Who Really Invented the Alphabet—Illiterate Miners or Educated Sophisticates?


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In a landmark article in the March/April 2010 issue of BAR, Orly Goldwasser, professor of Egyptology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained how the very first alphabet, from which all other alphabets developed, was invented by illiterate Canaanite miners in the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai peninsula. Inspired by Egyptian pictorial hieroglyphs and a desire to articulate their own thoughts in writing, these Canaanites created 22 alphabetic acrophonetic signs scratched into the rock that could express their entire language.

Read “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs” by Orly Goldwasser as it appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of BAR.

But Goldwasser did not convince everyone. Anson Rainey, who had been emeritus professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Languages at Tel Aviv University, promptly responded to the article with his doubts that this watershed moment in human culture had been brought about by illiterate miners. In his letter Rainey argues that the alphabet was surely created by “highly sophisticated Northwest Semites”; who inscribed countless papyrus sheets that have not survived.

Join us below to read Rainey’s critiques and Goldwasser’s thorough rebuttals about who really invented the alphabet.

Israel Museum curators have called “Gabriel’s Revelation” the most important document found in the area since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Read the original English publication of “Gabriel’s Revelation” along with Israel Knohl’s BAR article that made scholars around the world reconsider links between ancient Jewish and Christian messianism in the free eBook Gabriel’s Revelation.


Posted in Daily Life and Practice, Inscriptions, Scholar’s Study.

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  1. DALLAS says

    I yield to no one in my admiration for the late Dr. Rainey. But Orly Goldwasser has the better argument here.

  2. Arnie says

    I’m reluctant to enter this fray but it’s a lot easier to believe that the early Hieroglyphs evolved into the Hieratic then to Demotic, then to modern Arabic and finally to our current alphabet than some miners drawing on a wall to convey “let’s dig here”.

    Think of Occam’s Razor.


  3. Mervyn says

    Thge israelites were slaves of Egypt and some almost certainly worked in the mines in Soithern Sinaia. We know that Moses was told by God to tell his people to “write these words and learn them”. That means that as early as the time of Moses (1500 BCE) , the Israleites could write.

    Why jump to conclusions that the Alaph Beth was a Canaanite or Phonecian invention?

  4. Mervyn says

    Furthger, the Israelites worked as skilledand literate builders, architects, surveyors, and possibly other professional jobs needing writing. The case is strong that the Israelites were the first inventors of Aleph Beth – a giant step forward in writing.

  5. Eve says

    In my chronology, the twelfth dynasty was the Residence of the supreme pharaoh among several concurrant dynasties as depticted in the Karnak Kings List and noted by its pharaohs names written in reverse order in the Saqqara Kings List. My dates for the reign of Amenemhat III are 1827-1779 BC. According to Orly Goldwasser’s 2006 article “Canaanites Reading Hieroglyphs: Horus is Hathor? – The Invention of the Alphabet in Sinai,” Keel dated one of Amenemhat III’s unique scarabs to the 13th dynasty. The seal is unique because it has a human hieroglyph determinative in a Canaanite style called protosinaitic script found mostly near the copper and turquoise mines of Sinai. The laborers of the mines fused Egyptian hieroglyphs with some Hebrew letters, and some short-cuts of their own, and made scarab-seals for Egyptian dignitaries in the Delta and abroad. Goldwasser then determined the following:
    1) People in Syria liked their ideas and created a cuneiform version called Ugaritic.
    2) Byblos, on the Syrian coast, may have influenced these miners in the way they wrote the name Hathor, the goddess of turquoise, with a Horus bird and an angle instead of a falcon in a square.
    3) The protosinaitic script is found on a Sinai stela dated to Amenemhat III’s 23rd year, at Wadi Magharah dated to Amenemhat III’s 42nd year, and the mines of Serabit el Khadim in Amenemhat III’s 45th year.
    {This modified paragraph is from pages 395 of my book Pharaohs of the Bible. I agree with Goldwasser.}

  6. Joseph says

    The Alphabet was invented by Joseph and his brothers when they were put to work at feeding the ‘whole world’ in Egypt. It was refined from the 13th Dynasty onwards, and used by the “Canaanites” down in Sinai.

  7. George says

    The conviction that the Hebrew-Phoenician-Greek-Etruscan-Roman alphabet was derived from a far out group of miners in the Sinai desert is just plain silly.

    The concept was disseminated throughout the Mediterranean world by Cretan mariners; and the host trading ports picked and chose from the Cretan repertoire of syllabic signs – those that best fit the language of the host trading partner.

    Joesph’s post (# 6) comes closest to being correct.

