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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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In regard to alphabetic writing, all the ancient writers attribute the invention of it to some very early age, and some country of the east; but they do not pretend to designate precisely either the time or the place. They say, farther, that Cadmus introduced letters from Phenicia into Greece, if we may credit the Parisian Chronicle, B.C. 1519, that is, forty- five years after the death of Moses. Anticlides asserts, and attempts to prove, that letters were invented in Egypt fifteen years before Phoroneus, the most ancient king of Greece; that is, four hundred and nine years after the deluge, and in the one hundred and seventeenth year of Abraham. On this it may be remarked, that they might have been introduced into Egypt at this time, but they had been previously invented by the Phenicians.

Epigenes, who, in the estimation of Pliny, is weighty authority, informs us that observations, made upon the heavenly bodies for seven hundred and twenty years at Babylon, were written down upon baked tiles; but Berosus and Critodemus, also referred to by Pliny, make the number of years four hundred and eighty. Pliny from these statements draws the conclusion that the use of letters, as he expresses it, must have been eternal, that is, beyond all records. Simplicius, who lived in the fifth century, states, on the authority of Porphyry, an acute historian, that Callisthenes, the companion of Alexander, found at Babylon a record of observations on the heavenly bodies for one thousand nine hundred and three years. Of course the record must have been begun B.C. 2234, that is, the eighty-ninth year of Abraham. This statement receives some confirmation from the fact that the month of March is called Adar in the Chaldaic dialect; and at the time mentioned, namely, the eighty-ninth year of Abraham, the sun, during the whole month of March, was in the sign of the zodiac called Aries, or the Ram. The word Adar means the same with Aries. But, as letters would be unquestionably first used for the purposes of general intercourse, they must have been known long before they were employed to transmit the motions of the stars. Of this we have an evidence in the bill of sale, which, as we have reason to suppose from the expressions used in Genesis 23:20 , was given to Abraham by the sons of Heth. Hence it is not at all wonderful that books and writings are spoken of in the time of Moses, as if well known, Exodus 17:14 ; Exodus 24:4 ; Exodus 28:9-11 ; Exodus 32:32 ; Exodus 34:27-28 ; Numbers 33:2 ; Deuteronomy 27:8 . Nor is it a matter of surprise that long before his time there had been public scribes, who kept written genealogies: they were called by the Hebrews שוטרים , Exodus 5:14 ; Deuteronomy 20:5-9 . Even in the time of Jacob, seals, upon which names are engraved in the east, were in use, Genesis 38:18 ; Genesis 41:42 ; which is another probable testimony to the great antiquity of letters.

Letters, which had thus become known at the earliest period, were communicated by means of the Phenician merchants and colonies, and subsequently by Egyptian emigrants, through all the east and the west. A strong evidence of this is to be found in the different alphabets themselves, which betray by their resemblance a common origin. That the posterity of the Hebrew patriarchs preserved a knowledge of alphabetical writing during their abode in Egypt, where essentially the same alphabet was in use, is evident from the fact, that the Hebrews while remaining there always had public genealogists. The law, also, was ordered to be inscribed on stones; a fact which implies a knowledge of alphabetical writing. The writing thus engraven upon stones is designated by its appropriate name, namely, חרות , Exodus 32:16 ; Exodus 32:32 . Not a few of the Hebrews might be unable to read and write, Judges 8:14 ; but those who were capable of writing wrote for others, when necessary. Such persons were commonly priests, who, as they do to this day in the east, bear an inkhorn in their girdle, Ezekiel 10:2-3 ; Ezekiel 10:11 . In the ink-horn were the materials for writing, and a knife for sharpening the pen, Jeremiah 36:23 . The rich and noble had scribes of their own, and readers also; whence there is more frequent mention made of hearing than of reading, 1 Kings 4:3 ; 2 Kings 12:10 ; Isaiah 29:18 ; Jeremiah 36:4 ; Romans 2:13 ; James 5:11 ; Revelation 1:3 . The scribes took youth under their care, who learned from them the art of writing. Some of the scribes seem to have held public schools for instruction; some of which, under the care of Samuel and other prophets, became in time quite illustrious, and were called the schools of the prophets, 1 Samuel 19:16 , &c; 2 Kings 2:3 ; 2 Kings 2:5 ; 2 Kings 4:38 ; 2 Kings 6:1 . The disciples in these schools were not children or boys, but young men, who inhabited separate edifices, as is the case in the Persian academies. They were taught music and singing, and without doubt writing also, the Mosaic law and poetry. They were denominated, in reference to their instructers, the sons of the prophets; teachers and prophets being sometimes called fathers. After the captivity there were schools for instruction either near the synagogues or in them.

