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Wright, William, D.D.
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(some form of כָּתִב, kathab, γραφή) is the art of expressing thought by letters or other marks. (See LETTER).

I. Origin and Various Kinds of Writings. Language expresses thought, preserves thought, and also suggests or creates thought. But it is obvious that, so long as language is unwritten, it can accomplish these ends only in a very imperfect measure. Hence we may well suppose that, at a very early stage of man's history, attempts were made to present in some way to the eye the thought which spoken language conveyed to the ear, and thus give it visible form and permanence. But we cannot wonder that no record remains of the origin of an art, the beginnings of which must be placed in the political infancy of mankind. Pliny speaks of the "aeternus literarum usus" (N.H. 7:56).

The various kinds of writing which have been in use in different ages and in different parts of the world may be classified in two great divisions, according as the object of their inventors was to present the ideas to which they wished to give visible expression directly and immediately to the mind, or indirectly, through the medium of spoken language. Each of these methods the ideographic and the phonographic or phonetic has its attendant advantages and disadvantages; but the advantages of the latter method greatly preponderate. The principal recommendation of the former method, in which the depicted idea is caught up immediately by the mind, is that it addresses itself to a much wider circle than the latter, being intelligible, so far as it is intelligible, alike by all classes and in all countries; whereas the latter, in which the word is depicted, not the idea, is of course intelligible only to those who are acquainted with the language to which the depicted word belongs.

On the other hand, the very serious drawbacks attendant upon the direct method are (1) that it is capable of giving distinct expression only to a very limited range of ideas, viz. the ideas of sensible objects and qualities, and if it attempts to go beyond that range at once becomes arbitrary and obscure; and (2) that in its representation even of the limited class of ideas to which it is capable of giving distinct expression, it is cumbrous and altogether unfitted for general use. The sacred writing of the Egyptians may be regarded as forming a stage of transition between the two sorts of writing just described. Regarding the Mexican writing, see Robertson's America, book 7, and Prescott's Mexico, 1:86. See also Kopp's remarks on the Chinese writing in Bilder u. Schriften, 1:66, 76, 87. Till the present century it was the received opinion that the ancient Egyptian was an exclusively ideographic writing, and to this conclusion the testimonies of those ancient writers who have given any account of it seemed to point (Kenrick, Anc. Egypt, 1:285- 292). But the labors of Young, Champollion, Wilkinson, Lepsius, and others, during the last half-century, have thrown new light on those ancient and mysterious characters; and it is now agreed that, though very possibly a picture writing originally, the hieroglyphic, in the form in which it appears on the most ancient monuments, and which it retains unchanged down to the early centuries after, Christ, bears a composite character, being in part ideographic, in part phonetic.

According to Mr. Kenrick (1:300, etc.), "the characters are used in three different ways." There is first of all the pictorial use, in which ' the character is designed to convey to the mind the idea of the object it represents, and nothing more.... This pictorial representation sometimes stands instead of a phonetic name for the object, but the most common use of it is to make the phonetic group of characters more intelligible by being subjoined to them. Thus, to the names of individuals the figure of a man is subjoined." Such characters Champollion calls deternzinatives. "The second use of the hieroglyphical writing is the symbolical, in which the object delineated is not meant to convey to the mind the idea of itself, but of something associated with it and suggested by it. Thus, a crescent denotes a month,... a stretched-out hand the act of giving, etc." "The last class, the phonetic, is really by far the most extensive. The greater part of the characters are as truly letters as if the language were English or Greek; syllabic characters are the exception, not the rule." Mr. Kenrick adds that "in every inscription of any length we find these three modes of writing in use together, but with a great predominance of phonetic." (See HIEROGLYPH).

