Writing, 2

Continued from WRITING, 1.

See a list of verses on WRITING in the Bible.

V. Materials.

The materials used in writing include almost every imaginable substance, mineral, vegetable, and animal: gold, silver, copper, bronze, clay, marble, granite, precious gems, leaves, bark, wooden planks, many vegetable complexes, antlers, shoulder-blades, and all sorts of bones of animals, and especially skins. The commonest are stone, clay, metal, papyrus, paper and leather, including vellum, and all of these except paper are mentioned in the Bible. Paper too must be reckoned with in textual criticism, and it was its invention which, perhaps more even than the discovery of printing with movable type, made possible the enormous multiplication of copies of the Bible in recent times.

See the definition of writing in the KJV Dictionary

1. Clay:

Whatever may be the fact as to the first material used for record purposes, the earliest actual records now existing in large quantities are chiefly on clay or stone, and, on the whole, clay records seem to antedate and surpass in quantity stone inscriptions for the earliest historical period. After making all allowances for differences in dating and accepting latest dates, there is an immense quantity of clay records written before 2500 BC and still existing. About 1400 or 1500 BC the clay tablet was in common use from Crete to the extreme East and all over Palestine, everywhere, in short, but Egypt and it seems perhaps to have been the material for foreign diplomatic communications, even in Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of these tablets have been dug up, and undoubtedly millions are in existence, dug or undug. These are chiefly of Mesopotamia. The most famous of these tablets were for a long time of the later period from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. See LIBRARY OF NINEVEH. Recently, however those from Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, Boghaz-keui in the Hittite country, and a few from Palestine itself vie with these in interest. Most of these tablets are written on both sides and in columns ruled in lines. They measure from an inch to a foot and a half in length and are about two-thirds as wide as they are long. Many of these tablets, the so-called "case tablets," are surrounded with another layer of clay with a docketing inscription. See TABLETS . Other clay forms are the potsherd ostraca; now being dug up in considerable quantities in Palestine Ezekiel (4:1) and perhaps Jeremiah (17:13) refer to this material.

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.


2. Stone:

Stones were used for record before image writing was invented--as cairns, pillars, pebbles, etc. Many of the early and primitive image records are on the walls of caves or on cliffs (Bushmen, American Indians, etc.). Sometimes these are sculptured, sometimes made by charcoal, paint, etc. The durability rather than the more extensive use of stone makes of these documents the richest source for our knowledge of ancient times. Besides natural stone objects, stone pillars, obelisks, statues, etc., stone-wall tablets, the sides of houses and other large or fixed surfaces, there are portable stone-chip ostraca and prepared tablets (tablets of stone, Ex 24:12; 31:18). These latter might be written on both sides (Ex 32:15). Job seems to refer to stone inscriptions (19:24). The famous trilingual inscription of Behistun which gave Rawlinson the key to the Assyrian was on a cliff and refers to King Darius (Rawlinson, Life, 58 ff, 142 ff). Two of the most famous of stone inscriptions are the Rosetta Stone, which gave the key to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the Moabite Stone (W. H. Bennett, Moabite Stone, London 1911), and both have some bearing on Jewish history. An especially interesting and suggestive stone inscription is the Annals of Thutmose III of Egypt, about 1500 BC, inscribed on the walls of the temple at Karnak. This gives a long account of campaigns in Syria and Palestine (Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, 163-217). The Siloam Inscription, and in general all the recently discovered inscriptions of Palestine, have their more or less important bearings on Biblical history (Lidzbarski, Handb. and Ephem.). Moses provided (De 27:2-8) for writing the Law on stone (or plaster), and Joshua executed the work (Jos 8:21,32).

Another form of record on stone is the engraving of gems, which is referred to in Ex 28:9,11,21; 39:6,14, etc., and possibly Zec 3:9.

3. Lead:

One of the commonest materials, on account of the ease of engraving, probably, is lead. Used more or less for inscriptions proper, it is also used for diplomatic records and even literary works. It was very commonly used for charms in all nations, and is referred to in Job (19:24), where it perhaps more likely means a rock inscription filled with lead, rather than actual leaden tablets. For the text of Ps 80:1-19 on lead see Gardthausen, p. 26. Submergence curses were usually of lead, but that of Jer 51:62 seems to have been of papyrus or paper (compare W. S. Fox in American Journal of Phil., XXXIII, 1912, 303-4).

