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The Old Testament has nothing to say about the origin of writing,  which seems to have been invented early in the fourth millennium B.C.  but it does assume writing on the part of  Moses,  who wrote the Law not earlier than about 1450 B.C.  Many earlier records of  writing have been discovered in various places.  But,  what was the character of those records?  Were they drawings?  Symbols?  If so, what did they symbolize?

Three stages in the development of writing may be discerned:  pictograms,  ideograms,  and phonograms.


These were representations that long antedated the origin of  writing and played a role in the development of  it. They were actually crude pictures that represented objects such as the sun,  an old man,  an eagle,  an ox,  a lion.  As long as pictograms represented nothing other than the objects themselves,  there was no difficulty in using them.  However,  as time passed the use of  pictures to depict ideas appeared,  and pictograms lost their dominant position in recorded communication.


Ideograms superseded pictograms.
They were pictures that actually represented ideas rather than objects.

The Picture of

  Might Represent
  an old man =   old age
  an eagle =   power
  an ox =   strength
  a lion =   regality

Thus, a long stride toward writing was taken,  although writing in the modern sense was still a long way off.  But ideograms,  actually a particular use of  pictograms,  were not the only extension of pictograms.


Still another extension of  pictograms,  phonograms was really representations of  sounds rather than objects or ideas.  Thus, a representation of  the sun might speak of a son rather than the sun;  a picture of a bear might be used to express the verb 'to bear';  the picture of  a bee to express the verb 'to be.'  As a result,  another step was taken in the direction of written languages,  but there was still a long succession of events necessary before writing in the modern sense was achieved.

Ideographic and phonographic writings were later intermingled with simple syllabic writing,  and that with a more sophisticated system of  cuneiform,  wedge-shaped signs was used by the Sumerians.

Merrill F. Unger adequately summarizes the situation:
"Those who first attempted to reduce human speech to writing did not at once perceive the chasm that separates the spoken words from the characters in which they are symbolized.  They wrote as they spoke in unbroken succession,  inscribing the letters in closest proximity to each other,  without separating them into words,  much less into sentences,  paragraphs and chapters.
Although letters were used in writing by the time of Moses,  they were consonants only,  as vowels were added much later.  Hence,  an unbroken succession of consonants covering an entire tablet,  later a scroll,  and still later a codex  (sheets of papyrus bound into a book form)  would appear before the reader of a given text.  Needless to say,  even that was still far from the modern concept of writing.


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Although the witnesses to writing in antiquity are far from abundant,  there is sufficient evidence available to indicate that it was the hallmark of cultural achievement.  During the second millennium B.C.  there were several experiments that led to the development of  the alphabet and written documents.  In Palestine itself there have been very few documents that have survived from the pre-exilic period,  but the evidence from surrounding territories makes it reasonable to assume that the Israelites shared in the act of writing even earlier than the beginning of  the Davidic kingdom.

Several lines of  evidence may be called upon to witness to the fact that writing was most certainly practiced by the Israelites prior to the time of the Moabite Stone of  Mesha, king of Moab,  which dates from about 850 B.C.
It was this item that was used by the late-nineteenth-century higher critical writers,  for example,  Graf and Wellhausen,  as the earliest example of  writing in Palestine.

Evidence from Mesopotamia

This dates from about 3500 B.C.  and includes cuneiform tablets of  the Sumerians.
The successors to the Sumerians used the latter's cuneiform script in developing their own individual languages.

From 3500 B.C. The above are antedated by many other tablets,  including some dating to about 3500 B.C. found in Uruk (the Erech of Gen. 10:10) and Kish.
From 2100 B.C Leonard Woolley discovered many temple tablets in the ruins of ancient Ur of the Chaldees that date from about 2100 B.C.
The Sumerian flood narrative found at Nippur dates from about 2100 B.C.

Egyptian discoveries

These confirm those found in Mesopotamia,  and they are dated about 3100 B.C.

From 3100 B.C. The hieroglyphic script first appeared in Egypt just prior to the founding of  Dynasty I (c. 3100 B.C.),  whereas its successors,  the hieratic and demotic scripts,  both appeared prior to the exilic period in Israel's history.
From 2700 B.C. Among the early Egyptian writings are The Teachings for Kagemni and The Teaching of Ptah-Hetep,  which date from about 2700 B.C.

There are,  in addition to those witnesses,  other testimonies that illustrate the use of writing in Egypt prior to the time of Moses,  Joseph,  and even Abraham,  regardless of  the dates ascribed to each of those individuals.

Furthermore,  the Israelites must have been aware of writing techniques prior to their exodus from Egypt,  for Moses was raised as a child with great position in the household of  the pharaoh during the New Kingdom period.  The New Testament record indicates the Hebrew traditional position,  as Stephen bears witness in his famous sermon when he relates that  "Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians,  and he was a man of  power in words and deeds"  (Acts 7:22).
That learning most likely included writing on papyrus,  as papyrus was used in writing earlier than Dynasty V
(c. 2500 B.C.).

