Holman Bible Dictionary


The human ability to record and communicate information through etching signs on stone or drawing them on skins or papyrus. Present knowledge shows that writing began in the Ancient Near East about 3500 B.C. The increasing complexity of commercial and civil life made some system of writing necessary. The development of writing, in turn, made possible the development of increasingly sophisticated civilizations.

Mesopotamia About 3500 B.C. the earliest documents appeared in Mesopotamia. These were business documents used for accounting purposes. Prior to this, accounts were kept by enclosing counters or tokens of various shapes in clay or mud balls over which a cylinder seal would be rolled identifying the owner or sender. The early tablets typically were inscribed with a picture or pictures identifying the commodity, numbers, and personal names. The language used by the writers of these early tablets is not known. The Sumerians were the first to write different words having the same sound with the same picture. Soon after, the Sumerians began to use stylized pictures composed of wedges impressed in the clay tablet with a stylus. So there began to be developed the hundreds of wedge-shaped signs which comprise the cuneiform script.

The early pictographic writing, which depicted an object, developed into logographic writing in which a picture could stand for a word associated with the idea of the object. Several pictures could be combined to present a concept or a phrase. Rebus writing occurred when a picture or sign was associated with another word of the same sound. In logo-syllabic writing, a sign came to represent a sound rather than a word; this is commonly regarded as the emergence of true writing. The correct reading of signs could be indicated by the addition of phonetic complements or by prefixing determinatives which could indicate “wood,” “city,” “male,” “mountain,” and so forth. The rapid development of the cuneiform script made it suitable not only for the mundane task of keeping business accounts but also for legal documents, letters, and literary and religious documents.

The Sumerians established the scribal school in which the student spent several years learning how to write documents of all kinds. The teacher would write a text on one side of the tablet, and the student would copy the text on the other side for the teacher's evaluation. Grammars and verb charts were compiled. Trained scribes were in heavy demand for service at the temple, the court, and at trading firms.

The cuneiform script of the Sumerians was adopted by the Semitic speaking Akkadians, the Elamites, and Hurrians. Cuneiform continued to be expanded and adapted to meet the demands of the various languages. Excavations have yielded thousands of documents in Sumerian and Akkadian showing the progress of civilization, the arts, and sciences. So successful did Akkadian become that it was used as the international language of trade and diplomacy for several centuries. The modern historian is indebted most of all to king Assurbanipal of Assyria (668-626 B.C.) who founded a library at Nineveh. Assurbanipal sent his scribes all over Mesopotamia to make copies of thousands of important documents, especially literary and religious texts. The discovery of this library provided a corpus of texts coming from all periods of Mesopotamian history.

Egypt By about 3000 B.C. the Egyptians had developed a hieroglyphic system of writing, the so-called “sacred picture writing.” used chiefly for inscriptions on public monuments. In a manner similar to Sumerian, hieroglyphic signs could be read as signs for words or ideas, as phonetic signs, and as determinatives. Vowels were not indicated in the script, but the debate about whether the logographic script became a syllabic script apparently continues. The decipherment of hieroglyphics was accomplished by Champollion in 1822 after several years of rigorous study.

The Egyptians developed a cursive script, called hieratic, to meet the needs of everyday life, such as record keeping, inventories of goods, and so forth. Hieratic, simplified hieroglyphics, was written with brush and ink on the smooth surfaces of stone and papyrus. About 700 B.C. hieratic was further simplified into another cursive script, demotic. By A.D. 200 Greek letters were used for the writing of the Egyptian language, then in use, called Coptic.

Asia Minor The Hittites of Anatolia, who spoke an Indo-European language, adopted the Mesopotamian cuneiform system of writing. The Hittite cuneiform texts are known mainly from the archives of Bogazkoy discovered in 1906. The pioneering work in the interpretation of the texts was done by F. Hrozny who recognized that the texts were characteristically written with a mixture of Sumerian logograms, Akkadian words and phrases, and phonetically written Hittite words and phrases. Variant copies of the same or similar texts often contain the phonetically written equivalents of the Sumerian and Akkadian elements. The Hittites, like the Elamites and Hurrians, also used Akkadian for documents dealing with international relations.

About 1500 B.C. a hieroglyphic system known as Hittite hieroglyphics began to appear. This system of writing was not influenced by the older Egyptian hieroglyphics. Students of the texts have determined that the language is related to but not identical with the Hittite known from the cuneiform texts. The Karatepe bilingual inscription, composed of a text in hieroglyphics and Phoenician, came to light in 1947 and confirmed not only the meanings of some words but also that the previous research, done without the aid of bilingual texts, had been on the correct course.

