BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

In the Beginning, Was There a Word?

The cover of the March/April 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review featuring an inscribed miniature sphinx from the site of Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai. Image courtesy of the Biblical Archaeology Society.

“In the beginning was the word” (John 1:1)—but what is a word?

A “word” is a thing, a concept, that seems clear from afar, but gets fuzzier the harder we look at it. Within English, is “birthday” one word or two? What about “wedding day”? If you thought it was obvious that “birthday” is one word but “wedding day” two, it is because of the way they are written.

Similarly, what gives us the idea that a written sentence is made up of individual words? Presumably, this has to do with the fact that we can extract a part of the sentence and put it into a different sentence. But the process of transforming speech into comprehensible writing is trickier than we might realize. In regular speech, we don’t hear “spaces” between words. Instead, speech is just a steady stream of sounds: itwouldsoundverystrangeifwepausedbetweenwords.

Ancient scribes did have an idea of what made a word. We know this from word lists that we have from both ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Scribes organized their world into categories: a list of “trees and other things made out of wood”; a list of “body parts”; a list of “animals and cuts of meat”; and so on. There are no verbs or adjectives in any of these lists, only nouns, which were copied over and over by scribes for thousands of years. They show that already at the beginning of writing, people—at least literate people—had a sense that language consisted of words.

Although they seem to know what a “word” is, Mesopotamian scribes did not include any indication of the boundaries of words within their writings. In a cuneiform text, there is no visual indication of where words begin or end. Egyptian scribes did have specific signs, called “classifiers,” which marked the end of most words. These include the common plural sign (three short strokes) and the seated woman and seated man signs. When you reach one of these, you know the word has ended.

Surprisingly, the early alphabet made things worse. The alphabet was invented, probably in the Sinai or in Egypt, just after 2000 BCE. In the earliest alphabetic writing, there were no spaces at all.

Even worse, in some of the texts the same letter served as the end of one word and the beginning of the next! In a common phrase found at Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai, we read m’hb‘lt, “beloved of the Lady”—but the bet in the middle was both the last letter of the word “beloved” and the first letter of the word “the Lady.” This would be like writing “joinow” for join now or “hotamale” for hot tamale.

The genius (and challenge) of the alphabet was that it was one sign for one sound. In principle, all I have to do is say something under my breath, and I can write it down, sign after sign. But this brings us back to our initial problem: There are no pauses between words when I say them, so do I write a space between words when I write them? Probably not. So alphabetic writers of 4,000 years ago may not have had a clear sense of where words began or ended when they wrote. In fact, it took many more centuries until word dividers were introduced, and spaces are not found in alphabetic writing until about 1,200 years after the invention of the alphabet.1


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It is very difficult to read a text that has no spaces: Sentenceswithnospacesgivetheeyenocluesastowheretolooktoidentifythewordsanditturns
outthatthismakesreadingsignificantlyslowerandlessefficient. Since our brains read by “jumping” our eyes from word to word (the technical term is the French saccade, a jerky movement), we need something visual to tell us where a word begins and ends. It does not have to be spaces: Alternatingboldandnotboldworkswelltoo, asːdoːmarksːofːdifferentːshapesːasːlong:asːtheyːtellːusːwhereːeachːwordːends.

So how were the early alphabetic texts read? With no spaces or word dividers, how did anyone know what the texts said?

One possibility is that people read aloud. The medievalist Paul Saenger showed that, in classical and medieval texts, the introduction of spaces went along with silent reading. For centuries, European reading was out loud, and it turns out that spaces are less important. THISMAYBEHARDTOREADWITHYOUREYESBUTTRYTOREADITOUTLOUD
ANDITWILLBEMUCHEASIER. So perhaps the early alphabetic texts were also meant to be read out loud. Many have observed that the Hebrew word for “read,” qara, is really the word meaning “to call,” suggesting that “to read” was originally “to call a text aloud.”

But in many of the early alphabetic cases, there is even a simpler explanation: They were not meant to be read at all! The inscribed miniature sphinx from Serabit el-Khadem (above), for example, was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and deposited at her temple. Its early alphabetic inscription, then, was supposed to be read only by a deity—and it is likely that goddesses can read even without spaces.

We moderns take for granted that we write for someone else to read. But ancient writing did not always serve this purpose: Some writing was done for the purpose of writing alone. This is not entirely foreign to us. Journaling is often done for the purpose of purely writing, with no intention of anyone ever reading it. Notes tucked between the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem are not meant to be read again, except (as in the case of Serabit el-Khadem) by a deity.

The ways in which ancient texts are written, then, can help us think about why they were written. People used the new alphabetic writing to express themselves, to put their words down on paper—or on stone, as the case may be. They were not writing for other people, though. In reading these texts, we are eavesdropping on a monologue that was never meant to be overheard.