East Mediterranean testimony

From 3100 B.C. As early as about 3100 B.C.  there was writing used on cylinder seal impressions in Byblos.
From 2500 B.C. Evidence from about 2500 B.C.,  shows that pictographic signs were used in Byblos (Gebal) and Syria.

Leonard Woolley's discoveries at Atchana (in northern Syria) appear to have been contemporaneous to the records found by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos,  Crete.  These records date into the mid-second millennium B.C. and they indicate that connection between the mainland of  Asia and the island bridge of Europe,  namely, Crete.

Early Palestinian and Syrian contributions

From 2300 B.C. From 1947 to 1976,  excavations at Tell-Mardikh (ancient Elba) south of  Aleppo in northern Syrian uncovered over 15,000  clay tablets inscribed in the cuneiform script with an early northwest Semitic dialect of  2300 B.C.
The tablets are from the time of the Babylonian king Naram-Sin  (equated by some with Nimrod of Gen. 10:9)  who campaigned in the area.
  Included among the tablets are portions of  the Epic of  Gilgamesh and other kinds of  literature from later Syria (Ugarit).  Thus they attest to an early literary tradition,  as already well known from Babylonia.
In addition,  they have caused Old Testament scholars to reevaluate the accuracy of the Bible patriarchs as well as names and events recorded in Genesis.
Mitchell Dahood provides specific examples of  clarification of  the Hebrew text from Eblaic evidence in his article "Ebla, Ugarit, and the Bible."
From 1800 to
         1500 B.C.
A pottery fragment from Gezer is dated from about 1800 to 1500 B.C.
The Lachish dagger inscription is contemporary, as are inscriptions from Shechem, Beth-Shemesh, Razor, and Tel el-Resi.
From 1500 to
         1300 B.C.
Alphabetic inscriptions from the turquoise mines in southern Sinai date from about
1500 B.C.
The Ras Shamra tablets, from the coastal site in northwest Syria identified as Ugarit, date from about 1500 to 1300 B.C.
There they employed the same diplomatic language as the Tel el-Amarna tablets (c. 1380 B.C.) from the ancient Egyptian capital of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton). At Ras Shamra were also found specimens of the Canaanite language written in alphabetic form. Those writings were made by inscribing unique cuneiform signs on clay tablets, known as the Ugaritic tablets.

All of the above evidence is extant from the period prior to the Moabite Stone of  Mesha,  king of Moab.
The event recorded on the Moabite Stone is that revolt against Israel recorded in 2 Kings 1:1 and 3:4-27.
Although the preceding evidence is not direct,  it is overwhelming in its denunciation of the negative higher critical position.  It is also overwhelming in its demarcation of  the history of writing before the time of  Moses.
As a result,  the more than 450 biblical references to writing may be seen as reflective of  the cultural diffusion between Israel and her neighbors.

Activity of Biblical writers within literate history

The foregoing discussion makes the assertion that  "Moses and the other biblical writers wrote during the literate age of man"  almost redundant.
Nevertheless,  the biblical record itself asserts that its writers wrote.  Several of  the more 450 biblical references may be called upon to indicate this fact.

The Law
The Torah (Law) makes reference to several kinds of writing done by Moses and his predecessors:

Genesis 5:1
This is the book (the written record, the history) of the generations of the offspring of Adam. When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.
Exodus 17:14
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua,  that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven."
Exodus 24:4
And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.
Exodus 34:27-28
Then the LORD said to Moses,  "Write these words,  for according to the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel."  So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights;  he neither ate bread nor drank water.
And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
Numbers 17:1-3
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  "... Write each man's name on his rod.  And you shall write Aaron's name on the rod of Levi."
Deuteronomy 31:9
So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests
Deuteronomy 31:16-19
And the LORD said to Moses: "... Now therefore, write down this song for yourselves"
Deuteronomy 31:22
Therefore Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the children of Israel.
Deuteronomy 31:24
So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of  this law in a book...

The Prophets
The Prophets  (Nevi'im)  indicate that writing was employed by several individuals even prior to the time of the Moabite Stone.

Joshua 8:31
as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses...
Joshua 18:8-9
Then the men arose to go away; and Joshua charged those who went to survey the land, saying,  "Go, walk through the land, survey it, and come back to me, that I may cast lots for you here before the LORD in Shiloh."  So the men went, passed through the land, and  wrote the survey in a book  in seven parts by cities...
Joshua 24:26
Then Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God.

The Writings
These Kethuvi'im  (Writings)  also relate that individuals were writing before the time of the Moabite insurrection recorded in 2 Kings 1:1 (2 Kings 1:1 - "Moab rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahab.")
and  2 Kings 3:4-27.

Proverbs 22:20
Have I not written to you excellent things
Of counsels and knowledge.
2 Chronicles 35:4
Prepare yourselves according to your fathers' houses,  according to your divisions,  following the written instruction of  David king of  Israel and the written instruction of  Solomon his son.


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The materials upon which the ancients wrote were also used by the writers of Scripture.


Clay was not only used in ancient Sumer as early as about 3500 B.C.,  but it was used by Ezekiel (4:1 - "You also, son of man, take a clay tablet and lay it before you, and portray on it a city, Jerusalem.).