4. Bronze:

Bronze was used for several centuries BC, at least for inscribed votive offerings, for public records set up in the treasuries of the temples and for portable tablets such as the military diplomas. In the time of the Maccabees public records were engraved on such tablets and set up in the temple at Jerusalem (1 Macc 14:27). There were doubtless many such at the time when Jesus Christ taught there.

5. Gold and Silver:

Gold and silver as writing material are most commonly and characteristically used in coins and medals. References to money, mostly silver money, are numerous in the Old Testament, but these are not certainly coins with alphabetic inscriptions. In New Testament times coins were so inscribed, and in one case at least the writing upon it is referred to--"Whose is this image and superscription?" (Mt 22:20). The actual inscription and the actual form of its letters are known from extant specimens of the denarius of the period.


The use of the precious metals for ordinary inscriptional purposes was, however, frequent in antiquity, and the fact that rather few such inscriptions have survived is probably due to the value of the metal for other purposes. The Hittite treaty of Khetasar or Chattusil engraved on silver and sent to the king of Egypt, has long been known from the Egyptian monuments (translation in Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, III, 165-74), and recently fragments of the Hittite version of this treaty have been discovered at Boghaz-keui (Winckler, MDOG, XXXV, 12 ff). This has very close relations to Biblical history, whether it was made before or after the Exodus. The famous Orphic gold tablets (Harrison, "Orphic Tablets," in Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 573-600, 660-74) have a bearing on a comparative study of Biblical doctrine. Direct reference to engraving on gold is found in the account of the inscription on the high priest's miter (Ex 28:36). Writing on the horns of the altar is referred to in Jer 17:1, and these horns too were of gold (Ex 30:3). Queen Helena of Adiabene is said to have presented an inscribed gold tablet to the temple at Jerusalem (Blau, 67). The golden shrines of Ptolemy V--with their inscribed golden phylacteries--are mentioned on the Rosetta Stone.

Silver, and more especially gold, have also been very extensively used for the laying on of contrasting colors, either furnishing the background or more often the material laid on. The history of chrysography is a long and full one (Gardthausen, I, 214-17; Blau, 13, 159-63). The standard copy of the Old Testament at Jerusalem, which was loaned to Alexandria, was apparently in gold letters (Josephus, Ant, XII, ii, 10) (see SEPTUAGINT), and many of the famous Biblical manuscripts of the Middle Ages were written wholly or in part with gold, either laid on as gold leaf or dissolved and used as an ink or paint (Gardthausen, 216).

6. Wood:

Leaves of trees were early used for charms and writing. Some of the representations of writing on the Egyptian monuments show the goddess of writing inscribing the leaves of growing trees. Jewish tradition (Tosephta' Gittin 2 3-5; Mishna, Gittin 2 3, etc., quoted by Blau, 16) names many kinds of leaves on which a bill of divorcement (De 24:1,3) might or might not be written. Reference to the use of leaves is found in early Greek, Latin, and Arabic sources--and they are still used in the East.

Bark also has often been used: both liber in Latin and "book" in English, according to some, are thought to refer to the bark of the lime or beech tree, and birch bark was a common writing material among the American Indians. It is in the form of wrought wood, staves, planks or tablets however, that wood was chiefly known in historical times. These wood tablets were used in all early periods and among all nations, especially for memorandum accounts and children's exercises. Sometimes the writing was directly on the wood, and sometimes on wood coated with wax or with chalk. See TABLETS . Writing on staves is referred to in Nu 17:2. Mr 15:26 seems perhaps to imply that the "superscription" of the cross was on wood, unless Joh 19:19 contradicts this.

Woven linen as a writing substance had some fame in antiquity (libri lintei), and many other fibers which have been used for woven or embroidered writing are, broadly speaking, of wood. So too, in fact, when linen or wood is pulped and made into paper, the material is still wood. Most modern writing and printing is thus on wood. See 10, below.

7. Bones and Skins:

Diogenes Laertius (vii.174) tells that Cleanthes wrote on the shoulder-blades of oxen, but he was preceded by the cave-dwellers of the Neolithic age, who wrote on reindeer horns and bones of many kinds (Dechelette, Archeological Prehistory, 1908, 125, 220-37, et passim). Ivory has often been used and was a favorite material for tablets in classical times. The Septuagint translates "ivory work" of Song 5:14 as "ivory tablets." Horns are given in late Hebrew (Tosephta', quoted by Blau, 16) as a possible material for writing. They have been used at all times and are well illustrated in modern times by the inscribed powder horns.

The hides of living animals have served for branding, and living human skin for painting, branding and tattooing extensively in all lands and all times. The literature of ceremonial painting and tattooing is very extensive, and the branding of slaves was common in many lands.