Aaron J. Koller is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Yeshiva University. He studies Semitic languages and history.


Notes:

1. See Alan R. Millard, “Were Words Separated in Ancient Hebrew Writing?” Bible Review, June 1992.


Read more in Bible History Daily:

Video: Exodus and Exodus Traditions After the Linguistic Turn in History

The Roots of Indo-European Language

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

Word Play

Read more in the BAS Library:

Writing and Literacy in the Biblical World

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10 Responses

  1. Gavin Parkins says:

    Thank you for this illuminating article.
    John 1 vs 14 (kjv) immediately comes to mind. The blessed apostle I believe explains it for us beautifully in the Holy Scripture as the Holy Spirit inspired and intended. Praise God and His beloved Word, Yeshua HaMashiach. Blessings. Shalom.

  2. JGN says:

    If you substitute the word “information” for the word “word” in John 1:1 which is justifiably within the semantic domain of the Greek “logos,” you’re mind will explode with new understanding about creation especially with out modern understanding of the role of information in creation theories. Non-creationists cannot explain where the “information” came from. I think John did, he just didn’t have the modern scientific knowledge of the existence of information and it’s role in creation and DNA, for example.

    1. wdk says:

      At this point in time, have a similar comment still in moderation review. Mainly it is an exploration about “logos” and other possible translations. And in reviewing the question, I drew mainly from a scene in Goethe’s “Faust”, where the protagonist was struggling over the same question. Reading when I was young and before starting to do “coding” myself, it was only years later that such abstract alternatives for translation came to my mind: e.g.,
      logos, logic and code.

      This article, of course, is introduced with the first verses of the Gospel of John, but the “argument”, as it were, talks about “word” as a medium in a different sense. So, it is understandable how some of our responses would be about the alphabet’s origin and evolution – and others about that introductory verse itself. And at that, the question posed: did miners or “sophisticates” invent “alphabet”? In either case, the inventors likely were both using something else prior (e.g., hieroglyphics) and did a substitution. But I have no quarrel really with the notion that spacing of letters for words was a significant development too.

      A remaining issue with the introductory verse, however, is the fact that so much of our dispute about its meaning is based on the nature of the English and the Roman Latin languages. In other “words”, not all language translations from New Testament Greek select “word” for the nearest equivalent to logos. And when it comes to the question of whether there is supposed to be a Capital spelling of the original, as some have suggested, can it be found in the earliest parchment copies?

      Perhaps the dilemma began with Jerome’s translation of the Greek to Latin around the fourth century. The eastern part of the Roman empire would remain speaking Greek – and principal theologians in the West such as Augustine of Hippo would often rely on translations into Latin to frame their own thoughts. Jerome chose “verbum” which in English we denote as “word”, but the derivative English noun “verb” designates words that describe action: run, jump, swim, eat, sleep…. Martin Luther had a similar decision to make and chose “Wort” or word. What “le verbe” might mean or imply in 16th century French, I pass on that to others.

      But once such a choice is made by a translator, the theologian who subsequently cites the text, will have to chose his or her own words carefully in explaining it. Similarly, looking at a concordance of the NT, for logos, seldom is this word applied as much other than word. At least in clear terms to the English reader. Yet in contexts such as the Word given from above in evangelical activities in the various NT books, one could well imagine that it could mean (imply?) a plan or code in many other verses as well. So if we resolve this one case one way or another, we might have to address many more possible instances.

  3. Charles Addo says:

    I note the subtle ways in which the New Testament is trivialized.
    To us Christians, the Word is JESUS CHRIST, the CRUCiFIED and RISEN LORD.
    No amount of academic/intellectual argument will change that. The Bible is the INSPIRED word of the LIVING GOD

  4. Charles says:

    I see the subtle ways in which the New testament is sometimes trivialized. The Bible and every word in it came by inspiration. Whatever your view (academic), the WORD is CHrIST the Son of GOD!

  5. David Smith says:

    When discussing “word” esp as translated from the gospel of John, can one actually omit “logos” and the Greek pursuit of logos? Perhaps even Albert Einstein’s search for a unified field theory should be mentioned.
    I certainly agree the current concept of “word” is woefully inadequate to understand its ancient meanings.