This material would be inscribed while it was still damp or soft.
It would then be either dried in the sun or baked in a kiln to make a permanent record.

The clause  "this is the account of"  or  "the book of the generations of"  occurs twelve times in Genesis and probably indicates the divisions of early family records of the patriarchs:

1. Genesis 2:4 "This is the history of  the heavens and the earth"
2. Genesis 5:1 "This is the book of  the genealogy of Adam"
3. Genesis 6:9 "This is the genealogy of  Noah"
4. Genesis 10:1 "Now this is the genealogy of  the sons of Noah"
5. Genesis 10:31 "These were the sons of  Shem, according to their families"
6. Genesis 11:10 "This is the genealogy of  Shem"
7. Genesis 11:27 "This is the genealogy of  Terah"
8. Genesis 25:12 "Now this is the genealogy of  Ishmael"
9. Genesis 25:19 "This is the genealogy of  Isaac"
10. Genesis 36:1 "Now this is the genealogy of  Esau, who is Edom."
11. Genesis 36:9 "And this is the genealogy of  Esau the father of the Edomites in Mount Seir"
12. Genesis 37:2 "This is the history of Jacob"


This was used in Mesopotamia,  Egypt,  and Palestine,  as is evidenced by the

The biblical writers also made use of stone as a writing material

Exodus 24:12
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them."    (NKJV)
Joshua 8:30-32
Now Joshua built an altar to the LORD God of Israel in Mount Ebal,  as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the children of  Israel,  as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses: "an altar of  whole stones over which no man has wielded an iron tool."  And they offered on it burnt offerings to the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings.  And there,  in the presence of the children of Israel,  he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written.    (NKJV)

Also,  at the Dog River in Lebanon and at Behistun in Iran royal inscriptions were carved on cliff faces.


Papyrus was used in ancient Gebal (Byblos) and Egypt from about 3100 B.C.
It was made by pressing and gluing two layers of  split papyrus reeds together in order to form a sheet.
A series of  papyrus sheets were joined together to form a scroll.
It is that type of papyrus  "scroll"  that is mentioned in Revelation 5:1 (though it is translated "book" in NASB).
The apostle John used papyrus for his epistles  (cf. 2 John 12).

Revelations 5:1-2
And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals.     (NKJV)
3 John 13
Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with  paper and ink     (NKJV)

Vellum  -  Parchment  -  Leather

These are various quality grades of  writing material made from animal skins of:

calf or antelope Vellum The finest material - prepared for writing on both sides, as in a codex
sheep or goat Parchment Prepared for writing on both sides, as in a codex
cow or bull Leather Prepared for writing on only one side, as in a scroll

Although these substances are not mentioned directly as writing materials in the Bible,  some kind of  animal skin may have been in mind in Jeremiah 36:23
It could hardly have been vellum,  for Frederic Kenyon has indicated that vellum was not known prior to about 200 B.C.  Most likely it was leather,  for the king used a knife on it.

Jeremiah 36:23-24
And it happened, when Jehudi had read three or four columns,  that the king cut it with the scribe's knife and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth,  until all the scroll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth.   (NKJV)

Parchments are, on the other hand,  clearly mentioned in Paul's request to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:13).

2 Timothy 4:13
Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come and the books, especially the parchments.   (NKJV)

Miscellaneous items

Writing also was done in the biblical narrative upon such things as -

Metal - (Ex. 28:36; Job 19:24; Matt. 22:19-20)

A wooden writing board recessed to hold a wax writing surface - (cf. Isa. 8:1; 30:8; Hab. 2:2; Luke 1:63);

Precious stones - (Ex. 28:9, II, 21; 39:6-14)

Potsherds - (Job 2:8), better known as ostraca, as found in such locations as Samaria and Lachish in Palestine.
They were broken bits and pieces of pottery.

Linen - Still another item used in ancient writing in Egypt, Greece, Etruscan and Roman Italy,  but not mentioned in the Bible, was linen.


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Several different instruments were necessary in the production of written records on the various materials mentioned above:


A three-sided instrument with a beveled head,  the stylus was used to make incursions into clay and wax tablets.
It was sometimes called a "pen," as in Jeremiah 17:1.

Jeremiah 17:1
The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with the point of a diamond it is engraved    (NKJV)


A chisel was used in making inscriptions in stone, as in Joshua 8:31-32. Job wished that his words might be engraved with "an iron stylus" in the rock forever.

Joshua 8:31
"an altar of whole stones over which no man has wielded an iron tool."    (NKJV)

(Job 19:24).


A pen was employed in writing on papyrus,  vellum,  leather,  and parchment,  as indicated in 3 John 13 (above).


This was used in Jeremiah 36:23 to destroy a scroll (see reference above),  the material of  which was probably tougher than papyrus.  It was also used to sharpen the writer's pen after it had begun to wear down.

Inkhorn and Ink

These were necessary concomitants of  the pen,  and they served as the container and fluid used for writing on papyrus,  vellum,  leather,  and parchment.  Thus,  just as writing and its materials were available for the biblical writers,  so were the instruments necessary for their vital task.






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