FOUNDATIONS OF THE
DEVELOPMENT OF WRITING
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Ideograms superseded pictograms.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
The Picture of
||an old man
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
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.
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
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
|From 3500 B.C.
||The above are antedated by many other
tablets, including some dating to about 3500 B.C. found in
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.
narrative found at Nippur dates from about 2100 B.C.
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
(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.
addition, they have caused Old Testament scholars to reevaluate the
accuracy of the Bible patriarchs as well as names and events recorded in
Mitchell Dahood provides specific examples of clarification of
the Hebrew text from Eblaic evidence in his article "Ebla, Ugarit, and the
|From 1800 to
|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
|From 1500 to
|Alphabetic inscriptions from the turquoise mines in southern
Sinai date from about
The Ras Shamra tablets, from the coastal site in northwest
Syria identified as Ugarit, date from about 1500 to 1300 B.C.
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.
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
As a result, the more than 450 biblical references to writing
may be seen as reflective of the cultural diffusion between Israel and her
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
The Torah (Law) makes reference to several kinds of writing done
by Moses and his predecessors:
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.
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."
And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.
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
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."
So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests
And the LORD said to Moses: "... Now
therefore, write down this song for yourselves"
Therefore Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it
to the children of Israel.
So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of
this law in a book...
The Prophets (Nevi'im) indicate that writing was
employed by several individuals even prior to the time of the Moabite
as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded
the children of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law
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...
Then Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God.
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
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.
The materials upon which the ancients wrote were also used by the writers
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
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:
||"This is the history of the heavens and the earth"
||"This is the book of the genealogy of Adam"
||"This is the genealogy of Noah"
||"Now this is the genealogy of the sons of Noah"
||"These were the sons of Shem, according to their
||"This is the genealogy of Shem"
||"This is the genealogy of Terah"
||"Now this is the genealogy of
||"This is the genealogy of Isaac"
||"Now this is the genealogy of
Esau, who is Edom."
||"And this is the genealogy of
Esau the father of the Edomites in Mount Seir"
||"This is the history of Jacob"
This was used in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Palestine, as is evidenced
biblical writers also made use of stone as a writing material
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)
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
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
The apostle John used papyrus for his epistles (cf. 2 John 12).
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.
|3 John 13
Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with
paper and ink (NKJV)
Vellum - Parchment
These are various quality grades of writing
material made from animal skins of:
|calf or antelope
||The finest material - prepared for writing on both
sides, as in a codex
|sheep or goat
||Prepared for writing on both sides, as in a codex
|cow or bull
||Prepared for writing on only one side, as in a
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.
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)
Writing also was done in the biblical narrative upon
such things as -
Metal - (Ex. 28:36; Job 19:24; Matt. 22:19-20)
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.
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.
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.
"an altar of whole stones over which no man has wielded an iron
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.