    1. David Smith says:

      The Word is the standard. Allow me to unfold this a little.
      As Christians we believe Christ Jesus is an example of a mature man ( a perfect example, a standard of comparison). We learn through science that the conditions for life on earth is a very narrow band of possibilities. That band is narrowed even further to support humans. The human body without auxiliary aids can survive in only in a tiny temperature range (in comparison to the temperature ranges found in the universe). The human body is sustained by nutrients derived primarily from other living creatures (both plant and animal). It is incapable of ingesting raw minerals with extremely few exceptions to fuel or repair itself.
      Leading me to accept that this planet was designed for human occupancy.
      Albert Einstein sought a formula that could used to describe our universe because he recognized the universe existed within boundaries that could be predicted mathematically. If math can be used to predict the universe, then there is proof of a universal standard in its creation.
      Architectural and mechanical drawings use a standard of measurement throughout. In the United States we use imperial measurements. Other countries use other standards. If the wrong standard is applied to drawings the result is chaos.
      If the standard of measurement in the design of the planet and life on the planet is man. We look to the stars and conceive other planets could exist with these exact conditions believing them not unique, but extremely rare through the infinity of the universe.
      This scripture addresses that concept:
      John 1:2-3 Common English Bible
      The Word was with God in the beginning.
      Everything came into being through the Word,
      and without the Word
      nothing came into being.

      But man is more than a physical being. We are comprised of both molecules and spirit.
      1 Corinthians 15:44 Amplified Bible
      it is sown a natural body [mortal, suited to earth], it is raised a spiritual body
      [immortal, suited to heaven]. As surely as there is a physical body, there is also a
      spiritual body.
      Once again Jesus Christ is the standard with both physical and spiritual bodies. He is also our standard of maturity of character.
      2 Corinthians 3:17-18 Amplified Bible
      Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty
      [emancipation from bondage, true freedom]. And we all, with unveiled face,
      continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being
      transformed into His image from [one degree of] glory to [even more] glory, which
      comes from the Lord, [who is] the Spirit.

  6. Phil Covington says:

    The “Word” is….”I Am” ! THE theological term God uses to identify Himself ….or Him Self or maybe Him-Self, using your “linguistic logic”!
    To succinctly summarize……The Word is Jesus Christ !!!

  7. Carter Bise says:

    “In the Beginning Was the Word:” In my young and callow days, I studied linguistics. At that time, whether written as two (or more) clusters of letters separated by spaces, or just one, such as “birthday,” the determining factor as to whether it was one word or not, such as “wedding day” was whether a modifier could frequently be inserted. So “wedding day” would be considered one word, such as “attorney general” or “mother superior.”

  8. Rev. Belec says:

    i don’t think it is appropriate that the scripture used to present this thought is one that describes the Lord Jesus Christ as the Word. Also, your quote of the scripture failed to capitalize the word Word as it is written in the Bible. Any other quote of scripture pertaining to a “text” or “writings” such as Ex. 34:27 or Rev. 1:3 could and should have been considered. Please be mindful and consider these things in the future so as to always honor God and His Word. God Bless You!

Write a Reply or Comment

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


10 Responses

  1. Gavin Parkins says:

    Thank you for this illuminating article.
    John 1 vs 14 (kjv) immediately comes to mind. The blessed apostle I believe explains it for us beautifully in the Holy Scripture as the Holy Spirit inspired and intended. Praise God and His beloved Word, Yeshua HaMashiach. Blessings. Shalom.

  2. JGN says:

    If you substitute the word “information” for the word “word” in John 1:1 which is justifiably within the semantic domain of the Greek “logos,” you’re mind will explode with new understanding about creation especially with out modern understanding of the role of information in creation theories. Non-creationists cannot explain where the “information” came from. I think John did, he just didn’t have the modern scientific knowledge of the existence of information and it’s role in creation and DNA, for example.

    1. wdk says:

      At this point in time, have a similar comment still in moderation review. Mainly it is an exploration about “logos” and other possible translations. And in reviewing the question, I drew mainly from a scene in Goethe’s “Faust”, where the protagonist was struggling over the same question. Reading when I was young and before starting to do “coding” myself, it was only years later that such abstract alternatives for translation came to my mind: e.g.,
      logos, logic and code.

      This article, of course, is introduced with the first verses of the Gospel of John, but the “argument”, as it were, talks about “word” as a medium in a different sense. So, it is understandable how some of our responses would be about the alphabet’s origin and evolution – and others about that introductory verse itself. And at that, the question posed: did miners or “sophisticates” invent “alphabet”? In either case, the inventors likely were both using something else prior (e.g., hieroglyphics) and did a substitution. But I have no quarrel really with the notion that spacing of letters for words was a significant development too.

      A remaining issue with the introductory verse, however, is the fact that so much of our dispute about its meaning is based on the nature of the English and the Roman Latin languages. In other “words”, not all language translations from New Testament Greek select “word” for the nearest equivalent to logos. And when it comes to the question of whether there is supposed to be a Capital spelling of the original, as some have suggested, can it be found in the earliest parchment copies?