The materials and instruments of writing were,

1. The leaves of trees.

2. The bark of trees, from which, in the process of time, a sort of paper was manufactured.

3. A table of wood, πιναξ , לוח , Deuteronomy 9:9 ; Ezekiel 37:5 ; Luke 1:63 . In the east, these tables were not covered with wax as they were in the west; or at any rate very rarely so.

4. Linen was first used for the object in question at Rome. Linen books are mentioned by Livy. Cotton cloth also, which was used for the bandages of Egyptian mummies, and inscribed with hieroglyphics, was one of the materials for writing upon.

5. The paper made from the reed papyrus, which, as Pliny has shown, was used before the Trojan war.

6. The skins of various animals; but they were poorly prepared for the purpose, until some improved methods of manufacture were invented at Pergamus, during the reign of Eumenes, about B.C. 300. Hence the skins of animals, prepared for writing, are called in Latin pergamena, in English parchment, to this day, from the city Pergamus. They are sometimes denominated in Greek, μεμβρανα , 2 Timothy 4:13 .

7. Tables of lead, עפרת , Job 19:24 .

8. Tables of brass, δελτοι χαλκαι . Of all the materials, brass was considered among the most durable, and was employed for those inscriptions which were designed to last the longest, 1Ma_8:22 ; 1Ma_14:20-27 .

9. Stones or rocks, upon which public laws, &c, were written. Sometimes the letters engraved were filled up with lime, Exodus 24:12 ; Exodus 31:18 ; Exodus 32:19 ; Exodus 34:1 ; Deuteronomy 27:1-9 ; Joshua 8:32 ; Job 19:24 .

10. Tiles. The inscriptions were made upon the tiles first, and afterward they were baked in the fire. They are yet to be found in the ruins of Babylon; others of later origin are to be found in many countries in the east. 11. The sand of the earth, in which the children in India to this day learn the art of writing, and in which Archimedes himself delineated his mathematical figures, John 8:1-8 . If in Ezekiel 3:1 , and in Revelation 10:9 , we are informed that books were eaten, we must remember that the descriptions are figurative, and that they were eaten in vision; and consequently we are not at liberty to draw the conclusion from these passages, that any substance was used as materials for writing upon, which was at the same time used for food. The representations alluded to are symbolic, introduced to denote a communication or revelation from God.

As to the instruments used in writing, when it was necessary to write upon hard materials, as tables of stone and brass, the style was made of iron, and sometimes tipped with diamond, Jeremiah 17.

1. The letters were formed upon tablets of wood, (when they were covered with wax,) with a style sharpened at one end, broad and smooth at the other; by means of which the letters, when badly written, might be rubbed out and the wax smoothed down.

2. Wax, however, was but rarely used for the purpose of covering writing tables in warm regions. When this was not the case, the letters were painted on the wood with black tincture or ink.

3. On linen, cotton cloth, paper, skins, and parchment, the letters were painted with a very small brush, afterward with a reed, which was split. The orientals use this elegant instrument to the present day instead of a pen. Ink, called ריו , is spoken of in Numbers 5:23 , as well known and common, Jeremiah 36:18 , and was prepared in various ways, which are related by Pliny. The most simple, and consequently the most ancient, method of preparation was a mixture of water with coals broken to pieces, or with soot, with an addition of gum. The ancients used other tinctures also; particularly, if we may credit Cicero and Persius, the ink extracted from the cuttle fish, although their assertion is in opposition to Pliny. The Hebrews went so far as to write their sacred books in gold, as we may learn from Josephus compared with Pliny.

