The Amarna letters come from a diplomatic archive dating to the mid-14th-century B.C.E. First discovered by locals in 1887 in Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, they represent the majority of 381 tablets from the royal headquarters of the Egyptian Pharaohs Amenophis III and his son Akhenaten (the famous monotheistic heretic king immortalized in Freud's brilliant fantasy, Moses and Monotheism)
The newly discovered Jerusalem fragment may be a century older or later than the Amarna letters. But because they represent such a rich body of written evidence from the Late Bronze Age Levant, they provide some context for this intriguing scrap--indeed, in addition to the tantalizing hope of more fragments, maybe the best thing this discovery can do is direct us back to these remarkable texts, which still have more to tell us.
My teacher Raymond Westbrook called them the beginnings of international relations because for the first time we see a single complex political system spanning the entire ancient Near East, from the far reaches of Anatolia through Mesopotamia and the Levant down to Egypt. Its cosmopolitanism is signaled by the fact that the system is centered on Egypt but almost all communication is written in Babylonian. We see new "superpowers" like Assyria push their way onto the stage and established ones like Babylon struggle to keep their status. We see remarkable spectacles of excess and decay: While the established powers make jaw-droppingly lavish demands for shipments of each others' gold, doctors, and daughters, the little powers of the Levant protest that the empire is slipping through the Pharoah's grasp, falling prey to conspiracies and bandits. The most abundant of this corpus of protests is the writing of Rib-Addi of Byblos, who has been called a Late Bronze Age Job for his relentless poetic outcries against injustice--though the god he addressed was the Egyptian Pharoah.
But to me as a linguist and student of Hebrew, the most interesting thing about the Amarna letters is the language of these protests. The letters from the Levant are written in a remarkable way, using Babylonian (that is, a type of Akkadian) script and vocabulary but a great deal of Canaanite word order and forms. These "Canaano-Akkadian" texts are our first documents written in a grammar ancestral to Hebrew. William Moran, the greatest American scholar of the Amarna letters, produced a complete and reliable translation which is the starting point for anyone who wants to study them for themselves.
They are also the source of an extremely interesting linguistic controversy. Scholars debate whether Canaano-Akkadian was a language anyone spoke, or whether it was even a language in the usual sense. After Anson Rainey's monumental work put the philology and grammar of the texts on a solid new footing, the most important linguistic study has been by the Israeli scholar Shlomo Izre’el. Izre'el argued that most of the letters represent a mixed language (in some ways like Haitian Creole, also based on the vocabulary from one language--French--with a different grammar). He finds evidence that it was spoken by a small group of people—the scribes of the letters. But he also pointed to remarkable diversity in the letters’ relation to language: some reflect local dialect differences, but at least a few were purely mental notes to the scribe, never intended to be spoken. I have argued that the letters’ grammar does not neatly fit the cross-linguistic profile of mixed languages, which come from situations of bilingual speech, not writing.
This debate continues as I write. Eva von Dassow established a new direction in the texts’ study by viewing them as the expression of a sharp break between writing and language. She argued that the texts were composed purely in Canaanite, but encoded in Babylonian vocabulary and writing. Rather than being read, syllable by syllable, as Babylonian words with Canaanite grammar, the Babylonian signs would be decoded and read out, entirely in Canaanite. Izre'el is currently preparing a new statement on the language of the Levantine texts, responding to the arguments that von Dassow and I have made.
For the Jerusalem fragment, the take-home point is that the Levant in the Late Bronze Age was a very cosmopolitan world. While the fragment may be a century earlier than the Amarna texts--from a time when the Levant was being (re)conquered by Egypt and Hurrian mercenaries--or a century later, at the time when the great Canaanite myths of Ugarit were being written down--this world of multiple languages and cultures will have been part of its context. My Johns Hopkins colleague Christopher Rollston has an excellent blog post that provides an overview, along with important notes on the reading of the tablet from two of the world's greatest experts on the language of this time period, John Huehnergard and Wilfred van Soldt. For what I consider to be the single reliable piece of linguistic evidence about the fragment, and the six texts that can tell us about its general political context, see my posts below.