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The world’s oldest alphabet

Evidence suggests it may have been developed by the Hebrews, not the Phoenicians, as believed.

by

Published: 4 June 2020 (GMT+10)
Sample-of-Egyptian
Figure 1. Sample of Egyptian hieroglyphs used to represent alphabetic characters

We cannot be certain if the pre-Flood patriarchs knew how to write. However, a number of writing systems appeared shortly after the Flood. The earliest post-Flood systems of writing appear to have used individual symbols (such as Egyptian hieroglyphs) to represent words. Learning all the symbols for thousands of words makes writing and reading difficult skills to acquire. In contrast, an alphabetic system is easy to learn. An alphabet uses a set of symbols to record the basic significant sounds of a spoken language. With an alphabet, only a few symbols are needed. For example, we have 26 symbols in our alphabet.

Was the first alphabet Phoenician?

It is widely believed that the concept of using an alphabet to record a written text was developed in Syria by the Phoenicians. For example, an Encyclopedia Britannica article states what the editors of that publication believe about the first alphabet. The article states, “North Semitic alphabet, the earliest fully developed alphabetic writing system … was used in Syria as early as the 11th century BC and is probably ancestral, either directly or indirectly, to all subsequent alphabetic scripts, with the possible exception of those scripts classified as South Semitic (e.g., Ethiopic, Sabaean).”1

It is believed that the Phoenician alphabet developed from the North Semitic alphabet and was widely used during the period 1050 to 150 BC. It is also believed that the early Hebrew (Paleo-Hebrew) alphabet is a regional variant of the Phoenician alphabet. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet is the script that was used during the time of Judah’s kings, before the Aramaic alphabet was adopted during the Babylonian Captivity. The Aramaic alphabet used characters similar to those which we now associate with the Hebrew language.

An alternative hypothesis—the first alphabet developed by the Hebrews

Douglas Petrovich, who earned a PhD with a major in Syro-Palestinian archaeology from the University of Toronto and taught about ancient Egypt at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University, published a book on the earliest alphabet. In his book The World’s Oldest Alphabet,2 he argues that Hebrew was the first language to use a script that represented the consonants of a language. An alphabet that represents only consonants is called an abjad. A consonantal alphabet does not have symbols for the vowel sounds. The vowel sounds are left implicit and added among the consonants when the text is read. For example, the consonants CT could be read as ‘cut’ or ‘cat’, depending on the context.

 wadi-el-hol
Figure 2. Hieroglyphic symbols represent Hebrew letters

Petrovich states that, “Until the present day, one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the field of epigraphical studies related to the ANE [Ancient Near East] has been the identification of the language of the pictographic, proto-consonantal script that has been found on a variety of writing surfaces in Egypt, Sinai, and the Levant.” [pp. 6–7] His contention is that Hebrew is the language that is represented in the original proto-consonantal script—not Phoenician (or another language) as has been generally believed.

Petrovich examined a sample of sixteen inscriptions which contain simplified Middle-Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols. The inscriptions were engraved on pillars, rock surfaces, rock fragments, pottery fragments, and carved sculptures. They were found in the southern Sinai Peninsula, and in two locations adjacent to the Nile River. These southern locations are Lahun, south of modern Cairo, and Wadi el-Hol, near El Karnak and Thebes in the south. These inscriptions are dated from what are known as the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras. The Middle Kingdom era is traditionally dated from about 2055–1650 BC and the New Kingdom era from about 1550–1069 BC. It is his contention that each symbol was given a Hebrew name, and that the first letter of the name was the sound associated with the alphabetic consonantal character, as shown in Figure 1.

Petrovich started with the assumption that the inscriptions he examined were transcriptions of the Hebrew language. Then he mapped the hieroglyphic symbols to Hebrew letters or sounds. He offers translations of the sixteen inscriptions.

 Sinai-361
Figure 3.

The artifact on which the inscription in Figure 2 is based is dated to the Egyptian Dynasty 12, at around 1834 BC. However, it has been proposed by John Ashton and David Down3 that these dates need to be revised. If we use their revised dates for Dynasty 12, the artifact would be dated from 1704–1572 BC. This could place the date for the creation of this inscription during the time when Joseph was ruler in Egypt. This would support the idea proposed by some scholars that the Hebrew alphabetic script was developed by Joseph so that the Hebrews could more easily record their history (i.e., what is recorded in Genesis) and teach it to their children.

In each of his translations, Petrovich maps the hieroglyphic symbols to Hebrew consonants and then divides the resulting string of consonants into words which form a meaningful sentence. For example, in Figure 2, the Hebrew consonants (רביונמנהנגמהאפמחר), read from right to left, can be divided to provide six Hebrew words (רב יונ מנ הנג מהאפ מחר), without any vowels. The transcriptions Petrovich provides include the insertion of vowels (diacritical marks above and below the consonants). For each Hebrew word he identifies, he includes representative OT verses where the same (or a closely related) word appears in the Hebrew text of the Bible.