Hieroglyphics, that is, sacred sculptures or engravings, received that appellation, because it was once, and indeed till very lately, thought, that they were used only to express, in a manner hidden from the vulgar, what was exclusively religious; and which it was thought proper to conceal from all but the learned. The fact, however, is, that the hieroglyphic was a kind of picture writing, which passed through various modifications, and was applied alike to sacred and to civil purposes; to the emblazonment of the attributes of idols, the exploits of warriors, and the events of illustrious history. Rudiments of the same art have been found among almost all savages. Among the semi-civilized Mexicans history was pictorial: and in Ceylon and Continental India the same vehicle of instruction is made use of on the walls of their temples, to convey moral lessons, or to indicate the character and exploits of their deities. In Egypt, however, the art was carried into a more perfect system, and was more ostensibly set before the public eye on the massive and almost eternal monuments which cover the country. There, too, it ascends to ages of the world, with which the Scriptures have made us familiar, and stands associated with royal dynasties, and vicissitudes of conquest, more intimately blended with that stream of civil history, along the margin of which European education conducts us. These mystic characters have acquired an adventitious interest also, from the circumstance that the key to them was for so many ages lost. This knowledge perished among that people themselves, the records of whose kings and conquests lay hid under the inexplicable symbol, or the fanciful representation of letters and sounds which were still familiar to the lips of those to whom the signs had become wholly unmeaning. Age after age they were gazed at by the curious; conjectures respecting their nature and use were offered by the learned, some absurd and some approaching the truth, but all failing to throw light upon a mystery, which at length was surrendered, by common consent, to the receptacle of lost and irrecoverable knowledge. Whether the hieroglyphics were symbols only, or words, or picturesque alphabetical characters, or expressed the popular tongue, or one known only to the priests, were questions answered at random by the prompt and dogmatic; and even the more modest and probable solutions of the cautious had so little collateral evidence to support them, that they led to no result. As to their intent, one thought that they involved the mysteries of magic; another, that they were a form of the Chinese language; a third, that they veiled the doctrines of the true patriarchal religion; a fourth, that they enveloped the dogmatic arcana of the Egyptian priesthood. The great point, however, to be determined was, whether the hieroglyphics were the signs of a language; that is, of the sounds of any language; and, if so, whether the language was now known, or knowable, from books still extant. Each of these points was of equal importance; for in vain would it have been ascertained that these signs represented the sounds of a tongue once spoken, if that tongue had perished from the earth. Clement of Alexandria, who lived about the end of the second century, asserted that the Egyptians had three modes of writing,—the epistolo-graphic, or common characters; the hieratic, or sacerdotal, employed chiefly by the priesthood in writing books; and the hieroglyphic, used on public monuments. The symbolical he again distributes into imitative, which represent the plain figure of an object, as a circle to express the sun, and a half-circle the moon; tropical,—which have recourse to analogy for the representation of the object; and enigmatical,— as "a serpent, to signify the oblique course of the stars." This writer could not so accurately have expressed the truth of the case, unless he had known much more than he has written; and we may presume, that if he had been more liberal in his communications, the present age would not have had the honour of throwing open the gate to this branch of ancient learning. The notion which has generally prevailed, that by whatever rule the hieroglyphics were composed, they were invented by the Egyptian priests to conceal their wisdom from the vulgar, was combated by Bishop Warburton, with his usual acuteness. According to him, the first kind of hieroglyphics were mere pictures; because the most natural way of communicating our conceptions by marks or figures was, to trace out the images of things. But the hieroglyphics invented by the Egyptians were an improvement on this rude and inconvenient essay toward writing; for they contrived to make them both pictures and characters. He proceeds to other observations, which have lost their interest in consequence of the recent discoveries; but he argues conclusively, that hieroglyphics could not, in a vast number of cases, have been resorted to for purposes of secresy, since they were employed to record openly and plainly their laws, history, and all kinds of civil matters. This, as a general view, has been proved to be correct; but still no key to the reading of these characters was found. The figures of deities might, in many instances, be deciphered by their attributes; other symbols were not difficult to explain, as they spoke a universal language. Thus two hands, one holding a bow, and another a shield, suggested a battle; an eye and a sceptre, a monarch of intelligence and vigilance; a ship and a pilot, the governor of a state if associated with a man, the ruler of the universe if associated with a deity. A lion was a natural emblem of strength and courage; a bullock, of agriculture; a horse, of liberty; a sphynx, of subtlety. But still those hieroglyphics were in the greatest number which appeared to represent letters; and many might prove, at the same time, both emblematic and alphabetical. Approaches to the truth of the case had been, indeed, made. Warburton, from an attentive perusal of what Clemens Alexandrinus had said on the subject, had, in fact, concluded, in a way highly creditable to his acuteness, that hieroglyphics were a real written language, applicable to the purposes of history and common life, as well as to those of religion; and that, among the different sorts of hieroglyphics, the Egyptians possessed those which were used phonetically, or alphabetically, as letters; but, till recently, the means of following out this ingenious and correct conjecture were wanting to the learned. The first effectual step was taken by M. Quattermere, who proved, in his work Sur la Langue et Litterature de l'Egypte, [Concerning the Language and Literature of Egypt,] that the Coptic, a language of easy attainment, at least to a considerable extent, was the language of the ancient Egyptians. The second favouring circumstance of modern times was, the publication of the researches made as to the monuments of Egypt by the literary men and artists who accompanied the French expedition to that country. Previous to this, the specimens which had been brought to Europe were few, and the impressions and the fac similes of them incorrect. Some, too, were imitations, and others spurious. In the works published in France after this expedition, the representations of Egyptian monuments were numerous; and the inscriptions were given with perfect exactness and fidelity. Still, however, those would have remained as unintelligible as the originals but for the discovery of the Rosetta stone, now among the Egyptian antiquities in the gallery of the British museum. This stone was dug up by the French, near Rosetta, and contained an inscription in three sets of characters: one in hieroglyphics; a second in a sort of running hand, called enchorial, that is, in the common characters of the country; and a third in Greek. The latter appearing, from the disposition of the whole, to be a translation of the enchorial inscription, as that was of the hieroglyphic, the importance of this stone was at once seen by the French savans; but by the fortune of war, it was taken, with other valuables, by the British troops, and was sent to this country. The Antiquarian Society had it immediately engraved; and the fac similes, which were circulated through Europe, attracted great attention. Dr. Young has, however, the honour of being the discoverer of the nature and use of the hieroglyphical inscription. M. de Sacy, and more especially Mr. Ackerblad, a Danish gentleman, made some progress in identifying the sense of several parts of the second inscription, or that in demotic or enchorial characters, but made no progress in the hieroglyphics; and it was left for British industry to convert to permanent profit a monument which had been a useless, though a glorious, monument of British valour. The inscription upon this celebrated stone proved to be a decree of the Egyptian priests, solemnly assembled in the temple, to record upon a monument, as a public expression of their gratitude, all the events of the reign of Ptolemy Epiphanes; his liberality to the temples and to the gods; his success against his rebellious subjects; his clemency toward some of the traitors; his measures against the fatal consequences of excessive inundations of the Nile; and his munificence toward the college of the priests, by remitting the arrears of several years' payment of taxes. It was an important circumstance, that the whole concludes by ordering that this decree "shall be engraved on a hard stone in sacred characters, in common characters, and in Greek." By this it was ascertained that the second and third inscriptions were translations of the first; and that the second inscription was in the common character of the country. It was this that led Ackerblad to the investigation of the enchorial text, in order to discover its alphabet; in which he partially succeeded. His labours were, however, for some time unnoticed; but in 1814, Dr. Young published, in the Archaeologia, an improvement on the alphabet of Ackerblad, and a translation of the Egyptian inscription. Difficulties of no ordinary kind, beside those arising from the mutilated state of the stone, presented themselves to all who had applied to make out even the second, or enchorial inscription.