      Perhaps the dilemma began with Jerome’s translation of the Greek to Latin around the fourth century. The eastern part of the Roman empire would remain speaking Greek – and principal theologians in the West such as Augustine of Hippo would often rely on translations into Latin to frame their own thoughts. Jerome chose “verbum” which in English we denote as “word”, but the derivative English noun “verb” designates words that describe action: run, jump, swim, eat, sleep…. Martin Luther had a similar decision to make and chose “Wort” or word. What “le verbe” might mean or imply in 16th century French, I pass on that to others.

      But once such a choice is made by a translator, the theologian who subsequently cites the text, will have to chose his or her own words carefully in explaining it. Similarly, looking at a concordance of the NT, for logos, seldom is this word applied as much other than word. At least in clear terms to the English reader. Yet in contexts such as the Word given from above in evangelical activities in the various NT books, one could well imagine that it could mean (imply?) a plan or code in many other verses as well. So if we resolve this one case one way or another, we might have to address many more possible instances.

  3. Charles Addo says:

    I note the subtle ways in which the New Testament is trivialized.
    To us Christians, the Word is JESUS CHRIST, the CRUCiFIED and RISEN LORD.
    No amount of academic/intellectual argument will change that. The Bible is the INSPIRED word of the LIVING GOD

  4. Charles says:

    I see the subtle ways in which the New testament is sometimes trivialized. The Bible and every word in it came by inspiration. Whatever your view (academic), the WORD is CHrIST the Son of GOD!

  5. David Smith says:

    When discussing “word” esp as translated from the gospel of John, can one actually omit “logos” and the Greek pursuit of logos? Perhaps even Albert Einstein’s search for a unified field theory should be mentioned.
    I certainly agree the current concept of “word” is woefully inadequate to understand its ancient meanings.

    1. David Smith says:

      The Word is the standard. Allow me to unfold this a little.
      As Christians we believe Christ Jesus is an example of a mature man ( a perfect example, a standard of comparison). We learn through science that the conditions for life on earth is a very narrow band of possibilities. That band is narrowed even further to support humans. The human body without auxiliary aids can survive in only in a tiny temperature range (in comparison to the temperature ranges found in the universe). The human body is sustained by nutrients derived primarily from other living creatures (both plant and animal). It is incapable of ingesting raw minerals with extremely few exceptions to fuel or repair itself.
      Leading me to accept that this planet was designed for human occupancy.
      Albert Einstein sought a formula that could used to describe our universe because he recognized the universe existed within boundaries that could be predicted mathematically. If math can be used to predict the universe, then there is proof of a universal standard in its creation.
      Architectural and mechanical drawings use a standard of measurement throughout. In the United States we use imperial measurements. Other countries use other standards. If the wrong standard is applied to drawings the result is chaos.
      If the standard of measurement in the design of the planet and life on the planet is man. We look to the stars and conceive other planets could exist with these exact conditions believing them not unique, but extremely rare through the infinity of the universe.
      This scripture addresses that concept:
      John 1:2-3 Common English Bible
      The Word was with God in the beginning.
      Everything came into being through the Word,
      and without the Word
      nothing came into being.

      But man is more than a physical being. We are comprised of both molecules and spirit.
      1 Corinthians 15:44 Amplified Bible
      it is sown a natural body [mortal, suited to earth], it is raised a spiritual body
      [immortal, suited to heaven]. As surely as there is a physical body, there is also a
      spiritual body.
      Once again Jesus Christ is the standard with both physical and spiritual bodies. He is also our standard of maturity of character.
      2 Corinthians 3:17-18 Amplified Bible
      Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty
      [emancipation from bondage, true freedom]. And we all, with unveiled face,
      continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being
      transformed into His image from [one degree of] glory to [even more] glory, which
      comes from the Lord, [who is] the Spirit.

  6. Phil Covington says:

    The “Word” is….”I Am” ! THE theological term God uses to identify Himself ….or Him Self or maybe Him-Self, using your “linguistic logic”!
    To succinctly summarize……The Word is Jesus Christ !!!

  7. Carter Bise says:

    “In the Beginning Was the Word:” In my young and callow days, I studied linguistics. At that time, whether written as two (or more) clusters of letters separated by spaces, or just one, such as “birthday,” the determining factor as to whether it was one word or not, such as “wedding day” was whether a modifier could frequently be inserted. So “wedding day” would be considered one word, such as “attorney general” or “mother superior.”

  8. Rev. Belec says:

    i don’t think it is appropriate that the scripture used to present this thought is one that describes the Lord Jesus Christ as the Word. Also, your quote of the scripture failed to capitalize the word Word as it is written in the Bible. Any other quote of scripture pertaining to a “text” or “writings” such as Ex. 34:27 or Rev. 1:3 could and should have been considered. Please be mindful and consider these things in the future so as to always honor God and His Word. God Bless You!

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