Ahiqar the seal-bearer of Sennacherib: Aramaic folk hero or patriarch manqué ?

David Taylor, University of Oxford

The tale of Ahiqar, the faithful seal-bearer of the Assyrian king Sennacherib who was betrayed by his nephew and successor Nadin, has survived in numerous Aramaic versions including an Imperial Aramaic text of the fifth century BCE, Late Antique Syriac renderings, and several present day Neo-Aramaic versions. Because of his mention in the book of Tobit, the tale and proverbs of Ahiqar have often been treated by modern scholars as part of the biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. In this paper it will be argued that a closer examination of the literary and material evidence suggests that his fame, like that of the English folk hero Robin Hood, was a consequence of oral rather than literary transmission, and in a popular context divorced from the influence of religious authorities. Indeed, ordinary Syrian Christians preserved the tale of Ahiqar and his proverbs despite the disapproval of the clergy who regarded them as vestiges of a pagan past. The possible reasons for this tenacious preservation of an ancient tale will be explored.

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