SJU Theologian Earns Research Fellowship

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hebrew Bible scholar Bruce Wells, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, has been awarded a $52,000 Humboldt Research Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for his research on Neo-Babylonian trial procedure. The government of Germany established the Foundation to promote international research, and to foster long-term collaboration among researchers. Grants from the Foundation enable scholars from around the world to spend an extended period of time conducting research in Germany.

During the next academic year, Wells and his family will reside in Munich, Germany, while he collaborates with a major scholar of biblical law, Prof. Dr. Eckart Otto of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

The von Humboldt fellowship will allow Wells to integrate collaborative research he accomplished during a two-year project funded by a $150,000 research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Wells' research will focus on Mesopotamian court documents – in this case, clay tablets written in cuneiform – that indicate a change in the effectiveness of oaths taken by defendants. "During previous periods of Mesopotamian history, an oath by the gods was taken so seriously it could automatically win the case for the oath-taker," he said.

Wells related a story from his research. "There is a trial record that starts with an oath by a defendant in which he swears he did not steal the temple-owned donkey that has gone missing," he said. "The text concludes with the following:

'On the day when Bel-lumur has brought a witness and has thereby established against Shamash-mudammiq the fact that he took a temple-owned donkey from the lodgings of Bel-lumur…he will have to pay, as compensation for the donkey, 30 donkeys to the temple of the goddess Ishtar in Uruk, and he will be subject to a penalty of the king.'

"So the oath did not end the case in the defendant's favor," he noted.

According to Wells, by the time of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods – 600 BCE and later – similar texts indicate that oaths were susceptible to contradiction, if the plaintiff could bring a corroborating witness. But what he finds most intriguing is texts from the Bible that suggest a similar phenomenon was taking place in ancient Israel.

"For example, in most cases, the book of Deuteronomy tends to avoid procedures like the ritual oath and requires real evidence – such as witness testimony," he said. "The investigation of this phenomenon in both Israel and Mesopotamia will occupy most of my time as a von Humboldt fellow."

--Patricia Allen

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