The complete code of Hammurabi

The complete code of Hammurabi. 2 vols. By H.-Dieter Viel. Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2005. Pp. 799. ISBN 3895868604. $158.40.

Reviewed by Magnus Widell, University of Chicago

The large work under review here is an essentially unrevised, albeit slightly reorganized, English translation of the author’s German book Der Codex Hammurapi (Göttingen: Duehrkoph & Radicke, 2002). After a rather unclear map of Mesopotamia and a short acknowledgment, Viel offers a few words about the motives and methodology of the book (6–7). According to this section, the main reason for writing the book is to address the inconsistencies in previous hand copies of the Codex Hammurabi (CH), and to facilitate the study of this text for students and lay people of Assyriology. The Old Babylonian signs used in the book are based on E. Bergmann’s Codex Hammurabi: Textus Primigenius (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1953) and on a replica of the stele itself, which was available to V in the Knauf-Museum Iphofen. By including a complete sign list of all of the variants of the Old Babylonian monumental signs used in the CH, V hopes to provide the student with an easy and comprehensive tool for reading the text.

The statement of purpose is followed by a rather meager description of the codex and the stela of Hammurabi, in which several confusing and unsubstantiated statements are made. For example, V writes: ‘It is certain that to a large extent the drastic punishments were in practice not applied’ (10). Unfortunately, V does not explain why this is certain, nor does he provide any bibliographical references to a discussion of this issue. V also writes that the bloody punishments of Old Babylonian Law set it apart from the jurisdiction of Sumerian law, and that the ‘origin of these innovations must undoubtedly be attributed to so-called Canaanite classes’ (9–10). It’s not clear to the reviewer why anything in the CH should be attributed to ‘Canaanite classes’ (or even what ‘Canaanite classes’ exactly is supposed to mean).

The following chapter, ‘Structure of the Codex Hammurabi’ (13–70), attempts to introduce the student to the different persons, deities, buildings, and cities/countries occurring in the CH. While such an introduction in itself may be an excellent idea, the abysmal quality of both the language and the content of the chapter does not make this text suitable for anyone, especially not for students or lay people. The problems, misunderstandings, and inaccuracies in this chapter are too numerous to be listed here, but there are a few examples that can be considered representative for the entire chapter. The examples speak for themselves and require no further comments. Under Sin-muballit, V writes: ‘Remarkable is that under the eleven kings of the I. dynasty of Babylon only the predecessor of Sumula’il and he himself beared [sic] an Akkadian name. All other kings have names of Semitic origin’ (17). On page 32, we learn that Nintu is the Akkadian version of the Sumerian Ninhursag. Often, the poor English in the section completely distorts the meaning of a statement. For example, the description of Shamash begins: ‘The Semitic word for son became to the name of the Babylonian god of the sun, who sees everything during the day’ (33).

The remainder of the first volume is dedicated to the various cuneiform signs found in the CH (75–346) and a ‘Grammar’, which consists of five pages of paradigms (350–54). V provides a number of specialized lists with different signs or expressions. These lists, which cover both the monumental Old Babylonian signs used in the stele and their Neo-Assyrian equivalents, which often is the first type of cuneiform writing students of Assyriology learn, include lists of the determinatives (both in the CH and in general), the rare signs in the CH, and the Sumerograms used in the CH. In addition, V offers several complete lists of signs used in the CH organized according to a number of different systems.

The second volume of The complete code of Hammurabi contains the actual edition of the CH (363–782). V provides a copy of the original text using his computer fonts, along with transliterations, transcriptions, and translations of the prologue, epilogue, and the 282 law paragraphs of the CH. Full editions are provided for both the Old Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian versions, the latter being an artificial construction for students. The transcriptions and translations in the second volume are of much higher quality than the text in vol. 1. The simple reason for this is that they are copied word for word from M. E. J. Richardson’s Hammurabi’s laws: Text, translation and glossary (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000). For various problems in that publication that found their way into the book under review, the reader is referred to the reviews by Dominique Charpin (Revue d’Assyriologie 95.2.181–82, 2001), Gary Beckman (Journal of the American Oriental Society 122.1.178, 2002), and Jeremy Black (Journal of Semitic Studies 48.1.127–29, 2003). The volume ends with a chronological chart and five tables with the development of a few cuneiform signs and some alphabetic scripts, as well as metric conversions for the measurements in the CH.

In conclusion, a comprehensive English classroom tool for the CH with the Old Babylonian monumental signs and complete transliterations of the text is long overdue. However, The complete code of Hammurabi cannot be recommended to either the student or the teacher of Assyriology. Students learn by translating texts and using the tools of the field, not by being provided with transliterations and translations of dubious quality without any explanations or commentary whatsoever. The countless factual mistakes and the appalling English of the book, which is reminiscent of translations obtained online through BabelFish, cast serious doubts on the editorial and peer-review policies of LINCOM Europa. My advice to students and lay people who wish to study the CH is to procure the two volumes of R. Borger’s Babylonisch-Assyrische Lesestücke (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1979) and Bergmann’s original hand copy Codex Hammurabi mentioned above. As a grammar, they might want to consider J. Huehnergard’s A grammar of Akkadian (Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, 2000), which also contains a sign list with the Old Babylonian monumental signs.