  8. Alan says

    According to Wikipedia, hieratic was in existence at least as early as 1600 B.C., existed alongside Egyptian hieroglyphs, and may even have preceded Egyptian hieroglyphs – going back to the pre-dynastic period. Thus, (an early version of) it may have arrived in Egypt with the pre-dynastic migration of Semitic people into the Nile delta (c. 3000 B.C.)?

    As an abjad written from right to left (but with logographic elements), hieratic would seem to be a logical choice for the precursor to Phoenician/Proto-Hebrew, and other early (& apparently related) abjads.

    But no one seems to have looked at a possible connection between hieratic & later scripts. (Or it has been determined that they are probably not related)?

  9. Alan says

    Given the sophistication of hieratic 500 or more years before the appearance of proto-Canaanite (or whatever it is supposed to be called), and given that hieratic was an abjad (albeit with logograms), it seems to me that it is silly (culturally biased) to even talk about those scratchings in the Sinai as the “invention” of the alphabet. Certainly it cannot be claimed to be the first example of some form of an abjad, or that some Canaanite/Israelite genius (regardless of whether or not he or she was illiterate) was the first to use some symbols to represent his language phonetically.

    But the use of only 22 symbols was certainly a radical breakthrough. And no one seems to think that hieratic lead directly to that early form of Hebrew/Canaanite/Phoenician. And so, from our western perspective, we could say that, as far as can be determined by the evidence at this point, it was apparently some Israelite/Canaanite genius who living somewhere in Egypt who “invented” what we think of as “the alphabet” (c.1700 B.C.E.?)

    As for whether or not that genius was an “ancient academic” or an illiterate laborer, Goldwasser makes some good points. But I would point out that just because someone (or a race of people) may be living in poverty/slavery, that does not mean that that was always the case, or that they could not also have a long tradition of education/literacy.

  10. berkley says

    Semitic writing was no doubt developed by merchants for the sake of inventory, invoices and receipts. Part of mining is engineering which also requires precision and documentation. If early documents were portable and on papyrus or parchment, they would not have survived 3,000 years. We can only hope early clay records or scratches on oistraka or stone engravings will be dug up to provide further evidence. The ‘miners’ in question could also have been well-educated men who chose this work because it paid well. No answer can be ruled out in the absence of proof.

  11. MICHELLE says

    “Apparently” the epic-graphy and alphabetic innovation reflects periodic-evolution in “A” formal context of symbolic/images both orthographic – scripts and language/etymologies. The universal thought and continual progression appears to have begun 25,000 years ago, however the use of columnar identification in symbolic/lettering regards a mentoring community. The Egyptian/Sinatic-Phoenician-Canaanite [Judiac-Hebrew/Phoenician] identification[s]’ of symbols and varietal meanings – – are a descriptive reality-whether remote or clandenstine in nature. What remains is “that’ discerning ideal of religious spirituality/ beliefs … A ” series” of 18- 22 letters, singularily or clustered in groups were invented about 3,000 B.C., and placed accordingly. Some how – “pristine in nature” and attributed by the ancient dwellers or nomadic travelors. Tribal ethnologies chose applicative usage in ceromonial practices/cultivational endeavors … and Cultural communicative histories.

  12. Jack says

    I tend to accept Goldwasser’s position. However since I am neither an Archaeologist or a Linguist my limited ans ONLY argument is based on motivation. Scribes would favor a complex and therefore specialized form of communication. Their status and probably standard of living would have been threatened by a simpler form of writing. The lower classes and possibly engineers would have found an efficient language beneficial..

    I decided to post a reply to this thread because I have a related motivational problem in regard to Empire Jews paying the Temple tax.”The first Roman attempt to halt payments of the tax was made long before the Jewish War on account of customs controls.” ref. Wikipedia Temple Tax

    It seems this was a voluntary tax. My rule of thumb is that people don’t pay a “voluntary” tax unless they get some benefit from it. I have not been able to find any discussion of this subject. As Roman hostility to the tax as well as client state status for Judea tensions would rise particularly for Empire Jews with Roman citizenship such as Paul.

    What I am looking for is a semi-popular work on the subject, since that is what I have been reading for the last 40 years. Anyone?

  13. julie says

    this helped me with my home work. Thx.

  14. julie says

    this helped me. THx.

  15. Varghese says

    What is wrong with you all? Do you all suppose that Noah could construct a ship sophisticated enough to have stayed afloat in such a turbulent atmosphere for such a long time as mentioned in the bible keeping all (probably more than) these wide variety species of animals and birds that we see around us on the earth today without having had the skills of accounting / keeping records which necessitates the ability to read and write?

