Writing, an Art as Ancient as Man
WHERE can we go to get reliable information on the art of writing? What is the most ancient source? In his book Semitic Writing G. R. Driver identifies that source when he points out that what information is available on the use of writing during early centuries comes largely from the Bible. And there we find that sometime before Adam’s death in 3096 before the Christian era he wrote “the book of Adam’s history.” (Gen. 5:1) But what kind of writing was then in use? As we explore the field we shall find clues to the answer to that and many other questions.
It is generally thought that the alphabet is a relatively recent invention, since it is the simplest form of writing. However, David Diringir, in The Alphabet—a Key to the History of Mankind, observes: “It is a fact that the crudest forms of writing, both ancient and modern, are nonalphabetic, but these non-alphabetic systems of writing are not always earlier in time than the forms of alphabetic scripts. Some of the crudest forms of writing are in use to this day and indeed have come into use long after alphabets were firmly established and widely used.” Certainly Adam, who began as a perfect man equipped by God for his role in life, did not learn by a tedious trial-and-error method how to express himself either verbally or in writing. Though fallen into sin, he made adequate record of the events of his time, which record was later used by Moses at God’s direction as the basis for a portion of the account of Genesis.
Within a comparatively short space of time after man’s expulsion from Eden, cities were built as the human family grew in numbers. There was the city of Enoch of Biblical mention, and Eridu, Larak, Sippar and others referred to in secular tablet records that have been unearthed. (Gen. 4:17) Businesses developed: cattle raising, even the art of toolmaking, and others necessary to society. (Gen. 4:20, 22) That writing was used to keep the records of such daily transactions and contracts as are necessary in business is borne out by the many tablets that have been found.
The art of writing, however, did not remain unchanged. As the human family fell farther from the perfection of man in Eden, his abilities became gradually degraded. Following the Noachian flood, when man’s language was confused at the Tower of Babel, the field was thrown wide open for great diversity in writing and it apparently developed along a number of lines.
WRITING WITH PICTURES
Whether of pre-Flood or post-Flood origin, many of the early traces of writing that have been found are simply pictures, so the system is called pictographic. For a house, it was simple to draw a picture of a house. An animal could easily be drawn with simple lines in outline form. At times the method was speeded up by using a part of the object to stand for the whole. For example, the head of a beast representing the beast itself. While the system had severe limitations, it was apparently adequate for the time in which it was used.
Edward Chiera, in his book They Wrote on Clay, discusses how the system may well have been enlarged. “It was easy to represent concrete ideas. . . . An abstract idea was more difficult to represent, but the association of ideas came to one’s aid. A foot does not always indicate a certain part of the human anatomy; it sometimes gives the idea of walking.” These are termed ideographs. An arm might represent strength; a hand, giving. A drop of water coupled with an eye to represent tears might mean weep or sigh. A star could indicate height, and a rising sun might mean day. But how was the reader to know how to classify the signs? The problem was solved by use of a determinative sign, an ideogram that denoted the general class to which the object belonged.
Ideographs have certainly not passed out of use. When you look at a numeral, a dollar sign, or skull and crossbones on a bottle of poison, you are reading ideographic writing and it is quite understandable regardless of the language you speak. Oftentimes young children of Jehovah’s witnesses who have been orally instructed in God’s Word use pictographic and ideographic notes in giving short talks on Bible subjects in the congregation’s ministry school even before they attend regular secular schools.
A strictly ideographic system might multiply to an unlimited extent the drawings or symbols used and still some words could not be written. For example, how would a name be written? It might be possible to draw a picture of the individual, but that would require considerable skill if it were not to be mistaken for someone else, and the ability to “read” the drawing would require acquaintance with the person involved. This was solved by use of the phonetic or sound value of the symbols. The symbol for “eye” could be used to stand not only for that part of the body but also for the sound. Several of such symbols joined together might be used to help the reader sound out the desired word. This was known as syllabic writing.
CUNEIFORM AND HIEROGLYPHICS UNLOCK HISTORY
Cuneiform writing, used extensively in Mesopotamia and adapted to a number of languages, is not a system divorced from the practices already discussed. To the contrary, “at the beginning cuneiform writing was not cuneiform at all; the characters were purely pictorial, and the picture-symbols represented the various objects, animate and inanimate.” (The Alphabet, D. Diringir) The word “cuneiform” simply means “wedge-shaped” and indicates the shape of the impression made in the soft clay by the writing instrument used. When inscriptions were made on stone, the ones cutting the stone copied the style of marks made on clay. Thus cuneiform writing was at times pictographic and ideographic, it employed “sound-pictures,” many of which were catalogued to form a syllabary, and it was used in alphabetic writing as well.
The cuneiform inscription named by The Encyclopedia Americana as of greatest interest is the large stone monolith on which is found the Code of Hammurabi, a group of laws covering many aspects of social life. Sir Charles Marston comments on the law code: “It seems certain that Hammurabi’s laws were a codification of the older and existing laws and customs of the Semitic Race—the race that sprung from Noah’s son Shem, the race to which the Hebrews belonged.” Since it embodied many of the laws and customs from the earlier Noachian patriarchal system, there are many similarities between it and the later Mosaic law code given to Israel.