"The method," says the Marquis Spineto, "pursued by our learned men in this Herculean task of deciphering the Rosetta stone, deserves to be noticed; it may serve to give you a proper idea of the infinite labour to which they have been obliged to submit; a labour which at first seemed calculated to deter the most indefatigable scholar. Figure to yourself, for a moment, the fashion introduced of writing the English language with the omission of most of its vowels, and then suppose our alphabet to be entirely lost or forgotten, a new mode of writing introduced, letters totally different from those we use, and then conceive what our labour would be, if, after the lapse of fifteen hundred years, when the English language, by the operation of ages, and the intercourse with foreigners, was much altered from what it now is, we should be required, by the help of a Greek translation, to decipher a bill of parliament written in this old, forgotten, and persecuted alphabet, in every word of which we should find, and even this not always, the regular number of consonants, but most of the vowels left out. And yet this is precisely what our learned antiquarians have been obliged to do. The Egyptians, like most of the orientals, left out many of the vowels in writing. The enchorial, or demotic alphabet, which they used, has been laid aside since the second or third century of our era. From that time to this, that is, for nearly sixteen hundred years, the Coptic alphabet has been used; and yet in this Coptic language, and in these very enchorial or demotic characters, was engraved on the Rosetta stone the inscription which they have deciphered."

The steps of this interesting process are given by Dr. Young, in the Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The substance is as follows: "As the demotic characters showed something like the shape of letters, it was shrewdly suspected that they might have been used as an alphabet. By comparing, therefore, its different parts with each other, and with the Greek, it was observed that the two groups in the fourth and seventeenth lines of the Greek inscription, in which Alexander and Alexandria occur, corresponded with two other groups in the second and the tenth line of the demotic inscription. These two groups, therefore, were considered as representing these two names, and thus not less than seven characters, or letters, were ascertained. Again: it was observed that a small group of characters occurs very often in almost every line. At first it was supposed that this group was either a termination, or some very common particle; and after some words had been identified, it was found to mean the conjunction and. It was then observed, that the next remarkable collection of characters was repeated twenty-nine or thirty times in the enchorial inscription; and nothing found to occur so often in the Greek, except the word king, which with its compounds, is repeated about thirty-seven times. A fourth assemblage of characters was found fourteen times in the enchorial inscription, agreeing sufficiently well in frequency with the name of Ptolemy, which occurs eleven times in the Greek, and generally in passages corresponding to those of the enchorial text, in their relative situation; and, by a similar comparison, the name of Egypt was identified. Having thus obtained a sufficient number of common points of subdivision, the next step was to write the Greek text over the enchorial, in such a manner that the passages ascertained should coincide as nearly as possible; taking, however, a proper care to observe that the lines of the demotic or enchorial inscription are written from right to left, while those of the Greek run in a contrary direction from left to right. At first sight this difficulty seemed very great; but it was conquered by proper attention and practice; because, after some trouble, the division of the several words and phrases plainly indicated the direction in which they were to be read. Thus it was obvious that the intermediate parts of each inscription stood then very near to the corresponding passages of the other."

