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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  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.

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