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writing in Biblical times

The art of writing must have been known in the time of the early Pharaohs. Moses is commanded “Write this in a book as a memorial” (Exodus 17:14 NASB) a record of the attack of Amalek. Frequent mention is afterwards made of writing (28:11, 21, 29, 36; 31:18; 32:15, 16; 34:1, 28; 39:6, 14, 30).

The origin of the art of writing is still unknown, perhaps it existed in the pre-Flood world. Regardless, there is reason to conclude that in the age of Moses it was well known. The God
inspired books of Moses are among the most ancient extant writings, although there are written monuments as old as about B.C. 2000.

“The Sumerian archaic cuneiform script and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400 to 3200 BC with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BC. It is generally agreed that Sumerian writing was an independent invention; however, it is debated whether Egyptian writing was developed completely independently of Sumerian, or was a case of cultural diffusion.”

In Egypt, “the world’s oldest deciphered sentence was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa'ab, which dates from the Second Dynasty (28th or 27th century BC). There are around 800 hieroglyphs dating back to the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom Eras. By the Greco-Roman period, there are more than 5,000.”

“In 2001, archaeologists discovered that there was a civilization in Central Asia that used writing c. 2000 BC. An excavation near Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, revealed an inscription on a piece of stone that was used as a stamp seal.”1

“In Mesoamerica, a stone slab with 3,000-year-old writing, known as the Cascajal Block, was discovered in the Mexican state of Veracruz and is an example of the oldest script in the Western Hemisphere, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing by approximately 500 years.2 It is thought to be Olmec.”

The words expressive of “writing,” “book,” and “ink,” are common to all the branches or dialects of the Semitic language, and hence it has been concluded that this art must have been known to the earliest Semites before they separated into their various tribes, and nations, and families.

“The Old Testament and the discoveries of Oriental archaeology alike tell us that the age of the Exodus was throughout the world of Western Asia an age of literature and books, of readers and writers, and that the cities of Palestine were stored with the contemporaneous records of past events inscribed on imperishable clay.

They further tell us that the kinsfolk and neighbors of the Israelites were already acquainted with alphabetic writing, that the wanderers in the desert and the tribes of Edom were in contact with the cultured scribes and traders of Ma'in [Southern Arabia], and that the ‘house of bondage’ from which Israel had escaped was a land where the art of writing was blazoned not only on the temples of the gods, but also on the dwellings of the rich and powerful.” —Rev. Archibald Henry Sayce, British Assyriologist and linguist

When the Hebrews entered Canaan, it is evident that the art of writing was known to the original inhabitants, as appears, e.g., from the name of the city Debir having been at first Kirjath-sepher, i.e., the “city of the book,” or the “book town” (Joshua 10:38; 15:15; Judges 1:11).

LETTERS—The first Biblical mention of letter-writing is in the time of David (2 Samuel 11:14-15). Letters are afterwards frequently spoken of (1 Kings 21:8-9, 11; 2 Kings 10:1, 3, 6-7; 19:14; 2 Chronicles 21:12-15; 30:1, 6-9, etc.).

  1. “Ancient writing found in Turkmenistan,” BBC (May 15, 2001). “A previously unknown civilisation was using writing in Central Asia 4,000 years ago, hundreds of years before Chinese writing developed, archaeologists have discovered. An excavation near Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, revealed an inscription on a piece of stone that seems to have been used as a stamp seal.”
  2. John Noble Wilford, “Writing May Be Oldest in Western Hemisphere,” The New York Times (September, 15 2006). “A stone slab bearing 3,000-year-old writing previously unknown to scholars has been found in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and archaeologists say it is an example of the oldest script ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere.”

    Helen Briggs, “‘Oldest’ New World writing found,” (BBC: September 14, 2006). “Ancient civilisations in Mexico developed a writing system as early as 900 BC, new evidence suggests.”

    Rodríguez Martínez, Maria del Carmen; et al., “Oldest Writing in the New World,” Science (2006). “A block with a hitherto unknown system of writing has been found in the Olmec heartland of Veracruz, Mexico. Stylistic and other dating of the block places it in the early first millennium before the common era, the oldest writing in the New World, with features that firmly assign this pivotal development to the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica.”

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Article Version: July 14, 2021