Thus, in the hieroglyphic, we find the point of meeting between the two great classes of written characters, the ideographic and phonetic, and, as it seems, we have some light thrown on their mutual relation, and the manner in which the one arose, or, at least may have arisen, out of the other. It has been affirmed, indeed, that the two kinds of writing are so entirely distinct that it is impossible. to entertain the idea of a historical relationship between them (Kopp, 2:62). But the fact is, that in the hieroglyphic, and to a certain extent also in the Chinese, such a relationship is already established. No nation which has made any considerable advances towards civilization can remain satisfied with a pictorial or symbolic writing, more particularly if it be disposed to cultivate to any extent intercourse with other nations. To represent by means of such a method of writing foreign words and names is a matter of the utmost difficulty; and it is not improbable that the origin of the phonetic writing may be traced to the intercourse of nations speaking different languages. Thus the Chinese are compelled to employ their ideographic characters phonetically in writing foreign words; and something of the, same kind may, it is said, be discovered even in the Mexican writing. In the hieroglyphic the process had advanced much further. In Chinese, the name of the patriarch Shem is represented in writing by the ideograph for "life," sem being the Chinese for life (Kopp, 2:80, 81). Here, consequently, we have an example of the same character used in two ways: (1) ideographically, to represent the idea of life, and (2) phonetically, to represent the sound sem.

From this there is but a step to the discovery of an alphabet, viz. the employment of the same sign to represent not the combination of sounds forming the word sem, but the initial sound s. That this step was actually taken by the Egyptians we appear to have sufficient evidence. "Thus, an eagle stands for A, and its Coptic name is ahom; a leaf of an aquatic plant, Coptic achi, stands for the same letter; a lion for L, Coptic labo; an owl for M, Coptic moulad, etc." (Kenrick, 1:305, 306). It is true, as Mr. Kenrick remarks, this correspondence cannot be traced through the whole of the phonetic alphabet. But when we consider how very imperfect is the knowledge which even the most distinguished Egyptologists possess of the ancient Egyptian language, we are fully warranted in putting aside this negative evidence, and receiving the hypothesis just mentioned (which was that of Champollion), as furnishing a very probable explanation of the origin of what may be called the Egyptian alphabet. Passing now to the purely phonetic system of writing, it is of two sorts, viz. syllabic and alphabetic, in the former of which each character represents a combination of sounds, in the latter a simple sound.

The most ancient alphabet is the Hebrew, or Phoenician, which, having its origin in the south-western corner of Asia, the home of the Shemitic nations, was at a very early period introduced by the Phoenicians into Greece, and perhaps at a somewhat later period even into India (Max Muller, Ancient Sanscrit Literature, page 521; Journal of Asiatic Society, 6:461, etc.; Zeitschrift d. D.M.G. 10:390, etc.), and thus became the medium through which almost all that is known of the ancient world has been preserved for the instruction of mankind. Who the person was who framed the first alphabet, and thus conferred upon his race a benefit of incalculable value, is unknown. It is the received opinion that in Southwestern Asia, as in Egypt, the alphabetic writing had for its precursor an ideographic, which, after passing through several stages of change, assumed at last the form in which it has come down to us.

This opinion is founded (1) on a comparison with the hieroglyphic and other forms of writing, in which, as has already been observed, we detect the process of transition from the ideographic to the phonographic; and (2) on the names of the letters. These names are all significant; and it is probable that each of the letters in its original form was an ideograph representing the object denoted by the name which the letter still bears. Thus aleph (א ) in its original form would be the ideograph of ox, beth of house, etc. Afterwards, when the ideographic writing gave place to the alphabetic, each of the alphabetic sounds was represented by a character which had formerly been the picture or symbol of an object of whose name that letter was the initial sound. We admit that it is by no means easy in the case of several of the letters to trace the resemblance between the letter form and the object of which, according to this hypothesis, it was originally the picture.

