The Practice Of Writing In Ancient Israel -- By: A. R. Millard

Journal: Bible and Spade (First Run)
Volume: BSP 02:3 (Summer 1973)
Article: The Practice Of Writing In Ancient Israel
Author: A. R. Millard


The Practice Of Writing In Ancient Israel

A. R. Millard

[A. R. Millard, M.A., M. Phil., is Rankin Lecturer in Hebrew and Ancient Semetic Languages at the School of Archaeology and Oriental Studies, Liverpool, England.]

The following article first appeared in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, December 1972 and is reprinted here, slightly abridged, with permission. — Ed.

Archaeological discoveries of recent decades have shown beyond any doubt that writing was well-known in Palestine during the period of Israelite rule. The intention of this article is to examine the use made of writing there at that time and the extent of its practice. Two sources are available on which any conclusions will rest: on the one hand, references in the surviving literature, mainly the Old Testament; on the other hand, existing specimens of writing or evidence for the former existence of documents now perished. We shall concentrate upon the latter — the ancient material recovered from Palestine and the neighboring lands.

The total number of written documents surviving from antiquity in this area is very large, ranging from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the scribbles of Nabatean travelers. While we can find occasional examples of the hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts within the borders of ancient Israel and the time-span of the Monarchy, our interest is limited to writings in the alphabetic script inherited by the Israelites from the previous inhabitants of the land. Accidents of preservation and discovery have provided far more material from ancient Israel than from her neighbors; the greater intensity of exploration and settlement in Palestine is a contributory factor, too. However, enough is known of writing in Phoenicia, Aram, Ammon, Moab, and Edom to imply that a picture could be painted for each of these states similar in many respects to the one we shall compose for Israel.

The Documents

For the present purpose the known texts may be placed in three categories according to their content and destiny: monumental,

professional, and occasional. While the form of script is involved to some degree in this study, it is not the basis of the division, although Old Hebrew or Phoenician does exhibit slightly divergent tendencies — formal in the “monumental” texts, cursive in the other two groups.

The monumental inscriptions need only brief mention here. These are texts intended for public display as enduring records. As it happens, the Siloam Tunnel Inscription alone can be counted a worthy representative of its class in Hebrew. While admiring its elegant style, it should be remembered that the engraver h...

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