This Day in Jewish History

1902: A Man Who Spoke Hittite and Changed the View of Israelite History Is Born

His digs in Mesopotamia and command of dead languages and 5,000-year old legal documents led Ephraim Speiser to new insights into our past.

Ubaid (prehistoric) pottery from the archaeological site of Tepe Gawra, which had been occupied for some 6,000 years, held at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.  In northern Mesopotamia, the Ubaid period runs from ~5300 to ~4300 BCE.
Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

January 24, 1902, is the birthdate of Ephraim Speiser, a historian and archaeologist whose excavations in Mesopotamia and philological research did much to advance understanding of ancient Near Eastern cultures, including that of the Israelites.

Ephraim Avigdor Speiser was born in Skalat, in Polish Galicia, today part of Ukraine.

He attended the Imperial Gymnasium of Lemberg and later the College of Lemberg before emigrating in 1920 to the United States. In 1923, he completed his master’s degree in Semitics at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and followed that with a Ph.D. from Dropsie College of Judaic studies, writing a thesis on “The Pronunciation of Hebrew according to the Transliterations in the Hexapla” – the Hexapla being a 3rd century C.E. scholarly comparison of six different versions of the Hebrew Bible, in its original and in a variety of Greek translations.

In 1926, with the aid of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Speiser traveled to northern Iraq to study the Mittani-Hurri tribe, whose members still spoke the ancient Hittite language. (Speiser was said to be one of only two people in the United States who knew Hittite.) While in Iraq, he began excavating as well at Tepe Gawra, a multi-layered, multi-cultural mound near Mosul in northern Mesopotamia, in what is today Iraq.

Tepe Gawra (“Great Mound,” in Kurdish) was a previously unknown, 70-foot high tel with layers representing 26 different periods of occupation, ranging from about 4,500 B.C.E. to 1,500 B.C.E. (It is very near the ancient city of Nineveh, which has been destroyed by ISIS.)

Speiser and his team dug there over 11 seasons, starting in 1927. Beginning in 1930, he also dug at the nearby neo-Assyrian site of Tell Billa, also known as Shibaniba, which he identified as picking up chronologically where Tepe Gawra left off.

In 1936, he persuaded the University Museum to take over the excavations at Khafajeh, a Sumerian site in central Mesopotamia, as well.

A bas relief from ancient Nineveh: De Agostini / Getty Images
De Agostini / Getty Images

The origins of Israelite patriarchal law

It was nearby Khafajeh, at Nuzi, that a cache of some 5,000 clay tablets were found, most of them dating from the Hurrian period, the middle of the second millennium, B.C.E.

In 1936, Speiser published a study of the legal documents found among them. Later, when Speiser edited the Genesis volume of the Anchor Bible – a major project of translation and commentary compiled by an interfaith team of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant scholars -- he incorporated evidence he found in the Nuzi tablets to describe the origins of Israelite patriarchal law in the Hebrew Bible.

Speiser had a remarkable facility for languages. In a tribute published after his death, his colleague A. Henry Detweiler wrote, “In the area north and east of Mosul, he was known as ‘the father of many languages,’ and we observed that it took him only six weeks to learn a new dialect.”

During World War II, Speiser, who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1926, worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, heading the Near East section of its research and analysis branch. Following that experience, this historian of the ancient Near East brought the wide scope of his knowledge and understanding to bear in writing a brief survey of the region and its contemporary strategic issues, “The United States and the Near East” (1947).

In the later years of his career, Speiser served both as head of the University of Pennsylvania's department of Oriental Studies and a professor of Hebrew and Semitics. In 1964, he was named a "university professor," one of only five faculty members to have that distinction, reserved for scholars whose work contributed to multiple disciplines. He was also part of the team of scholars that edited the Jewish Publication Society’s new translation of the Five Books of Moses, a decade-long project that was published in 1962.

Speiser was married to the former Sue Gimbel Dannenbaum, and the couple had two children. He died in his home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, on June 15, 1965, shortly before he was scheduled to receive the 1965 Community Award of the Philadelphia Federation of Jewish Agencies.

The Cyrus cylinder
Wikicommons