The use of skins prepared for writing on one side (leather) was early and general, dating back as far at least as the IVth Dynasty of Egypt. The Annals of Thutmose III in Palestine were written on rolls of leather. Its use was common also in Persia (Diodorus ii.32; Herodotus v.58; Strabo xv.1), and it was a natural universal material. It has been much used by modern American Indians. It was the usual material of early Hebrew books, and the official copies at least of the Old Testament books seem always to have been written on this material (Blau, 14-16), and are so, indeed, even to the present day.

8. Vellum:

Vellum is simply a fine quality of leather prepared for writing on both sides. The autographs of the New Testament were most likely written on papyrus, rather than leather or vellum, but most of the earliest codices and all, until recent discoveries, were on this material, while very few of the long list of manuscripts on which the New Testament text is founded are on any other material. This material is referred to as parchment by Paul (2Ti 4:13). Almost every kind of skin (leather or vellum) has been used for writing, including snake skin and human skin. The palimpsest is secondhand or erased vellum, written upon again.


9. Papyrus:

Papyrus was not only the chief of the vegetable materials of antiquity, but it has perhaps the longest record of characteristic general use of anything except stone. The papyrus was made from a reed cultivated chiefly in Egypt, but having a variety found also in Syria, according to Theophrastus. The papyrus reed grows in the marshes and in stagnant pools; is at best about the thickness of one's arm, and grows to the height of at most from 12 to 15 feet. It was probably a pool of these papyrus reeds ("flags") in which Moses was hidden (Ex 3:3), and the ark of bulrushes was evidently a small boat or chest made from papyrus reeds, as many of the Egyptian boats were. These boats are referred to in Isa 18:2.

Papyrus was made by slicing the reed and laying the pieces crosswise, moistening with sticky water, and pressing or pounding together. The breadth of the manufactured article varied from 5 inches, and under, to 9 1/4 in., or even to a foot or a foot and a half. The earliest Egyptian papyrus ran from 6 to 14 in. Egyptian papyri run to 80, 90 and even 135 ft. in length, but the later papyri are generally from 1 to 10 ft. long. The use of papyrus dates from before 2700 BC at latest.

Many Bible fragments important for textual criticism have been discovered in Egypt in late years. These, together with the light which other papyri throw on Hellenistic Greek and various paleographical and historical problems, make the study of papyri, which has been erected into an independent science, one of very great importance as to Biblical history and Biblical criticism (compare Mitteis u. Wilcken, Grundzuge .... d. Papyruskunde, Leipzig, 1912, 2 volumes in 4). It has been argued from Jer 36:23 that the book which the king cut up section by section and threw on the fire was papyrus. This argument is vigorously opposed by Blau (14, 15), but the fact of the use of papyrus seems to be confirmed by the tale that the Romans wrapped the Jewish school children in their study rolls and burned them (Ta`anith 69a, quoted by Blau, 41). Leather would have been poor burning material in either case. Certainly "papyrus" is freely used by the Septuagint translators and the word biblion is (correctly) translated by Jerome (Tobit 7:14) by charta. It is referred to in 2Jo 1:12, "paper and ink," as the natural material for letter-writing.


10. Paper:

The introduction of paper was from Western Asia, possibly in the 8th century, and it began to be used in Europe commonly from the 13th century. While few Western manuscripts of any importance are on paper, many of the Eastern are. It was the invention of paper, in large measure, which made possible the immense development in the multiplication of books, since the invention of printing, and the enormous number of Bibles now in existence.

11. Ink:

Of the many materials used in order to lay one contrasting color on another, the flowing substances, paint and ink, are the most common. In general throughout antiquity the ink was dry ink and moistened when needed for writing. Quite early, however, the liquid inks were formed with the use of gall nut or acid, and many recipes and formulas used during the Middle Ages are preserved. See INK, INK-HORN. The reading of a palimpsest often depends on the kind of ink originally used and the possibility of reviving by reagents.

VI. Forms.

The best known ancient forms of written documents are the tablet or sheet, the roll, the diploma and the codex. These may be analyzed into one-face documents and many-faced documents--page documents and leaf documents. The roll, the diploma and the usual folding tablet or pleated document are forms of the one-page document, while the codex or bound book (English "volume") is the typical leaf document. The roll is the typical form of the Old Testament, the codex of the New Testament, extant manuscripts.

