BIBLE AND SPADE - BY STEPHEN L CAIGER D B - first published at the University Press, Oxford 1936. This Edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


Chapter I: Egyptian Scribe: Saqqara. Old Kingdom, c.2500bce.HEBREW WRITING AND LANGUAGE

HOME | Contents | Introduction | Invention of the Alphabet | The Language of the Hebrews | Archaeology and the Higher Criticism | The Signature of Moses?

SINCE the Old Testament is a collection of written documents,
it will be convenient to consider first what archaeology has to tell us about the art of writing among the Hebrews.

Assuming the truth of the ancient tradition that Abraham led his countrymen forth from Babylonia about the time of Hammurabi (c. 2100 BC) [See below, pp.35 ff.], we find them entering history at a time and a place where writing had already been a commonplace of existence for at least two thousand years.
Long before Hammurabi chiselled his famous code of laws on a slab of stone,
the original Sumerian inhabitants of Babylonia had developed the clumsy yet efficient style of writing which we call 'cuneiform',
and which persisted as the most widely used system in the Near Eastern world for over three thousand years.

All ancient writing evolved from pictures.
The process can be most clearly traced in Egyptian
[For the Egyptian hieroglyphs see A. H. Gardiner's beautiful Egyptian Grammar (1927).]
where the hieroglyphic characters were painted on a smooth surface such as stone or papyrus,
and retained their pictorial appearance to the end.

In Babylonia
[For Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform, with an account of its decipherment,
see L. W. King, Assyrian Language (1901).]
however, the almost complete absence of stone or papyrus compelled the scribe to make use of clay,
so plentiful in that well-watered land.
The clay was shaped in the form of a slightly convex tablet,
inscribed with writing,
and then baked.
This produced, as time has shown,
the most indestructible type of written record yet found among the ancients,
but it involved an entirely different technique of writing from that which obtained in Egypt.

At first an attempt was made to draw linear pictures upon the clay, and many tablets inscribed in variations of this 'archaic' style have been found.
But very soon the scribe found it more convenient just to press the edge of his square-ended stick or stylus into the soft clay, and so to build up his characters, not by outline, but by a series of triangular or wedge-shaped (cuneiform) indentations.

In cuneiform, therefore, it is exceedingly difficult to perceive any pictorial resemblances,
although in many cases we are able to trace the evolution of the characters.
Thus the sign for SAGAZ, or warriors, is at first sight only a meaningless jumble of wedges,
but we have it also in its archaic form,
a clear outline of a short two-edged sword in a scabbard.

Sagaz Babylonian cuneform inscription.

One feature was common both to Babylonian cuneiform and to hieroglyphics:
they were not alphabetical, but syllabic scripts.
That is to say, each individual character represented not a single letter, but a whole syllable, or even a whole word.
The best-known modern example of this is in Chinese, with which indeed the Sumerian cuneiform is said to have a close relationship.
Syllabic cuneiform is thus one of the most difficult scripts for the student to master:
not only are there hundreds of separate signs for various syllables and words,
but in each case a sheer effort of the memory unassisted by any pictorial resemblance is needed to identify the minute and monotonous combinations of wedges which form the signs.

In spite of all this, cuneiform conquered the world.
The language of the Sumerians died,
but their method of writing was passed on from nation to nation until it was in use not only in the clay countries of Mesopotamia but in the rocky highlands of Asia Minor, Cappadocia, and Persia.
It even won a foothold in Egypt, where in the fifteenth century it is found displacing hieroglyphics as the official diplomatic script [As evidenced in the Tell el Amarna tablets, see pp.96 ff.].
More remarkable still, it survived for a thousand years the Semitic alphabet itself,
that epoch-making invention which so radically simplified all writing.

Cuneiform, then, was a familiar feature of everyday life in and around Ur of the Chaldees at the time when we first hear of Abraham.
It would accompany him all along the trade route through Syria to Canaan,
where cuneiform inscriptions of a date far anterior to Abraham have been found.
In short, it would seem certain that if the Hebrews of the second millennium,
like most of the peoples among whom they moved,
had scribes of their own,
cuneiform must have been the script they used.

