Avatar Anonymous asked Staff ago

One of the explanations concerning the origins of the Torah that I have never found adequately explained is how the Torah could have been written in Hebrew in the 13th century BCE when Hebrew didn’t exist as a written language at that time. Am I correct in this and if so where could I find a detailed exposition of the relationship between the developement of the language and the writing of ancient Hebrew literature, especially the Torah. What language could the Torah have been written in during the supposed time of Moses, hieroglyphics or cunieform? How and where do we date the first alphabet? Thank you.

Ian Belson

2 Answers
Avataradmin Staff answered 14 years ago

Dear Ian,

First of all, it is important to distinguish between language and writing systems. Language is what people speak or write, writing systems are the system of graphic signs used to write language. Theoretically, any language can be written using any given writing system. For example, the Yiddish language was originally a dialect of German written with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet – and the traditional norms of Hebrew spelling were altered to produce an intelligible spelling of originally German words. (Of course Yiddish also included, from the outset, a good number of originally Hebrew words, which continued to be spelled in the traditional Hebrew way, and later a good number of originally Slavic words were added to the Yiddish lexicon, but in its phonology, morphology, syntax, and indeed, in most of its lexicon, Yiddish remains a Germanic language.) More to the point of your question, Prof. Richard Steiner from the Yeshiva University has recently suggested that a group of Egyptian texts from the 24th century BCE (the Pyramid Texts) includes magical spells in a Canaanite dialect – probably the dialect of Byblos, now Jbeil on the Lebanese coast. (This suggestion was made in a lecture before the Academy of the Hebrew Language; the Hebrew text of the lecture can be found at http://hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il/PDF/steiner.pdf, with an English supplement at http://hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il/PDF/addendum.pdf.) If Steiner is correct, then we have whole sentences in a Canaanite dialect similar to Hebrew, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, long before there was any Canaanite alphabet.

As for the date of the alphabet used to render Canaanite languages, it was invented sometime during the early 2nd millennium BCE, and the earliest known texts written in this alphabet are perhaps the graffiti from Wadi el-Hol in Egypt (c. 1800 BCE, although the date is not quite certain), while the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim in western Sinai (c. 1500 BCE) are probably the most extensive group of alphabetic texts in some kind of Canaanite language from the 2nd millennium BCE. It should be noted, however, that both groups of texts are still not completely understood (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Bronze_Age_alphabets). What seems to be clear, however, is that the alphabet of the Serabit el-Khadim inscriptions has more than 22 letters; the number of attested letters is at least 23 and some letters were probably existent in the alphabet which was used to write these inscriptions but do not appear in the extant inscriptions due to chance (e.g., the letters zayin and tet, which are attested in later Canaanite inscriptions of the 2nd millennium BCE). In fact, this is not surprising, given that the original Semitic repertoire of consonants had 29 consonants, 28 of which have been preserved in Classical Arabic and all of which were preserved in the Ancient South Arabian alphabet (attested in inscriptions dating from c. 800 BCE to c. 500 CE). Mention has also to be made of the cuneiform alphabet of the 14th-13th centuries BCE, attested in the texts from the ancient city Ugarit (to the north of modern Latakia on the Syrian coast); this alphabet consisted of 30 letters which served to represent 27 consonants.

