The Babel/Bible Conflict

Politics, Theology and Science around 1900

Pergamon Museum

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Tontafelfragment der 11. Tafel des Gilgamesch-Epos mit Sintflutbericht (VAT 11087) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum / Olaf M. Teßmer © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum / Olaf M. Teßmer

Between 4 and 6 November 2019, the Moses Mendelsohn-Zentrum Potsdam and the DFG-funded Centre for Advanced Studies on “Rethinking Oriental Despotism” at the Freie Universitat Berlin held an international conference called The Babel/Bible Conflict and Jewish Scholarship. In conjunction with this conference, the Vorderasiatisches Museum zu Berlin is devoting a research exhibition to the topic.   

On 13 January 1902, Friedrich Delitzsch (1850–1922), Professor of Assyriology at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin and also the director of the Royal Museums’s Ancient Near East Department, which was founded in 1899, gave a talk at the Berliner Singakademie (today the Maxim-Gorki-Theater) that would go on to have dramatic effects. In the presence of the Kaiser, he presented the revolutionary thesis that the Jewish religion and the stories contained in the Old Testament could be traced back to Babylonian precursors. Though the Kaiser was initially quite taken by these ideas, he abandoned Delitzsch in the wake of vociferous protests.

When the scholar of the Ancient Near East stuck to his theories in two further lectures, a fierce conflict broke out between theologians and proponents of the nascent discipline of Ancient Near Eastern Studies. The ensuing debates, which were at times highly polemical, led to an enormous popularisation of the German-led excavations in the Near East, and in particular those in Babylon. Additionally, feature articles in newspapers, satirical magazines and caricatures addressed the topic, allowing the educated middle class to participate in this scholarly conflict in an entertaining fashion.

This exhibition was made possible by the support of the Einstein Center Chronoi, the Förderverein Freunde der Antike auf der Museumsinsel, Museum & Location and the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft.

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