ADDRESS OF ABRAHAM SACHS AT BROWN UNIV. 3/15/65

Provided by Leroy Ellenberger


On March 15, 1965, Velikovsky confronted specialists in four fields at Brown University. It would be fair to say, in terms of debate, that Velikovsky bested three of them rhetorically (at least a non-specialist audience would not know the difference), but clearly Velikovsky was taken by surprise, to say the least, by the bravura performance of Abraham Sachs, a specialist in ancient mathematics who really could read cuneiform.

This address of Sachs has circulated underground for many years, even having been quoted by John North in 1976 in his review of Velikovsky Reconsidered in TLS. Steve Talbott mentioned it in Pensee VII, as did G.J. Toomer in his obituary for Sachs in JHA. The text proper was first published in Aeon 3:1 as an appendix to my memoir "Of Lessons, Legacies and Litmus Tests: A Velikovsky Potpourri". However, the original transcription, made by verifying Sachs' manuscript with a tape recording of the event, included the audience's reaction in brackets, much as Rose would later render the transcript of the AAAS discussion periods for Gould and Velikovsky. But in May 1979 when Shulamit Kogan, Velikovsky's older daughter, read this annotated transcript she was livid, thinking that I had done this in order to make fun of her father. But all I was actually trying to do was to render a historically accurate account of Sachs' address, with his extemporaneous additions to the prepared text also in brackets, as follows:


ADDRESS OF ABRAHAM SACHS:

   I have spent the last 30 years [man and boy] in studying the cuneiform tablets of ancient Mesopotamia, from the first examples of this sort of writing around 3000 B.C. to the last scraps in the first century A.D. In modern times, the pioneering stage of decipherment took place in the late 1840's, and successful tests of the decipherment were made on fresh documents in the 1850's. In the century since then, more than 50,000 texts have been published, and the public and private collections all over the world are bulging with well over half a million unpublished cuneiform texts, which for the most part are not even catalogued. In searching for mathematical and astronomical texts, I myself have had the opportunity of sifting about 125,000 tablets in this country and the British Isles. As one looks back, with the advantage of hindsight, over the progress of cuneiform studies in the last century, it is evident that in the early decades, two steps forward were accompanied by one step back, in recent decades, the proportion is more like 300 to 1. In 1896, an excellent dictionary of Akkadian contained 790 pages; today, the latest torso of an Akkadian dictionary-- with only one-third of the dictionary published in 8 volumes-- already runs to more than 2500 pages. I mention all this only to underline the sad fact that anyone who, like Dr. Velikovsky, is not a student of cuneiform, runs the very high risk of finding non-existent facts, false translations, and abandoned theories that have foundered on the rocks of new textual material when he relies, as Dr. Velikovsky does, on books and articles that are 80, 50, 40, and in some cases, even 20 years old.

   It occurred to me that I could perhaps serve some serious purpose here tonight if I revisited Dr. Velikovsky's works to see how well he had used cuneiform data. I have read carefully Dr. Velikovsky's _Worlds in Collision_ (1950), _Ages in Chaos_ Vol. I (1952), and an earlier work called _Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History_ (1945).  I have read especially carefully those sections-- often quite lengthy-- which deal with evidence from cuneiform texts, and I have checked all the sources mentioned in the footnotes. I am happy to report that the bibliographical references in the footnotes are cited with an amazingly high accuracy. But having said this, I regret to have to add that I have reported everything that I can honestly find on the credit side of the ledger. On the negative side, in the time available, I cannot even list all the errors, misunderstandings, and false conclusions. I can only give some samples of big errors and types of mistakes.

   More than 100 pages of Dr. Velikovsky's _Ages in Chaos_ (Vol. I) pursue the consequences of his theory that some five or six hundred years in the conventional historian's history of Egypt have to be eliminated, so that, for example, Egyptian kings and events which Egyptologists date to the 14th century B.C. are really to be dated in the 9th century B.C. One of these consequences is that the so-called Amarna Letters, an archive of more than 350 cuneiform texts found in Egypt about 80 years ago and comprising the international diplomatic correspondence of Egypt in a period that conventional historians date to the 14th century B.C. [are to be dated according to Dr. Velikovsky to the 9th century B.C.] Hundreds of details in _scores_ of Amarna Letters are matched up by Dr. Velikovsky with details of Biblical history of the 9th century B.C. as well as Assyrian historical texts of the same period. It takes very little blowing to collapse this house of cards. Not being a cuneiformist, Dr. Velikovsky was not aware that an Assyrian King List was excavated 30 years ago at Khorsabad. One need only add up the regnal years itemized in this King List to arrive at the middle of the 14th century B.C. for King Assuruballit of Assyria, who wrote one of the Amarna letters to the king of Egypt. This date, the middle of the 14th century B.C., is precisely the generation to which Egyptologists, on the basis of completely independent evidence, had dated the Egyptian pharaoh in question. Furthermore, not being a cuneiformist, Dr. Velikovsky was not aware that the forms of the cuneiform characters used in the 9th century B.C. are different from those used in the 14th century B.C., that the phonetic and logographic values that are applicable in texts of the 9th century B.C. do not apply in the 14th century B.C., that the orthographic practices are different, and that neither the grammar nor the vocabulary is the same. Like it or not, conventional scholarship _has_ established _some_ things beyond doubt: there are, for example, paleographical, grammatical, and lexical differences between a manuscript of Chaucer and a manuscript of Hemingway. [Laughter] More than a hundred pages of Dr. Velikovsky's historical reconstructions, when thus inspected and tested, turn out to be bubbles of self-deception. Let us proceed.

