Open main menu

Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 2.djvu/32

This page needs to be proofread.




adopted the Semitic Phoenician alphabet, and the Germans adopted the Latin. The Semitic language of Babylonia and Assyria was, therefore, written in Sumerian characters, just as Hebrew can be written in EngUsh letters, or Turkish in Armenian, or Arabic in Syriac {KarshAni). This same cuneiform system of writing was afterwards adopted by the Medians, Persians, Mitannians, Cappadocians, ancient Armeni- ans, and others. Hence five or six different styles of cuneiform writings may be distinguished. The "Persian" style, which is a direct, but simplified, derivative of the Babylonian, was introduced in the times of the Achsemenians. " Instead of a combination of as many as ten and fifteen wedges to make one sign, we have in the Persian style never more than five, and frequently only three; and instead of writing words by .syllables, sounds alone were employed, and the syllabary of several hundred signs reduced to forty-two, while the ideographic style was fractionally abolished." The second style of cuneiform, generally known as "Median", or "Susian", is, again, a shght modification of the "Persian". "Besides these two, there is a third language (spoken in the north-western district of Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and the Oron- tes), known as 'Mitanni', the exact status of which has not been clearly ascertained, but which has been adapted to cuneiform characters. A fourth variety, found on tablets from Cappadocia, represents again a modification of the ordinary writing met with in Babylonia. In the inscriptions of Mitanni, the writing is a mixture of ideographs and syllables, just as in Mesopotamia, while the so-called ' Cappadocian ' tablets are written in a corrupt Babylonian, corres- ponding in degree to the 'corrupt' forms that the signs take on. In Mesopotamia itself quite a number of signs exist, some due to local influences, others the result of changes that took place in the course of time. In the oldest period known, that is, from 4000 to 3000 B. c, the writing is linear rather than wedge-shaped. The linear writing is the modifica- tion that the original pictures underwent in being adapted lor engraving on stone; the wedges are the modification natural to the use of clay, though when once the wedges became the standard method, the greater frequency with which clay, as against stone, came to be used led to an imitation of the wedges by those who cut out the characters on stone. In consequence, there developed two varieties of wedge- svriting: the one that may be termed lapidary, used for the stone inscriptions, the official historical records, and such legal documents as were prepared with especial care; the other cursive, occurring only on legal and commercial clay tablets, and becoming more frequent as we approach the latest period of Babylonian writing, which extends to within a few decades of our era. In Assyria, finally, a special variety of cuneiform ileveloped that is easily dis- tinguished from the Babylonian by its greater neat- ness and the more vertical position of its wedges" (Jastrow, The Rehgion of Babylonia and Assyria, Boston, 1898, p. 20).

The material on wlvich the Assyro-Babylonians wrote their inscriptions was sometimes stone or metal, but usually clay of a fine quality most abimdant in Babylonia, whence the use spread all over Western .\sia. "The clay was very carefully prepared, sometimes ground to an exceeding fineness, moistened, and moulded into various forms, ordinarily into a tablet whose average size is about six by two and one-half inches in superficial area by one inch in thickness, its sides curving slightly outwards. On the surface thus prepared, and while still soft, the char- acters were impressed with a stylus, the writing often standing in columns, and carried over ujion tlic liat-k and .sides of the tablet. The clay was quite frc(|uently moulded also into cones and barrel-shaped cylinders,

having from six to ten sides on which writing could be inscribed. These tablets were then dried in the sun, or baked in a furnace — a process which rendered the writing practically indestructible, unless the tablet itself was shattered" (G. S. Goodspeed, History of the Babylonians and Assyrians, p. 28).

Unlike all other Semitic systems of writing (except the Ethiopic, which is an adaptation of the Greek), that of the Assyro-Babylonians generally runs from left to right in horizontal lines, although in some very early inscriptions the fines run vertically from top to bottom hke the Chinese. These two facts evidence the non-Semitic origin of the cuneiform system of writing.

Value of Assyriology for Study of the Old Testament. — The part played by these Assyro- Babylonian discoveries in the exegesis and interpreta- tion of the Old Testament has been important in direct proportion to the immense and hitherto imsuspected influence exercised by the Assyro- Babylonian religion, civilization, and literature upon the origin and gradual development of the literature and the religious and social institutions of the ancient Hebrews. This Babylonian influence, indeed, can be equally traced in its different forms and manifesta- tions through all Western Asia, many centuries before that conquest of Palestine by the twelve Israelitish tribes which put an end to the Canaanitish dominion and supremacy. The triumph of Assyriology, consequently, must be regarded as a triumph for Biblical exegesis and criticism, not in the sense that it has strikingly confirmed the strict veracity of the Biblical narratives, or that it has demonstrated the fallacies of the "higher criticism", as Sayce, Honimel, and others have contended, but in the sens that it has opened a new and certain path whereby we can study the writings of the Old Testament with their correct historical background, and trace them through their successive evolutions and transforma- tions. Assyriology, in fact, has given us such ex- cellent and unexpected results as to completely revolutionize our former exegetical methods and conclusions. The study, it is true, has been often abused by ultra-radical and enthusiastic Assyriologists and critics. These have sought to build up ground- less theories and illogical conclusions; they have forced the texts to say what they do not say, and to support conclusions which they do not support; but such an abuse, which is due to a perfectly natiu-al enthusiasm and scientific ardour, can never vitiate the permanent value of sober Assyriological re- searches, which have demonstrably provided sources of the first importance for the study of the Old Testament. These few abuses can be discerned and in due time corrected by a more temperate and judicious criticism. If the value of Assyriology in its bearing upon the Old Testament has been too often exaggerated, the exaggeration is at least partly excusable, considering the comparatively recent date of these researches and their startling results in the way of discovery. On the other hand, that school of critics and theologians which disre- gards the genuine merits and the great value of Assyriological researches for the interpretation of the Old Testament is open to the double charge of unfairness and ignorance.

History of Assi-ria to the Fall op Nineveh (NiNivE.— c. 2000-606 B. c.)— The origin of the Assyrian nation is involved in great obscurity. According to the author of the tenth chapter of Genesis, the Assyrians are the descendants of Assur (Asshur) one of the sons of Sem (Slieni — Gen., x, 22). According to Gen., x, 11, "Out of that land [Sennaar] came forth Assur, and built Ninive, and the streets of the city, and (ihale. Resen also between Ninive and Chale ", where the Authorized Version reads: "builded Nineveh, and the city of Rehoboth, and