But this need not excite our surprise, if we consider how great the change of form which these letters must have undergone as they passed from one country to another, or were transmitted from age to age (see Kopp, 2:157, 377-399). The ancient Shemitic stone-cutters and engravers were not always careful to preserve an exact uniformity in their delineation of the several characters; they were probably less expert than their Egyptian contemporaries; and, it may be, had no very fixed standard by which to test the accuracy and to correct the errors of their workmanship. Moreover, the wide diffusion of the Shemitic alphabet would naturally occasion still more extensive changes in the forms of the letters. Ewald (Lehrbuch, § 77, b) speaks of three main branches from the parent stem, a southern, western, and eastern, viz. (1) the Himyaritic, in Southern Arabia, and the Ethiopic, though the latter is by others brought into closer connection with the Greek form of the Shemitic alphabet; (2) the western, including the Phoenician writing, and the Samaritan, which closely resembles it; and (3) the Babylonian or Assyrian, of which it is generally agreed that the Hebrew square character is an offshoot. Now, it is impossible to say which of these different forms of the Shemitic alphabet approaches nearest to the original.

It is probable that all have deviated from it more or less. The original symbolic meaning of the characters having fallen into disuse, there was nothing to be gained by rigid adherence to all the details of the original forms. Some writers, admitting that a resemblance does exist between the letters and the objects denoted by their names, have attempted to account for it otherwise than by the hypothesis of an earlier ideographic use of the alphabetic forms. They are of opinion that letters were from the first arbitrary signs of sounds, never of objects; and that the names they have so long borne originated, like the names of the constellations, in some fancied resemblance between them and the objects denoted by these names (Zeitschrift d. D.M.G. 11:83). But, not to mention other objections to this view, when we consider that this resemblance in form is not the only point of correspondence, that there is the further correspondence between the sounds expressed by the letters and the initial sounds of the letter-names, it must appear improbable that whoever invented the latter should have been at the pains to search for names bearing to the letters this twofold correspondence, in initial sound and in form, and should not have been satisfied with a single point of correspondence. On the whole, the weight of argument, and also the weight of authority, are in favor of the other hypothesis.

It is impossible with any confidence to decide to which branch of the Shemitic family of nations the invention of the Shemitic alphabet is to be traced. From the names of the letters one might expect to have some light thrown upon this point; but this expectation is not realized. For, though the names are certainly Shemitic, there is no single language of the Shemitic family (so far as these languages are known) in which they all find explanation. But, in truth, of the Shemitic languages in their ancient form, with scarcely the exception of the Hebrew, our knowledge is very imperfect; and it would be extremely rash to say that such and such words did not exist in, for example, the old Phoenician language, because they have not been found in the few fragments of that language which have come down to us. (See PHOENICIA).

It is the opinion of some that the idea of the alphabet was borrowed from Egypt. Hug (Die Erfindung der Buchstabenshrift, page 32, etc.) thinks the Phoenicians resident in Egypt were the inventors of the alphabet, the forms of the letters being Egyptian, the names Phoenician. But if the Shemitic nations did borrow the idea from Egypt, they certainly worked it out much more successfully than those with whom, according to this; hypothesis, it originated; and moreover, when we consider that there is no very marked correspondence between the Egyptian and Shemitic alphabets, except in the general idea, it is on the whole safer to conclude, in the absence of all historical evidence, that the two alphabets originated independently of each other, and were alike the offspring of that necessity which is the mother of invention. (See ALPHABET).

II. The Hebrew Alphabet. This consists of twenty-two letters. It has been conjectured that several of these letters did not belong to the alphabet in its original form; and there is a traditional statement found in some Greek writers of authority that the Phoenician alphabet (which, there is no question, was identical with the Hebrew) when first introduced into Greece consisted of not more than fifteen letters (see Hug, Erfindung ders Buchstabenschrift, page 12, etc). However this may be, it is certain that at a very early period the Hebrew alphabet included the same number of letters as at present. This is ascertained

(1) from those Scriptural songs and poems, the several lines or stanzas of which begin with the successive letters of the alphabet, (See POETRY); and

(2) from the use of the letters as marks of number, particularly when compared with the corresponding use of the Greek letters.

