Reading the Bible: What Can Ancient Inscriptions Teach Us? part 1 of 3

Making your reading of God’s Word easier.

Some people object to underlining, highlighting, or otherwise marking in the text of their Bibles. The purpose of this series of articles is to demonstrate some note taking methods and highlighting methods that can help in reading the Bible. The methods we will cover build upon the history of how the text of the Bible has been preserved for us to this day.

This first article focuses on how writing text was done at the different points in history when the Scripture was given. This is not a historical-critical approach. What we will look at here is how writing using letters rather than ideograms or logograms made the Biblical text accessible to the everyday person. We will also look at how formatting the text developed to make reading even more accessible to readers.

Ancient Writing Systems and the Bible:

It is both fun and helpful to see how the original texts were preserved through the ages. Seeing how it was preserved can also help us learn how to build a note-taking and highlighting system that preserves the original text in its own context.

As far as we know, we do not have any of the original manuscripts of the Scriptures. What we can do is look at how the Bible was likely to be written at the times God inspired the original writers. The alphabet used in modern Hebrew Bibles is the Imperial Aramaic alphabet which dates from the 5th century B.C.

For a more thorough introduction to the writing systems of the Ancient Near East check out: Joseph Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet. 2nd ed, 1997.

The two earliest texts in the Bible are the Books of Moses and, possibly, Job.

We base our understanding of when Moses wrote his five books, the Pentateuch, on the dates given to us in Scripture.

The Hebrew text of I Kings 6:1 says “And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.”

This puts the year of the Exodus at approximately 1,440 B.C. The Exodus took place over 40 years of wandering, during which Moses wrote down the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. At the end of that wandering he recorded his final sermons to the people of Israel just before they entered the promised land. This is the book of Deuteronomy.

The book of Job is a bit more difficult to date. Throughout the history of the Church different opinions have been offered about when this book was written. The earliest suggestions place the book back to the Patriarchal period, sometime around the period of Abraham. This could put the book of Job back at 2,000 B.C. or on down to much later. We will consider the earlier dates for the sake of demonstrating the ways in which Job’s words might have been written down, carved in rock and filled with lead (19:23-24) or on clay or on leather.

Writing in the Ancient Near East before 2,000 B.C. and later:

Amarna Letter EA 161
Amarna Letter EA 161

Cuneiform was a style of writing embraced by a wide variety of very different languages: Sumerian, Elamite, Hattic, Hurrian, Urartrian, Luwian, Hittite, Old Persian. It was also used for languages more closely related to Hebrew: Ugaritic, Eblaite, and Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian). The use of this style of writing ranges from the early styles at 3,300 BC down to the 1st century A.D.

Cuneiform means “wedge shaped, ” (Latin cuneus “wedge,”). The symbols and their uses varied from one linguistic group to the next, but the process was very similar: a stylus was used to press wedge or round shapes into soft clay. The clay then might be baked to make the writing permanent.

Many cuneiform systems consisted of logograms (symbols which represent a word in a language) and a syllabary (symbols which represent a combination of a consonant and the following vowel sound). Some of the symbols functioned both as a logogram and as a syllable, depending on context. Some of the syllable signs could act as more than one different combination of consonant and vowel, depending upon context.

Transcribing from the clay tablets to represent the symbols would give us something like this:
In this text there are no divisions or spaces between words, there is no punctuation, there are no paragraphs, or other types of markers to help the reader read the text.

What just a few of these Akkadian symbols represent as sounds or syllables:
(both images from

If Job were originally written in this style of writing, the text we have would have been transcribed from the Akkadian cuneiform symbols into either the Paleo Hebrew alphabet or possibly the Proto-Sinaitic/Proto-Canaanite alphabet.(

The result of transcription is that a person only needed to know 22 letters in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet in order to read a text. This compares to having to learn somewhere between 200 and 400 symbols in order to read the Akkadian cuneiform symbols.

The city-state of Ugarit developed a 31 symbol system using cuneiform characters but limited to specific consonantal sounds like that of the Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew alphabets. It also incorporated a new feature, a special mark to divide between words. Ugarit used this “alphabetical cuneiform” from the 14th century B.C. until the city’s destruction in the 12th century B.C.

From this we can understand that if the book of Job were originally written in Akkadian cuneiform or Ugaritic cuneiform there would have been no problem accurately transcribing the text from either possible source scripts in the Paleo-Hebrew script.

In English, using the writing conventions of the Akkadian cuneiform syllabary the first verses of Genesis might look like this: (using ‘ to signal a stop of breath and start it again–remember, each syllable was its own unique sign, though there were no spaces between words in Akkadian cuneiform, we use spaces here to separate the signs for individual syllables. The same sign would be used for the same syllable)


In fact, transliterating the texts from cuneiform to Paleo-Hebrew would have greatly eased the learning of reading and writing by reducing complexity, length of leaning, and would have the added value of increasing the types of material usable for continued preservation of the text from one generation to the next.

