from pictogram to cuneiformThe earliest writing (in Mesopotamia and Egypt) was either through stylized pictures, "pictograms", or by combinations of wedge marks in clay, called "cuneiform" (meaning wedge shaped). Cuneiform seems to have developed from a system of pictograms like Egyptian "hieroglyphs" or at least "ideograms" (symbols which represent concepts). However unlike Egyptian both became more stylized allowing quicker easier imprinting on clay and developed into a system representing syllables. This was a significant advance because then for the first time any sentence or idea could be expressed and preserved in writing.

Many thousands of documents on clay have been discovered using this system, most in Akkadian or Sumerian, languages of Mesopotamia (where cuneiform originated) but some from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) in a Canaanite dialect close to Hebrew. These use the symbols to represent consonants - the "liver omen" above illustrates this.

The Development of the Alphabet

About the time of the biblical patriarchs, a simple system of symbols representing sounds that could be written with pen, brush or scratching tool was invented in Palestine. From this alphabet the old Hebrew Script developed. During the period of Persian rule, when Aramaic was the official language of the empire, the old script was replaced by the related Square Script found in Hebrew Bibles today. These scripts are the ancestors of the alphabets used in Europe and Western Asia.

Writing could be carved on stone. We have "stelae" (stone slabs) and other inscriptions such as the one recording the cutting of Hezekiah's water tunnel in Jerusalem. Stone inscriptions were meant to last (Job 19:24). Sheets of wood and metal were also used, e.g. the miniature tenth-sixth century prayer scroll found in Jerusalem in 1979 which seems to be engraved with the priestly blessing from Num 6:24-26. Leather and papyrus, though still expensive, were easier and more portable! Black ink was made from soot, and red and yellow have also been found. Broken pieces of pottery, "ostraca", were a cheaper and more common material for notes and records as well as school exercises, e.g. the letters found at Lachish from the time of the fall of Jerusalem are well known and record the correspondence of the military governor with the king.)


The Semitic languages were usually written without marks to indicate the vowels. At a fairly late date (as spoken Hebrew became less common) signs were added below and above the letters to indicate the appropriate vowels. These marks are called "pointing". Since they were a later addition to the text, changes to the vowels are of less significance than changes to the consonants. The Masoretic scribes, who took great pains to protect the consonants even if they believed them erroneous, were able to correct vowel signs.

This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.