Another inscription (Figure 3), apparently from Dynasty 18 and dated at 1446 BC (following traditional dating methods), would place the creation of the inscription after the time of the Exodus (around 1490 BC). This one is particularly interesting because it appears to include the name of Moses who astonished the writer in the midst of his bound servitude.

Important conclusions

Petrovich’s approach of mapping the hieroglyphic symbols to Hebrew consonants and providing meanings for the symbols based on the Hebrew language appears to make sense. If he is correct, his discovery has ramifications, including the following:

  • Hebrews were present in Egypt during the time period that is covered by Genesis 45 to Exodus 12 (c. 1700–1490 BC). The inscriptions provide extrabiblical validation that the Bible’s account is historically accurate.
  • Hebrews worked in quarries and mines in the Sinai Peninsula and at construction sites in some southern parts of Egypt. This validates the Bible’s account of their bondage in slavery. This level of historical accuracy also implies that the account could not have been composed, as some scholars suggest, a thousand years after the events occurred—allegedly by a scribal class among the Jews.
  • The Hebrews were a literate people, and even some of their labourers (e.g., stonemasons, potters) and artisans were able to write. Thus, we can trust the statements given throughout Scripture that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch and that he wrote an eyewitness account about the exodus from Egypt.
  • The Hebrews used a true alphabet before the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians adopted the Hebrew alphabet. A later version of the Phoenician alphabet migrated throughout the Levant after the conquest by Joshua. Adaptations of this later alphabet spread from Canaan into other parts of the Middle East (e.g., for the Aramaic language). Then, as Phoenician merchants travelled through the Mediterranean world the alphabet spread into Europe. The Greek and Latin alphabets appear to have been derived from the Phoenician alphabet.
  • In God’s providence, His covenant people invented the alphabet, which has become one of the most important inventions in history and an essential tool for the easy dissemination of God’s truth to all peoples.

References and notes

  1. britannica.com/topic/North-Semitic-alphabet. Return to text.
  2. Petrovich, D., The World’s Oldest Alphabet—Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script, Carata, Jerusalem, 2016. Return to text.
  3. Ashton, J. and Down, D., Unwrapping the Pharaohs, Master Books, pp. 78–86, 2006. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Terry D P.
Very interesting. The Israelites must have understood the language in which God twice wrote the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone. (The first pair of tablets were smashed by Moses when he came down from the mountain to the golden calf idol.) Viz. the Hebrew alphabet was already well established and known by Moses at the time he was educated in Egypt.
Robert R.
Moses controversy had the point that proto Canaanite was early Hebrew, or 1st phonetic language.
Egyptian hieroglyphs had 3 types of lettering. Glyphs for whole words [like Chinese]. Glyphs for multiple sounds together, and glyph for individual letters like phonetic language.
RONALD M.
I am interested in CMI’s opinion of the 1490 date of the Exodus—usually given as close to 1445.
Jonathan Sarfati
The former is possible, but the latter is more likely. CMI’s position is explained in the very detailed paper Egyptian chronology and the Bible—framing the issues, in the section Ramses II (the Great). Is he the pharaoh of the Exodus? The main thing is that a late date for the Exodus in the 13th century is untenable; it must be in the 15th century.
Gian Carlo B.
Wow, super interesting! I also was taught that the Phoenicians used the first alphabet. Glad there's secular support to the contrary.
Robert michalak M.
I realize this has major ramifications for the time frame of the Israelites in the secular thinking. And wonderful for bible believers. How is this idea being treated by the archaeology world? Is it being taken seriously? The truth has a way of coming out no matter how hard vested individuals try to stop it.
Murray A.
What this article misses is attention to the Izbet Sarah osctraca, one of which is an abecedary (the alphabet in order), and another—at least according to William Shea—is a brief account or report of the Battle of Aphek recorded in 1 Sam 4. It can be argued that the Izbet Sartah alphabet is a development from the Sinai inscriptions, and was clearly in use during the Judges period. Hence the reference in Judges 8:13 where a youth from the street could write down a list of names is entirely plausible: an alphabet can be learned is very short time, and thus basic literacy among the Israelites was widespread. Meanwhile, the Phoenician script came into vogue during the reign of Solomon, from his contacts with Hiram the Great.
Aaron D.
"The artifact on which the inscription in Figure 2 is based is dated to the Egyptian Dynasty 12, at around 1834 BC. However, it has been proposed by John Ashton and David Down3 that these dates need to be revised. If we use their revised dates for Dynasty 12, the artifact would be dated from 1704–1572 BC. This could place the date for the creation of this inscription during the time when Joseph was ruler in Egypt."
"Another inscription (Figure 3), apparently from Dynasty 18 and dated at 1446 BC (following traditional dating methods), would place the creation of the inscription after the time of the Exodus (around 1490 BC)."