A book as regards its material form consists of a single limited surface suited for writing, or a succession of such surfaces. This single surface may be the face of a cliff or house wall, a broken piece of pottery, a leaf, a sheet of lead, papyrus, vellum or paper, a tablet of clay, stone or wood, a cylinder, prism, cone, pyramid, obelisk, statue or any one of the thousands of inscribed objects found among votive offerings. The typical form is the flat surface to which the term "tablet" or "sheet" is applied, and which is called "page" or "leaf" according as one or both surfaces are in mind.

These single flat leaves are characteristically quadrilateral, but may be of any shape (circular, oval, heart-shaped, etc.) or of any thickness, from the paper of an Oxford Bible or equally thin gold foil up to slabs of stone many inches thick.

When the document to be written is long and the sheet becomes too large for convenient handling, space may be gained by writing on both sides or by making still larger and either folding or rolling, on the one hand, or breaking or cutting up into a series of smaller sheets, on the other. This folding or rolling of the large sheet survives still in folded or rolled maps and the folded or rolled documents (diplomas) of medieval and modern archives. The use of the tablet series for long works instead of one overgrown tablet was early--quite likely as early as the time of actual writing on real "leaves."

These smaller tablets or sheets were at first, it would seem, kept together. by numbering (compare Dziatzko, Ant. Buchw., 127), catchwords, tying in a bundle, or gathering in a small box (capsa). This has indeed its analogy with the mnemonic twig bundle of object writing. The Pentateuch gets its name from the five rolls in a box, jar, or basket (Blau, 65; Birt, Buchrolle, 22).

The next step in the evolution of book forms was taken when the various leaves or sheets were fastened to each other in succession, being strung, pasted or hinged together.

The stringing together is as early and primitive as the leopard-tooth trophy necklace of the African chief or the shell and tooth necklaces of quaternary Europe (Dechelette, Arch., 208-9). It was perhaps used with annual tablets in the first dynasties of Egypt and is found in oriental palm-leaf books today.

1. The Roll:

The roll consists normally of a series of one-surface sheets pasted or sewed together. Even when made into a roll before writing upon, the fiction of individual tablets was maintained in the columns (deleths, Jer 36:23 = "doors"). It was the typical book form of antiquity. It was commonly of leather, vellum, papyrus, and sometimes of linen, It might rarely be as much as 135 ft. long X 1 1/2 ft. wide for papyrus, and leather rolls might be wider still. It was the form traditionally used by the Hebrews, and was undoubtedly the form used by our Lord in the synagogue. It is still used in the synagogue. It was possibly the form in which the New Testament books also were written, but this is much more doubtful.

The roll form is rounded on the one-surface tablet, and, as a matter of fact, neither leather nor papyrus was well suited to take ink on the back; it developed from the sewing together of skins and the pasting together of sheets of papyrus. Although papyrus is found written on both sides, it is in general not the same document on the back, but the old has been destroyed and utilized as waste paper. This writing on both sides of the roll (opisthography) is referred to in Eze 2:10 (Re 5:1), where the roll is written within and without.

2. The Codex:

Wood and metal tablets, not being flexible, could not be rolled, but were hinged and became diptychs, triptychs, polyptychs. The typical method of hinging these tablets in Roman times was not the codex or modern book form proper, where all are hinged by the same edge, but a folding form based on a series of one-surface tablets hinged successively so as to form a chain (Gardthausen, Greek Palestine, I, 129, figure 12). They were strictly folding tablets, folding like an accordion, as in some Far Eastern manuscripts of recent times. The modern hinging was used but rarely.

It is commonly said that it was this folding or hinged wooden tablet which produced the codex of the Latins and the "book" of modern Germanic races. Some, however, prefer to trace the origin to the folded document. The wood or waxed tablet was commonly used in antiquity for letters, but even more commonly the sheet of papyrus or vellum. It is quite natural to fold such a sheet once to protect the writing. Whether this was suggested by the diptych, or vice versa, the form of a modern sheet of note paper was early introduced. Either the diptych or the folded single sheet may have suggested the codex.

Whether the first codices were wood and metal or papyrus and vellum, the hinging at one edge, which is the characteristic, is closely connected with the double-face (or multiple-face) tablet. With suitable material the simplest way of providing space, if the tablet is too small, is to turn over and finish on the back. The clay tablets lend themselves readily to writing on both sides, but not to hinging. It developed, however, to a certain degree the multiple-face idea by use of prisms, pyramids, hexagonal and other cylinders, but it was early forced into the numbered series of moderate-sized tablets.