With regard to these twenty-two letters various questions have been started, to some of the more important of which it is necessary briefly to advert.

1. Did these letters originally represent syllables or simple sounds? Some writers, as Lepsius (Paliographie, § 19), have maintained that originally one and the same sign stood for both vowel and consonant. They hold that after the ideographic writing comes not the alphabetic but the syllabic, our separation of vowels and consonants being entirely ideal, and never actually possible, inasmuch as consonants cannot find expression without the aid of a vowel sound; and vowels cannot be pronounced except in dependence on a preceding consonantal element more or less distinct. In all this these writers are probably theoretically correct. Of the phonetic writing the syllabic is naturally the earliest stage, and in the Assyrian cuneiform we have the example of such a writing in actual use among the Shemitic nations (Rawlinson, Ancient Monarchies, 1:84, 337). But how essentially different in their nature the Assyrian letters are from the Hebrew is evident from the fact that the former, according to Sir H. Rawlinson and M. Oppert, number from three to four hundred, the latter only twenty-two. Indeed,. it is impossible that a really syllabic alphabet should have fewer characters, except in the case of such a state of language as Lepsius presupposes, in which all the syllables are open, i.e., end with a vowel, and there is no variety of vowel sounds.

It is to be noted, however, that in the Ethiopic alphabet, in which each letter appears under seven different forms, according to the vowel sound associated with it, the simplest form is not that which the letter takes when no vowel follows, as we might expect, but that which it takes when followed by short a. When this sound follows, the original form of the letter is retained unchanged; when no vowel follows, a slight alteration is made in the form of the letter to indicate that it closes the syllable. (See ETHIOPIC LANGUAGE).

2. Admitting that the Hebrew writing is alphabetic, is it purely consonantal, or does it contain sign to express vowel sounds as well as consonants? Some have held that the letters א, ו, י , were originally vowels, and that their use as consonants was of later introduction. It has been said that the alphabet of each language must contain a sufficient number of letters to represent all the sounds of the language, and that it is as easy to conceive of a language without vowel sounds as of an alphabet without vowel letters. And further, with regard to the Hebrew alphabet, Kopp (Bilder u. Schriften, 2:112, etc.) thinks it absurd to suppose that it originally contained separate forms for guttural breathings so little differing from one another as א, ה, ַ and not a single sign to represent the vowels, which constitute the life of every language. Now, with regard to the letters ו and י, it is certain they were used as vowels from a very ancient period; but there is no reason whatever to suppose that this use of these letters preceded their use as consonants, but every reason to suppose the contrary. At the beginning of a syllable only ו is ever used as a vowel, and in the few cases in which it is so used it has been softened from an original consonantal sound. In the middle of a word, ו and י appear as vowels much less frequently in the earlier Hebrew books than in the later; and on the surviving monuments of the Phoenician language and writing they have uniformly a consonantal force. Besides, it is known that one of these letters, viz. ו, passed over from the Phoenicians to the Greeks as a consonant, though as a Greek letter it afterwards fell out of use. As for א , it is difficult to conceive how, if it originally stood for A in the Hebrew alphabet, it should, even at the date of the very earliest monuments of the language, have so entirely lost this power, and passed into a simple breathing. With regard to the alleged improbability of so ancient an alphabet distinguishing the closely allied sounds of א, ה, 2ְ 2ַ by the use of different characters, we are scarcely in a position to form a sound judgment on such a point, as the languages we speak differ so entirely from the Shemitic tongues, and our organs are consequently incapable of giving distinct expression to the variety of guttural sounds which characterized the ancient Hebrew, as it does the modern Arabic.

