Henry Creswicke Rawlinson Cracks Cuneiform

Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was born in Chadlington, Oxfordshire, England, on April 11, 1810.  He became a member of the British diplomatic service, lived in Baghdad … and dabbled in archaeology. His younger brother, George Rawlinson, became a noted historian.

At the age of 17 he joined the military service of the East India Company, posted to the Middle East, and six years later helped reorganise the Persian Army. Almost thirty years after starting with the East India Company he became one of its directors. But he also had posts on behalf of the British Government.

Rawlinson took an interest in antiquities and was able to gather numerous artefacts which he donated to the British Museum.

Rawlinson knew modern Persian and other Oriental languages. Unbeknown to Rawlinson, Georg Friedrich Grotefend, a German epigraphist had already made progress with deciphering cuneiform, but relied on many guesses and could not complete the task. While cuneiform inscriptions were abundant they were mostly short statements. Rawlinson hoped that a longer text would prove more helpful.

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An extended cuneiform text was known to exist in the mountains between Hamadan and Baghdad. A large panel of sculptured figures and many lines of text was presented in three scripts. Rawlinson assumed that the message was repeated in the three different types of symbols, making it possible to cross reference the message.

His deciphering of 1,200 lines of writing found upon the Behistun Rock was a major break-through in unlocking the ancient Babylonian script. The inscription had been created by Darius the Great and tantalised Rawlinson with the opportunity to crack the cuneiform symbols.

For four years (1835-1839) Rawlinson clambered up and down the imposing 1,700 feet high isolated rock … and there, 400 feet above the ground, “standing on a narrow ledge about a foot wide with the aid of ladders from below and swings from above, he made squeezes of the inscriptions” (Halley’s Bible Handbook).

The Afghan war delayed his studies … then he went back to Baghdad where he was appointed British Consul … and where he continued to scale and examine the Behistun inscription.

“Often in the intense heat he worked in a summer house at the bottom of the garden, a pet lion lying at his feet and a water-wheel from the river Tigris pouring water over the roof to keep it cool.”

Once Rawlinson succeeded in copying most of the great Behisitun inscription he began work on the script that was simpler than the others, which appeared to be alphabetic. The others seemed to be pictographs, ideographs and phonetic characters.

Rawlinson hypothesized the texts belonged to the period of the Archaemenid dynasty in Persia, of the Old Persian Empire (550-330 BC). Behistun was set up by Darius the Great of Persia about 519 BC. It told how Darius came to the throne and overcame those who threatened the Persian Empire. This statement was widely known throughout his realm.

Once the Persian text had been translated, it was possible to study of the other two languages. One was correctly assumed to be Babylonian. This discovery is very important to students of Assyriology since Babylonian and Assyrian languages were both Semitic and closely related. The third type was called Median or Scythian. It was the most difficult of all. It was related to the Elamite tongue, the language of Susa.

In 1846 he presented his findings to the Royal Asiatic Society.  The cuneiform symbols had finally yielded their secrets.  Now Bible scholars began to read the ancient monuments and see what light they shed upon the Holy Scriptures.

Semetic speaking Babylonians and Assyrians used the cuneiform for hundreds of years, but later discovery showed the Sumerians as the inventors, using it before 3000 BC. Rawlinson received a knighthood, as well as numerous academic awards, for this groundbreaking work which was the breakthrough for much further discovery.

Rawlinson died in 1895, and has since been known as the “Father of Assyriology“.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

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Henry Martyn the Translator

Henry Martyn was born on February 18, in Cornwall, England in 1781.

In 1791 he started at St John’s College, Cambridge. He was saved in 1800. In 1801 he was the top Mathematics student in his year (called Senior Wrangler) and he also won a Latin prize. He was gifted in languages, as was later revealed in his successful translation work.

When Martyn tackled his translation work on the mission field he mentioned in a letter that he was drawing from grammar books in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Rabbinical Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Ethiopic, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Sanscrit, Bengalee and Hindoostanee and wanted a Celtic grammar as well.

Yet at the end of his studies, all of Martyn’s academic achievements left him wanting. He noted, “I obtained my highest wishes but was surprised to find I had grasped a shadow”. This recognition of the emptiness of human achievement, despite his own excellence, must have undergirded his willingness to serve the Lord sacrificially. He not only gave up his homeland and career opportunities for mission service, he also left behind the one love of his life.

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After theological studies at Cambridge, Martyn was appointed curate at Holy Trinity to the godly Charles Simeon who was thus his spiritual father or mentor. And from thence he sailed forth to India as chaplain to the East India Company (1805).

He left his heart with Lydia Grenfell in his native Cornwall. She did not follow him to India and he never made it home to see her again.

Henry Martyn made several major contributions through his life of missionary service. His translation work gave the scriptures to the Indian and Persian people. Also his life of personal sacrifice for missions has shone as an example to many. He also promoted ideas about missions which helped to formulate the vision and activities of future mission endeavours.

Within five years in India he had completed his translation of the New Testament in Urdu (known then as Hindoostani). His journal tells of the joy he found in this work – “What a source of perpetual delight have I in the precious Book of God! Oh, that my heart were more spiritual, to keep pace with my understanding…” (Memoirs of H. Martin, compiled by J. Sargent, 1848, page 241).

One of the challenges of these early translators is that many Bible concepts are not readily translatable into cultures where the concepts are not known. Such Bible truths as grace, redemption and hope are not readily known in other tongues and cultures.

CF Note: I once heard a Christian minister tell of a Moslem woman who asked him to help her convert to Christianity. When he asked why she wanted to make this change she told him that the Christian concept of ‘forgiveness’ was not part of Islam. Similarly I learned that some Australian Aboriginal tribes do not have a mechanism to restore people back into their community once they have been banished for bad behaviour. Cultural challenges such as these confronted Henry Martyn’s translation work.

Martyn’s diary notes also make reference to his “beloved Lydia”… although historian Sargent actually suppressed her name in the first edition of his best-seller biography of Henry Martyn, cited earlier. The call of God upon his life meant that he must say “Farewell” to the one he had hoped to wed.

Martyn’s diary also refers to the fellowship he enjoyed with William Carey and Anglican clergyman David Brown (of Jamieson, Fawcett and Brown Commentary fame … and with whom Carey did not enjoy sweet fellowship!) (Carey, by S. Pearce Carey, page 145).

Martyn was an intelligent and sensitive man, who respected the cultures to which he went. Rather than adopting the cultural arrogance which some other missionaries displayed, Martyn wrote, “I learnt that the power of gentleness is irresistible and also that these men are not fools. Clearness of reasoning is not confined to Europe”.

After a decade of evangelical ministry in various parts of India, Henry Martyn proceeded to Persia and there took up the task of translation anew. He also supervised translation of the New Testament into Arabic. By 1812 his Persian New Testament was ready for the printers. But our missionary did not live to see his work in print. On October 16, 1812, in Tokat, Armenia, Asia Minor, on his way home with high hopes of meeting again his Lydia, Henry Martyn died, at the age of 31.

It is interesting to note that Martyn’s Urdu and Arabic translations were not only a help to the Christian missionaries but were well read by the Moslem leaders.

On his return journey toward England, Martyn chose to travel through Persia, Damascus and Arabia, hoping to improve his tuberculosis and find scriptural manuscripts. His friends in Calcutta tried to dissuade him but he set out in 1811. On his way to Constantinople he died, whether from his own sickness or the plague which was raging at the time we do not know.

Thus closed the book on a man who put all else aside, in order to make an investment in the Kingdom of God.

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com