The Cedars of Lebanon, in the mountains near Hasroun, Lebanon, courtesy of Ina Rihani and Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church, Washington, D. C.

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 trade, conquering tribes, and migration. For example, the Patriarch Abraham with God's blessing migrated from the land of Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 11:31) and built an altar to the Lord at Shechem in Canaan (Genesis 12:7). He 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).

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, which were written on papyrus.

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 the Phoenician alphabet 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.

Phoenicia is the name given to those city-states that grew on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and were identified as centers of 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 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 colonies in Cyprus, Carthage, Sicily, Sardinia, and through the Straits of Gibraltar to Cadiz on the Atlantic coast of Spain and Lixus on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.

The Phoenician Alphabet, circa 1400-1250 BC.

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 source 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!

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. 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. 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 Greek Alphabet.

Looking to the Levant, Hebrew was the original language of the Israelites. 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. Furthermore, no original manuscript by the author of any biblical book has yet been discovered! 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 adopted the square script alphabet of Imperial Aramaic, known as Ketav Ashuri, probably at the time of Ezra.

The Hebrew Alphabet adopted from the Imperial Aramaic Alphabet.

Aram was a son of Shem (Genesis 10:22). The Arameans were associated with Damascus and the surrounding region of Syria. Recent excavations on the northern coast of Syria discovered the ancient city of Ugarit, a city of prominence around 1400 BC. A highly developed form of cuneiform 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 in the thirteenth century BC. The Arameans of Damascus survived well into the first millennium BC, and eventually modified the Phoenician alphabet for their own language. While the Arameans suffered multiple invasions from Assyria and Babylonia, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Middle East beginning 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 Targums, translations of Hebrew Scripture, were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the Genesis Apocryphon and the Targums of Job and Leviticus. Jesus Christ and his Apostles spoke Aramaic. Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, became the biblical and liturgical language of the early Christian Churches in the Levant. A Syriac writing in Estrangelo script of St. Ephrem's Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels composed circa 170 AD, was recently discovered by Sir Chester Beatty in 1957 from the Coptic Monastery of Deir es-Suriani in Wadi Natrun, Egypt.

The Estrangelo (called Estrangela in the Chaldean Churches) script of the Syriac Aramaic alphabet, noted 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 Estrangelo for the Antiochene Churches, and a third script of Eastern Syriac known as Madnhaya for the Chaldean Churches.  A fourth Syriac script known as Karshuni (or Garshuni) was later employed for copying Arabic texts.

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 and to date is the oldest discovered inscription in Classical Arabic. Arabic is the most recent evolution of the alphabet in the Middle East. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters. Arabic expresses the original sounds of the Phoenician alphabet and was 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 centuries AD. Arabic became prominent with the rise of Islam in the seventh century AD. The Arabic language is now the universal language of the Arabic world. It may have been in Muslim Spain, Al-Andalus, that the first known translation of the complete Bible into Arabic was done by Bishop John of Seville circa 750. An Arabic Bible was discovered at St. Catherine monastery at Mount Sinai in Egypt dated 867 AD. In their liturgy and sacred books, both Eastern Christian Churches as well as Islamic faiths share the expressive language of Arabic.

The Arabic Alphabet.

Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic are all examples of 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.

Jesus Christ commissioned his Apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), and was the first to evangelize the Gentiles on his visit to Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24-30). Following his Conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9), Paul traveled to Arabia and then returned to Damascus, Syria, where he lived for three years (Galatians 1:17-18). St. Paul later stayed a week in Tyre after his return from his third missionary journey (Acts 21:2-3), and also stopped in Sidon on his fourth missionary trip to Rome (Acts 27:3). Sidon and Tyre were part of Phoenicia during the life of Jesus of Nazareth.


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2 Sanford Holst. Phoenicians - Lebanon's Epic Heritage. Cambridge & Boston Press, Los Angeles, California, 2005.
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5 Giovanni Garbini. "The Question of the Alphabet," in Sabatino Moscati (ed): The Phoenicians. (London: IB Taurus, 2001), 101-119.
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11 Evans CA. Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Holman Quick Source Reference, Nashville, Tennessee, 2010.
12 Brown RE, Fitzmeyer JA, Murphy RE (eds): The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990), 1083-1112.
13 Richard A. Taylor. "The Book of Daniel in the Bible of Edessa," Aramaic Studies 5:2 (July 2007): 239-253.
14 D. C. Parker. New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 64-79.
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16 McCarthy, Carmel. "St. Ephrem's Syriac Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron." Journal of Early Christian Studies 4:2 (Summer 1996): 260-263.
17 James A. Bellamy. "A New Reading of the Namarah Inscription," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Volume 105, No. 1 (1985): 31-51.
18 Hikmat Kashouh. The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and Their Families (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2011), 17-37, 319-332.
19 Irfan Shahid. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century. (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2006), 196-199, 520-548.
20 Henry S. Gehman. "The Arabic Bible in Spain." Speculum, Medieval Academy of America, Volume I, No. 2 (April, 1926): 219-221.
21 Mourad Diouri. Read and Write Arabic Script. London: Hodder Education, 2011.

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