Archeological discoveries continue to shed light on the mystery of the origin of the alphabet. The earliest form of written language is thought to originate from the Semitic countries. The word Semitic comes from the name Shem, named in Genesis (6:10) as the son of Noah, whose descendants lived in the Middle East. While pieces of the puzzle have yet to fall in place, there appears to be an evolution of the alphabet through the ages. It is believed that languages spread through migration, trade, and conquering tribes. For example, Terah took his family from the Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, Syria (Genesis 11:31). His son Abram with God's blessing migrated to Canaan and built an altar to the Lord at Shechem in Canaan (Genesis 12:7). Abraham purchased land at Hebron in Canaan to bury his wife Sara (Genesis 23:16), and was later buried next to his wife in Hebron by his sons Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 25:9). 1
The two earliest forms of writing were the cuneiform script of the city-states (Uruk and Ur) of Sumer in Mesopotamia, and the hieroglyphs of Egypt. The cuneiform or wedge-shaped script of the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia is dated circa 3200 BC. Cuneiform script was inscribed into wet clay which hardened into tablets. The hieroglyphic script of Egypt is dated circa 3000 BC, and is largely pictorial in nature with over 2000 symbols written on papyrus. Hieratic was a cursive form of hieroglyphics developed about the same time for priestly writings. 2
A new type of script with about 90-100 signs, documented by ten monumental inscriptions in stone and bronze, dated as early as circa 2000 BC, was unearthed in Byblos from 1928 to 1932 by Maurice Dunand, and is known as the Byblos Syllabary or the Proto-Byblian script. Byblos, Phoenicia (now Lebanon) was known as Gebal in ancient times, as recorded in Joshua 13:5 of the Bible. While the script suggests Egyptian influence, the symbols present syllables rather than pictures, and is likely a precursor of the Phoenician alphabet. The Byblos writings were a linear and horizontal script and written from right to left as the Phoenician alphabet. A bronze spatula found at the site bears two inscriptions, on one side Phoenician letters and on the other side the Proto-Byblian script. A syllabary is a set of written symbols in which each character represents a syllable, for example, a consonant sound followed by a vowel sound.
The sarcophagus of Ahiram, King of Byblos about 1250 BC, was unearthed by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet in 1923. The inscription on the tomb was written in the Phoenician script of Byblos and to date is the earliest witness of considerable length to the Phoenician alphabet. 3
Phoenicia is the name given to those city-states that flourished on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and were identified as centers of maritime trade in ancient times. Families began to inhabit the land around Byblos about 6000 BC. The Phoenicians were a peaceful, seafaring people expert in navigation and trade, and, beginning around 3200 BC, were the first to explore the Mediterranean Sea in boats made of cedar. Protected by the mountains of Lebanon from warring nations, they were able to differentiate from their Canaanite neighbors and form a distinct culture and society, although they still called themselves Canaanites! Byblos, Tyre (2750 BC), and Sidon became main centers of commerce. In the Late Bronze Age (1550 to 1200 BC), Byblos, Tyre, and Ugarit served as trading hubs linking Egypt, Mycenae in Greece, and Mesopotamia. In the ninth century BC, the Phoenician language extended as far north as Cilicia in Asia Minor. Between the ninth and sixth centuries BC, the naval proficiency of the Phoenician mariners established the first trading system to encompass the entire Mediterranean from their homeland, in what is now Lebanon, to their colonies in Cyprus, Carthage, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Tangier, and through the Straits of Gibraltar to Cadiz on the Atlantic coast of Spain and Lixus on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. 4
The Phoenicians developed the alphabet circa 1400-1250 BC in order to communicate with the diverse cultures and tongues of their maritime trading partners. It was the Phoenician alphabet that was widely received and readily adapted in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean world, as it was only 22 letters based on sound, as opposed to the myriad of symbols in cuneiform and hieroglyphics prevalent at the time. The words phonic and phonetic have the same root as the word Phoenicia.