3. As to the origin of the Hebrew square characters, which appear in all extant MSS., as well as in our printed Bibles, the most diverse views have been propounded; some, especially among the older scholars, tracing them back to the age of Moses and the tables of the law; and others believing them to be of comparatively recent origin. The latter view is taken by Kopp (Bilder u. Schriften, 2:164), who places their introduction somewhere about the 4th century, chiefly on the ground that the Palmyrene characters, from which, in his opinion, they were derived, were in use, as appears from inscriptions yet extant, as late as the 3d century of our mera. But whatever may be the connection between the square character and the Palmyrene (and there is no doubt it is very intimate), the opinion of Kopp is quite untenable. We have direct testimony to the fact that the square character belongs to a much earlier age than that to which he assigns it. Jerome informs us that in his day the ineffable name Jehovah, יהוה, was sometimes introduced into Greek MSS. in its Hebrew form, and that readers of these MSS. unacquainted with Hebrew often by mistake read the name Pipi. IIIIII: from which it is quite certain that, in Jerome's age, the Hebrew Bible must have been written in the square character presently in use, for only on this supposition was such a mistake possible. But, if Kopp's hypothesis be well founded, the square character must then have been quite recently elaborated from the Palmvrene. Was it so? Let us turn to another passage of Jerome, in his celebrated Prologus Galeatus, in which he informs us that the Hebrew, character in use in his day had been introduced by Ezra, in place of a more ancient character which had passed over to the Samaritans. Is it credible that the square character was invented by the Jewish scholars, and introduced into MSS. for the first time in the 4th century, and yet that before the close of that same century its origin was completely forgotten, and had passed from the region of history to that of tradition or fable?

A similar testimony on the part of Origen carries us back a century earlier. He, too, mentions the Jewish tradition of a change of characters by Ezra, and speaks of MISS. in which the divine name was found even in his day written in the ancient characters (Montfaucon, Hexapla, 2:94). The expression in the sermon on the mount, "not one jot," carries us back a step further still, indeed, almost to the beginning of our era; for it is evident that the phrase was a proverbial one, and that the alphabet which gave rise to it must have been in use for a considerable time. Now, it is only in the square character (also, though not so decidedly, in the Palmyrene) that the letter yod is very much smaller than the others. Kopp, who not unfrequently makes up by strength of assertion for weakness of argument, declares the foregoing argument to be "indescribably weak." He points to the Greek iota (I), in the writing of those days by no means a small letter.

To all this we may now add the still more decisive evidence of monumental inscriptions, from which it appears that even before the period of the Maccabees the square character was in use among the Jews (Revue Archeol. 1864; Zeitschrift d. D.M.G. 19:637-641; comp. Chwolson, Achtzehn Grabschriften aus der Krim). That another character, more closely allied to the Phoenician and Samaritan, is found ou the extant coins of the Maccabees does not militate against this conclusion. Ancient forms and usages often survive in coins and official documents after they have fallen into disuse in common life. Besides, it is not impossible that the Maccabees, vindicating as they did the nationality of Israel against the tyranny of Syria, may have purposely revived the use of the old characters, regarding, it may be, those in common use, which had been introduced under foreign auspices, as a badge of national servitude. However this may be, it is pretty certain that the old Jewish tradition of a change of letters having taken place in the time of Ezra, however erroneous it may be in some of its details, is not without a solid foundation in fact. SEE HEBREW.

III. Progressive Diffusion of the Art among the Ancient Hebrews. The art of writing is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures previous to the age of Moses. In the book of Genesis there is no allusion to documents of any sort. Abraham buys the field and cave of Machpelah, but there is no bill of purchase as in the case of a similar transaction in the history of Jeremiah (comp. Genesis 23 with Jeremiah 32). The cave and the field "were made sure unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city" (Genesis 23:18). There is no hint of any documentary proof of the purchase being given or asked. It does not, however, by any means follow from this absence of allusion to the art of writing in the book of Genesis that that art was altogether unknown in Palestine in the patriarchal age. It may have been unknown, or but rarely practiced, by the nomad and rural population, in the midst of which the scene of the patriarchal story is laid; and yet have been known and practiced in the great centres of population and civilization, as it certainly was in Egypt, and we can scarcely doubt in Mesopotamia also, even at that early period (Kenrick, Egypt, 2:101, 102). In confirmation of this we may refer to the story of Ruth, from which we find that even in a much later age it was not uncommon in Palestine to transact and complete purchases similar to Abraham's without the aid of writing materials, though no one .will now maintain that the art of writing was then unknown (Ruth 4:7-11). Instances of the same sort might be adduced from the history of all nations at a similar stage of social advancement.

