We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Invention of Writing

Up to this point we have been dealing largely with prehistory. Even subsequent eras are often prehistoric in the sense that we cannot set down any typical political history—for most of the Early and Middle Bronze Age in Palestine, for example, few names of cities or rulers are known, nor are even the language or languages that the inhabitants used. But first in Sumer, and then in Egypt, a technology is invented that will enable history in the more familiar sense to be reconstructed, that is, to be written. That technology, one of the most significant inventions of early Near Eastern civilizations, is writing itself.

Writing was invented to ease the administration of the various tasks, goods, and services exchanged by groups whose specialization made it inefficient or impossible to be self-subsistent. In increasingly complex societies, some form of record-keeping was essential. True writing appeared first in the Sumerian city-states of Mesopotamia toward the end of the fourth millennium BCE and slightly later in Egypt. Egyptian writing may have developed independently, or, as many scholars think, it was at least generically adapted from the Mesopotamian system.

Both systems originally used a pictographic system in which a picture or icon represented a single object, action, or concept. These pictures rapidly became stylized, and soon some were also used as phonograms, to represent a sound or syllable. Because of the necessity of learning hundreds of symbols in order to represent even a limited vocabulary, literacy was for the most part restricted to a specially trained class known as scribes.

In Sumer, as subsequently in its successors Babylonia and Assyria, the principal medium of writing was clay. Before the moistened clay had fully hardened, the symbols were inscribed on it with the sharpened point of a reed, resulting in wedge shapes; each wedge or combination of wedges represented a symbol or syllable. The tablets were then fired, like pottery, becoming essentially indestructible. The great majority of texts recovered that use this wedge-shaped, or cuneiform, writing are on clay tablets, but it was adapted for other media, such as stone and wood. Cuneiform continued to be the standard form of writing for millennia, not only in Mesopotamia but throughout the Levant, and was used for a variety of languages and even different writing systems, including a form of the alphabet. Thus, the Amarna letters, correspondence from Canaanite rulers to their Egyptian suzerain in the mid-fourteenth century BCE, were written by Canaanite scribes in a form of the Babylonian language that employs much local idiom.

In Egypt, a locally available reed, papyrus, was processed to become a cheap and durable writing surface—what the ancient Greeks called papyros, from which the English word paper is derived. On papyrus Egyptian scribes wrote with the ancient equivalent of pen and ink, using a pictographic repertoire that would much later, and erroneously, be called hieroglyphic, or sacred writing, for many texts have no explicitly religious content. As in Mesopotamia, other media could also be used for writing.

In the dry Egyptian climate papyrus is not subject to the kind of decomposition that organic materials undergo in other regions. And because much writing in Mesopotamia was on baked clay tablets, they too survive. Consequently, countless texts of all types—political, literary, scientific, commercial, and religious—have come to light and continue to do so, enabling modern scholars to study the ancient Near East at all levels, from the mundane to the sublime.

With the development of writing we leave prehistory and enter historical periods. Texts enable historians to assemble a chronological record of local, regional, and international politics. Individuals mentioned in one source appear in others, and ancient sources themselves frequently provide synchronisms, correlating events and rulers of their own geopolitical entity to those of others. These ancient records have enabled modern historians to construct a detailed and virtually continuous chronology. Although specialists will often quibble about the details of the chronology, there is consensus as to its general accuracy.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2019. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice