Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

First Writings

Posted by foryourfaith on February 7, 2012

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While the Hebrews were passing on their culture by word of mouth, the world’s first writing systems were being put to use. In Mesopotamia (now Iraq), where Abraham received the Lord’s call, a type of writing called cuneiform was being used. In Egypt, where the descendants of Jacob were laboring as slaves, hieroglyphs were in use.

Writing in cuneiform

The first of these writing systems was probably an early form of cuneiform which appeared in Mesopotamia about 3200 BC. Cuneiform is a system of writing in which symbols known as signs are cut into wet clay tablets, which are then left to dry or are baked in a kiln. Signs were pushed into the clay using a reed stylus with a wedge-shaped tip. The earliest signs were rough pictograms, vaguely resembling the objects they represented, but as time went on the signs became more and more stylized. By the eighth century BC they were made up of varied configurations of wedges and lines. The tablets themselves varied in shape and thickness and ranged in length and width from two centimeters (three-quarters of an inch) to 30 centimeters (one foot). Sometimes cuneiform was also scribed onto wax-covered tablets or chiseled into stone monuments.

Because of the enormous number of signs involved, cuneiform was difficult to master and was generally reserved for professional scribes in palaces and temples. Early cuneiform employed some 800 signs but later cuneiform used thousands. The earliest signs represented persons, animals or objects. Actions were sometimes represented by grouping symbols for objects. For example, the verb “to eat” was represented by combining the symbol for “mouth” with the one for “food.” Two shortened signs for “reed” were shown with their ends against a tablet-like rectangle to represent the verb “to write.” As time went on, some signs came to represent the sounds of monosyllabic words, rather than one syllable could be represented by combining these signs.

The earliest surviving cuneiform writings do not preserve history or literature. They are administrative records that discuss animal husbandry, grain distribution, land management and the processing of fruits and grains. A few other texts appear to be manuals for teaching the writing craft. As time went on, however, cuneiform writing was inscribed on monuments and used to preserve history and poetry.

Archaeologists have recovered several large libraries of ancient cuneiform writings, helping us understand the way of life in biblical times. The most important of these libraries, found in the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, contains more than 1,500 texts, including some of the most ancient surviving cuneiform writings. They were collected by King Ashurbanipal, who ruled from 668 to 627 BC. The most famous work from the library is the epic poem “Gilgamesh,” which is preserved on 12 tablets. The first great poetic work of all time, though written about 2000 BC, brings together tales that are far older. They tell of a tree of life and an evil serpent, and recount many adventures, including one about how a man survives a great flood by building a boat and bringing animals aboard – like Noah, this man also sends out birds to see if the flood waters are receding. Perhaps the Hebrew account of Noah and the flood is an adaptation of the Gilgamesh tale, with the Hebrew concept of the divine added to it, or perhaps it is an independent account of the flood that archaeologists believe inundated the area around Ur in about 3400 BC.

Hieroglyphic Writing

Shortly after the time the Mesopotamians were developing cuneiform (or perhaps even a little earlier), the Egyptians were developing their own writing system. Although it is possible that the Egyptians got the idea of writing from Mesopotamia, their system, which consists of pictographs called hieroglyphs, is entirely unrelated to cuneiform. Some hieroglyphs convey meaning. For example, a circle with a second, small, circle at its center was the sign for “sun,” but it could also be used to mean “day.” The sign of a man with his hand to his mouth might mean either “eat” or “be silent.” Other signs represented sounds. For example, the words for “man” and “be bright” contain the same consonant sound, hg, and were represented by the same hieroglyph. There were also signs that stood for certain combinations of consonants. About 700 different hieroglyphs were used in Egypt during much of the Old Testament period. Hieroglyphic writing was usually done with a pen and ink on papyrus, but hieroglyphs were also used on the walls of palaces, tombs and monuments.

The Hebrews must have seen both cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing, as they were displayed in public places. However, it is likely that very few Hebrews were able to read or write. Their time of literacy was to come with the invention of the alphabet.

Height of Scholarship

Cuneiform: The word cuneiform comes from the Latin Cuneus, which means “wedge,” referring to the shapes of the signs used in cuneiform.

It is due largely to the heroic efforts of a young English army officer, Sir Henry Rawlinson, that cuneiform can be read today. While stationed in Persia during the 1830s and 1840s, Rawlinson became fascinated by a huge monument cut into the stone face of a peak in the Zagros Mountains. There, scenes of heroic life from the time of Darius I of Persia (about 500 BC) were accompanied by cuneiform inscriptions in three languages – Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. In order to copy the text, Rawlinson had to stand at the top of a ladder that was precariously perched on a narrow ledge high above the valley floor. At times he had to steady himself with his left arm, while holding his notebook in his left hand and writing with his right hand. Rawlinson then spent decades deciphering the work he had copied, opening the way to the study of cuneiform and the languages it preserves.


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