Wood and metal tablets would be hinged, but the wood tablets were too bulky and metal tablets too heavy for long works, and the ring method of joining actually led away from the book to the pleated form. Papyrus and leather, however, while they might be used (as they were used) as single tablets were thin enough to allow of a long work in a single codex. They soon developed, therefore, perhaps through the folded sheet, into the codex proper and the modern bound book. The codex, as Thompson remarks, was destined to be the recipient of Christian literature, as the papyrus roll had been the basis of the pagan literature, and there is some evidence to show that the form was, historically, actually developed for the purposes of the Christian writings, and in papyrus, while the pagan papyri continued to be in roll form. Since the invention of the codex is placed at the end of the 1st century, and the earliest codices were especially the New Testament writings, there is a certain possibility that at least the historical introduction of the codex was in the New Testament books, and that its invention comes perhaps from combining the New Testament epistles on papyrus into a volume. In the West at least the roll is, however, the prevailing form of the New Testament until the 3rd or 4th centuries (Birt, Buchrolle, passim).

VII. Writing.

1. Writers:

The chief Hebrew words for the professional "writer" are copher and shoTer, both akin to Assyrian words for "writing" and used also for kindred officers. The word copher seems closely connected with the cepher, "book," and with the idea of numbering. This official is a military, mustering or enrolling officer (Jg 5:14; 2Ch 26:11; 2Ki 25:19), a numbering or census officer for military purposes or for taxation (Isa 33:18)--and a royal secretary (2Sa 8:17).

The shoTer appears as a herald (De 20:5,8; Jos 1:10; 3:2), as overseer of the brick-making in Egypt, and as overseer of the outward business of Israel (1Ch 26:29). He is associated with the elders (Nu 11:16; De 29:10 (Heb 9:1-28); 31:28; Jos 8:33; 23:2; 24:1) or with the judges (Jos 8:33; 23:2; 24:1; De 16:18).

The two terms are often, however, used together as of parallel and distinct offices (2Ch 26:11; 34:13). If any such distinction can be made, it would seem that the copher was originally the military scribe and the shoTer the civil scribe, but it is better to say that they are "evidently .... synonymous terms and could be used of any subordinate office which required ability to write" (Cheyne in EB). There seem to have been at least 70 of these officers at the time of the Exodus, and by inference many more (Nu 11:16), and 6,000 Levites alone in the time of David (1Ch 23:4) were "writers."

Another kind of professional scribe was the Tiphcar (Jer 51:27, "marshal"; Na 3:17 margin), or tablet writer, a word apparently directly borrowed from the Assyrian. This too seems to be a real synonym for both of the other words. In brief, therefore, all three terms mean scribe in the Egyptian or Assyrian sense, where the writer was an official and the official necessarily a writer.

Still another word, rendered in the Revised Version (British and American) as "magicians," is rendered in its margin as "sacred scribe" (charTom). This word being derived from the stilus recalls the close connection between the written charm and magic. None of these words in the Old Testament refers directly to the professional copyist of later times whose business was the multiplication of copies.

Sayce argues from the name Kiriath-sepher that there was a university for scribes at this place, and according to 1 Chronicles (2:55) there were Kenite families of professional scribes at Jabez.

The professional scribe, writing as an amanuensis, is represented by Baruch (Jer 36:4) and Tertius (Ro 16:22), and the calligraphist by Ezra (Ezr 7:6). In later times the scribe stood for the man of learning in general and especially for the lawyer.

It would seem that Moses expected that kings should write with their own hands (De 17:18; 31:24), and the various letters of David (2Sa 11:15), Jezebel (1Ki 21:9), the king of Aram (2Ki 5:5), Jehu (2Ki 10:2,6), Jeremiah (chapter 29), Elijah (2Ch 21:12-15), the letters of the Canaanite and Hittite princes to one another in the Tell el-Amarna Letters and Boghazeui tablets, etc., while they may sometimes have been the work of secretaries, were undoubtedly often by the author. For the prevalence of handwriting in Biblical times and places see LIBRARIES. Its prevalence in Old Testament times may be compared perhaps to the ratio of college graduates in modern life. In New Testament times the ratio was probably much greater, and it appears not only that Zacharias, the priest, and the educated Paul and Luke could write, but even the poorer apostles and the carpenter's Son. It is assumed that all of a certain rich man's debtors could write (Lu 16:7). This general literacy was due to the remarkable public-school system of the Jews in their synagogues, which some good Jewish scholars (Klostermann, quoted by Krauss, Talmudic Archaeology, III, 336, note 1) trace as far back as Isaiah. In Vespasian's time it is said there were in Jerusalem alone 480 synagogues each with its school, and the law that there must be primary schools in every city dates at latest (63-65 AD) from this time and more likely from 130 BC. The compulsory public-school law of Simeon ben Setach (circa 70 BC), although it has been labeled mythical, is nevertheless entirely credible, in view of the facts as they appear in New Testament times and in Josephus. The tale that there were in Bether, after the fall of Jerusalem had crowded full this seat of learning, "400 synagogues each with 400 teachers and 400 pupils," carries fiction on its face, but there is little doubt that there were public schools long before this in nearly every town of Palestine and compulsory education from the age of 6 or 7 (compare Krauss,III , chapter xii, "Schule," 119-239, 336-58).

