The alphabet is one of the great advances in the intellectual history of mankind. It took the concept of writing a giant leap forward by tremendously reducing the number of symbols that had been used in earlier scripts.
Its impact on the spread of knowledge is analogous to that of the computer in the last few decades. Archeology has revealed much about this fascinating process.
It was in the ancient Near East that writing was first developed some 5,000 years ago, circa 3300 BCE, sometime around the dawn of civilization. In fact writing is an important component in the definition of civilization, according to most scholars. But the earliest scripts, notably cuneiform in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphs in Egypt, were composed of many symbols and required a long time to master.
Only a few people were able to master this complex system. Knowledge and its transmission were limited to a powerful elite. As a result, the scribe occupied an important position in these early societies. In ancient Egypt, we have statues of scribes dating as far back as the Old Kingdom in the third millennium BCE.
It was in the latter part of the Bronze Age (circa 3200-1200 BCE) that writing underwent a major transformation with the invention of the alphabet, which some have traced back as early as the Middle Bronze Age (circa 2000-1500 BCE). There is evidence that an early alphabetic script was first used in Egypt circa 1800 BCE.
However, in 1916 Alan Gardiner, the eminent Egyptologist, discovered a script dating to the middle of the second millennium BCE in the copper mines of the Sinai, in which Canaanite slaves had worked. It is they who are thought to have devised this new and revolutionary method of writing whose ramifications would be earth shattering.
The fall of the Bronze Age brought about the spread and modification of the new script in the new city states and national monarchies that sprang up in the no man’s land between the great empires of the Bronze Age, in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Phoenician city-states, along the littoral of the eastern Mediterranean, and the kingdom of Israel are primary examples of this political phenomenon.
These states both used and spread the alphabet. At Isbet Sarta (Aphek) in coastal Israel, archeologists have found alphabetic scribbles dating to 11th century BCE. At ancient Raddana, near modern Ramallah, letters have been discovered that were inscribed on arrowheads that date a century earlier. This was around the time when Israel was beginning to coalesce into a state, first under the Judges and then under the monarchy. It was under the monarchy that court historians would use the alphabet in writing the histories that would ultimately come down to us as part of the Bible.
This was also the time that the Phoenicians were embarking on their epic voyages across the Mediterranean, first to Cyprus in the 11th century BCE and then as far as Spain by the eighth century BCE. Ultimately, the Phoenicians were the catalysts in spreading this new method of writing to places such as Greece, where Homer would use it to write his classic epics. Archeologists have found Phoenician inscriptions throughout the Mediterranean – in Italy, North Africa and Sardinia.
It was our Bible that was the high point of alphabetic writing. The great Harvard scholar Frank Moore Cross told me that the Bible and the development of the alphabet went hand in hand. And the zenith of the Bible is considered by many scholars to be the Prophets and their message. It was the first time in history that a coherent message of universal morality and truth went hand in hand. Despite the destruction of Jerusalem and the monarchy, that message would endure and become the cornerstone of western civilization.