The British Museum announced a rare find in July — a clay tablet naming an obscure Old Testament character, “Nebo-Sarsekim.” The find suggests that this Babylonian official really existed, supporting the historical accuracy of the Book of Jeremiah and necessitating a correction in many popular Bible translations.
The tablet was among a collection of more than 100,000 dug up in the 1870s from ruins of a sun temple in ancient Sippar, about a mile from modern Baghdad. Since few scholars can read cuneiform, it stayed undeciphered until a visiting Viennese researcher recognized the name.
Jeremiah 39:3 says that Nebo-Sarsekim served as a chief officer in the court of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon, and was present in Jerusalem when Babylon conquered it in 587 B.C. The tablet, dated 595 B.C., contains an inscription recording a gift of gold given by a Nebo-Sarsekim — a “chief official” — to a Babylonian temple.
Since these men appear to be the same person, the tablet supports the book’s claim to have been written by someone with first-hand knowledge of the Babylonian court — none other than the prophet Jeremiah. This challenges claims made by minimalist scholars that the book is fiction, written by an anonymous committee centuries later.
“It is significant that it provides additional proof of the historicity of Jeremiah's report,” said Thomas Finley, a professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Biola.
It’s also helped solve a problem that has puzzled modern Bible translators — how to translate ancient Babylonian names, Finley said.
Unfamiliarity with the Akkadian language has left them uncertain where one name ends and another begins. Translations of Jeremiah 39:3 list anywhere between two and eight names of officials who were present at Jerusalem’s fall. And they’ve rendered Nebo-Sarsekim’s name as everything from “Sar-sekim the Rab-saris” to just “Sarsechim.”
Some translations also have mistakenly attached the first part of his name, “Nebo,” to part of a previous name, “Samgar,” resulting in a made-up name, “Samgar-Nebo.” This accounts for one of the translations’ differences in numbering the officials.
Although a corrected name may seem mundane to many people, to conservative Old Testament scholars — who already accepted Jeremiah as fact — it’s the most fascinating insight gleaned from the tablet.
And some of them, like Biola professor Richard Rigsby, were surprised to learn which Bible translations got Nebo-Sarsekim’s name right — the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT). These translations are more paraphrased than others and, often, are viewed by academics as less accurate.
On the other hand, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) got his name wrong, as did other word-for-word translations, like the English Standard Version and New King James Version.
While all these translations follow the Masoretic text of the Old Testament — which the majority of scholars think is based on the oldest and most accurate manuscripts — the NLT Translation and NIV broke with it in this case. Instead, they went with the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Old Testament.
“We decided that Nebo — an alternate spelling of the name of the Babylonian god, Nabu — was more likely to start the official's name than end it,” said Ronald Youngblood, a member of the NIV translation committee. “So we relegated the alternate combination, Samgar-Nebo, to a footnote.”
Youngblood said his committee’s choice matched other well-known Babylonian names found in the Bible that position the god’s name first, like “Nebuchadnezzar” and “Nabopolassar.”
But Rigsby — an adviser with the Lockman Foundation, which translated the NASB — said he was surprised to learn that the Masoretic text was mistaken as it’s considered 99 percent reliable.
“That is a very rare thing for the Masoretic text to be wrong,” Rigsby said. “When it and the Septuagint diverge, it’s seldom the Septagint is correct.”
Rigsby said he’s advising the Lockman Foundation to fix Nebo-Sarsekim’s name when it updates the NASB text. But, despite this find, he said going with the Masoretic text over the Septuagint is almost always the right call.
Meanwhile, Old Testament scholars wonder if the remaining undeciphered tablets in the British Museum might contain other references with ramifications for Bible translation.