The art of writing must have been known in the time of the early Pharaohs. Moses is commanded "to write for a memorial in a book" (Ex. 17:14) a record of the attack of Amalek. Frequent mention is afterwards made of writing (28:11, 21, 29, 36; 31:18; 32:15, 16; 34:1, 28; 39:6, 14, 30). The origin of this art is unknown, but there is reason to conclude that in the age of Moses it was well known. The inspired books of Moses are the most ancient extant writings, although there are written monuments as old as about B.C. 2000. The words expressive of "writing," "book," and "ink," are common to all the branches or dialects of the Semitic language, and hence it has been concluded that this art must have been known to the earliest Semites before they separated into their various tribes, and nations, and families.
"The Old Testament and the discoveries of Oriental archaeology alike tell us that the age of the Exodus was throughout the world of Western Asia an age of literature and books, of readers and writers, and that the cities of Palestine were stored with the contemporaneous records of past events inscribed on imperishable clay. They further tell us that the kinsfolk and neighbours of the Israelites were already acquainted with alphabetic writing, that the wanderers in the desert and the tribes of Edom were in contact with the cultured scribes and traders of Ma'in [Southern Arabia], and that the 'house of bondage' from which Israel had escaped was a land where the art of writing was blazoned not only on the temples of the gods, but also on the dwellings of the rich and powerful.", Sayce. (See DEBIR; PHOENICIA.)
The "Book of the Dead" was a collection of prayers and formulae, by the use of which the souls of the dead were supposed to attain to rest and peace in the next world. It was composed at various periods from the earliest time to the Persian conquest. It affords an interesting glimpse into the religious life and system of belief among the ancient Egyptians. We learn from it that they believed in the existence of one Supreme Being, the immortality of the soul, judgement after death, and the resurrection of the body. It shows, too, a high state of literary activity in Egypt in the time of Moses. It refers to extensive libraries then existing. That of Ramessium, in Thebes, e.g., built by Rameses II., contained 20,000 books.
When the Hebrews entered Canaan it is evident that the art of writing was known to the original inhabitants, as appears, e.g., from the name of the city Debir having been at first Kirjath-sepher, i.e., the "city of the book," or the "book town" (Josh. 10:38; 15:15; Judg. 1:11).
There is no account in the Bible of the origin of writing. That the Egyptians in the time of Joseph were acquainted with writing of a certain kind there is evidence to prove, but there is nothing to show that up to this period the knowledge extended to the Hebrew family. At the same time there is no evidence against it. Writing is first distinctly mentioned in (Exodus 17:14) and the connection clearly implies that it was not then employed for the first time but was so familiar as to be used for historic records. It is not absolutely necessary to infer from this that the art of writing was an accomplishment possessed by every Hebrew citizen. If we examine the instances in which writing is mentioned in connection with individuals, we shall find that in all cases the writers were men of superior position. In (Isaiah 29:11,12) there is clearly a distinction drawn between the man who was able to read and the man who was not, and it seems a natural inference that the accomplishments of reading and writing were not widely spread among the people, when we find that they are universally attributed to those of high rank or education-kings, priests, prophets and professional scribes. In the name Kirjathsepher (book-town), (Joshua 15:15) there is an indication of a knowledge of writing among the Phoenicians. The Hebrews, then, a branch of the great Semitic family, being in possession of the art of writing, according to their own historical records, at a very early period, the further questions arise, what character they made use of, and whence they obtained it. Recent investigations have shown that the square Hebrew character is of comparatively modern date, and has been formed from a more ancient type by a gradual process of development. What then was this ancient type? Most probably the Phoenician. Pliny was of opinion that letters were of Assyrian origin. Dioderus Siculus (v. 74) says that the Syrians invented letters, and from them the Phoenicians, having learned them transferred them to the Greeks. According to Tacitus (Ann. xi. 14,, Egypt was believed to be the source whence the Phoenicians got their knowledge. Be this as it may, to the Phoenicians, the daring seamen and adventurous colonizers of the ancient world the voice of tradition has assigned the honor of the invention of letters. Whether it came to them from an Aramean or an Egyptian source can at best he but the subject of conjecture. It may, however, be reasonably inferred that the ancient Hebrews derived from or shared with the Phoenicians the knowledge of writing and the use of letters. The names of the Hebrew letters indicate that they must have been the invention of a Shemitic people, and that they were moreover a pastoral people may be inferred from the same evidence. But whether or not the Phoenicians were the inventors of the Shemitic alphabet, there can be no doubt of their just claim to being its chief disseminators; and with this understanding we may accept the genealogy of alphabets as given by Gesenius, and exhibited in the accompanying table. The old Semitic alphabets may he divided into two principal classes:
The Phoenician as it exists in the inscriptions in Cyprus, Malta, Carpentras, and the coins of Phoenicia and her colonies. From it are derived the Samaritan and the Greek character.
