The art of writing must have been known in the time of the early Pharaohs. Moses is commanded "to write for a memorial in a book" ( Exodus 17:14 ) a record of the attack of Amalek. Frequent mention is afterwards made of writing ( Exodus 28:11 Exodus 28:21 Exodus 28:29 Exodus 28:36 ; 31:18 ; Exodus 32:15 Exodus 32:16 ; Exodus 34:1 Exodus 34:28 ; Exodus 39:6 Exodus 39:14 Exodus 39:30 ). The origin of this art is unknown, but there is reason to conclude that in the age of Moses it was well known. The inspired books of Moses are the most ancient extant writings, although there are written monuments as old as about B.C. 2000. The words expressive of "writing," "book," and "ink," are common to all the branches or dialects of the Semitic language, and hence it has been concluded that this art must have been known to the earliest Semites before they separated into their various tribes, and nations, and families.
"The Old Testament and the discoveries of Oriental archaeology alike tell us that the age of the Exodus was throughout the world of Western Asia an age of literature and books, of readers and writers, and that the cities of Palestine were stored with the contemporaneous records of past events inscribed on imperishable clay. They further tell us that the kinsfolk and neighbours of the Israelites were already acquainted with alphabetic writing, that the wanderers in the desert and the tribes of Edom were in contact with the cultured scribes and traders of Ma'in [Southern Arabia], and that the 'house of bondage' from which Israel had escaped was a land where the art of writing was blazoned not only on the temples of the gods, but also on the dwellings of the rich and powerful.", Sayce. (See DEBIR; PHOENICIA .)
The "Book of the Dead" was a collection of prayers and formulae, by the use of which the souls of the dead were supposed to attain to rest and peace in the next world. It was composed at various periods from the earliest time to the Persian conquest. It affords an interesting glimpse into the religious life and system of belief among the ancient Egyptians. We learn from it that they believed in the existence of one Supreme Being, the immortality of the soul, judgement after death, and the resurrection of the body. It shows, too, a high state of literary activity in Egypt in the time of Moses. It refers to extensive libraries then existing. That of Ramessium, in Thebes, e.g., built by Rameses II., contained 20,000 books.
When the Hebrews entered Canaan it is evident that the art of writing was known to the original inhabitants, as appears, e.g., from the name of the city Debir having been at first Kirjath-sepher, i.e., the "city of the book," or the "book town" ( Joshua 10:38 ; 15:15 ; Judges 1:11 ).
The first mention of letter-writing is in the time of David ( 2 Samuel 11:14 2 Samuel 11:15 ). Letters are afterwards frequently spoken of ( 1 Kings 21:8 1 Kings 21:9 1 Kings 21:11 ; 2 Kings 1 Kings 10:1 1 Kings 10:3 1 Kings 10:6 1 Kings 10:7 ; 19:14 ; 2 Chr. 21:12-15 ; 1 Kings 30:1 1 Kings 30:6-9 , etc.).
There is no account in the Bible of the origin of writing. That the Egyptians in the time of Joseph were acquainted with writing of a certain kind there is evidence to prove, but there is nothing to show that up to this period the knowledge extended to the Hebrew family. At the same time there is no evidence against it. Writing is first distinctly mentioned in ( Exodus 17:14 ) and the connection clearly implies that it was not then employed for the first time but was so familiar as to be used for historic records. It is not absolutely necessary to infer from this that the art of writing was an accomplishment possessed by every Hebrew citizen. If we examine the instances in which writing is mentioned in connection with individuals, we shall find that in all cases the writers were men of superior position. In ( Isaiah 29:11 Isaiah 29:12 ) there is clearly a distinction drawn between the man who was able to read and the man who was not, and it seems a natural inference that the accomplishments of reading and writing were not widely spread among the people, when we find that they are universally attributed to those of high rank or education-kings, priests, prophets and professional scribes. In the name Kirjathsepher (book-town ), ( Joshua 15:15 ) there is an indication of a knowledge of writing among the Phoenicians. The Hebrews, then, a branch of the great Semitic family, being in possession of the art of writing, according to their own historical records, at a very early period, the further questions arise, what character they made use of, and whence they obtained it. Recent investigations have shown that the square Hebrew character is of comparatively modern date, and has been formed from a more ancient type by a gradual process of development. What then was this ancient type? Most probably the Phoenician. Pliny was of opinion that letters were of Assyrian origin. Dioderus Siculus (v. 74) says that the Syrians invented letters, and from them the Phoenicians, having learned them transferred them to the Greeks. According to Tacitus (Ann. xi. 14,, Egypt was believed to be the source whence the Phoenicians got their knowledge. Be this as it may, to the Phoenicians, the daring seamen and adventurous colonizers of the ancient world the voice of tradition has assigned the honor of the invention of letters. Whether it came to them from an Aramean or an Egyptian source can at best he but the subject of conjecture. It may, however, be reasonably inferred that the ancient Hebrews derived from or shared with the Phoenicians the knowledge of writing and the use of letters. The names of the Hebrew letters indicate that they must have been the invention of a Shemitic people, and that they were moreover a pastoral people may be inferred from the same evidence. But whether or not the Phoenicians were the inventors of the Shemitic alphabet, there can be no doubt of their just claim to being its chief disseminators; and with this understanding we may accept the genealogy of alphabets as given by Gesenius, and exhibited in the accompanying table. The old Semitic alphabets may he divided into two principal classes: