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Excavations and discoveries of the last hundred years have revealed an unexpected wealth of literary activity in Palestine and Syria. Several different writing systems were invented there during the second millennium B.C., and even foreign systems of writing such as the cuneiform script were in use as well. Here also, presumably, the first step was taken in the transition from complex writing systems with hundreds of letters to the alphabet, that simplest of all forms of writing, with only some twenty-odd letters — a step so significant for human intellectual history. All this was certainly not without significance for the formation of the Old Testament, and must receive due recognition in any consideration of the roles of oral and written tradition among the Israelites and the Jews. We can only allude to this in passing, limiting ourselves here to some comments on those systems of writing which were directly related to the initial writing of the biblical texts and their continuing transmission.
All the manuscripts and fragments of the Hebrew Old Testament which have come down to us from Jewish sources, from the earliest examples, e.g., the Qumran texts (cf. pp. 31f.) and the Nash Papyrus, are with few exceptions written in the script still in use today known as the square script ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or the Assyrian script ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) from its place of origin. This script was in general use in the time of Jesus: the allusion to the letter yod as the smallest of the alphabet (Matt. 5:18) would be true only of the square script. This script was derived by a gradual process of development from the Aramaic script which was used extensively (pl. 5). The earliest recorded examples are the 'Araq el-Emir inscription in East Jordan from the fourth or early third century B.C. and the earliest Qumran fragments from about 200 B.C. (4QSamb and 4QJera). The Jews were aware, however, that this script was not their earliest. One Jewish tradition attributes its introduction to Ezra, about 430 B.C. The later rabbis were embarrassed by the implication that it was a postexilic innovation. Accordingly they told how the Torah was first given in the square script, but because of Israel's sin the script had been changed, and then in Ezra's time the original form was restored. Although this was obviously special pleading and without any historical value, it clearly reflects the awareness of a change of script in the postexilic period. Most probably the Jews' gradual adoption of the Aramaic language, the lingua franca of the ancient Near East, was followed by their adoption of the Aramaic script, so that by inference it was in this script that the sacred writings were first written, and only eventually in the square script which developed from it.
When the earlier parts of the Old Testament were first written down in the preexilic period, another script was in use in Palestine and Syria. This was the Phoenician-Old Hebrew script, the ancestor of all the alphabets of past and present. It is known to us in a later, more developed form in a series of texts, the earliest dating from the eleventh or tenth century. The best-known examples are: the abecedary ostracon from Izbet —aròah (eleventh century B.C.; pl. 49), the Ahiram sarcophagus from Byblos (ca. 1000 B.C.), the farmer's calendar from Gezer (ca. 950), the Moabite stone (ca. 840; pl. 2), ostraca from Samaria (ink on clay, eighth century), a palimpsest papyrus from Murabba'at (eighth or seventh century), the Siloam inscription (ca. 700; pl. 3), and ostraca from Lachish (ca. 588; pl. 4) and Arad (sixth century).
Its origins must lie far earlier than any of the examples yet discovered. Early examples of alphabetical inscriptions include the Sinai script found in a group of inscriptions in the mines of Serabiò el-Hadem on the Sinai peninsula and dated by William F. Albright ca. 1500, the (related?) proto-Palestinian script found on artifacts from middle and southern Palestine of the period from 1700 to 1200 B.C. (Gezer, Lachish, Shechem, etc.; pl. 1), and the cuneiform alphabet of Ugarit in north Syria, ca. 1400 B.C. There is no need to discuss here the relationship of these scripts to the Phoenician-Old Hebrew script and the later square script, because it is still largely a prehistory, obscure in its details. Deciphering the scripts, except for Ugaritic, is still at the beginning stages. Only the Phoenician-Old Hebrew script and the later square script are directly related to the earliest written forms of the Old Testament texts and to their preservation as written documents. We need only observe here that when the Israelites settled in Palestine they found in the Phoenician alphabet (although without vowels) a script which was easy to learn and required hardly any improvement; more than four hundred references in the Old Testament attest that the art of writing was widely practiced in Israel.
