Writing in the Ancient Near East – an Excerpt from Reading the Historical Books

Cover ArtThe following is an excerpt from Reading the Historical Books, by Patricia Dutcher-Walls.

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Writing was an activity developed in the ancient Near East around 3000 BCE, starting with cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Hieroglyphic writing systems used pictograms to represent ideas and consonantal parts of words, and cuneiform used wedge-shaped impressions to create signs denoting syllables or consonantal parts of words.

Writing using an alphabetic system of signs that designate letters making up a word was developed by the Phoenicians and then the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE. Ancient Hebrew developed from the Canaanite alphabet.

Literacy in the ancient world was probably limited to members of the upper classes and to scribes employed by royal, administrative, and temple institutions. Writing reflected the needs of administrative officials to keep track of transactions like sales, taxes, lists, and personal or official letters. Writing also allowed the development of “literature” in the form of royal and religious public inscriptions, private documents, and religious literature.

Many people in lower classes probably had at best only functional literacy, enough to write or recognize their names and a few words for social and economic transactions. Most would have functioned in an oral world where memoirs, prayers, hymns, proverbs, and stories were memorized and handed down to the next generations. However, there were probably connections and overlaps between the oral and written cultures, one continuing to influence the other as both developed. And the public reading of official, royal, or religious documents, or visible writing on walls, buildings, and monuments, would have communicated information and values to an illiterate populace.

©2014 by Patricia Dutcher-Walls. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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