The word Bible, which means "the book," is derived from the city of Byblos, which was a trading center for papyrus, the writing material for early books. The legend of the Phoenix, the bird consumed by fire only to regenerate, is based upon the Phoenician people, whose land was occupied and towns destroyed many times by warlike peoples, only to regenerate time and again. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus of Greece, the Father of Historical Studies, was the one that named the seafarers the Phoenicians, the name that has stayed with them to this day. The Greek language spelled the word Φοινίκης or phoinikes. The Romans spelled it phoenix! 4-5
The Greek alphabet contains 24 letters. A major contribution of Greek culture was the addition of vowels to the development of our alphabet. Greek is written from left to right as Latin, the Romance and English languages. The form of Greek used by writers from Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey) about 700 BC to Plato (The Republic) in 360 BC, is called Classical Greek. There were three dialects to classical Greek, Doric, Aeolic, and Ionic (of which Attic is a derivation). Alexander the Great, who was tutored by Aristotle, spoke Attic Greek and swept through the Middle East in 332 BC and founded the city of Alexandria, Egypt, spreading the Greek language throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Thus began the Hellenistic Age. Hebrew Scripture was translated into Greek in Alexandria in the third century BC and became known as the Greek Septuagint Old Testament, which recorded the name of God - Θεός - Theos in Genesis 1:1. A common Greek language arose among the people and became known as Koine Greek (κοινή, the word meaning "common"). Greek in the Holy Land was heavily interpenetrated by native Semitic languages, such as Aramaic and Hebrew. The Codex Sinaiticus from St. Catherine Monastery in Sinai, Egypt is the oldest Greek manuscript of the Christian Bible presently available. The parchment contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament and is dated from the mid-fourth century AD. 6-7
Further differentiation led to the Latin alphabet, the origin of our modern Western alphabet. The Etruscans were the first known settlers of the Italian Peninsula and modified the Greek alphabet. Bilingual inscriptions of Etruscan with Phoenician, Greek, or Latin have been discovered. The Latin alphabet was derived from the Etruscan alphabet during the Roman Empire and contained 23 of our letters. Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage were the first to quote Latin texts of Scripture in the third century AD until Jerome published his Latin New Testament in 384 AD and the Old Testament by 405, forming the Latin Vulgate Bible. The name of God - Deus - first appears in Matthew 1:23 in the New Testament. The expansion of the Latin alphabet to accommodate the various languages of Europe eventually followed the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, whose first composition was the Latin Vulgate Bible in 1456. The letter I expressed both the letters I and J in the Latin alphabet. The letter J was added to designate consonantal I - as in Jesus, Joshua, and Justinian - and thus distinguish the sound from the vowel I. Likewise the letter V expressed both vowel and consonant. The letter U was added to represent the vowel, leaving V for the consonant. The letter W signified the "double U" evident in the time of Charlemagne to form our modern 26-letter Western alphabet. 8
Looking to the Levant, Hebrew was the original language of the Israelites. In contrast to other ancient civilizations, Hebrew Scripture (Genesis 2:4) referred to one God, the Lord God of Israel - Yahweh Elohim - יהוה אֱלֹהִים . Hebrew tradition, the Torah itself, as well as Jesus and the New Testament writers name Moses as the divinely inspired author or originator of the Torah or Pentateuch. It is believed that Moses lived in the latter part of the second millenium BC (1450-1200 BC). Archeology has yet to discover the precise time that Moses lived and led his people during the Exodus from Egypt, or the actual script utilized by Moses to write the Torah. The Hebrew alphabet known as Ketav Ivri or Paleo-Hebrew was identical to the Phoenician alphabet above and written from right to left. The Hebrew language fell under the influence of Aramaic during the Babylonian Exile and adopted the square script alphabet of Imperial Aramaic, known as Ketav Ashuri. Tradition holds that Ezra adopted the Aramaic square script alphabet in place of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet during the post-exilic Restoration of Israel in the fifth century BC. As the Aramaic alphabet became the Hebrew alphabet, Hebrew papyri and parchments were then primarily written in Aramaic script. The Alphabet of Biblical Hebrew available to us today is thus written in the Hebrew language with the adopted Imperial Aramaic alphabet. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet persists today solely with the Samaritans. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes confirms much of our knowledge about Hebrew Scripture. 9-11
Aramaic was modified from the Phoenician alphabet by the Arameans of Damascus and the surrounding regions of Syria. Aram was a son of Shem (Genesis 10:22). Recent excavations on the northern coast of Syria near Latakia discovered the ancient city-state of Ugarit. A developed form of script was uncovered in Ugarit which contained a cuneiform alphabet that consisted of thirty signs. Ugarit was destroyed by the invasion of the Sea Peoples circa 1200 BC, the advent of the Iron Age. The Arameans of Damascus survived well into the first millennium BC. While the Arameans suffered multiple invasions from Assyria and Babylonia, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Middle East about 700 BC. It remained predominant through the seventh century AD until the rise of Arabic, but persists even today in isolated villages in the Middle East. Aramaic Targumim, translations of Hebrew Scripture, were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the Genesis Apocryphon, the Targum of Job, and that of Leviticus. Jesus Christ and his Apostles spoke Aramaic. Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, became the biblical and liturgical language of early Christian Churches in Asia. The first noted script of Syriac Aramaic was the Estrangela script in the manuscripts of St. Ephrem of Edessa, Syria. Geographic differentiation produced a second script of Western Syriac called Serto, a simplified writing form of Estrangela for the Antiochene Churches, and a third script of Eastern Syriac known as Madnhaya for the Chaldean Churches. Garshuni, a fourth type of Syriac script, was employed to write the Arabic language. The following image represents the Syriac Estrangela script: 11-18