The transition from the Old Hebrew script to the square script occurred between the fourth and second centuries B.C. — it is impossible to be more precise. For a long while the Old Hebrew script remained in use beside the square script. The coins of the period of Bar Kochba's revolt (A.D. 132-135) bear Old Hebrew letters. Among the texts found in the Dead Sea caves are some written in the Old Hebrew script. "This script ... derives from the old pre-exilic Hebrew script. Apparently it survived as a book hand and enjoyed a renascence in the period of Maccabean nationalism and archaism. In any case, at Qumrân it appears in documents contemporary with the Jewish hand." Jewish accounts in the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud imply that although manuscripts of the Bible in the old script were still circulating in the first two centuries of the Christian era, they were ascribed an inferior degree of holiness — they did not "defile the hands" levitically as did scrolls written in the square script. And yet for a while the Old Hebrew script must have been regarded as especially holy. This would at least explain a peculiar feature of some recently discovered texts: in the Habakkuk Commentary (pl. 13), the Hodayoth, and the Psalm scroll from Cave 11 (11QPsa), the square script is used except for the divine name [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and both [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which are written in Old Hebrew. Again, the Tetragram is found in Old Hebrew letters in a fragmentary leather scroll containing the Greek text of the Minor Prophets which was discovered in August 1952 by Bedouin at Nahal Hever in the Judean desert (cf. p. 192). It was probably written between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50, and confirms Origen's account of the treatment of divine names, that in the more careful copies of the Greek Old Testament the Old Hebrew script was used for the Tetragram. As late as the fifth century A.D. the divine name was written in Old Hebrew letters in a fragment of Aquila's Greek version.
The Samaritans (pl. 27), who contrary to traditional beliefs (cf. p. 45) did not separate themselves from the Jews completely until the Hasmonean period, also preserved their sacred book, the Torah, in Old Hebrew script, probably because they claimed to preserve the older and purer tradition, and they may have regarded the introduction of the new script as a flagrant innovation.
2. Writing Materials
Many different kinds of material were used for writing in biblical times. Job wished his words were chiseled in stone (Job 19:24); and the successful achievement of the tunnel of Siloam (pl. 3) in the late eighth century B.C. was recorded on the smooth surface of a rock in an inscription discovered in 1880. We read in Exod 34:1 of stone tablets with the commandments of God written on them, and in Deut. 27:2f. stones were covered with a plaster on which letters were presumably painted. Wooden tablets for brief notes may be intended when the prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk were instructed to record their oracles on tablets (Isa. 30:8; Hab. 2:2; perhaps also Isa. 8:1). The clay tablets so popular in the rest of the ancient Near East were ideal for the straight lines of cuneiform script, but hardly adapted to the curved lines of the Hebrew script. But the excavations in Palestine demonstrate that potsherds or ostraca (pl. 4) inscribed with ink were as popular there as elsewhere for routine daily matters. While excavating Tell ed-Duweir (ancient Lachish) in 1935, archaeologists found some ostraca in a room by the city gate which proved to be military dispatches from the last years of Judah, ca. 588 B.C. It has already been suggested that individual prophetic statements, proverbs, and the like may have been written on such potsherds before they were collected into books. While this could well account for the lack of continuity found in the order of some biblical books, it remains only a theoretical possibility.
An example of writing material unparalleled elsewhere is the copper scroll found in Qumran Cave I; it does not contain a biblical text.
The materials mentioned above were appropriate only for texts of very limited length, and would be relevant only to the earlier stages of the formation of our biblical books. Papyrus and leather were more suitable materials for extensive books; these must be intended where the Old Testament refers to a scroll, whether [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or simply [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Jer. 36:2ff.; Ezek. 2:9; 3:1-3; Zech. 5:1f.; Ps. 40:8), because only these are adapted to the scroll format.
Papyrus was already being used in Egypt in the third millennium B.C. We know from the famous travel narrative of the Egyptian Wen Amon (ca. 1090 B.C.) that this convenient material was exported from Egypt to Phoenicia in exchange for wood. We may infer from the fact that Wen Amon took with him five hundred scrolls of fine grade papyrus (several qualities were distinguished) that the commodity was being manufactured commercially. Egypt was later to be the source of supply for the whole Mediterranean world. Papyrus was made from the stem of the papyrus reed. It was cut into thin strips. Avertical layer was placed upon a horizontal layer; the two were pressed together (the natural gum provided adequate bonding), dried, and rubbed smooth. The sheet was then ready for use. A number of sheets could be glued together to form a scroll of a desired length. The Israelites wrote on such scrolls in columns, from right to left. Usually the inner side of the scroll (recto) with its horizontal grain was used for texts, but some scrolls were inscribed on both sides (cf. Ezek. 2:10). It was probably a papyrus scroll which Baruch wrote on at Jeremiah's dictation, and which King Jehoiakim burned in the open brazier sheet by sheet (Jer. 36). On the whole, the use of papyrus must have been quite common in Palestine. It was cheap and more durable than has generally been recognized, "at least as durable as the best hand-made paper, if not more so." But of course favorable climate and soil, as in the desert sands of Egypt, were required for it to survive through the centuries. This is why very few papyrus fragments have been discovered thus far in Palestine, such as those found in the caves of Qumran and Murabba'at (cf. pp. 31, 146), where the conditions were suitable for their preservation. Among these were found only a few with biblical texts (e.g., Kings and Daniel, and pap4Q Isap, pap6Q Ps, pap7Q GrGen).