Syria-Palestine The first-known attempts to produce an alphabet were made in Syria-Palestine. The texts from Ugarit (Ras Shamra) date from 1500-1200 B.C. and were written in an alphabetic cuneiform. The alphabet consists of thirty-one characters, twenty-eight of which are consonants and three of which indicate the vowel accompanying the letter aleph.

In work carried out in 1904-1905 at Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai, Flinders Petrie discovered inscriptions written in a script reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics but consisting of only about thirty signs. Although not all the signs have been deciphered conclusively, it is possible to see the relationship of some of the characters to letters in the Phoenician alphabet from about 1000 B.C. The script of the Sinaitic inscriptions is the earliest stage in the development of the Canannite linear script.

The sources available for the study of the development of the Hebrew script are of several kinds: monumental inscriptions (incised in stone), ostraca (inscribed potshreds), inscriptions incised on seals, weights, jar handles, ossuaries, and documents written in ink on papyrus and leather. The monumental inscriptions include the Gezer Calendar (950 B.C.), the Moabite Stone (850 B.C.), the Siloam tunnel inscription and the Siloam tomb inscription (700 B.C.). The ostraca include those from Samaria (800 B.C.), Hazor (800 B.C.), Yavneh-yam (550 B.C.), and Lachish (500 B.C.). After the Exile the “square” script of Aramaic origin began to replace the cursive script, as the Elephantine papyri show. The documents from the Qumran and Wadi Murabba'at areas (200 B.C. to A.D. 150) complete the data. These source materials make it possible to trace the development of the Hebrew-Aramaic scripts for more than a thousand years and, therefore, to date with greater precision the documents which continue to come to light in the course of excavations.

Biblical References to Writing Several writing systems were in use in Syria-Palestine by the time of Moses and Joshua. Many Bible texts refer to Moses being directed to write down accounts of historical events (Exodus 17:14), laws and statutes (Exodus 34:1-9), and the words of the Lord (Exodus 24:4). Joshua wrote on stones a copy of the law of Moses (Joshua 8:32) and later wrote down statutes and ordinances in the book of the law of God (Joshua 24:26). Gideon had a young man of Succoth to write down the names of the 77 officials and elders of that town (Judges 8:14). Samuel wrote down the rights and duties of kinship (1 Samuel 10:25). David could write his own letter to his general (2 Samuel 11:14). Kings engaged in international correspondence (2 Chronicles 2:11). Many references to the “chronicles of the kings of Israel” and Judah perhaps indicate court diaries or annals (1 Kings 14:19). The prophets wrote, or dictated, their oracles (Isaiah 8:1,Isaiah 8:16; Isaiah 30:8; Jeremiah 30:1-2; Jeremiah 36:27-28). By at least 800 B.C., court scribes were tallying the payment of taxes (compare the Samaria Ostraca). Commemorative and memorial inscriptions were in use (compare the Siloam inscription and the Siloam tomb inscription). Nehemiah as an official under Persian appointment wrote down the covenant to keep the law of God (Nehemiah 9:38), to which several men set their seals as witnesses (Nehemiah 10:1-27).

Similarly, in the New Testament period literacy was widespread. Jesus could both read (Luke 4:16-21) and write (John 8:6). The writers of the Gospels and Paul wrote in excellent Greek, with Paul regularly using an amenuensis or scribe.

The various kinds of documents and writings mentioned in the Bible were letters (personal and official), decrees (religious and civil), legal documents, deeds of sale, certificates of divorce, family registers, topographical descriptions, and books of scrolls containing laws, court records, and poetic works (see Jashar, The Book of).

It is difficult to determine how widespread literacy may have been in Old Testament times. Most of the persons listed as writers are those in professional capacities or in positions of leadership which required writing, such as kings, religious leaders, prophets, and governors. Even then, scribes or secretaries were most often used. One of the cabinet officials was the secretary (sopher) who handled official correspondence, including international communications (2 Samuel 8:17; 2 Samuel 20:25). Jeremiah dictated his oracles to his scribe, Baruch (Jeremiah 30:2; Jeremiah 36:27). In addition the Hebrew inscriptions provide no firm evidence that the general populace could read or write, or even that they had much need to do so.

