The Scripts of the Ancient Near East -- By: G. Herbert Livingston

Journal: Bible and Spade (First Run)
Volume: BSP 09:2 (Spring 1980)
Article: The Scripts of the Ancient Near East
Author: G. Herbert Livingston


The Scripts of the Ancient Near East

G. Herbert Livingston

[G. Herbert Livingston is Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Asbury, Kentucky. He is the author of The Pentateuch in its Cultural Enviroment, from which this article was taken.]

More than one ancient community probably possessed a rich fund of oral literature that was passed from generation to generation through recitation from memory. Because these communities had no effective way to record their thoughts, their literature has been lost forever.

The major breakthrough in learning to write happened about 3000 B.C. Whether this occurred first in the Mesopotamian valley or the Nile valley has not yet been fixed. Three great systems of writing, however, did develop in the ancient Near East. They are the cuneiform style in the Mesopotamian valley, the hieroglyphic form in the Nile valley, and the alphabetic form in the Levant.

The inhabitants of the Mesopotamian valley learned early that clay was cheap and, when baked, provided durable material for writing purposes. Stone was scarce in the valley, but it was increasingly imported for inscribed monuments. The Nile valley had stone near at hand, in the desert bordering the river, and they employed it plentifully as a surface upon which to write. They soon found that papyrus and leather were also cheap

The Sumerian King List, which records the rulers of ancient Sumer prior to and following the great flood. The edition shown here, the “Weld-Blundell Prism,” was written in about 1817 B.C., although the original version was probably compiled between 2250 and 2000 B.C. (See Bible and Spade, Summer 1972, pp. 84-86.)

and effective, but these proved to be extremely perishable. Fortunately, the dry sands of Egypt have preserved some inscribed papyrus from the third millennium B.C. In the Levant, papyrus and leather seemingly were popular as writing materials, but its damper soils have destroyed all specimens of such inscriptions from before the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There have been a few inscribed stones (stelae) found in Palestine and also some inscribed pottery fragments (ostraca), but not nearly so many as in other areas of the ancient Near East.

The science of studying ancient inscriptions is called epigraphy. The science of analyzing the forms of scripts is called paleography.

Scripts have been classified according to several types. Pictographs are symbols that can be “read” in almost any la...

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