In the first instance a revised dating is used, but in the second traditional dating is used. Isn't this inconsistent?
Jim Hughes
Thank you for your input. The key word in the text relating to the Figure 3 inscription, is 'after'. If the Exodus is dated at 1490 BC, then whichever dynasty dating is used (traditional or Ashton and Down's), the inscription (if it is correctly placed during Dynasty 18) was written after the Exodus. There is much uncertainty about the dating of Egyptian dynasties and how to line them up with Biblical events (see for example, Egyptian chronology and the Bible—framing the issues). Our standard must be to use the date-markers provided in the Bible (starting with Genesis 5 and 11). An important point about the inscription is that it may mention the name 'Moses' and may refer to events that 'provoked astonishment', such as the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea.
Michael B.
As CMI continually reminds us; What amazing discoveries can be made when the evidence is examined through the lens of a Scripture based world view.
Thank you for this encouraging article.
Your Brother in Christ,
Michael
Cameron N.
I often wonder what impact Babel had on the creation of written languages. Surely some of the more complex ones God confused the world with would be much more difficult to create an alphabet around.

Praise be to God though, this is good news!
Nichola W.
I believe that Hebrew is the original language and so it makes sense that the original alphabet is also Hebrew. You notice that the word alphabet is make up of the first 2 letters in the Hebrew alphabet; Alef and bet?
The study of Edenics, shows that the confusion of languages at Babel was just that, a confusion. God didn't make up a bunch of new languages, he just confused the original. Changing sentence construction, letter order in words, slight shifts in letter sounds, syllable emphasis.
As an example, listen to someone speaking your language but with a very strong accent or different modulation. They can be really hard to understand. I was in a 15 minute lecture in English, by a Korean, and no one in the room understood a word he said.
Language is truely fascinating.
Alf F.
Perhaps the question to ask is not are there examples which validate the assumption, but rather, are there known examples of the same script in Canaan or elsewhere in the near East prior to the arrival of the Hebrews, from cultures that were not Hebrew-speaking? If there are, the theory must be revisited. For how then do disparate cultures get to use the same alphabet but in different languages, before they have contact, unless it has an even earlier derivation? Not that such a thing doesn't happen today, but wouldn't the circumstances of the times (slavery, no global village) make it doubtful? The important thing to do when proposing a new theory such as this is to yourself look for instances which clearly stand against it. Seek them out and vigorously test your assumptions, if you don't want to waste your own and other people's time. Lita Cosner put me right very nicely when I found a video of what I had thought were Red Sea-crossing relics. I wasn't aware of the fake-news site that produced it until she pointed it out to me.
But many years ago already I learnt this lesson when I made up my mind to find out if the Bible is true or not. I made sure that I threw everything against it that appeared to contradict it. The Bible had to be clearly victorious in EVERY instance, even one failure would invalidate it's claim to be the infallible Word of God. A true seeker after truth will not propose a theory and then only look for those instances which seem to support their theory. Our weakness is to try and justify the things we want to believe. I am willing to believe this, it has occurred to me long ago, but it has to stand up to all the known facts, and it will be very exiting indeed if the course of time and peer review can validate Dr Petrovich's contention.
Nathan G.
There seem to be several good arguments that reading and writing may have existed well before Noah's flood, perhaps as early as Adam and Eve, since humans have genetically and mentally deteriorated in the meantime. When the topic of written language comes up, Ashurbanipal (7th century BC) stated that he had read clay tablets possibly taken by Noah onto the ark:

"I Ashur-bani-pal, within the palace, learned the wisdom of Nebo, the entire art of writing on clay tablets of every kind. I made myself master of the various kinds of writing ... I read the beautiful clay tablets from Sumer and the Akkadian writing, which is hard to master. I had the joy of reading inscriptions on stone from the time before the flood."

The cuneiform languages of the Fertile Crescent after the flood were immensely complex, even compared to Latin with its 13 cases. German only has four cases. English, too, but it has dropped all endings and requires asking questions to identify word function. Languages have demonstrably devolved over time. Language before the flood could very well have been a form of proto-Hebrew. I wouldn't bet the farm on this idea, but it is interesting nonetheless. Do we really want to bet that writing only came into being with Ham, Cush and Nimrod after the flood?