It is noticeable, however, that the Bible makes no mention of writing amongst the Hebrews until the time of Moses, some centuries later than Abraham.
In Exodus xxiv.4 (E) we are told that Moses wrote all the words of the LORD,and the statement is constantly repeated henceforward.
Archaeologically speaking there is no reason for questioning Moses' acquaintance with the art of writing,
or the feasibility of his having inscribed his Laws on tables of stone after the manner of Hammurabi.

But the question,
What script would he have been most likely to use?,
has been variously answered.
As one brought up at the court of the Pharaoh,
and learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,
he must have had some knowledge of hieroglyphics.
But this style of writing, though admirably adapted to the Egyptian language,
was never (so far as we know) employed in transcribing any other.

The claim of cuneiform as the script of Moses and of the earliest Hebrew writers has been strongly urged by many scholars.

'If Moses was taught a Semitic writing,
which seems natural considering his origin and position,
it is obvious that he learnt Babylonian cuneiform—
a writing which allowed him to have intercourse with the Semitic world of his time."
[E. Naville, Was The Old Testament written in Hebrew? (1913).]

The Tell el Amarna tablets, written close to the Mosaic era, show that Canaanite-speaking people could write in cuneiform, and transcribe their native language where necessary in that script.

Quite recently indeed examples of this have been found among the Ras Shamra tablets,
believed to belong to the Tell el Amarna period.
Some of these tablets are written entirely in a Canaanite language, and in the cuneiform script.
In this case, however, it is surprising to learn that the cuneiform is no longer syllabic,
but (apparently under Phoenician influence) has been simplified for use as an alphabet.
'The decipherment of this script,
which represents the Phoenician or Hebrew alphabet of actually 1400 BC,
is one of the most interesting achievements of the present century.'
[C. Marston, The New Knowledge and the Old Testament (1933).]

It is not necessary to suppose that the rank and file of the Hebrews could read what was written.
Doubtless to them writing still seemed almost miraculous—
the writing was the writing of God
(Ex.xx.16 E).
It is interesting here to compare the expression on the Rosetta Stone,
where hieroglyphs are called 'the writing of divine words,
written by the god Thoth himself.


Moses, however, may have had simpler scripts than cuneiform at his command.
At Serabit el Khadem in Sinai Sir Flinders Petrie discovered Semitic inscriptions dating back beyond the Exodus, and written actually in a rude alphabetical script, apparently derived from hieroglyphs.
'These Serabit inscriptions', he says,
'show that common Syrian workmen were familiar with the art of writing in 1500 BC,
and finally disprove the hypothesis that the Israelites could not have used writing.'
[Sir F. Petrie, Researches in Sinai (1906).]

Similar inscriptions have since been found in Palestine itself,
as, for example, on a potsherd at Gezer,
an ostrakon at Beth-shemesh,
and the notable ewer recently found at Lachish.
Many scholars regard these Sinaitic inscriptions as exhibiting the 'missing link', as it were, in the evolution of the Phoenician alphabet from hieroglyphics.
'Some Sinaitic miners imitated Egyptian, giving Canaanite values and names to the letters,
e.g. aleph for oxhead, beth for house, &c. ...
Thus the alphabet was invented in the Sinaitic peninsula:
thence carried to South Arabia:
then to Canaan:
and eventually to Phoenicia.'
[A. T. Olmstead, Palestine and Syria (1931).]

Recent discoveries indeed have shown that the alphabet is a far more ancient invention than was commonly supposed.
The Minaean inscriptions of south Arabia, where Moses may have dwelt with his father-in-law the priest of Midian, are dated by many scholars as early as 1400 BC, and exhibit a well-developed alphabetical writing.
Some are of the opinion that the Hebrews of the pre-Conquest era 'must have originally employed this Minaean script in place of the Canaanite-Phoenician'. [F. Hommel, Ancient Hebrew Tradition (1897).]

So that in the light of recent research, far from questioning the ability of Moses to write, we may even conjecture that he had progressed beyond clumsy syllabic scripts to an alphabetical style of writing not dissimilar from the Hebrew of a later age.
In fact, 'the elder natural scepticism regarding the existence of a Semitic alphabet in the second millennium, which led conservative scholars like Naville
[E. Naville, Was the Old Testament written in Hebrew?,
where he contends that all the ancient records of the Hebrews were kept in Babylonian cuneiform,
and were not translated into Hebrew until the time of Ezra.]

to postulate cuneiform autographs of the Mosaic laws, is now despatched for good'.
[J. A. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible (1934).]

