The Great Legacy of the Hebrew Bible
** Photo: The Codex Sassoon, believed to be the oldest complete Hebrew Bible dating back 1,100 years, is to be auctioned in May 2023 (cnet.com).**
By: David Parsons, Vice President & Senior Spokesman
When we consider the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, it all begins with the Scriptures we share in common – the Hebrew Bible. On this point, the Apostle Paul stated a simple yet enduring truth that “to them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2).
Indeed, all the Holy Scriptures we hold dear – both Old and New Testament – were written by Jews, operating under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As some have said, the Jews were God’s “scribes” in delivering His eternal Word to us.
Nearly every religion has sacred books, yet none are as old or have as much wisdom, truth, revelation, inspiration and accuracy as the amazing book we call the Bible. It is not only the most widely-read and best-selling book of all time, it is also the first holy book to be written using an alphabet.
In ancient times, the first written languages were pictorial in nature – such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mesopotamia cuneiform, and the Chinese language characters that have survived to this day. They all seemed to emerge independently in distant cultures around 5,000 years ago, using thousands of pictograms and marks to represent sounds, syllables or concepts used in the spoken languages of that day. And only the very learned could read, write and understand these vast arrays of symbols.
In contrast, scholars say our modern-day alphabets only began developing around 3,500 years ago, and there is mounting evidence that the first language to employ a small set of alphabetic letters was Hebrew.
The earliest alphabetic inscriptions ever found were in a proto-Semitic form and were discovered in 1905 by British archaeologist William Flinders Petrie on the walls of a cave in the Sinai. He proposed they were made by the Israelites as they journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. Then in 1916, a British Egyptologist named Alan Gardiner further concluded the Sinai cave inscriptions used an alphabet derived from shortened forms of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He and others have theorized that this early proto-Hebraic alphabet was developed around 2000 BC by Semitic peoples working or trading in Egypt in order to communicate better with the Egyptians.
The ICEJ screened a documentary film on this topic at a recent Feast of Tabernacles which credits the Hebrew patriarch Joseph – who is described as a wise man in Genesis 41:39 – with having developed this first alphabet to help his family understand their Egyptian hosts better (“Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy”, with Timothy Mahoney).
Unlike the older pictorial language scripts, the development of the alphabet seems to have only one point of origin, and all our modern alphabets descend from it. Interestingly, the word alphabet itself is derived from the first two letters of the Hebrew language: “aleph” and “bet”.
This was a revolutionary leap in the advancement of humanity – a language reduced to 22 letters that anyone could learn, allowing them to read and write just like the scribes and nobles.
By the time Israel reached Sinai, God delivered to them the Ten Commandments and all the Torah in an easy-to-use Hebrew script, with the repeated instructions to “teach them to your children” (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 4:9-10, 6:7, 11:19, 31:19). Isaiah adds: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.” (Isaiah 54:13)
Thus, Israel became the first nation not only to develop an alphabet, but also universal literacy among their people. In his commentary series on Exodus, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees this evidenced in the book of Judges, when Gideon “caught a young man of the men of Succoth and interrogated him; and he wrote down for him the leaders of Succoth and its elders, seventy-seven men” (Judges 8:14). Gideon rightly assumed this young Israelite could read and write.
If you want to know the secret why so many Jews are so learned and successful and win Nobel prizes, it is because they have always placed a premium on being a literate people, which arose from the Lord’s command to teach the Word of God to their children even from a young age. This has greatly separated the Jews from other peoples over the centuries. And it is a legacy they bequeathed to Christians, who also began to emphasize that everyone should learn to read and write at a young age, largely to be able to read the Bible.
So, if you want to explore the Hebraic roots of our Christian faith, start with a word of thanks to God and the Jewish people for the Bible itself and even for our own alphabets.
You can support the extensive ongoing work and witness of the ICEJ by helping to fund our core activities in Israel and around the world.