2. The Writing Art:

Writing in the Hebrew as in Semitic languages in general except Ethiopic is from right to left and in Greek from left to right as in modern western usage. On the one hand, however, some Sabean inscriptions and, on the other hand, a number of early Greek inscriptions are written alternately, or boustrophedon, and suggest the transition from Semitic to western style. The earlier Greek manuscripts did not separate the words, and it is inferred from text corruptions that the earliest Hebrew writing did not. As early as the Mesha and Siloam inscriptions, the dot was used to separate words, and the vertical stroke for the end of a sentence. Vowel points were introduced somewhere from the 5th to the 8th centuries AD by the Massoretes, but are not allowed even now in the synagogue rolls. Some of the inscriptions employ the Palestinian or Tiberian system of vowel points, and others the Babylonian (above the line). Accents indicate not only stress but intonation and other relations. Very soon after Ezra's day, and before the Septuagint translation, the matter of writing the Biblical books had become one of very great care, the stipulations and the rules for careful correction by the authorized text being very strict (Blau, 185-87). The manuscripts were written in columns (doors), and a space between columns, books, etc., was prescribed, as also the width of the column. All books were ruled. Omitted words must be interlined above. The margins were frequently used for commentaries. For size, writing on the back, etc., see above, and for the use of abbreviations, reading, punctuation, etc., see Blau, Gardthausen, Thompson, the Introductions to textual criticism and the articles on textual criticism in this Encyclopedia.

VIII. History of Biblical Handwriting.

1. Mythological Origins:

Mythologically speaking the history of handwriting dates from the beginning when the Word created the heavens. The firmament is a series of heavenly tablets, the hand writing of God, as conceived by the tablet-using Babylonians, or a scroll in the thought of prophets, the New Testament writers, and the rabbis. Whether the idea that "the heavens declare the glory of God," etc. (Ps 19:1-4), refers to this notion or not, it was one extensively developed and practiced in the science of astrology. In any event the doctrine of the Creator-Word reaches deep into the psychology of writing as a tangible record of invisible words or ideas, and this philosophizing stretches some 3,000 years or so back of the Christian era.

For writing among the gods in the mythologies of non-Biblical religions, see BOOK; LIBRARIES.

2. Earliest Use:

When and why the very simplest kind of writing began to be used has been the subject of much conjecture. The Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition) (XVI, 445) suggests that "the earliest use .... of inscribed or written signs was for important religious and political transactions kept by priests in temples," but the memorial pillar is older than the temple, and the economic or social record is perhaps older than the sacred, although this is less clear. Three things seem rather probable: (1) that the first records were number records, (2) that they concerned economic matters--although it is not excluded that the occasion for first recording economic matters was religious, (3) that they were not used memorially for important transactions, but rather as utilitarian or business records.

The original mnemonic record was probably a number record. The Hebrew words for "book" and "word" both seem to mean a setting down of one thing after another, and various words in various other languages point in the same direction, as do also in a general way the nature of the primitive situation and the evidences of history. Many of the oldest records are concerned with numbers of animals. Immense quantities of very old Sumerian records are simply such lists, and the still earlier cave drawings (whether they have numbers or not) are at least drawings of animals. One use of the primitive quipu was for recording sales of different kinds of animals at market, and the twig bundle and notched records are in general either pure number records or mnemonic records with a number base. What these animal records were for is another matter. If they were records of ownership for mere tally purposes (a natural enough purpose, carrying back even to hunting trophies) the use was purely economic, but as a matter of fact the early Babylonian lists seem generally to have been temple records, and even the cave records are commonly thought to be associated with religion. The early Egyptian lists too have religious associations, and the somewhat later records are largely concerned with endowment of temples or at least temple lists of offerings--votive offerings or sacrifices. This points perhaps to a religious origin and possibly leads back to the very first felt need of records for a tithing for religious purposes. But it may equally lead to the sharing of spoils socially rather than religiously, although the history of the common meal and sacrifice shared by worshippers points to a very early religious sanction for the problem of equitable sharing of spoils, and it may have been precisely at this point and for this purpose that number record was invented. However that may be, the evidence seems to point to a number-record origin even back of the cave drawings (which are said to be chiefly of domestic rather than wild animals) at a period variously figured as from 6,000 or 8,000 years ago, more or less, to millions of years ago.