The evidence for an actual Hebrew or rather Canaanite script of Phoenician origin from the fourteenth century onwards is scanty but sufficient.
The Moabite Stone (described fully on p.135) of about 850 BC shows it in a highly developed form.
Working back from that, recent excavations in Samaria have revealed inscribed jar-handles and ostraka (smooth potsherds) of a somewhat earlier date [J.W. Jack, Samaria in Ahab's Time (1929).].
At Gezer, Macalister discovered a primitive calendar dated by Albright as early as 928 BC,
which takes us back almost to the days of Solomon.

One of the most important finds in this connexion is the now famous Sarcophagus of Akhiram, discovered by Montet at Byblos on the Syrian coast.
This sarcophagus is a large and well-preserved stone coffin-case,
beautifully sculptured in relief,
showing King Akhiram on his throne with a banquet spread before him.
Around the throne stand seven serving and four mourning figures.
The whole shows Syrian workmanship under Egyptian influence.
But what concerns us here is the surrounding inscription stating that
'This is the sarcophagus which Ippis-Baal, son of Akhiram King of Byblus,
made for his father as his resting place for eternity:
and cursed be he that desecrates it'.
This inscription, which is dated as early as 1250 BC, is the oldest known example of a Phoenician inscription, and indicates that already in the neighbourhood of Palestine the older cuneiform had met with the rival which was ultimately to prove the 'Mother of Alphabets'
[A. T. Olmstead, Palestine and Syria (1931), fully describes this sarcophagus.].
Another recent discovery of the greatest interest is the ewer found at Lachish (Tell Duweir) by J. L. Starkey in 1934.
On its neck is an archaic alphabetical inscription of the Phoenician type, 'acknowledged by all leading authorities to be the connecting link between the alphabetic script of Serabit and the script on the Sarcophagus of Akhiram'.
[C. Marston, The Bible is True (1934).]

Of Hebrew inscriptions
[For a survey of the inscriptions see J. G. Duncan, Digging up Biblical History, vol. ii (1931).]

in the strict sense, that is to say,
written by Hebrews in their own language,
there are none,
save the isolated word or two on the jar-handles and ostraka mentioned above,
earlier than the well-known Siloam Inscription (described on p.154) of 702 BC.
Somewhat strangely no royal inscriptions of the Hebrew monarchy have survived.
Judging by contemporary analogies there must have been many such at one time.
Macalister thinks that, owing to their lapses from pure monotheism the later Prophets deliberately destroyed them.
'Even the great name of Solomon would not have saved such monuments from destruction.
And iconoclasm of this kind, once begun, would continue quite automatically and unreasonably.
The mere fact that an inscription was in the Old Hebrew character would be sufficient to condemn it.'
[R. A. S. Macalister, A Century of Excavation in Palestine (1926).]

Archaeological confirmation from Hebrew monuments, such as we have from the inscriptions and records of Egypt and Mesopotamia, is therefore unavailable for Biblical history.


So far we have discussed merely the script of the ancient Hebrews:
to decide what language they spoke is another question.

If, as seems generally agreed, their aboriginal home must be sought in Arabia, then a dialect of Arabic must have been the language they took with them on their emigration into Babylonia.
Hommel, rightly appreciating the importance of personal names as preservatives of archaic speech-forms, finds a strong family resemblance between the earliest Hebrew names and those of the Arabic Minaean inscriptions, as well as those of the first Babylonian Dynasty. 'Abram, Sarai, Isaac, Jacob, &c. are definitely Arabic names, and the alternative spelling Abraham, Sarah, can be explained only by Arabic usage.''

Subsequent sojourn in Aramaea (Syria, Haran) must have modified this original dialect, so that the patriarchs may be considered as speaking a primitive form of Aramaic.
Some scholars consider that they took this Aramaic tongue with them through Canaan to Egypt, and that they retained it until the Conquest.
'The Hebrews of the patriarchal period were still half Arabs, and it was not until they had permanently settled down in the Promised Land that they adopted the Canaanitish tongue (i.e. 'Hebrew') in place of their original language'. [Hommel, Ancient Hebrew Tradition (1897).]

