Sinai 375a, a stone slab from Egypt, with the name Ahisamach (Exodus 31:6) on the two horizontal lines. (Credit: Douglas Petrovich)
And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. – Exodus 24:4 (ESV)
Remarkable new evidence discovered by Dr. Douglas Petrovich may change how the world understands the origins of the alphabet and who first wrote the Bible. As to be expected, his controversial proposals have ignited contentious debate.
In this first of a three-part series, the background and importance of this issue will be explored before some of the specifics of the new finds and the pushback from other scholars is covered in part two.
A common teaching in schools for many decades has been that the Phoenicians developed the world’s first alphabet around 1050 BC. This alphabet was believed to have then spread to the Hebrews and other cultures in the Canaan area over the next centuries, eventually being picked up by the Greeks and Romans and passed down to the modern alphabets of today. However, many may have missed the implications of this view for the traditional understanding that Moses wrote the first books of the Bible.
While writing had long been in use by the Egyptians and the people of Mesopotamia, they used complicated writing systems (hieroglyphics and cuneiform) that were limited because they employed nearly a thousand symbols with many more variants representing not just sounds, but also syllables and whole words. The messages they conferred were fairly simple, while the Bible uses complex forms of language. The genius of the first alphabet was to boil everything down to about two-dozen letters that originally represented the sounds of consonants only. From these few letters, every word of a language can be easily represented.
An example of cuneiform wedge shaped script that had hundreds of different symbols, some with 30 or more variants (from wikimedia commons)
For a work as sophisticated as the Bible, you need the flexibility of an alphabet. If the alphabet was not invented until around 1050 BC, then Moses could not have written the opening five books of the Bible four centuries earlier.
Now, new evidence that may change everything has been announced by Dr. Douglas Petrovich, an archaeologist, epigrapher and professor of ancient Egyptian studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions – making classifications and looking for the slightest distinctives between writing systems while defining their meanings and the cultural contexts in which they were written. After many years of careful study, Petrovich believes he has gathered sufficient evidence to establish the claim that not only was the alphabet in use centuries earlier than some believe, it was in the form of early Hebrew, something that almost no one has previously accepted.
Three Giants in the fields of Egyptology, linguistics and archaeology. Sir Flinders Petrie 1853-1942 (from wikimedia commons), Sir Alan Gardiner 1879-1963 (copyright Thinking Man films), and William Foxwell Albright 1891-1971 (from wikimedia commons)
The standard presentation of Phoenician being the first alphabet is curious, since scholars have long known of much older alphabetic inscriptions. In 1904–1905 Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of Egyptian archaeology, and his wife Hilda discovered several rudimentary alphabetic inscriptions in the copper and turquoise mines that were controlled by the ancient Egyptians on the Sinai Peninsula. Sir Alan Gardiner, the premier linguist of his day, deciphered some of the writings and proclaimed that they were a form of primitive alphabet and that they used a Semitic language. The script became known as “Proto-Sinaitic” and was dated to the late Middle Bronze Age in the 1600s or early 1500s BC. W. F. Albright, the American known as the father of biblical archaeology, popularized the idea that these were Semitic writings and many took up the idea that Israelite slaves were responsible for these inscriptions.
Hebrew, as the world’s oldest alphabet, was first claimed in the 1920’s by German scholar Hubert Grimme. “Although Grimme identified some of the Egyptian inscriptions as Hebrew, he was unable to identify all of the alphabet correctly,” explained Roni Segal, academic adviser for The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, an online language academy specializing in Biblical Hebrew, who spoke to Breaking Israel News.
As modern skepticism about the biblical account of the Exodus period took hold late in the 20th century, scholars have generally retreated from the idea that the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were the product of Israelite mine workers. Additionally, the discovery of many other alphabetic inscriptions in the Canaan area dated to the period from 1200-1050 BC prompted the need for a new category. These, and a few earlier fragments from that area that were all similar to the Proto-Sinaitic constructions, were labeled as “Proto-Canaanite.”