Did Ashurbanipal mean that the tablets he read were actually FROM before the flood or just ABOUT the history which occurred before the flood?
John H.
Jesus said to the Pharisees at least 3 times, "you are dead in your sins and you will die in your sins". I like to think of them as the first century achedemics not that different from the current crop. As they research they are against God, as they gather evidence it will be against God and his Word. I pray CMI will not grow weary of this but keep going.
John R.
If it is believed that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet after 1051BC, what script did God use when he wrote the Ten Commandments? If the alphabet was not known before the Exodus, it would have had to have been invented by God at Sinai and taught to Moses there. But in Genesis there are several sections beginning or ending with "These are the generations of ..." or "This is the Book of the Generations of ..." (and the New Testament starts with "The Book of the Generation of ..."). An old man I knew in Pevensey Bay in the '70s suggested to me that each of these sections would have been originated by a different scribe - though it is not impossible that everything was preserved orally until Moses wrote it down (God only physicaly wrote the Ten Commandments).

Ezra 4:7 has an enigmatic turn of phrase translated in various ways in the different versions, but literally meaning "And the writing of the letter was written in Aramaic, and ??????? Aramaic". The word represented "???????" occurs nowhere else in Scripture, so translators seem to have merely guessed what it means. A clue may be in the material which follows it: It is Aramaic, but written in the same Hebrew characters that the rest of the Hebrew Old Testament is written in. Translation of the enigmatic word as "transliterated" would seem to me to fit all the observed facts, yielding as translation, "the writing of the letter was written in Aramaic, and (is here) transliterated from the Aramaic". The Aramaic script that was transliterated may even be non-alphabetical, supporting the assertion that Hebrew was the earliest alphabetical language.
John R.
My knowledge of comparative linguistics is not vast, but I know too much to accept that the judgement at Babel was just “Changing sentence construction, letter order in words, slight shifts in letter sounds, syllable emphasis.” Genesis says God confounded their languages, which is more than merely confused them. If the languages of the world were each merely a subsection or variant of the original language, that original language would have had to be MASSIVE, with so many ways of saying the same thing that it gets ridiculous; though the original language IS likely to have been larger than Biblical Hebrew, probaby larger than Ben‑Yehuda’s expansion of it.
In spite of the population choosing the Plain of Shinar on which to build a tower whose top may reach up to heaven, rather than a suitable mountain plateau, the original language is unlikely to be either Irish, or, as Americans might suggest, Polish!
Jonathan Sarfati
In my Genesis 1–11 commentary The Genesis Account, chapter 23, I explain that the confusion of languages was most likely the creation of the ancestral languages of the major language families around the world. E.g. the language we are communicating in is an Indo-European language, a group that also includes German, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, Russian, Avestan, Hittite, Tocharian, Norse …. Historical linguists believe they all came from a language called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). I argued that PIE was one of the proto-languages that God created at Babel. This has no written records, and all we have are scholarly reconstructions—if you want to hear what it might have sounded like, try these illustrative short stories, The Sheep and the Horses (Schleicher’s Fable) and The King and the God. I also argued that the single pre-Babel language was Hebrew or something like it, say Proto-Semitic, but I won’t be dogmatic about this.
John R.
Noah to Peleg is 5 generations. If we assume a trebling of the population each generation (definitely an underestimate!), this would mean at least 240 families to be scattered, which would mean at least 240 languages actually generated at Babel (If the scattering happened later in Peleg's life, say, in the third generation, there would be some 6,000 families, and anything up to that number of proto-languages, which is over twice the number of actual languages today). There are believed to be just over 7000 languages in the world today. which would mean that each proto-language would give rise to, on average, about 30 different languages, if we assume that it was just 240, and in the years after Babel the diversification of language was by derivation. But the truth is likely to be somewhere in beween 240 and 6,000 proto-languages.
There is no reason to assume that every language in an apparent family of languages did in fact derive from a common proto-language, any more than man and the apes derived from a common ancestor. The similarity of all the Chinese "dialects" means that they can be represented by one non-alphabetic orthography, but I would guess, from what Chinese friends have said to me, that the phonological differences in vocabulary are too great for them to have been derived from a common ancestor. Similarly, the Germanic, Latin, Slavonic, Celtic, and Sanscrit groups of languages may have separate origins (Helenic and Latin may or may not have a common derivation).
On the other hand there are legends like that about the brothers Chin and Kachin that would suggest that some groups of languages DO have common origins. All the Turkic languages probably have the same origin, for instance, as would Farsi, Dari, the various Kurdish, and Tadjik.
Jonathan Sarfati
In The Genesis Account, ch. 23, I talk about the exponential growth to Peleg on pp. 658–659. Meanwhile, check out Modelling biblical human population growth.

In the same book, I discuss the language and language families on pp. 663–667. I document that Germanic, Latin, Slavonic, Celtic, and Sanscrit definitely come from Proto-Indo-European. Meanwhile, check out Allan Steele’s paper The development of languages is nothing like biological evolution, Table 1. Verbal endings common to some Indo-European languages. See also his presentation Languages: The Bible vs Evolution (MP4 Video).



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