In Egypt hieroglyphics came into use. The name itself reflects much. It means “sacred carvings,” and it was an art that was considered to be a gift of their god Thoth. The hieroglyphics themselves, used principally for inscriptions on monuments and public buildings, combined pictographic, ideographic and phonetic methods of writing. Normally they were written from right to left; at times, from left to right; and for symmetry, even from the center out. When Napoleon’s soldiers invaded Egypt in the eighteenth century they found the Rosetta Stone, which contained in both Greek and hieroglyphics the same inscription glorifying Ptolemy Epiphanes. It was the key to unlock the history sealed in the hieroglyphics of Egypt.
Use of a brush-pen on papyrus for writing purposes led to adaptation of hieroglyphics by the priestly class into a cursive form called “hieratic.” Hieratic is to hieroglyphics what modern handwriting is to print. Perhaps by 500 B.C. a more compressed system that had lost much of its resemblance to hieroglyphics had developed. It was the “demotic” or simplified common writing used by business people for their records of civil transactions.
Even in these very early times written records on stone or baked clay multiplied in number. Many were simply business records, found in the royal archives and the temples. Others contained records of history, legends, mathematical and religious information. At various times these were gathered into large libraries, such as those uncovered in Babylonia and Assyria. Since these tablets were often stored in large pottery vessels, Babylonian archives were called by a term meaning “pot of tablets.” Reed baskets and wooden chests were also used.
USE OF THE ALPHABET
While many and varied systems of writing came into existence in the ancient world, the Hebrews apparently employed alphabetic writing. The alphabet is generally recognized to be of Semitic origin. R. W. Rogers, in Volume I of History of Babylonia and Assyria, when commenting on cuneiform writing, says: “Even while they still struggled with ideograms, determinatives, and simple and compound syllabic signs, Phoenicians and Hebrews close at hand, to say nothing of yet ruder folk like the Moabites, were writing inscriptions, and, in the case of the Hebrews, even books in prose and verse by means of a simple and most effective alphabet—whose construction was the greatest effort of ancient civilization.”
Noteworthy among such ancient alphabetic inscriptions is the Moabite Stone. It is an inscription of Mesha, king of Moab, in which he relates some of the events involved in his revolt against Israel, in corroboration of the account in 2 Kings 1 and 3. Also, and of particular interest, is the fact that the name Jehovah appears in the inscription.
The Bible clearly indicates that not only was the art of writing known among the Israelites in the days of Moses, but it was commonly used by the people. This is shown in the commandment of Jehovah to all the people, when he said concerning the words of the commandment to love their God: “You must write them upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:9) It is a fact attested to by this most ancient record of the art of writing and now confirmed by the more recent finds of archaeology. In the appendix to the book The Bible Comes Alive a letter from S. Langdon to the editor of the Times is reproduced, which says: “The presence of an alphabetic script of the Mosaic period in Canaan was a great discovery, proving the existence of alphabetic writing then and in a script from which the ordinary Hebrew letters were derived. There can be then no doubt but that the Hebrews were writing documents in this period.”
Where did they acquire the ability? In view of the use by Moses of pre-Flood documents in compiling the book of Genesis, it is apparent that men before the Flood had the ability to write, which was given to the first man Adam by God. It was used as a safeguard against the lapse of human memory so that we would have in this time the information God has provided to instruct us. (Matt. 24:37; Rom. 15:4) A document written by Shem after the Flood tells us that when men presumptuously sought to build their Tower of Babel to reach up to heaven itself, God intervened and thwarted their foolish schemes by confusing their language. (Gen. 11:1-9) There is no indication that either faithful Noah or Shem was a party to that effort to glorify men; they would not have been among those whose speech was changed. So centuries later it should not surprise us to find the Semitic peoples (descendants of Shem) writing inscriptions, prose and verse while those of other national groups were struggling in their development of systems adequate to express in writing their ideas.
From the Semitic peoples the Greeks borrowed the alphabet, adapted it, and passed it on to the nations of the West. The English alphabet itself is derived from the Latin, as are most of those of modern Europe, but they have earlier roots taking them back through Greek development and to the Semites.
CHANGES IN THE ART
Changes have marked the art of writing since earliest times and continue to do so. Pictographic, ideographic, cuneiform, hieroglyphic and alphabetic writing have all been in vogue. Writing of a few centuries ago is often nearly unintelligible to people now, although basically the same language.
At times manuscripts were written entirely in capital letters, or in large rounded letters called uncials. Early writings did not have space between words or use punctuation. All that has changed, as well as writing materials. Instead of clay, stone, metal, wood, papyrus, leather, etc., paper is now used.
The English alphabet is far from perfect. It has only twenty-six letters to represent some forty-two sounds, and even here there is needless overlapping. That ancient and valuable art of writing may change even more, but it will continue to be a key to the transmitting of knowledge.