New Video on Egyptian Writing in Ancient Israel and the Book of Mormon


I was recently in a video for Book of Mormon Central, highlighting how archaeological evidence from Nephi’s time helps us understand what he meant by “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2):


Unsurprisingly, anytime you talk about archaeology and the Book of Mormon, there is push back from predictable corners of the internet. The main pushback I am seeing is over the nature of the documents and the extent of hieratic writing in Israel. As noted in the video itself (~2:33 mark), current evidence for the use of hieratic by Nephi’s day is limited to numerals and signs of measurement, etc., and there is no evidence for full literary or historical texts. For some, this apparently renders the evidence moot and not even the least bit interesting in light of 1 Nephi 1:2.

Obviously, I disagree. In the video, I immediately follow that up with the conclusion of a scholar (David Calabro, see ~2:50 mark), that the Judahite hieratic tradition lasted in “fuller form” than previously believed, and that it could have been utilized for larger literary purposes. There are many good reasons for believing this which go far beyond what could easily fit in a short video, and indeed Calabro’s erudite analysis is really only one component to that overall argument.

So, I figured I would just add a few thoughts, for what they are worth, and provide a (limited) bibliography. Of course, this is still a bit of a simplification of all the evidence and analysis that supports this conclusion, but I hope it helps clarify the matter for some who may have questions:

1. My comments about the limited extent of hieratic applies only to the late period (ca. 8th–6th century BC). We know earlier scribes in the region had a full understanding of the hieratic writing system, including the earliest Israelite scribes (Goldwasser 1991). The question is whether knowledge of the full system was continued over the generations or not.

2. This is where Calabro’s analysis comes in. Calabro (2012) scrutinized samples from the late Judahite kingdom and determined that although the samples are limited, they betray a complete understanding of the full hieratic writing system, and thus hieratic could have been employed by Israelite and Judahite scribes in more comprehensive ways.

3. Although I emphasize Calabro’s analysis, Wimmer’s work is important here too. Wimmer’s comprehensive analysis of all the samples of hieratic overtime revealed that some of the hieratic signs changed along the same lines as the changes made to hieratic in Egypt (2008:279) —indicting strongly of continued contact between the scribes of Israel and Egypt, something that would require Israelite scribes to have a full understanding of the hieratic writing system. In fact, Wimmer (2012) even goes so far as to suggest Israelite scribes were being trained by Egyptian scribes—a process that likely involved learning more than just a limited set of signs and numerals.

4. In addition to the archaeological evidence for hieratic writing, and the academic analysis of that evidence, there are also historical considerations. Judah was a vassal of Egypt from at least 609 BC (possibly earlier, per Schipper 2011) to 605 BC, and there was continued diplomatic contact between Egypt and Judah right to Judah’s destruction in 587/6 BC, at which point some Judahites then fled to Egypt. Its hard to imagine that in these conditions, Judahite scribes at the time did not know how to fully communicate in Egyptian.

5. There’s also a growing body of scholarship demonstrating the influence of Egyptian literature on texts from the Hebrew Bible. There was a panel discussion on the topic at SBL this year, and the participants all agreed that this was something that needed even more sustained attention. The implications of this, for my purposes, are that scribes in Israel and Judah must have had a highly sophisticated understanding of Egyptian language, to the point that they could not only study Egyptian literature, but they could interact with it in their own literary and historical compositions.

6. The lack of any extant Israelite literature composed in Egyptian at this period is mitigated by the fact that we simply do not have pre-exilic copies of Israelite literature in any language. So it’s really not surprising, nor particularly revealing. Still, I can agree it would be unusual for an Israelite scribe ca. 600 BC to compose literature in Egyptian rather than Hebrew.

7. But no one (to my knowledge—I certainly am not) is arguing that what Nephi did was the typical practice of Israelite scribes. History, ancient and modern, is filled with people who have done exceptionally unusual things—things that surprise historians and scholars when they learn about them. If we had more context, we might be able to say more about why Nephi chose to write in Egyptian instead of Hebrew, but right now we really don’t know. It may have had something to do with saving space (per Mormon 9:32–34), but I try not to project Mormon and Moroni’s reason back in time onto Nephi.

8. Nonetheless, all of the above has me materially convinced that a scribe in Judah ca. 600 BC would have had a comprehensive knowledge of the hieratic writing system—though, over time, their own hieratic tradition had developed some independent characteristics influenced by their native Hebrew language (see Calabro 2012; cf. Wimmer 2012; 2008:271–273)—and if they had wanted to, really talented scribes at least would have been entirely capable of composing works using that writing system.

9. Understanding this provides an interpretive context for the confusing phrase in 1 Nephi 1:2 about “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians”—and it’s that explanatory power that I find most compelling. I am not sure what that phrase is supposed to mean in a 19th century American context—and I’ve never seen any one try to offer a sensible interpretation based on 19th century American understanding. But looking at what we know about Egyptian writing in Israel based on archaeology—and scholarly analysis of the findings—we have a very sensible interpretation of the phrase. 

That (point 9) carries a lot of weight for me. And that’s also the primary focus of the video—so watch it now if you haven’t already!

Bibliography

Calabro, David. “The Hieratic Scribal Tradition in Preexilic Judah,” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation, and Reinterpretation in Ancient Egypt, ed. Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2012), 77–82.

Goldwasser, Orly. “An Egyptian Scribe from Lachish and the Hieratic Tradition of the Hebrew Kingdoms,” Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University 18 (1991): 248–253.

Schipper, Bernd U. “Egyptian Imperialism after the New Kingdom: The 26th Dynasty and the Southern Levant,” in Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature, ed. S. Bar, D. Kahn, J.J. Shirley (Boston: Brill, 2011), 268–290.

Wimmer, Stefan. “Palestinian Hieratic,” Writing in the 7th Century BC Levant, Laura F. Willes Center Biennial Symposium, August 31, 2012. (Notes from this lecture are in my possession. A summary is available here.)

Wimmer, Stefan. Palästiniches Hieratisch: Die Zahl- und Sonderzeichen in der althebräishen Schrift (Wiesbaden: Harraossowitz, 2008).

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