Why the Babylonian Jews snubbed Ashkenaz

Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer by Laurie E. Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch (322 pages) is a remarkable documentation of 103 tablets beginning in 572 BC and ending in 483 BC that reveals the lives of Babylonian exiles in Babylon. Unlike the biblical text that focuses on the elite these texts focus on the common people, their lives, businesses, and interests. A detailed review of the book can be found here and here. These tablets predate the writing of the Hebrew Bible.

I was interested in the names and placenames, which were provided in great details and were very well explained. Surprisingly, no words that derived from “Ashkenaz” appeared in the text although the Scythians (called Ashguz or Ishguza) existed by that time and despite of the Akkadian origin of the word “Ashkenaz” and that some of the exiles and their descendants adopted Akkadian names. Ashkenaz was the grandson of Noah according to the myth, which was known outside of Israel. The commonality of pagan names among the Judaean people suggest that they adopted (or maybe even originated) the hyphen culture by having two names or by “Babiloniaizing” their names. The names they chose were borrowed shamelessly from the Mesopotamian pantheon but we can also find Egyptian and Akkadian influences (e.g., the hebrew month Tamuz is called after a Sumerian god). So why we do not see “Ashkenaz”? I can think of several possibilities:

  1. The Noah myth (the myth of the flood) was either unknown in Babylon, postdated the arrival of the Jews, or outcompeted by similar myths, like The Epic of Galgamesh (or its predecessors), which depict similar stories but with different heroes and superheroes. Picture1.pngSource of table
  2. The word “Ashkenaz” was unknown or meaningless and was not considered a proper name. “Ashkenaz” was not associated with Judaean nor the Babylonian culture so even those seeking to embrace the it did not consider this name appropriate.
  3. The Babylonian Jews understood the meaning of Ashkenaz as Scythians and had very fresh memories from the Scythian ‘s attack in the mid 7th century BC (contested by some historians). Jeremiah’s prophecies were probably known to them as well. They, thereby, did not consider this name a proper kids’ name much as most people today would refrain from naming their kids ISIS, which used to be a cool name.
  4. Babylonian Jews did not consider themselves related to the Scythians (unlike the latter Ashkenazic Jews who had partial Iranian origins). This is obvious given that they lived in Judaean communities and had a strong sense of either Judaean or Babylonian heritage
  5. Had it existed at that time, the name Ashkenaz was uncommon and did not survive in the records we have.

Interestingly, the name Ashkenaz is more common in the Near East, some 1000 km North of Babylon, although dating its emergence is difficult. Ashkenaz is a (still) a common name in Armenia and as we showed in our recent paper that it was the original name of several primeval villages in North Eastern Turkey. It appears that several hundreds more years had to pass before the name was adopted by Jews and over a millennium before it would be altered to denote “German lands.” It remains unclear at what point have Jews decided that “Ashkenaz” is synonymous to “Jews.”

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One Response to Why the Babylonian Jews snubbed Ashkenaz

  1. What Jews consider “Ashkenaz” to be synonymous with “Jews?” That’s purely a product of Ashkernazi Jews *leaving* Europe. In “Ashkenaz,” Jews were simply called “Jews.” Just like in Spain, Sephardi Jews were simply Jews. The same is true of diaspora. The term “Ashkenazi” is meant to distinguish the Jews who lived in “Ashkenaz” from the Jews who had lived elsewhere once they were living together or interacting more often. It does NOT denote their ethnic/genetic origin.

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