The more general opinion is that the language of the patriarchs became so modified by their sojourn in Canaan that it had already become a primitive form of Hebrew even before their descent into Egypt.
Here, according to Professor Yahuda's recent researches,
it largely dropped all traces of its Babylonian ancestry,
and became deeply tinged with Egyptianisms.
'The Hebrew language ... was retained by the Hebrews in Egypt,
and under the influence of the Egyptian language
was expanded, enriched, and embellished in sufficient degree
to create the necessary conditions under which the literary language of the Pentateuch was matured.'
[Yahuda, The Language of the Pentateuch in its relation to Egyptian (1934).]

There is no archaeological evidence, however, that Hebrew had become a literary language at this early date, that is, before 1400 BC.

Meanwhile the ancient Aramaic language, which had been left behind as it were in Syria and Mesopotamia, had also been growing up.
Casting off the shackles of cuneiform it eventually adopted a simplified alphabet,
written on vellum or some similar substance.
An Assyrian relief in the British Museum shows the simultaneous use of this Aramaic side by side with Babylonian cuneiform as early as the eighth century.
Its commercial advantages were obvious, and from this time forward Aramaic rapidly gained ground as the international language of the East.

The last phase of Biblical Hebrew as a spoken language may perhaps be dated from the beginning of the fourth century BC.
The appearance of Aramaic chapters within the later books of the Old Testament is significant, as also are the letters of the fifth-century Jewish colony at Elephantine in which Aramaic is exclusively used.
It is probable that by the time of Ezra the Hebrew Scriptures had to be translated for the ordinary Jew into a language he could understand (Neh.viii.7, 8).


Crossing over very briefly into the realm of literary criticism
[For the literary criticism of the Old Testament see Driver's standard Literature of the Old Testament (1898),
or the more recent Literature of the Old Testament (1934), by W.O.E. Oesterley and T.H. Robinson.]
it must be confessed that the archaeologist has done little to help the critic in his search for the original text of the Old Testament.
The internal evidence of the Bible itself must still remain the chief criterion for judgement on this point.

Yet, since literary criticism is inevitably involved sooner or later in questions of historical fact, the archaeologist is bound to have his say.
In this respect some very weighty attacks have been made by Sayce, Hommel, Naville, Yahuda, and others upon certain positions assumed by the critics, and particularly upon some conjectures subversive of Biblical authority which have been perhaps too freely welcomed by the 'advanced' school.
Speaking generally, it is true to say that, though the evidence of archaeology has too often been absurdly overpressed, yet as a result of the excavations the historicity of the Old Testament stands today in far higher estimation amongst impartial scholars than was once the case. 

Of the main literary position of the critics, however, namely the composite origin of the Pentateuch and the identification of the original documents, all that can be said is that 'while archaeology has not overthrown the critical position, it is in some details tending to modify it.
Sellin in Germany and Welch in Britain, though avowedly critical in their methods, represent a movement to date the documents earlier than the Wellhausen School had done.'
[C. R. North, 'Archaeology and the Bible', in the Abingdon Cornmentary (1929).]

There is a tendency, too, to suspect the existence of very early written sources where hitherto the theory of a merely oral tradition had held the field.
Thus Garstang is convinced that the Biblical story of the Conquest in its original form 'must have been derived from still earlier writings almost contemporaneous with the events described, so detailed and reliable is their information'.
[J. Garstang, Joshua-Judges (1931).]


As a matter of interest we give below some of the ways in which Moses,
on the reckoning of this chapter,
might have signed his name.
The 'signatures' were supplied to the author by the courtesy of the late Professor T. E. Peet and of Dr. Stephen Langdon.

Modern Hebrew השמ= Mosheh


Babylonian cuneiform of the Tell el Amarna period, 1400 BC.


Cuneiform of the type found on the Ras Shamra tablets, 1400 BC.


Script used in the Minaean inscriptions.


Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Egyption Hieroglyphs.


Phoenician script.