Sachs, Velikovsky, and Sitchin

A short time ago I blogged about the work of C. Leroy Ellenberger, at one time a first-tier defender of Immanuel Velikovsky who later came to doubt and then refute that brand of catastrophism, sent me a link I thought I’d share with readers.

Leroy’s link was to a brief address by Abraham Sachs, a well-known 20th century Assyriologist (i.e., a scholar of Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform). The address was a refutation of Velikovsky’s use of cuneiform material to support his catastrophist theories. Here’s an excerpt:

“In searching for mathematical and astronomical texts, I myself have had the opportunity of sifting about 125,000 tablets in this country and the British Isles. As one looks back, with the advantage of hindsight, over the progress of cuneiform studies in the last century, it is evident that in the early decades, two steps forward were accompanied by one step back, in recent decades, the proportion is more like 300 to 1. In 1896, an excellent dictionary of Akkadian contained 790 pages; today, the latest torso of an Akkadian dictionary– with only one-third of the dictionary published in 8 volumes– already runs to more than 2500 pages. I mention all this only to underline the sad fact that anyone who, like Dr. Velikovsky, is not a student of cuneiform, runs the very high risk of finding non-existent facts, false translations, and abandoned theories that have foundered on the rocks of new textual material when he relies, as Dr. Velikovsky does, on books and articles that are 80, 50, 40, and in some cases, even 20 years old. . . . In Worlds in Collision, p. 161, Dr. Velikovsky says that Babylonian astronomy at one time had a four-planet system, with Venus missing. For this, he refers to a book, [quite correctly,] written in 1915. Not being a cuneiformist, Dr. Velikovsky cannot inspect the original text referred to in his 1915 source. I have read the text and I can report that it is quite true that Venus is missing in the text– but so are the other four planets. . . . Wherever one turns in Dr. Velikovsky’s works, one finds a wasteland strewn with uncritically accepted evidence that turns to dust at the slightest probe. . . . [I]it’s advisable to be [a cuneiformist] if you’re going to write about cuneiform texts. . . .”


While the address was directed at Velikovsky, the verbal spanking is also useful for directing attention to the bankrupt scholarship of Zecharia Sitchin, part of whose imaginative ancient astronaut theorizing includes catastrophism elements associated with the alleged astro-physical effects of Nibiru, wrongly identified by Sitchin as a 12th planet. This short speech (less than fifteen minutes) was given at Brown University in 1965, just a few short years before Zecharia Sitchin would pretend to know something about cuneiform tablets. Why is it that Sitchin, presumably an expert in cuneiform, was somehow ignorant of this material when Sachs was not? The answer is simple. Sitchin was no expert in this material. He was contriving a theory.

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The Pan-Babylonian Approach to the Hebrew Bible by Ancient Astronaut Theorists: Still Dead After All These Years

I’ve blogged before about “Pan-Babylonianism” — the idea that the content of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is basically plagiarized from Babylonian (more widely, Sumero-Mesopotamian) material. No serious biblical studies scholar or Assyriologist believes this today, but this approach became a majority paradigm in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the wake of two events: (1) the decipherment of cuneiform and (2) Friedrich Delitzsch’s “Babel und Bible” lectures delivered in 1902 to the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft attended by Kaisar Wilhelm II and his staff. In other words, anyone (like Zecharia Sitchin) who supposed or still supposes this approach is novel or cutting edge or “research the mainstream cannot cope with” is behind the curve by 100 years.

The death pf Pan-Babylonianism actually came shortly after it’s rise to prominence due to the famous German scholar Hermann Gunkel’s classic rebuttal-essay, Babylonien und Israel (1903). Gunkel was *not* an evangelical or fundamentalist. He is well know to many people in that crowd as a “liberal” scholar. Regardless of labels, his famous work initiated the lethal injection to Pan-Babylonianism.

Gunkel’s important work is now available in a new English translation. Readers can read a review here, as well as get information for ordering this new work. Bear in mind this is a scholarly work; it is not light reading.The review alludes to an earlier translations of Gunkel’s work by published in 1904 by John Joseph McVey. That earlier translation is available online for free here.

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Is Zecharia Sitchin Anti-Semitic?

I don’t believe so (Sitchin is Jewish).

That said, it seems Sitchin and his followers don’t realize how his ideas open themselves to that charge. How? Aside from pure imagination, a lot of Sitchin’s ideas presuppose a dependence of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) on earlier Sumerian and Babylonian literature. More acutely, Sitchin asserts over and over again in his books that the Old Testament writers borrowed their material from the Sumerian and later Mesopotamian people.

This idea was all the rage in the late 19th century and early 20th century, particularly in the wake of the famous “Babel und Bibel” (“Babel and the Bible”) lecture of Friedrich Delitzsch. It was the era of the decipherment of cuneiform and the discovery of creation and flood stories in Mesopotamian literature. It was also the era of deepening anti-Semitism, a belief cultivated nowhere more zealously than Germany, Delitzsch’s fatherland. In fact, it was in this environment that the “higher criticism” of the Bible began. The criticism of the Bible as in any way historical was led by German anti-Semites. The result was the pursuit of alternative origin stories, found ever-so-conveniently in the writings of the “Aryans” (who supposedly came from Sumeria — is this sounding familiar, ye followers of Sitchin?). The Nazis, of course, made this dogma, since the “Aryan” (Vedic) writings were written in Sanskrit, which was the ancient ancestor of Indo-European languages, of which German was prominent. Yes, they descended from the gods who first gave kingship, the right to rule, at Sumer — unlike those inferior Jews. They and their myths had to be eradicated.

As I’ve told Sitchinites at various lectures, no credible OT scholar today argues that the Genesis stories came wholesale from Mesopotamian material. That idea is passe, but Sitchin doesn’t seem to mind being 100 years behind the curve. The literary issue is far more complex than what we think of as borrowing, and people who spend time in the biblical text know it, and so have abandoned the views of Delitzsch and his followers.

For a readable (non-specialist) discussion of how Delitsch’s anti-semitism fueled his scholarship, click here [from Bible Review 18 no 1 (F 2002): 32-40, 47].  Amazing how this despicable bias influenced generations, and is still influencing amateur researchers like Sitchin, though only sub-consciously.

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