3. Biblical History:

The pseudepigraphic books of the Old Testament variously represent writing as invented and first practiced by Yahweh, Adam, Cain, or Seth. Taking the Biblical narrative as it stands, the earliest allusion to true writing is the sign of Cain (Ge 4:15), if indeed this refers to a body mark, and particularly if it has analogy with the "mark upon the forehead" of the Book of Revelation (Ge 17:5; compare Ge 13:16; 14:1) and the tattoo marks of ownership or tribal marks of primitive tribes, as is thought by many.

The setting of the rainbow as a permanent sign (Ge 9:12-17) for a permanent covenant is quite in line with the recognized mnemonic writing. Noah's building of an altar had the same character if it was built for a permanent memorial. More obviously akin to this primitive form of writing was, however, the dedication of a memorial altar or pillar as a memorial of a particular event in a particular place, as in Jacob's pillar (Ge 28:18,22).

For perhaps 2,000 years before Abraham, image writing had been practiced in both Babylonia and Egypt, and for more than 1,000 years a very highly developed ideographic and phonetic writing had been in use. There were millions of cuneiform documents existing in collections large and small in Babylonia when he was there, and equal quantities of hieroglyphic and hieratic papyri, leather and skin documents in Egypt when he visited it.


Abraham himself presumably used cuneiform writing closely parallel to the writing on Hammurabi's statue. A similar script was presumably also used by his Hittite allies. In Egypt he met with the hieroglyphics on the monuments, but for business and common use the so-called hieratic cursive forms were already developed toward, if not well into, the decided changes of the middle hieratic period (circa 2030-1788 BC; compare Moller, Hierat. Palaeog., VI, 1909, 3, etc.). It is a question whether the boundary heap, which Laban "called" the heap of witness in Aramaic and Jacob by the same name in Hebrew, was inscribed or not, but, if inscribed, both faces or lines of the bilingual inscription were presumably in cuneiform characters. The cuneiform remained, probably continuously, the prevailing script of Syria and Palestine until about 1300 BC, and until, some time well before 1000, the old Semitic alphabet began to be employed.

The question of the relation of the writing in Mosaic times and in the time of the Judges to the cuneiform or the hieratic on the one side and the alphabet on the other is too much mixed up with the question of the Pentateuch to allow of much dogmatizing. Some scholars are convinced that the Pentateuch was written in cuneiform characters if not in the Babylonian language. The old Semitic-Greek, "Phoenician," alphabet was, however, probably worked out in the Palestinian region between 1400 and 1100 BC (wherever the Hebrews may have been at this time), and it remained the Hebrew writing until the introduction of the square characters.


At the beginning of the Christian era there had been a long period of the use of Greek among the educated, and long before the New Testament was written there was a large body of Palestinian-Greek and Egyptian-Greek literature. Latin for a time also had been used, more or less, officially, but the Aramaic, development of whose forms may be well traced from about 500 BC in the inscriptions and in the Elephantine papyri, was the prevailing popular writing. Greek remained long the language of the educated world. It was after 135 AD that R. Simeon ben Gamaliel was said to have had 500 students in Hebrew (New Hebrew) and 500 in Greek (Krauss, III, 203).

Latin, Greek, and Aramaic (New Hebrew) characters were all needed for the inscription on the cross. Hebrew had at this time certainly passed into the square form long enough ago to have had yodh pass into proverb as the smallest letter (jot) of the alphabet (Mt 5:18). Through the abundance of recent papyrus and inscriptional discoveries, it is now possible to trace the history of the varying forms of the bookhand and cursive Greek letters, and even of the Latin letters, for several centuries on either side of the year of our Lord and up to the time of the longer known manuscripts (see works of Gardthausen and Thompson). One may get in this way a good idea of how the most famous of all trilingual inscriptions may have looked as to its handwriting--how in fact it probably did look, jotted down as memorandum by Pilate, and how transcribed on the cross, assuming that Pilate wrote the Roman cursive (Thompson, facsimile 106 (AD 41), 321), and the clerks a fair epigraphic or rather for this purpose perhaps bookhand Greek (Thompson, facsimile 8 (AD 1), 123; Latin, facsimile 83 (AD 79), 276).




