much ambiguity regarding authorship that it is manifestly not the single most or even an important factor for establishing authority. Authority of the biblical documents is rooted in their preservation by the community of faith and the ongoing affirmation of the Church.

    In any case, I'm really not trying to dissuade you of your dating of Deuteronomy. I only thought it was false choice to suggest that Deuteronomy is either Mosaic or a fraud. I happily accept that Deuteronomy is neither Mosaic in final form nor a fraud.

  10. Ken – I feel like you're making my case in your second paragraph. Deuteronomy has an aura of authenticity, and that's either because it's authentic or someone tried to make it appear so. I would call the last a fraud, as I don't see any way around it. McCullough's work is completely different; he does not try to deceive his readers into thinking that it is something that it is not. Deuteronomy itself says that Moses wrote these words in a book from beginning to end (31:24). We could quibble about whether this was an earlier form of Deuteronomy or not, but that's not a debate among scholars, since they essentially reject (1) Moses, (2) writing like this in the time of Moses; (3) a law which was written before Israel's history. If you concede that 31:24 is accurate and Moses wrote "this Book of the Law," even if it was less than the "final form" of the book, then we're not that far apart. If you don't, then I can't escape the conclusion that the 7th century writer intended to deceive his audience.

    It's true that Matthew didn't sign his book. He didn't need to. He was well known by the community to whom he was writing. The book was accepted as sacred because he wrote it. (The preservation by the community and ongoing affirmation of the Church starts somewhere!) The gospel of Peter, on the other hand, was not written by an apostle and therefore it was not accepted by the church.

    I don't deny that there are lots of anonymous and pseudepigraphal works. But it is for that very reason that none of them were accepted by the church. You are correct that I insist that strong authorship was demanded by both scribes and audiences *for the biblical books.* These books were, after all, set apart from all others. Other books didn't depend upon authorship because they weren't claiming to be the very words of God.

    A lot of has been written on this subject, as you well know, and I'm not fresh on it (if I ever was). If the point is to convince me that there's a way that Deuteronomy could be written in the 7th c. and not intend to deceive, I cannot yet see how that could be so. If you were arguing (as almost no one does) that 90% of Deut existed from the time of Moses but that the "final form" was "written" in the 7th c. with a few editing changes and the addition of his death notice, I'd probably not consider that a forgery.

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