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The world’s oldest alphabet

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

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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.

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