Late-Babylonian clay tablet documenting the visibility of the moon during the month of the winter solstice, 7th cent., B.C. (The British Museum)
From where does our knowledge of the ancient world come? In many instances, we have direct transmission of texts dating back two or three millennia: Homer, the Bible, and the New Testament, among others.
These and other ancient texts in Hebrew and in Greek were devotedly copied and recopied by generations of trained scribes across the centuries. Fortunately, hundreds of ancient and medieval manuscripts are preserved in museums and libraries, offering us a window into their painstaking work and the civilizations they documented.
In other instances, our knowledge of the ancient world derives from the great archaeological discoveries of the 19th century in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, along with the attendant decodings of the hieroglyphic and cuneiform written languages
Biblical scholar Gary Rendsburg, a specialist in ancient Israel and Egypt and medieval Hebrew manuscripts, explores the stories behind these sources, which still retain their narrative power into the 21st century.
9:30–10:45 a.m. The Bible in Our Hands
Examine how the Hebrew Bible was transmitted throughout the millennia, from the time of its composition on papyrus scrolls in ancient Israel through the lavishly produced medieval codices on vellum. Rendsburg also discusses the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Torah scroll sheet dated to c.1000 AD that was recently acquired by the Library of Congress
11 a.m.–to 12:15 p.m. Homer, the New Testament, Other Greek Documents
Explore the influence of the Greeks, with special attention to the precious scraps of Greek papyri discovered in Egypt. Inspect the famous Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete Bible in any language, written c. 350 AD, preserved at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert for nearly 1,500 years, and now housed in the British Library.
12:15–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–2:45 p.m. Ancient Egypt
Trace the story of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics, an accomplishment greatly facilitated by the Rosetta Stone, a Greek–Egyptian bilingual inscription found near Alexandria in 1799. Tombs and temples, sphinxes and pyramids are also explored, demonstrating how much archaeology has revealed about the remarkable culture and religion of ancient Egypt
3–4:15 p.m. Ancient Mesopotamia
Trace the footsteps of such intrepid Victorians as A.H. Layard, father of archaeology and excavator of Nineveh, and Henry Rawlinson, decipherer of Babylonian cuneiform. Lear how the Babylonian flood story was discovered, first read by George Smith, a banknote engraver turned cuneiform specialist, on a tablet in the British Museum in 1872.
Rendsburg is the Blanche and Irving Laurie professor of Jewish history at Rutgers University.