By means of the process above mentioned, Ackerblad, De Sacy, and Dr. Young, among whom a correspondence had been carried on, obtained a sort of alphabet from the enchorial characters, which might aid them in future researches. This result was published by Dr. Young in 1814. The examination of another stone at Menoup, containing an inscription in enchorial and in Greek characters, enabled Dr. Young to confirm the accuracy of former discoveries, and to add several new characters to the enchorial or demotic alphabet. Dr. Young next turned his attention to the hieroglyphics; and, though not with equal success, yet so as to demonstrate that they were phonetic or alphabetical, and to spell several proper names. The difficulty here, indeed, was how to begin; but his success opened a certain way to future progress; and it was upon Dr. Young's discovery that Champollion afterward engrafted his system, and was enabled to carry his researches into Egyptian antiquities and Egyptian hieroglyphics, to an extent which is now deeply engaging the attention of the literary world.

Two practical ends appear to have been answered already by the deciphering of the mystic monuments of Egypt. The first is, that the inscriptions which have been read by Champollion, afford assistance in settling some questions of ancient chronology; the other is, that important collateral proof has been afforded of the historical accuracy of the Old Testament, and the antiquity of its books. It is presumptive in favour of the genuineness and antiquity of the writings of Moses, that such proper Egyptian names as are found in no other ancient writings beside his own, such as On, and Rameses, and Potipherah and Asenath, should now be read in hieroglyphic characters on monuments still standing in the same country. But the confirmatory evidence goes still farther. In one inscription the names of two of the Pharaohs, Osorgon and Scheschonk, are exhibited. Of the characters which compose this legend some are phonetic, some figurative, and some symbolic. The whole reading in Coptic, is, " Ouab an Amon-re soten annenoute Osorchon pri (or pre ) ce or ci an ouab an Amon-re Souten Scheschonk-re Soten Nebto, ( Amonmai Osorchon, )" &c. The meaning of which is, "The pure by Amon-re, king of the gods, Osorchon deceased, son of the pure, by Amon-re, king of the gods, Scheschonk deceased, son of king of the world, (beloved by Amon-re, Osorchon,) imparting life, like the sun, for ever." This Osorchon seems to have been the Zarah, or Zarach, the king of Ethiopia, recorded in the Second Book of Chronicles, who, with a host of a thousand thousand and three hundred chariots, came to make war against Asa, the grandson of Jeroboam, and was defeated at Mareshah. Although the Greek historians have never mentioned either the name or exploits of Osorchon, this fact is attested by an hieroglyphical manuscript, published by Denon. It is a funeral legend, loaded with figures, on and round which there are several hieroglyphical inscriptions. With respect to the other Pharaoh, Champollion, speaking of the temple of Karnac, says, "In this marvellous place I saw the portraits of most of the ancient Pharaohs, known by their great actions. They are real portraits, represented a hundred times on the basso-relievos of the outer and inner walls. Each of them has his peculiar physiognomy, different from that of his predecessors and successors. Thus, in colossal representations, the sculpture of which is lively, grand, and heroic, more perfect than can be believed in Europe, we see the Pharaoh Mandouei combating the nations hostile to Egypt, and returning triumphant to his country. Farther on, the campaigns of Rhamses Sesostris; elsewhere Sesonchis, or Shishak, dragging to the feet of the Theban Trinity, Ammon, Mouth, and Khous, the chiefs of thirty conquered nations, among which is found, written in letters at full length, the word Joudahamalek, that is, the kingdom of the Jews, or the kingdom of Judah.

This is a commentary on the fourteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings, which relates the arrival of Shishak at Jerusalem, and his success there. Thus the identity between the Egyptian Sheschonk, the Sesonchis of Manetho, and the Sesac, or Schischak of the Bible, is confirmed in the most satisfactory manner."

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Writing'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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