This article deals with the different racial approaches that influenced the academic debate known as “The Sumerian problem”. The so-called “problem” under discussion was the racial affiliation of the inventors of the first writing system, the cuneiform script. The notion of ‘race’, which tied religion, language and culture into one essence, played a key role here. Some scholars were eager to prove the “non-Semitic character” of such a major invention. Others were convinced that only “Semites” inhabited ancient Babylonia and thus were the only possible inventors of writing. The focus of this paper is Joseph Halévy, who was the determined leader of the “anti-Sumerist” camp. This article will show that Halévy shared many essentialist views with his anti-Semitic protagonists. He did this by applying a ‘pro-Semitic’ approach to the ‘Sumerian-problem’.
ShavitYaacovEranMordechaiThe Hebrew Bible Reborn: From Holy Scripture to the Book of Books; A History of Biblical Culture and the Battles over the Bible in Modern Judaism2007Berlin, New-YorkWalter De Gruyter
Ibid.20-23. See also a more recent account of the role of these scholars in the construction of a racial world history on the basis of language by Tuska Benes In Babel’s Shadow: Language Philology and Nation in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Detroit: Wayne State University Press 2008) especially 207-250.
See for example: Micheal RoafCultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (Oxford: Andromeda1990) 152-153.
François LenormantÉtudes Accadiennes (Paris: Maisonneuve1873). For a recent history of the study of the Sumerian language see Erika Marasal “The beginnings of Sumerology (i) From Early Sketches to a First Complete Grammar” Aula Orientalis 32/2: 283-297. See pp. 285-89 on the role of Lenormant and Oppert in this enterprise. See p. 289 and 291 for the mention of Halévy’s thesis.
Ibid.58-59. See also his paraphrase of this idea almost in the same words in his answer to Halévy: Eberhard Schrader “Ist das Akkadische der Keilschriften eine Sprache oder eine Schrift?” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 29 (1875): 50.
Joseph HalévyLa nouvelle évolution de l’Accadisme (Paris: Ernest Leroux1875).
Ibid.11-13. This argument appears to be Halévy’s way of affirming the rabbinic literary topos of the patriarch Abraham coming from a polytheistic background and only then adopting monotheism. To cite only the most famous example for this topos found in the Haggadah and read by Jews at least once a year in Passover eve: מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְעַכְשָׁיו קֵרְבָנוּ הַמָּקוֹם לַעֲבֹדָתוֹ. “In the beginning our fathers served idols; but now the Omnipresent One has brought us close to His service”.