Writing Materials and Implements Stone was used in all periods in the Ancient Near East as a writing surface, especially for monumental and memorial inscriptions. In Egypt the wall of temples were covered with historical inscriptions chiseled into the stone. In Mesopotamia and Anatolia inscriptions were cut into the faces of mountains (compare the Behistun Rock) or into stones of various sizes for monuments on public display (compare the Code of Hammurabi and boundary markers) or for small inscriptions to be included in foundation deposits. In Syria-Palestine several monumental inscriptions were cut into stone, including the Moabite Stone, the Siloam inscription, and the inscriptions of Aramaean and Phoenician rulers from 1000 B.C. onward. In the Old Testament the law was written on stone (Exodus 24:12) and written on stones covered with plaster (Deuteronomy 27:1-10).

Clay was the main writing medium for those cultures which used cuneiform scripts. Impressions were made on the soft clay by the use of a stylus. Often legal documents and letters would be encased in a clay envelope on which a summary of the text was written and over which cylinder seals would be rolled to identify witnesses. Although clay documents written in cuneiform scripts have been found in Palestine, there is no clear Old Testament reference to clay tablets used by Israelites.

Wooden tablets, covered by clay or wax, were used as writing surfaces in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the Bible there is the mention of writing on wooden staffs (Numbers 17:2-3) and on wooden staves (Ezekiel 37:16). The references in Isaiah 30:8 and Habakkuk 2:2 may be to writing on wooden tablets. In Luke 1:63, Zechariah wrote on a tablet of wood with a wax surface.

In several periods metal was used as a writing medium, especially bronze or copper. Inscriptions in a poorly understood syllabic script from Byblos were written on bronze sheets. Especially well known are the two copper scrolls from Qumran which contained a list of the treasures of the community.

The potsherd provided a cheap and highly useful surface for letters, economic records, and school copy texts. Inscribed potsherds (ostraca) were commonly used in Egypt in all periods and in Palestine. They were inscribed with pen (or brush) and ink. Ostraca form a major part of the corpus of Hebrew inscriptions, such as the Samaria and Lachish ostraca.

Papyrus was used very early in Egypt and continued in use through the early centuries of our era. The papyrus reed was split into thin strips which were arranged in two layers at right angles and then pressed together and polished to form a smooth surface. Sheets of papyrus could be glued together to form long scrolls. As Aramaic began to be accepted as the international language, papyrus became more widely used in Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine. It is likely that the first edition of Jeremiah's book was written on papyrus (Jeremiah 36:1). The documents of the Jewish community at Elephantine were written on papyrus. Several works on papyrus were among the literary remains from Qumran. Large collections of papyri from Egypt written in Koine Greek helped to elucidate the New Testament writings.

Carefully prepared leather was used for most of the biblical scrolls at Qumran. Torah scrolls are still written on leather. Sections of leather would be sewn together to form scrolls of lengths appropriate for the book or work. Horizontal lines were often pressed into the leather to act as guides for the scribe. The codex, or book, was made only from parchment.

Two words are used in the Old Testament for writing implements et and heret. The first term is usually rendered “pen.” Psalms 45:1 (NRSV) speaks of the “pen of a ready scribe,” and thus it is probably a reference to a reed pen whose end fibers were separated to form a brush. Jeremiah 17:1 and Job 19:24 refer to an iron pen designed to make inscriptions on rock. The second term, heret, is mentioned as both a graving tool (Exodus 32:4) and as a stylus (Isaiah 8:1; “pen,” KJV). Since Isaiah 8:1 mentions a tablet (NRSV) as the writing surface, it is possible that the stylus was used to carve or scratch the inscription into the wood or its covering of wax.

Ink was made from carbon black and gum resin and could be washed from a writing surface such as papyrus. Papyrus could thus be used more than once. A sheet of papyrus which was used more than once, with the original writing having been rinsed away, is called a palimpsest. Paleographers have often found palimpsests to be valuable because the original writing, incompletely expunged, may be more significant than the later writing.

Ezekiel 9:2-3,Ezekiel 9:11 mention the equipment of the scribe, the qeset ha-sopher. The man clothed in linen who appeared to Ezekiel had a “writing case” or “inkhorn” upon his loins (at his side). Writing cases are known in both Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature and art work. They provided containers for pens, brushes, styluses, and ink.

The last implement to be mentioned is the scribe's knife in Jeremiah 36:23. As Jeremiah's scroll was being read, the king took a scribe's knife and cut off the columns of the scroll and burned them. The knife was probably used by the scribe to size and trim papyrus, leather, or parchment. That Jeremiah's scroll was made of papyrus and not leather is indicated by the fact that the king was in his winter quarters seeking warmth from a charcoal brazier. The odor of burning leather in an enclosed space would have been obnoxious. See Akkadian; Aramaic; Archaeology; Cuneiform; Hebrew; Pottery.

Thomas Smothers

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'WRITING'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.