The Proto-Sinaitic Script

These alphabets referred to by the term “abjad”—a shorthand for an alphabet system made up of consonantal symbols but not vowels. If Job was written sometime between 1,700-1,200 B.C. the book could have been written in the Proto-Sinaitic Script, also called Proto-Canaanite. This alphabet consisted of about 30 symbols.
The script appears to have been based on Egyptian Hieroglyphics. However, the sound of each symbol appears to be based on initial sound of the Hebrew/Semitic name for the symbol rather than the sound of the Egyptian name. (, Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet, pp. 23-42)

Wadi el-Hol Inscription
Wadi el-Hol Inscription

What is interesting to me about the historical development of this script is that the examples we have are contemporary with when the Bible describes the exile of Israel to Egypt for 430 years.

During this period of Biblical history in areas of Egypt’s influence (where one would not be surprised to find Hebrew speaking people) we find these inscriptions using Hebrew sounds attached to Egyptian symbols spelling out Hebrew words. ( Article on the process )

There are not very many Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions found as of yet. Most of the inscriptions are found in the Sinai, Middle-Egypt, a copper mine at Timna in southern Israel, and a very few found in the Canaan region itself.

Drawing of Wadi el-Hol Inscription
Drawing of Wadi el-Hol Inscription

The inscriptions vary from being possible instructional signs at the Timna mines  to what appears to be a religious expression, possibly pagan, at Wadi el-Hol (between Thebes and Abydos at Qena bend of the Nile).

Some of the symbols were probably used as logograms, like abbreviations: for example, the letter M was the symbol of water, the name for the letter was the word for “water” and would make a very suitable short-hand easily understood on the lid of a water jar.

It is impossible to say whether or not this type of writing would have been used for the book of Job. We just don’t have enough surviving examples to know if it were used for literary texts.

However, the symbols and their use are very close to that of Paleo-Hebrew characters, all the letters of the Hebrew language appear to have an equivalent in this Proto-Sinaitic/Proto-Canaanite script. And quite a few of those letters have the same basic shapes.

Paleo-Hebrew Script 

We are certain that this particular abjad script was used for the Bible. The reasons for this are:

  1. This script was in use throughout Canaan and the surrounding area for many Semitic languages from about 1,200 B.C. down to 137 A.D.
  2. It was in common use for inscriptions, letters, notes, lists, seals, jewelry, and epigrams. It was not limited to a scribal class.
  3. We have examples of Bible texts written in this script from at least as early as the 7th century BC.

The features of each inscription give us examples of how writing was done in those times. This teaches us both about the preservation of the Biblical text as well as the ways in which the use and formatting of language changed to make the reading of the text easier and more accessible through the generations.

Our first two examples come from the 10th and 9th centuries B.C.

The Gezer Calendar (10th cent. B.C.) 

Gezer_Calendar_-_ReplicaThe Gezer Calendar inscription is a small (about 5 1/2 inches by 2.5 inch by 5/8 inch thick) inscribed limestone block discovered at Gezer by by R.A.S. Macalister in 1908.
Gezer was one of the few ancient cities that actually had its name written on rocks at its city limits. That’s how we can be reasonably certain that the rock comes from this Biblical city.

The archaeological context of the rock is a bit vague because Macalistar worked in a time when dating by soil layers (Soil Stratigraphy) hadn’t been discovered yet.

Readers might recognize the shapes of some of our letters in this inscription. P and W and Z kind of stand out, even though the P is backwards and is actually equivalent to our “R”. The W is actually pronounced “sh.” And the funny Z with the extra vertical stroke on the left is pronounced something like “ts.” The O doesn’t have an equivalent in English but is something akin to choking on steak and trying to say the the letter G. The Y stands for the sound we make with W. The circle split down the middle to look like a backward P attached to a P is the letter Q. The little triangle is the letter D. The letter that looks like a sideways M with an extra leg is an M. The letter that looks like H with a bar at the top and bottom is pronounced “ch” like when you showed your mom something gross and she said “Ach! Put that away!” You get the idea.

from Joseph Naveh's book Early History of the Alphabet
from Joseph Naveh’s book Early History of the Alphabet

And there are no vowels written down: just consonants.

Spaces added            Transcribed
 ירחו אסף ירחו ז
רע ירחו לקש
ירח עצד פשת
ירח קצר שערם
ירח קצר וכל
ירחו זמר
ירח קץ

Here is a transliteration of what it might have sounded like and then a translation.

(1) Yarchew asip. Yarchew ze-
(2) ra. Yarchew liqsh.
(3) Yarcho atsid pisht.
(4) Yarcho qtsir se’orim.
(5) Yarcho qtsir wakil.
(6) Yarchew zamir.
(7) Yarcho qets.
And the vertical writing at the bottom left: “Abiy.”

The possible translation:

(1) There are two months of harvest. There two months of sow-
(2) ing. There are two months of planting.
(3) There is a month of cutting flax.
(4) There is a month of harvesting barley.
(5) There is a month of harvest and finishing.
(6) There are two months of vinedressing.
(7) There is a month of summer fruit.
And the vertical writing might by a name: “Abi” or “my Dad”, or it could have been “Abijah” if the final letter is missing.