When we pass from the age of the patriarchs to that of Moses, from the family life of Palestine to the political life of Egypt, and afterwards of the desert; we first meet with distinct traces of the art of writing. It is probable that the shoterim, or "officers" subordinate to the taskmasters, mentioned in Exodus 5:6-19, whose duty it was to see that the full amount of labor was performed by their enslaved countrymen, were so named from the use they made of writing in the discharge of their degrading functions (Arab. satara, to write). But, however this may be, we immediately afterwards read of the two tables of the law, and of the "book of the covenant" which "Moses read in the audience of all the people" (Exodus 24:7; Exodus 24:12); also of a book, in which was entered a record of the victory over Amalek in Rephidim, and which Moses was directed to "rehearse in the ears of Joshua" (Exodus 17:14; this sepher or document may afterwards have formed part of the "Book of the Wars of the Lord," mentioned in Numbers 21:14); and at a later period mention is made of a written account of the journeyings of the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 33:2). We also read of the high-priest's breastplate with its four rows of stones, on which were engraven, "like the engravings of a signet," the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; and of the mitre with its plate of pure gold, on which was a "writing like to the engravings of a signet," Holiness to the Lord (Exodus 39:14; Exodus 39:30). Of the use of writing in legal transactions and processes mention is made in Numbers 5:23; Deuteronomy 24:1; Deuteronomy 24:3. Specially to be noted is the figurative use which is made of the word sepher in Exodus 32:32-33 : "Blot me out of the book which thou hast written," in which we already meet with the idea of a memorial book kept by God, "for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon his name " (Malachi 3:16; Psalms 56:9 [8]). From all this it is evident that in the age of Moses the art of writing was commonly employed for the purpose of preserving the knowledge of important truths and the memory of important events. The assumption by some writers that the art of writing among the Hebrews is due to and dates from the delivery of the Law on Sinai, is negatived by the fact that it was evidently accepted at that time as a well-known art, and no hint is there given of it as a new invention.

We are not, however, to conclude from this that in that age, or for many ages after, writing was in common use among the body of the people. The knowledge of it was probably confined to the few who occupied an official position; the people being still dependent chiefly on oral instruction for their knowledge of what God had done for them, and what he required of them. Writing was in those days employed rather as a means of preserving than of circulating knowledge. The tables of stone were laid up in the ark. The book of the covenant (mentioned Exodus 24) was read to the people. The book of the law (mentioned Deuteronomy 31:24-26) was given to the Levites "to put it in the side of the ark;... for a witness against Israel." The song of Moses (chapter 32) was not circulated in writing among the people, but " was spoken in their ears" (31:30); and thus they were taught to repeat it and to transmit it to others (Deuteronomy 32:19; Deuteronomy 32:22). It is only the king who was expressly enjoined to have written out for his special use a copy of the law, and to read therein all the days of his life (17, 18, 19). Of the people in general it was required that they should learn God's statutes, and have them in their heart, and teach them diligently to their children (6:6, 7), plainly by word of mouth; for when it is added (Deuteronomy 32:9), "Thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates," the expression is probably to be understood figuratively, like the "binding on the hand, and as frontlets between the eyes" (Deuteronomy 32:8; comp. also Psalms 44:2 [1], 78:3, with 101:19 [18]).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Writing'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature.​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​w/writing.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.