  16. Margaret says

    ~~~ Wow!
    ~~~ I mean, wow!
    ~~~ There is a God, the One true God, who created man.
    ~~~ If we are to believe Him, then we should realize very clearly that Noah brought the alphabet with him on the boat! And I would love to know what else he brought!
    ~~~ Consider the ark; unless God put each animal in suspended animation for several months, how are eight people going to clean stalls before fumes from the waste kill many animals, and at least some of the people? The point? There had to be some kind of technology on the ark to take care of such a problem. That would require advanced writing and math!
    ~~~ There needed to be a kitchen on the ark, and fresh water, and ventilation.. Did you ever wonder why it took Noah at least 50 years to build that ship? The image of a plain wooden box built by a ‘stone-age’ man just doesn’t compute.
    ~~~ Adam and Eve most likely were created with the full capacity of their brains, making them intelligent beyond our imaginations! And then, as their children intermarried, brain function must have decreased. Still, after the Flood, God said ‘nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them’, so God confused their languages; we still don’t know the technology behind the great Pyramids built just a few generations after the Flood; and today, God has permitted the languages to come together again, and see what we have done in the past 150 years!
    ~~~ Nope, can’t see any way around it, “man” began writing in the Garden of Eden.

  17. Howard says

    The reason that it is so difficult to trace back the origins of Hebrew script: is because it was based on a regional universal system. That system was Cuneiform in origin. (1) The symbols are called Cuneus: (Latin, wedge-form) the symbols used to make this code. These symbols where formed on soft clay tablets or tables with a piece of a reed also called a stylist that is either pushed or pulled in the soft clay of the table. This same system was used in the Jewish watchtowers of Isaiah:

    Prepare the tables, (clay tables) watch in the watchtowers…. O princes and anoint the shield” (2)

    The watchmen in the towers, prepare clay tables then anoint the shield. So what do they have to do with alphabets? The thread that will start to unravel this knot comes from Greece, Xenophon (434-355 years before the Christian era (3))the ancient Greek war hero and historian unlocks this riddle in his history of ancient Greece called Hellenica. Nevertheless, Xenophon’s words like Cassandras’ words have been rejected by the Gatekeepers of knowledge. Even so, Hellenica contains the phrase to: “Signal with a Shield” This refers to reflecting sunlight with a mirrored shield. Those mirrors were called aspis(4): the ancient Greek word for snakes or mirrored shields. The messages that were sent by these ancient heliographs were called “aspasmos(5)” to “handle the shield.”
    Today David is thought to be Saul’s armor bearer. What if that is an incorrect interpretation? And what he really was communication officer for King Saul? The Hebrew words used for these glittering golden or quicksilver-coated shields are, Shalat that means: dominions, in power, have power or rule.(6) Other words used for those types of shields are Magen,(7) all means: to deliver up, present or a scroll. Kydow a spark or blink of light.(8) The Hebrews scribes who used these shields were called armor bearers, and the communications were called “saw-far”(9) which translate to “Collect and record with slashes or marks.”

    “And King David took the (sun disks) Shields of Gold that were on the horses of the servants of Hadarezer, and brought them to Jerusalem and likewise from Tibhath and from Berothi cities of Hadarezer.”

    Additional evidence is that both the Hebrew and Greek alphabets have the same order as the northern Semite alphabet of the Hittites, the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, also mirror the early Ugaritic Cuneiform symbol because they were all alphanumeric/ heliographic codes. These codes allowed the most used letters to have the simplest symbol that corresponds to 1, 5, 10, 2, 4, 6, 9, 50 and 100. Here is the kicker; the message would be totaled, so that when it was received, a line cipher was given with the numeric total of the message or line by line. If the totals did not match up? The mismatch allowed the error to be discovered and allowing message be re-sent or corrected. There are at least two places where this principle is still used, first in computer code writing so that the errors in the written code can be found if the computer or software has a malfunction and which allows the line cipher to locate where the error is so that error can be fixed.

    Then there are the Jews, who still use those number values of their alphabet to total their Holy Scriptures. This is so that, the WORD of GOD would be constant without variations in its transcriptions.

    my footnotes did not transfer to site

  18. itzhak says

    We know that the “literated” Egyptians didn’t use alphabet hundred of years after it was common in the middle east and even Greece. They didn’t want to loose their special status

  19. Gamini says

    All this time we were told that the word “alphabet” consists the first two letters of the Greek Alphabet, Alpha and Beta. It goes well with the first two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, Aleph and Beth. Very probably prior to these two great languages of the Bible, there existed Phoenician and Akadian scripts which were even older than Hebrew and Greek. Therefore, I think the very first alphabet derives in some way from Phoenician and Akadian.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. 1. The Invention of the Alphabet | Hebrew Type linked to this post on January 19, 2015

    […] alphabet and its discovery, seen in scholarly papers and engaging articles. However, scholars like Anson Rainey disagree with this analysis and contend that the alphabet was invented and developed by sophisticated […]

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