When did the alphabet consisting of 22 letters, as in Hebrew (and also in Phoenician, Aramaic, Moabite, etc.), appear? There is evidence for the existence of such an alphabet in the 13th-12th centuries BCE. (Needless to say, the form of the letters in that alphabet – or indeed, two different alphabets, one of which was cuneiform – was different from the form of the letters used to write a present-day Torah scroll, but that is a different issue.) Yet there is an important point about this. It stands to reason that the reduction of the number of the letters of the alphabet had originally taken place among the speakers of some language which had experienced a reduction in the number of distinct consonants. (Such reduction, by means of merger of several original consonants into one, is a well-known linguistic process; for example, in Modern Hebrew pronunciation the consonants expressed originally by the letters tet and taw have actually merged into one consonant t; similar processes must have happened in ancient Semitic languages as well.) In other words, the people who originally used a alphabet consisting of 22 letters were those people in whose language there were 22 distinct consonants. And from what is known about the phonology of Hebrew during the biblical period (indeed, prior to c. 200 BCE), it must have had at least 25 distinct consonants, while at least three letters of the alphabet were used to render two different consonants each: the letter het was used to render the laryngeal(as in the Arabic name of the city Hama in Syria) and the velar kh (as in the Arabic name of the river Khabur, a tributary of the Euphrates), the letter ayin was used to render the laryngeal (as in the Arabic name of the capital of Jordan, ‛ammān) and the velar ġ (as in the Arabic name of Gaza: Ġazza), and the letter shin was used to render the consonant sh (as in “shoe”) as well as another consonant whose articulation throughout history is somewhat complicated but which is known in the Masoretic spelling as sin – rendered by the letter shin with a dot above its upper left part. Therefore, it is likely that speakers of Hebrew borrowed their alphabet from speakers of another Semitic language. There is evidence (chiefly from the names of the letters as preserved in the Hebrew tradition) that the borrowing was from some Canaanite-speaking population of the eastern Mediterranean coastal plain – probably from the speakers of the language now termed Phoenician. (Linguistically, both Hebrew and Phoenician – as opposed to Aramaic – are categorized as Canaanite languages, but this has no direct bearing on the question of the borrowing of the alphabet.)

When could the borrowing of the alphabet from the Phoenicians by ancient Israelites have taken place? The question is somewhat complicated, and it appears that even after the initial borrowing, changes in the graphic shapes of Phoenician letters were imitated by the Israelites. In any event, the earliest inscriptions using the 22 letter alphabet from settlements which can be reasonably identified as Israelite are dated to the 12th century BCE. However, what is important even more than the actual date of this or that inscription is the consideration of geographic proximity: the Israelites could have borrowed the alphabet from the inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean coast only after they settled in what they considered their Promised Land to the west of the Jordan river, not when they were traveling through the deserts of Sinai and Transjordan, which is the period of the Giving of the Torah according to Jewish tradition.

In addition to that, the first extensive Hebrew text (with more than just a handful of words) known at this point is perhaps the Gezer Calendar, dated to the 10th century BCE; even concerning this text it is not quite clear whether it can linguistically be defined as Hebrew. The first undoubtedly Hebrew texts which have more than a handful of words are the inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud in eastern Sinai, dated to c. 800 BCE). Of course, archaeological discovery brings to light only a tiny portion of the texts that were written in the ancient world – especially so in Israel and the adjacent countries, where texts were normally written on perishable materials. But given the present state of knowledge, it is unlikely that extensive texts such as the books of the Torah could have been written prior to the 8th-7th centuries BCE.

Besides, the spelling of the Masoretic text of the Torah is a kind of spelling that must have developed after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. In Hebrew inscriptions of the First Temple period (the 10th-6th centuries BCE), there is a clear tendency of increase in the use of matres lectionis – letters that represent vowels rather than consonants. Yet, the Masoretic text of the Torah uses matres lectionis much more frequently than they are used even in the inscriptions dating to just before the destruction of the First Temple.

For the development of the Hebrew alphabet (and its predecessors), see:

J. Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography (2nd ed., Jerusalem 1987)

B. Sass, The Genesis of the Alphabet and Its Development in the Second Millennium B.C. (Wiesbaden 1988)

For the development of the orthography of Hebrew inscriptions and the comparison to the orthography of the Masoretic Text, see:

F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman, Early Hebrew Orthography: A Study of the Epigraphic Evidence (Baltimore 1952)

D. N. Freedman, A. D. Forbes and F. I. Andersen, Studies in Hebrew and Aramaic Orthography (Winona Lake, Indiana 1992)

Z. Zevit, Matres Lectionis in Ancient Hebrew Epigraphs (Cambridge, Mass. 1980)


Daat Emet

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