A comparison between the Hebrew block letters that came into use after the Babylonian captivity (that commenced about 586 BC), the proposed original alphabet of “Proto-Hebrew” and the Egyptian Hieroglyphs that may have been the basis for many of the letters. (from Douglas Petrovich)
The system for all these forms appeared to have been developed from Egyptian Hieroglyphics, which was used as a basis for creating 22 alphabetic letters representing consonantal sounds expressing the Semitic language of the writings. The first writings accepted by scholars as using “Hebrew” script are all from after 1000 BC and classified as using the “Paleo-Hebrew” alphabet.
The ironic thing is that these Paleo-Hebrew writings are often impossible to distinguish from the Phoenician ones and were just as much a natural development from the earliest Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite examples. Yet most sources continue to communicate the standard paradigm. In their article on the Phoenician alphabet, Wikipedia states, “The Phoenician alphabet, called by convention the Proto-Canaanite alphabet for inscriptions older than around 1050 BC, is the oldest verified alphabet.” This view is maintained despite the fact that the oldest examples don’t come from Phoenicia and predate the existence of Phoenician culture. Might this practice be conveniently retained by those who don’t want Moses to be considered as a possible author of the Torah?
Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left. – Joshua 23:6 (ESV)
So did the Hebrew alphabet develop from Phoenician or was it the other way around? Could the earliest forms of the alphabet (Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite) just as easily be considered as “Proto-Hebrew,” and was it this early form of Hebrew that was the world’s first true alphabet? This earliest form of Hebrew could have spread throughout the region and developed into what is now called Phoenician and Paleo-hebrew. The mainstream of scholarship has not gone in that direction, insisting that the most precise we can be with these alphabetic scripts is to say that they are Semitic, and Hebrew is only one variety of many Semitic languages from that time.
Things got more interesting when John and Deborah Darnell made a 1999 discovery in Middle Egypt of alphabetic inscriptions at a place called Wadi el-Hol. These appeared to be a hybrid between hieroglyphic symbols and alphabetic symbols that once again fit the scenario of hieroglyphs-to-Semitic-script scheme. The surprising thing was that they were dated to the 12th Dynasty, which in conventional terms equated to around 1850 BC.
A line drawing of some of the world’s oldest alphabetic inscriptions from Wadi el-Hol in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (18th Dynasty) around the time of Joseph. – BRUCE ZUCKERMAN IN COLLABORATION WITH LYNN SWARTZ DODD Pots and Alphabets: Refractions of Reflections on Typological Method (MAARAV, A Journal for the Study of the Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 10, p. 89) (from wikimedia commons)
These realities prompted more scholars to return to the possibility that these early scripts were connected to the Israelites’ stay in Egypt. Egyptologist David Rohl theorized that the initial breakthrough may have come from Joseph during his time in power in Egypt, and that this system was later developed by Moses in time for him to begin writing what would become the first books of the Bible at Mount Sinai. Rohl wrote the following:
“…it took the multilingual skills of an educated Hebrew prince of Egypt to turn these simple first scratchings into a functional script, capable of transmitting complex ideas and a flowing narrative. The Ten Commandments and the Laws of Moses were written in Proto-Sinaitic. The prophet of Yahweh – master of both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian epic literature – was not only the founding father of Judaism, Christianity and, through the Koranic traditions, Islam, but also the progenitor of the Hebrew, Canaanite, Phoenician, Greek and therefore modern western alphabetic scripts.” David Rohl (2002), The Lost Testament, Page 221.
However, these assertions have not shifted the position of most scholars. There just wasn’t enough specific evidence to move these early alphabetic writings from the category of “Semitic” to that of “Hebrew.” Enter Douglas Petrovich and his claims of new and multiple examples of just such specific evidence. Exactly what he has found and what some of the initial reaction has been will be the subject of Part 2 of this article in next week’s Thinker Update.