The palimpsest of Murabba'at deserves mention as the earliest known Hebrew papyrus, ascribed to the eighth (Milik) or seventh (Frank M. Cross, John C. L. Gibson, and others) century B.C. The almost illegible underwriting seems to be a letter, while the overwriting seems to be a list of persons.
As a writing material, it was not until later that leather came to play as important a role in Palestine as it did elsewhere in the Near East. Its durability gave it an advantage over papyrus that made it an ideal material for writings which were intended for long or constant use. Jewish regulations still require that a copy of the Torah intended for liturgical use be written on leather made from a clean animal, and this surely represents an ancient usage. The Letter of Aristeas, at the end of the second century B.C., alludes to a magnificent Torah scroll with gold writing on leather (parchment?); and the Isaiah scroll found in 1947 (pl. 10, 11) provides an actual example of an ancient biblical scroll which is not much later than this literary evidence. It comprises seventeen sheets of carefully prepared leather (not parchment, as often stated). These were sewn together to make a scroll 7.34 m. long (26 cm. wide). It contains all sixty-six chapters of Isaiah in fifty-four columns, averaging thirty lines of 12.8 cm. width. The lines were marked in the leather with a dull knife, also in accordance with Jewish regulations. This scroll and others found with it were wrapped in linen and sealed in clay jars (pl. 8) — a method of preservation mentioned in Jer. 32:14, and common also in Egypt.
From about 200 B.C. a special technique of treating leather (was lime mordant already known?) was used to produce parchment (Greek pergamon), named after the city of Pergamon in Asia Minor. This became the principal material for books from the fourth century on, and the dominant writing medium of the medieval period, while the use of papyrus declined. In contrast to the earlier materials, parchment offered great advantages. It is durable, with a smooth writing surface, accepting writing on both sides, and with a light color that lends clarity to the ink. It could be used several times by erasing the text; there are many examples of its use in palimpsests (literally "rescraped," Latin codex rescriptus = a rewritten book; pl. 34, 42). The material of the important fragments from the Cairo Geniza (cf. pp. 11, 34) was also parchment. Paper made its appearance beside parchment in the ninth century. Paper was invented in China in the first century A.D. or perhaps earlier, and by the eighth century the knowledge of its manufacture came first to the Near East through Chinese prisoners of war, and thence to Europe.
3. Scroll and Codex
The common book format of antiquity was the papyrus or leather scroll — a rather inconvenient form. It takes both hands to use it: one to hold the scroll (the left hand for Hebrew scrolls, because of the right-to-left script), while the other hand draws the sheets out slowly, column by column, and rolls them up again as they are read (cf. Latin volvere "to turn," whence volumen "volume" to designate a scroll). After a scroll has been read, it must be wound back on the original roller to prepare for its next use, with the first sheet on the outside again. We noted that the sixty-six chapters of Isaiah required a scroll about 7.5 m. long. For practical reasons a scroll could not be made much longer. Only in exceptional instances of very large scrolls with very small script could the entire Old Testament, or even several of its longer books, be included in a single scroll. Most of the biblical books circulated in separate scrolls, and in some instances, as in the Pentateuch, the division into books seems to have been made with the normal capacity of a scroll in view.
It was the invention of the codex in the first century A.D., and especially the parchment codex, that made it possible to produce many or all of the books of the Bible in a single volume. Remains of papyrus codices (pl. 31, 32) containing Greek texts of the Old and New Testament books have survived from the second and third centuries A.D. In the fourth century the codex came into common use. The scroll did not disappear completely, but its importance diminished. The role of the Christian church in this development is of interest. It was the victory of the church which led to the dominance of the codex, which had been used by Christians from the beginning, over the scroll format. Scrolls came to be used only for official records and contracts, while the codex became the normal form for books. Its advantages over the scroll format are obvious: an increased ease of browsing and rapid reference, as well as the use of both sides of the sheet for texts. Even the Jews finally adopted the codex about A.D. 700 for reference works, retaining the use of leather and parchment scrolls for (unpointed!) copies of the Torah and of Esther designated for liturgical use. The majority of the fragments from the Cairo Geniza represent codices (cf. pp. 7, 11, 34); only a few are from scrolls.
Excerpted from THE TEXT of the OLD TESTAMENT by Ernst Würthwein Copyright © 1988 by Württembergische Bibelanstalt Stuttgart. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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