Monday, June 15, 2015

Cultural contributions of the ancient Assyrians

ARAMAIC WATCH: Op-Ed: The Assyrians and ISIS: Part I. A most timely account of the ancient Assyrians, on the surface similar to ISIS, but distinguished by their achievements in addition to war and carnage. Their savagery is all that ISIS mimics. (Joe David, Arutz Sheva). An interesting mixture of correct history and dubious assertions. A few comments:
Much of what they [the Assyrians of the ancient Assyrian empire] accomplished proved to be of value and survived the test of time. Refined by future civilizations, these achievements included a postal system, libraries, magnifying glasses, paved roads, locks and keys, a method for telling time, plumbing with flushing toilets, Hammurabi’s Law (which is generally known for its “eye-for-an-eye” punishment), a system for managing vast land holdings (by using governors to oversee territories), and a useful knowledge of astronomy (acquired, not just for scientific purposes, but to assist superstitious rulers make decisions).

For the purpose of this article, one of their most important contributions was their devotion to one god, not the Jewish Patriarch Abraham's monotheism, but related. Although the Ancient Assyrians had many gods, representing different aspects of nature, those other gods were all an extension of their primary God, Ashur. He was their king of all gods, their omnipresent, omnipotent, and universal Creator. By spreading this idea of one God, rather than a multitude of gods, common among some primitive societies, they were able to lay the foundation for what would follow: the birth of one-god religions like Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
The first paragraph is correct, but I am very skeptical of the second. Yes, Ashur was the chief god of the Assyrians. Many ancient peoples had a chief god who was highest among the gods, but at least by the time of Second Isaiah, Israelite monotheism took an additional step and regarded their god YHWH as qualitatively uniquely divine and not just quantitatively the most powerful of many gods. The Assyrians did not take that additional step to what we would today regard as real monotheism and I can see nothing about ancient Assyrian religion that influenced that step for ancient Israel.
It took about 600 hundred years for the Assyrians to rise from their ashes. In 33 AD they built another empire. This time it was a Christian empire, the very first Christian empire in the world, based on the teachings of Jesus.

Their transition to Christianity didn’t occur immediately. Their loyalty to Ashur continued until about 256 AD. But in 33 AD Ashurism began to fade in importance, when the Assyrians converted to Christianity through the teachings of three apostles – Saints Thomas, Bartholomew, and Thaddeus. These three apostles, after founding the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in Edessa, Turkey (in the upper Mesopotamia area), were responsible for providing the direction for what would follow thereafter, the spread of Christianity across Asia.
Well, sort of. The Eastern church included Aramaic-speaking descendants of the Assyrians who eventually converted to Christianity. But Assyrians did not found a "Christian empire" in 33 AD. The originally Jewish Jesus movement spread all over the known world in the first century, including the East, but the Greek-speaking (and eventually Latin-speaking) Gentile church had a couple of pretty good Christian empires going as well in due course.

The city of Edessa (in Anatolia - modern-day Turkey) was indeed a key center of early Eastern Christianity and the Aramaic dialect spoken in that city in the second century was the basis for Syriac, the language of the ancient Eastern church.
Unfortunately, the Assyrian Christians are rarely given much attention in history books. When most people think of the Assyrians, they often think of the Ancient Assyrians, not the Assyrian Christians, despite their significant intellectual and spiritual contributions to civilization. As a result, many of their achievements have been carelessly attributed to other groups. Here are a few of their many accomplishments:

Between the fourth and sixth centuries, they revived the knowledge accumulated by the Greeks and translated it into Syriac and later from Syriac to Arabic. This included many religious works as well as the works of important thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates.
This is pretty much right, although this translation process continued for centuries up to Abbasid Baghdad. The rest of the essay moves beyond my areas of expertise, but I don't see anything obviously incorrect in it.