The Hebrew-Chaldee character; to which belong the Hebrew square character; the which has some traces of a cursive hand; the Estrangelo, or ancient Syriac; and the ancient Arabic or Cufic. It was probably about the first or second century after Christ that the square character assumed its present form; though in a question involved in so much uncertainty it is impossible to pronounce with great positiveness. The alphabet . --The oldest evidence on the subject of the Hebrew alphabet is derived from the alphabetical psalms and poems: Psal 25,34,37,111,112,119,145; (Proverbs 31:10-31; Lamentations 1:1-4) From these we ascertain that the number of the letters was twenty-two, as at present. The Arabic alphabet originally consisted of the same number. It has been argued by many that the alphabet of the Phoenicians at first consisted of only sixteen letters. The legend, as told by Pliny (vii. 56), is as follows; Cadmus brought with him into Greece sixteen letters; at the time of the Trojan war Palamedes added four others, theta, epsilon, phi, chi, and Simonides of Melos four more dzeta, eta, psi, omega. Divisions of words. --Hebrew was originally written, like most ancient languages, without any divisions between the words. The same is the case with the Phoenician inscriptions, The various readings in the LXX. show that, at the version was made, in the Hebrew MSS. which the translators used the words were written in a continuous series. The modern synagogue rolls and the MSS. of the Samaritan Pentateuch have no vowel-points, but the words are divided, and the Samaritan in this respect differs hut little from the Hebrew. Writing materials , etc. --The oldest documents which contain the writing of a Semitic race are probably the bricks of Nineveh and Babylon, on which are impressed the cuneiform Syrian inscriptions. There is, however, no evidence that they were ever used by the Hebrews. It is highly probable that the ancient as well as the most common material which the Hebrews used for writing was dressed skin in some form or other. We know that the dressing of skins was practiced by the Hebrews, (Exodus 25:5; Leviticus 13:48) and they may have acquired the knowledge of the art from the Egyptians, among whom if had attained great perfection, the leather-cutters constituting one of the principal subdivisions of the third caste. Perhaps the Hebrews may have borrowed among their either acquirements, the use of papyrus from the Egyptians, but of this we have no positive evidence. In the Bible the only allusions to the use of papyrus are in (2Ã‚Â John 1:12) where chartes (Authorized Version "paper") occurs, which refers especially to papyrus paper, and 3 Macc. 4:20, where charteria is found in the same sense. Herodotus, after telling us that the Ionians learned the art of writing from the Phoenicians, adds that they called their books skins, because they made use of sheep-skins and goat-skins when short of paper. Parchment was used for the MSS. of the Pentateuch in the time of Josephus, and the membranae of (2Ã‚Â Timothy 4:13) were skins of parchment. It was one of the provisions in the Talmud that the law should be written on the skins of clean animals, tame or wild, or even of clean birds. The skins when written upon were formed into rolls (megilloth). (Psalms 40:7) comp. Isai 34:4; Jere 36:14; Ezek 2:9; Zech 5:1 They were rolled upon one or two sticks and fastened with a thread, the ends of which were sealed. (Isaiah 29:11; Daniel 12:4; Revelation 5:1) etc. The rolls were generally written on one side only, except in (Ezekiel 2:9; Revelation 5:1) They were divided into columns (Authorized Version "leaves,") (Jeremiah 36:23) the upper margin was to be not less than three fingers broad, the lower not less than four; and a space of two fingers breadth was to be left between every two columns. But besides skins, which were used for the more permanent kinds of writing, tablets of wood covered with wax, (Luke 11:63) served for the ordinary purposes of life. Several of these were fastened together and formed volumes. They were written upon with a pointed style, (Job 19:24) sometimes of iron. (Psalms 45:1; Jeremiah 8:8; 17:1) For harder materials a graver, (Exodus 32:4; Isaiah 8:1) was employed. For parchment or skins a reed was used. (3Ã‚Â John 1:13) 3 Macc. 5:20. The ink, (Jeremiah 36:18) literally "black," like the Greek melan , (2Ã‚Â Corinthians 3:3; 2Ã‚Â John 1:12; 3Ã‚Â John 1:13) was of lampblack dissolved in gall-juice. It was carried in an inkstand which was suspended at the girdle, (Ezekiel 9:2,3) as is done at the present day in the East. To professional scribes there are allusions in (Ezra 7:8; Psalms 45:1) 2 Esdr. 14:24.