The Gezer Calendar shows at least these important things with regard to our reading of the Bible:

  • Hebrew was written even for farming.  Thus as a written language the Hebrew text of the Bible was not inaccessible due to any conjectured social limitations modern scholars might project back upon ancient Israel.
  • No vowels were used–not even a mater lectionis (more below). This means, in part, that the people who read it were familiar with the text and how to read it out loud. Ths s nt s hrd s y mght thnk.
  • There were no spaces between words. Bttdsmplythtthywrsklldrdrs.
  • Words were broken from one line to the next.
  • All the letters are of the same case. That is, there is no distinction between upper-case and lower-case letters. THTSSMWHTHRDRTRD.

This example is written right to left  like most North West Semitic inscriptions–though we do have other examples of left to right and even boustrophedon (great word, isn’t it! It means “as the ox plows” to describe writing that goes left-to-right on one line then right-to-left on the next.)

In English, using the writing conventions of the Gezer Calendar the first verses of Genesis might look like this:


Tel Dan Inscription (9th cent. B.C.) 

house-of-david-stele1The Tel Dan Inscription comes from the site of Tel Dan in Northern Israel. It was discovered during the 1993-94 excavation season. It is an Aramaic inscription (closely related to Hebrew, parts of the Bible are in Aramaic). The inscription shows some ways in which writing improved so that it was easier to learn and to read.

The highlighted text in the picture above are the letters BTDWD which translate as “House of David.” This is the earliest known reference to King David outside the Bible. And the reference is hotly contested because so much scholarship today has been geared at undermining trust that David even existed as a person.
The transcription of the Tel Dan Stele made by Biran and Naveh

English Transcription
1′. [ ]…[ ] and cut [ ]
2′. [ ] my father went up [ ] he fought at […]
3′. And my father lay down; he went to his [fathers]. Now the king of I[s]/rael had penetrated
4′. into my father’s land before. [But then] Hadad made me king,
5′. And Hadad marched before me. So I went forth from [the] seven[…]/s
6′. of my rule, and I killed [seve]nty kin[gs] who had harnessed thou[sands of cha]/riots
7′. and thousands of cavalry. [And I killed …]ram son of […]
8′. the king of Israel, and I killed […]yahu son of [… the ki]/ng of
9′. the House of David. And I made [their towns into ruins and turned]
10′. their land into [a desolation …]
11′. others and […Then…became ki]/ng
12′. over Is[rael…And I laid]
13′. siege against […]
1.[ ]א]מר.ע[ ]וגזר ]
2.[ ]אבי.יסק[.עלוה.בה]תלחמה.בא— ]
3.וישכב.אבי.יהך.אל[.אבהו]ה.ויעל.מלכי[ יש]
10.ית.ארק.הם.ל[ישמן ]
11.אחרן.ולה[… ויהוא.מ]
12.לך.על.יש[ראל… ואשם.]
13.מצר.ע[ל. ]

The inscription has noticable dots between words. These are word dividers.

Similar word dividers can be seen in the Mesha Stele, a Moabite inscription from the East side of the Jordan that dates to about 850 B.C. The Moabite Stele describes Jehoram’s alliance with Jehoshaphat against king Mesha of Moab (2 Kings 3:4-8), but from Mesha’s royal perspective.

Siloam Inscription
Siloam Inscription

Word dividers are also visible in the Siloam Inscription (image), the dedication to King Hezekiah’s water supply tunnel as recorded in 2 Kings 20:20 “And the rest of the events of Hezekiah and all his mighty deeds, and how he made the conduit and the pool, and he brought the water into the city, they are written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah.”

More is recorded in 2 Chronicles 32:3-4.
“And he took counsel with his officers and his mighty men to stop up the waters of the fountains that were outside the city, and they assisted him. And a large multitude gathered and stopped up all the fountains and the stream that flowed in the midst of the land, saying, “Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?””

The Siloam Inscription translates as:

… the tunnel … and this is the story of the tunnel while …
the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to cut? … the voice of a man …
called to his counterpart, (for) there was ZADA in the rock, on the right … and on the day of the
tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowed
water from the source to the pool for 1200 cubits. and 100?
cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters …

Beside the interesting historical information about Hezekiah’s tunnel, and giving us some everyday history, this inscription with the others listed show us how the text of the Bible had been recorded to make reading the text easier.

In English, using the writing conventions of these inscriptions the first verses of Genesis might look like this:


The word dividers are a very significant improvement. However, using a sign like the dot in these inscriptions, means that words can still be split. This leaves one or more letters on one line and the rest of the letters of a word on the next.

In the next article we will look at some of the developments in writing we can learn from the Ketef Hinnom Inscriptions, the Mousaieff Inscriptions, the Lachish Letters, and then from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After that we will look at what we can learn from Greek Manuscripts and Inscriptions of the New Testament.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.