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Oldest alphabet identified as Hebrew: Israelites turned hieroglyphics into letters, researcher claims.

The world's earliest alphabet, inscribed on stone slabs at several Egyptian sites, was an early form of Hebrew, a controversial new analysis concludes.

Israelites living in Egypt transformed that civilization's hieroglyphics into Hebrew 1.0 more than 3,800 years ago, at a time when the Old Testament describes Jews living in Egypt, said archaeologist and epigrapher Douglas Petrovich of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Hebrew speakers seeking a way to communicate in writing with other Egyptian Jews simplified the pharaohs' complex hieroglyphic writing system into 22 alphabetic letters, Petrovich proposed November 17.

"There is a connection between ancient Egyptian texts and preserved alphabets," Petrovich said.

That's a highly controversial contention among scholars of the Bible and ancient civilizations. Many argue, despite what's in the Old Testament, that Israelites did not live in Egypt as long ago as proposed by Petrovich. Biblical dates for the Israelites' stay in Egypt are unreliable, they say. Scholars have also generally assumed for over 150 years that the oldest alphabetic script, which Petrovich studied, could be based on any of a group of ancient Semitic languages. But not enough is known about those tongues to specify one language in particular.

Petrovich's Hebrew identification for the ancient inscriptions is starved for evidence, said biblical scholar and Semitic language specialist Christopher Rollston of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. There is no way to tell which of many Semitic languages are represented by the early alphabetic system, Rollston contended.

The origins of writing in different parts of the world have long stimulated debates (SN: 3/6/93, p. 152). In the 1920s, a German scholar identified ancient Egyptian inscriptions as Hebrew. But he failed to identify many letters in the alphabet, leading to implausible translations that researchers rejected.

Petrovich said his big break came in 2012. While conducting research at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, he came across the word "Hebrews" in a text from as early as 1874 B.C. that includes the earliest known alphabetic letter. According to the Old Testament, Israelites were in Egypt from 1876 B.C. to 1442 B.C.

Petrovich then combined previous identifications of some letters in the ancient alphabet with his own identifications of disputed letters to peg the script as Hebrew. He translated 18 Hebrew inscriptions from three Egyptian sites.

Several biblical figures turn up in the translated inscriptions, including Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his half-brothers and then became a powerful political figure in Egypt. Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, is also mentioned, said Petrovich.

A book by Petrovich detailing his analyses of the ancient inscriptions will be published within the next few months. Petrovich said the book definitively shows that only an early version of Hebrew can make sense of the Egyptian inscriptions.

Caption: Alphabetic inscriptions on an ancient Egyptian stone slab (left) have been identified by a researcher as Hebrew. A drawing of the slab's inscriptions (right) shows the proposed early Hebrew letters next to corresponding modern Hebrew letters (green).


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Title Annotation:HUMANS & SOCIETY
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 24, 2016
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