Essays on Judaism

...and thoughts on Torah life

Boruch Clinton

Alphabet Goop

Archeology and the politics of ancient writing

Everyone admits that there's an obvious connection between the Greek and Hebrew alphabets (alpha, beta, gamma, delta etc. vs. aleph, bet, gimmel, deled etc). I think that everyone also admits that these two scripts had a common source and that one was "borrowed" from the other, probably by way of Phoenician merchants. It seems, however, that nearly all archaeologists feel that the Greeks had it first and, only centuries later, the ancient Jews copied it. From a practical perspective, if they're correct, there would have been no Hebrew script at the traditional time of the giving of the Torah (approximately 3300 years ago) and therefore, the claim that it was all written down (Deut. 31; 24 - "and it was when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a book until its end...") is false: there was nothing with which to write it down. The only conclusion one could draw from that is that the whole Torah is a fraud.

But, I once asked an historian specializing in that period, what evidence exists proving that script went from the Greeks to the Jews and not the other way around? I was told that there really is only one significant piece of "evidence" (if anyone has anything else, please let me know): Many Middle Eastern cultures left cuneiform tablets containing records of commercial transactions. Our knowledge of most ancient languages comes from such tablets. There are no such tablets in Hebrew and therefore, conclude the experts, there must have been no Hebrew written language.

Therein, however, lies a problem: Since when is the absence of evidence considered evidence? What tablets should be lying around in such abundance that not finding them rings bells?

Let’s back up. What is the Torah's story? For 200 to 500 years preceding the giving of the Torah (from the birth of Abraham) we were a small, wandering family occupied primarily with shepherding. For much of the two centuries immediately before the exodus, we were slaves laboring for our Egyptian masters.

Now in how many commercial deals would you have expected us to have participated? Sure, shepherds sell their wool and meat and buy food and supplies, but they and their customers would never go to the long and difficult process of creating cuneiform tablets to prove it! Similarly, slaves feature prominently in international deals involving the shipment of goods and transfer of capital most infrequently. So they, too, couldn't be expected to leave hard records. And anyway, how likely is it that, had such records existed, they would have survived and then surfaced for the dining and entertaining pleasure of some obscure, sun-struck PhD candidate from Manitoba?

So, if there really was a Hebrew script in those years, where would you expect to find its evidence? The absence of evidence isn't worth all that much, is it? However, is there any positive evidence that there WAS Hebrew script from that period? Sure. That evidence is the claim of the public revelation of the Torah (for more on the subject, see It may not be absolute proof, but it's a whole lot stronger than anything available in Greek at the time!

What can we conclude? That practitioners of some of the "softer" sciences may sometimes be influenced more by personal prejudice and preference than by quality of evidence.