Edward Clodd, Story of the Alphabet, New York, 1912 (popular); Fritz Specht, Die Schrift u. ihre Entwicklung, 3. Ausg., Berlin, 1909 (popular); I. Taylor, History of the Alphabet, London, 1899, 2 volumes, 8vo; H. Wuttke, Geschichte der Schrift, Leipzig, 1874-75 (rich and comprehensive on primitive writing); Philippe Berger, Histoire de l'ecriture dans l'antiquite, 2nd edition, Paris, 1892; Karl Paulmann, Illustrirte Geschichte der Schrift, Wien, 1880 (uncritical but comprehensive and very useful for illus.); W. M. Flinders Petrie, The Formation of the Alphabet, 1912.


Leo Frobenius, The Childhood of Man, Philadelphia, 1908 (casual but useful aggregation of primitive examples); Frederick Webb Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Washington, 1907-10, 2 volumes (dictionary form); G. Mallery, Smithsonian Inst. Reports, IV (1882-83), 3-256, X (1888-89), 1-822; M. Beuchat, Manuel d'archeologie americaine, Paris, 1912; M. H. Kingsley, Travels in West Africa, London, 1897; R. E. Dennet, At the Back of the Black Man's Mind, 1906; A. W. Howitt, Native Tribes of South-East Australia, London, 1904 (especially chapter xi); E. C. Richardson, The Beginnings of Libraries, London and Princeton, 1914.


Dechelette; Archeologie prehistorique. 1908; Arthur J. Evans, Scripta Minoa, Oxford, 1909; Angelo Mosso, The Dawn of Mediterranean Civilization, London, 1910.

Hebrew, Greek and Latin:

Frederic G. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient manuscripts, 3rd edition, London, 1898; George Milligan, The New Testament Documents, 1913, Ludwig Blau, Studien zum althebraischen Buchwesen, Strassburg, 1902 (scholarly; first rank); Leopold Loew, Graphische Requisiten und Erzeugnisse bei den Juden, Leipzig, 1870-71, 2 parts; Samuel Krauss, Talmudische Archaologie, Leipzig, 1910-12, 3 volumes, III, 131-239, 300 ff (full critical notes and references); Mark Lidzbarski, Handbuch d. nordsemitischen Epigraphik, 1902-8 (also Ephemeris); Alvin Sylvester Zerbe, Antiquity of Hebrew Writing and Literature, Cleveland, 1911 (controversial); V. Gardthausen, Griechische Palaeographie, 2nd edition, Leipzig, 1911-13, 2 volumes (remarkable for comprehensiveness, exhaustive bibliographic reference and critical scholarship); Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography, Oxford, 1912 (expansion of his Handbook with greatly improved facsimiles, better treatment of papyri and a good working bibliography of palaeography); F. G. Kenyon, The Paleography of Greek Papyri, Oxford, 1899, 8vo; Ludwig Mitteis and Ulrich Wilcken, Grundzuge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde, Leipzig, 1912, 2 volumes in 4 (Encyclopaedia of the subject); Theodor Birt, Das antike Buchwesen, Berlin, 1882; idem, Die Buchrolle in der Kunst, Leipzig, 1907 (of first usefulness, especially in matter of illus. and refs.); E. S. Roberts, Greek Epigraphy, part I, "The Archaic Inscriptions and the Greek Alphabet," Cambridge, 1887, 8vo; Karl Dziatzko, Untersuchungen uber ausgewahlte Kapitel des antiken Buchwesens, Leipzig; 1900; Ernest Christian Wilhelm Wattenbach, Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter, Leipzig, 1896 (has an immense mass of original quotations of authorities).

Sources for Latest Literature:

W. Weinberger, "Beitrage zur Handschriftenkunde," Sitzungsber. Akad. Wien, 159, 161 (1908-9), pp. 79-195; Zentralblatt f. Bibliothekswesen, Leipzig (monthly); Hortzschansky, Bibliographie des .... Buchwesens (annual cumulation of the Zentralblatt material).

For inward writing see modern general psychologies and the books and articles in Rand's bibliographical supplement to Baldwin's Dictionary of Psychology. For continuation literature see the Psychological Index. For various aspects of writing consult also books on general Biblical archaeology (e.g., Nowack and Benzinger), general introductions and articles on "Alphabet," .... "Book," "Library," "Manuscripts," "Textual Criticism," and other special topics in this or other Biblical and general encyclopedias.

E. C. Richardson

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