   From the same 14th century B.C.-- Dr. Velikovsky says 9th [century] B.C.--, come the tablets found at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), situated near the Mediterranean coast in North Syria. [How does Doc] how does Dr. Velikovsky know that the Ras Shamra tablets are to be dated in the 9th Century B.C.? One of the kings of Ras Shamra is called Niqmed, [Niqmed]; true enough (we need not stop to quibble over the fact that we now know that his name is Niqmad, [and] not Niqmed). [Now,] in the Annals of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, from the middle of the 9th century B.C., the report of the king's fourth military campaign records the destruction of the city of a certain Nikdime, whose troops were pushed into the sea. Perfectly true. Now, Dr. Velikovsky says: Niqmed of Ras Shamra = Nikdime of the 9th century Annals of Shalmaneser III, [there's a very slight metathesis that no student of linguistics can live without, anyhow, so that's all right (spoken very fast, CLE)] and the sea in question is the Mediterranean. On inspecting the Annals of Shalmaneser III, however, one finds that in his fourth campaign Shalmaneser describes a military expedition to North Syria, to be sure, _but_ he adds that he then returned to his capital city Nineveh and proceeded to the land of Zamua, where, among other things, he destroyed the city of Nikdime and pushed his troops into the sea. Not being a cuneiformist, Dr. Velikovsky does not know that the land of Zamua is mentioned scores and scores of times in late Assyrian annals and is to be located, beyond any possible doubt, in Media, about 600 miles east of Ras Shamra. The sea into which Nikdime's troops were pushed is Lake Van, not the Mediterranean 600 miles to the west. Wrong century, wrong country, wrong king, wrong sea. [Laughter] [N.B.: In April 1979, Peter James told me present scholarship favors Lake Urmiah or Lake Zeribor. CLE]

   I can go on all night. [Laughter] In _Worlds in Collision_, p. 161, Dr. Velikovsky says that Babylonian astronomy at one time had a four-planet system, with Venus missing. For this, he refers to a book, [quite correctly,] written in 1915. Not being a cuneiformist, Dr. Velikovsky cannot inspect the original text referred to in his 1915 source. I have read the text and I can report that it is quite true that Venus is missing in the text-- but so are the other four planets. [Laughter] Dr. Velikovsky's 1915 source mistranslated the names of four fixed stars as planets.

   In the so-called Venus Tablets of Ammisaduqa, which were copied and recopied over many centuries, Dr. Velikovsky sees in the few scribal errors evidence for the irregularity of Venus and carefully avoids the rest of the text that shows a high degree of regularity indeed. Not being a cuneiformist, Dr. Velikovsky quotes the 1920 opinion of Hommel to the effect that the year-formula of King Ammisaduqa found inside these texts was inserted by a scribe of the 7th century B.C. As every cuneiformist has had to learn for himself by sad experience, Hommel was [already] senile by 1890, [Chuckles] and his condition had certainly not improved perceptibly by 1920. [Laughter]

   Wherever one turns in Dr. Velikovsky's works, one finds a wasteland strewn with uncritically accepted evidence that turns to dust at the slightest probe.

   [A few] more examples. [Chuckles] On pp. 274-275 of _Worlds in Collision_, Dr. Velikovsky says, [and I quote him]: "Reports concerning earthquakes in Mesopotamia in the eighth and seventh centuries [B aa cent cent 8th and 7th centuries] are very numerous and they are dated." Go to the source referred to in the footnote, and you will find that it is not the 8th-7th centuries but the fourth-third centuries.

   On page 315 of the same opus, Dr. Velikovsky reports a value for the length of daylight from what he calls [quote] "the Babylonian astronomical tablets of the eighth century" [unquote] B.C. When one goes to the source, one finds that the date of the texts is 3rd century B.C., not eighth.

   At various places, Dr. Velikovsky talks about Babylonian calendars and length of year and length of month. Not being a cuneiformist, Dr. Velikovsky is not aware that tens of thousands of economic texts dated in the civil calendars of ancient Mesopotamia contradict every one of his statements.

   In conclusion, may I say that, God knows, I do not consider it a sin not to be a cuneiformist. [Laughter and applause] Some of my best friends are [not cuneiformists.] [Laughter and applause] I merely want to say that it's advisable to be one if you're going to write about cuneiform texts.

End Sachs. Elapsed time: 12:45 min.