Arabic is the most recent evolution of the alphabet in the Middle East. The Nabataean script of Aramaic from Petra of Jordan was transitional to Arabic. The Namarah Inscription dated 328 AD was written in the Nabataean alphabet but in the Arabic language. The earliest inscription found in the Arabic alphabet was dated 512 AD, a trilingual one in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek at the Church of the Christian martyr St. Sergius in Zebed, near Aleppo, Syria; the Arabic writing included the name of God - Allah, now written as ﷲ. Arabic was the language of poets of nomadic tribes in oasis villages. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters. Arabic expressed the original sounds of the Phoenician alphabet and later expanded with the use of diacritical dots to further distinguish pronunciation. Gospel readings in Arabic were available in Church liturgies and likely translated from an old Syriac Vorlage in the late fifth or early sixth century AD. Following the life of Muhammad, Arabic became prominent with the rise of Islam and the publication of the Qur'an in the seventh century AD. The Arabic language unites the Arabic world from the Fertile Crescent and Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East through Northern Africa all the way to Morocco on the Atlantic coast. It may have been in Muslim Spain, Al-Andalus, that the first known translation of the Bible into Arabic was done by Bishop John of Seville circa 750. An Arabic Bible was discovered at St. Catherine Monastery at Mount Sinai dated 867 AD. In their liturgy and sacred books, both Eastern Christian Churches as well as Islamic faiths share the poetic language of Arabic. 19-25
Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic are all Semitic languages, which have similar characteristics, such as the presence of guttural letters formed in the pharynx or larynx; a consonantal system with three-letter word roots to connote meaning; and changes in the form or morphology of the word root through the addition of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes to determine the precise sense and function of the word. The letters are written from right to left, while numbers are written from left to right.
"And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
1 New American Bible, Revised Edition. Totowa, New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing, 2011.
2 Jackson Spielvogel. Western Civilization, Sixth Edition. (Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006), 11-38.
3 Giovanni Garbini. "The Question of the Alphabet," in Sabatino Moscati (ed): The Phoenicians. (London: IB Taurus, 2001), 101-119.
4 Maria Eugenia Aubet. The Phoenicians and the West, Second Edition. London: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
5 Sanford Holst. Phoenicians - Lebanon's Epic Heritage. Los Angeles, California: Cambridge & Boston Press, 2005.
6 William D. Mounce. Basics of Biblical Greek. Grammar and Workbook, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009.
7 Aland B, Aland K, Karavidopoulos J, Martini CM, Metzger B. The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition. New York: United Bible Societies, 1993.
8 Michael Rosen. Alphabetical - How Every Letter Tells A Story. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2015.
9 Menahem Mansoor. Biblical Hebrew - Step by Step, Volume One. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980; 24th Printing, 2007.
10 Thomas O. Lambdin. Introduction to Biblical Hebrew. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
11 Brown RE, Fitzmeyer JA, Murphy RE (eds): The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990), 1083-1112.
12 Craig A. Evans. Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Quick Source Reference, 2010.
13 Richard A. Taylor. "The Book of Daniel in the Bible of Edessa," Aramaic Studies 5:2 (July 2007): 239-253.
14 Joseph A. Fitzmyer. "Aramaic as a Language of Jesus," in A Wandering Aramean. (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1979), 6-10.
15 George A Kiraz. The New Syriac Primer. (Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2007), 231-240.
16 D. C. Parker. New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 64-79.
17 F. B. Chatonnet. "Syriac as the Language of Eastern Christianity," in Stefan Weninger (Ed): The Semitic Languages: an International Handbook (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 652-659.
18 Carmel McCarthy. "St. Ephrem's Syriac Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron," Journal of Early Christian Studies 4:2 (Summer 1996): 260-263.
19 James A. Bellamy. "A New Reading of the Namarah Inscription," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Volume 105, No. 1 (1985): 31-51.
20 Albert Hourani. A History of the Arab Peoples. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 12-14.
21 Hikmat Kashouh. The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and Their Families. (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2011), 17-37, 319-332.
22 Irfan Shahid. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century. (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2006), 196-199, 520-548.
23 Henry S. Gehman. "The Arabic Bible in Spain," Speculum, Medieval Academy of America, Volume I, No. 2 (April, 1926): 219-221.
24 The Arabic Bible of the Coptic Orthodox Church Network, Smith and Van Dyke translation, www.copticchurch.net
25 Kristen Brustad, M Al-Batal, A Al-Tonsi. Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds, Third Edition. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2010.