The first sentence of Velikovsky's rebuttal to Sachs: "Dr. Sachs threw so many accusations in that Phillipic of his that I am at a difficulty to answer; but I invite Dr. Sachs to spend the hour and a half tomorrow at the meeting, and everyone of you too, and point by point each of his statements will be proven wrong."

In the event the next day, Sachs did not attend, no student questions followed up on Sachs' points, and Velikovsky did not volunteer any "point by point" refutation of Sachs. When he returned to Princeton, Velikovsky prepared final, typed rebuttals to all his adversaries at Brown except Sachs, for which only partial, pencilled notes existed in the Brown file when I examined it in April 1979.

However, later that year, Velikovsky gave a lecture at Princeton University, which was accompanied by two articles in the student newspaper about his work and the opposition to it. These prompted a 48-line letter, "Against Velikovskyism" from sophomore Kim James Masters on November 10, 1965, in which he challenged Velikovsky's scholarship on the basis of a statement on p. 117 of _Oedipus and Akhnaton_ "It is generally accepted that Akhnaton was deposed, and the idea has been repeatedly expressed that he was led into exile."

Velikovsky's angry 200-line reply to Masters was printed in The Daily Princetonian within the week on November 16, 1965; but his stinging upbraiding of the sophomore Masters did not refute the original criticism. After having no credible refutation against Sachs, it was as though in an act of transference, Velikovsky was lashing out in desperation at a seemingly helpless victim.  On November 18, 1965, the letter from John H. Marks, Associate Professor of Oriental Studies at Princeton, closed by noting "Mr. Velikovsky 'does indeed most undeniably' reject Kim Masters' 'contentions'; he scarcely refutes the documented charge."  On November 23, 1965, the letter from John A. Wilson '20, Professor of Egyptology at The University of Chicago, supported Masters against Velikovsky, noting "The words which Mr. Velikovsky uses about Mr. Masters are crushing, and he might read his own statement: 'arrogance is never becoming.'" Finally, on December 3, 1965, Masters' rebuttal to Velikovsky was printed and the editors apologized to him for printing Velikovsky's abusive letter "especially since there seems to be some merit in his [Masters'] arguments."

This would be the end of the story, were it not for the fact that in late 1979 The Irish Times ran a story on Velikovsky that, somehow, Kim Masters, then living in San Diego, CA, saw and wrote the following letter to the editor, which was printed:

  Sir,--I enjoyed your article on Dr Velikovsky (November 4th). In the early 1960s, as a high school student, I researched some aspects of his book "Oedipus and Aknaton[sic]." It seemed to me that on occasion he attempted to make data fit his theory. In comparing Oedipus to Aknaton[sic], for example, he claims Aknaton[sic], like Oedipus, was deposed and led into exile. As far as I could determine, it was not generally known what happened to the Egyptian king.   When Dr Velikovsky spoke at Princeton University when I was an undergraduate, I wrote a letter in the campus newspaper disputing his theories. He replied with an attack entitled "Lesson for a Sophomore" which[sic] haggled with me over details while it assassinated my character.   My own experience with Dr Velikovsky has made me wonder whether his rejection by scholars was due, as claimed, to resistance to his ideas, or whether it grew out of questions about his scholarship and his attitude towards critics.--

Yours, etc.,
Kim J. Masters,
San Diego,
California 92131, USA.

As I have shown many times before, all is not as it seems in the Velikovsky affair when reported by Velikovsky and such sycophants as Rose, Wolfe and Ginenthal. Just ask Kim Masters.

[Posted to V-list 7/21/98]

[Postscript (1/04/02):  G. J. Toomer's obituary for A. J. Sachs (1914-1983) in Journal for the History of Astronomy, XV (1984), pp. 146-9, concludes with the following paragraph: 

"In person he was warm to those who got to know him, a fascinating conversationalist and a sympathetic listener.  But his impatience with cant, academic and other, made his public figure forbidding at times.  He possessed a caustic wit.  A rare but memorable occasion on which this was publicly displayed was during a forum at Brown in the 1960s when Immanuel Velikovsky, whose theories were then enjoying a great vogue, debated with several members of the university faculty.  Velikovsky, who had responded calmly and condescendingly to the criticisms of a physicist {Leon Cooper who later would share a Nobel Prize in physics (CLE)}, a geologist and others, was devastated by Sachs' deadly demolition of the chronological and historical foundations of his grandiose edifice {see account in section "Bonanza from Brown" in Aeon 3:1, 1992, pp. 88-89 (CLE)}.


Fortunately, a written record of that speech survives, but the inimitable dry delivery is irrevocably lost {except for the audiotape in the possession of Warner Sizemore, from which Toomer was sent a copy of a copy in 1985 (CLE)}.  We salute the passing of one of the finest scholars of our time."  It almost goes without saying that this side of Sachs is missing from Lynn Rose's "eulogy" in Stephen J. Gould and Immanuel Velikovsky (1996).]

Leroy Ellenberger, "Per Veritatem Vis" <c.leroy@rocketmail.com>

Author of "An Antidote to Velikovskian Delusions": <http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/velidelu.html>


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