From BiblePortal Wikipedia

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [1]

marks for the purpose of expressing sounds, used in writing. Few subjects have given rise to more discussion than the origin of alphabetic characters. If they are of human invention, they must be considered as one of the most admirable efforts of the ingenuity of man. So wonderful is the facility which they afford for recording human thought; so ingenious, and at the same time so simple, is the analysis which they furnish for the sounds of articulate speech, and for all the possible variety of words; that we might expect the author of this happy invention to have been immortalized by the grateful homage of succeeding ages, and his name delivered down to posterity with the ample honours it so justly merited. But the author and the era of this discovery, if such it be, are both lost in the darkness of remote antiquity. Even the nation to which the invention is due cannot now be ascertained. The Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Phenicians, the Persians, the Indians, have all laid claim to the honour of it; and each has named its inventor among the remote, and probably fabulous, personages that figure in the earlier ages of their history. In consequence of this uncertainty respecting the author of alphabetic writing, and the high value and extreme difficulty of the invention itself, many have been inclined to attribute this art to an immediate revelation from the Deity; contending that it was communicated with other invaluable gifts from above, in remote ages, to the descendants of Abraham, and probably to the Patriarch Moses, who was the author of the most ancient compositions in alphabetical writing that we at present possess. The arguments which are brought in support of the divine revelation of the alphabet, are chiefly these:

1. The high antiquity of the use of letters; the Hebrew characters

having existed in a perfect state when Moses composed the Pentateuch, the most ancient writing now known to be extant.

2. The similarity between the various alphabets of different nations, which, for the most part, are the same, in the order, power, and even form, of their letters with the Hebrew.

3. The complete want of alphabetic characters among those nations, which have been cut off from all communication with the ancient civilized world, as the aboriginal Americans; or that part of the human race which had no opportunity of borrowing the system of written characters revealed to the Hebrews, as China.

Had man been left to himself, the first and most natural way of making his thoughts visible to the eye would be by pictorial representations. The second step would, for convenience' sake, be to invent an abbreviated form of these pictures, sufficiently legible to call to mind the original picture in full, and yet so reduced and intermixed with a few easily remembered arbitrary characters, or symbols, as to be more extensively useful. The next and most difficult step would be the alphabet so formed as to express all the sounds of the language, by convenient combination. The Egyptian monuments show specimens of each; the hieroglyph, the mixed and abbreviated, and the alphabetical. The magnificent ruins of Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia, exhibit also the pure pictorial style, and tablets of abbreviated emblems. The characters on the bricks dug up from the ruins of ancient Babylon have characters, which are supposed to be, not alphabetic, but abbreviated symbols, and therefore suppose the existence of the larger picture writing, whether the people possessed a proper alphabet or not. All the savage tribes of America had their picture writings, and this style was carried to great perfection by the Mexicans. The latter had, likewise, abbreviated marks, which were used as symbols; and thus made an approach to letters, although they never reached this discovery. It is a curious fact, that in our day a Cherokee chief has actually invented an alphabet, and that in the process he commenced with a pictorial representation of animals which uttered sounds somewhat like those of his own tongue; which thought seems not to have entered into the picture writing of the ancients, whose delineations spoke wholly to the eye, and not at all to the ear. Finding this method imperfect and cumbersome, he at last hit upon the expedient of arbitrary characters, which he gradually reduced in number, and so perfected, that, with a few European improvements, books are now printed in them for the use of his nation. In China the language is a complete system of abbreviated pictures, emblems, or symbols; and there is no proper alphabet to this day.

These facts are urged as direct proofs or strong presumptions that all alphabetical characters have been preceded by picture or imitative characters; and that as the whole is within the compass of human ingenuity, the notion of a divine suggestion of letters, or of the important art of alphabetical writing, is bringing in the divine agency without necessity. But the assumption that alphabets have in all cases been formed through this process, is wholly hypothetic. Certain it is that we can prove from the Scriptures that literal writing was in use at an earlier period than can be assigned to any picture writing whatever. Writing and reading were familiar to Moses and the Israelites when the law was given, and must have long previously existed among them, and, probably, among the Egyptians of the same age too; which is much earlier than any of those monuments bearing hieroglyphical characters reach. We have given sufficient reason to conclude that Job lived at an earlier period still, and as he expresses a wish that his words should be written in a book, and engraven on the rock, the knowledge of reading as well as writing must have been pretty general in his country, or the book and the inscription could not have been a testimony of his faith and hope to his countrymen, as he passionately desired it to be. Here, too, it is to be observed, that in the early Mosaic history we have not the least intimation of writing by pictures or symbols, nor any that the art of writing had been revealed from heaven in the days of Moses, preparatory to the giving of a written law and the introduction of inspired books for the religious instruction of the people. We must trace it up higher; though whether of divine revelation, or human invention, cannot certainly be determined. Its importance was assuredly worthy of the former; and if this was not done by particular revelation, doubtless we may reasonably and piously ascribe it to a divine suggestion.

It may, indeed, be asked, How then is it that in other nations we can so accurately trace the progress from the picture to the symbol, and thence on to the alphabet; as for instance in Egypt? We answer, that if this were allowed, and it might be, and probably was, a part of the divine procedure with reference to the preservation of the true religion, that the knowledge of letters should be early given to the Abrahamic family, or, at least, preserved among them, while many others of the more dispersed branches of the human race becoming barbarous, as stated under the article Language, might lose it; because picture writing was easily convertible to idolatrous purposes, and in reality was greatly encouraged from that source. The same care would be exerted to prevent pictorial representations of spiritual beings and things as the forming of images; and the race of true worshippers of God was never therefore placed under the necessity of thus expressing their thoughts by such delineations. But it is, in fact, far from being proved, that the hieroglyph, or picture writing, of Egypt for example, was more ancient among that people than alphabetic writing. One of the most recent writers on this side is the Marquis Spineto, in his "Lectures on Egyptian Hieroglyphics." His theory is, in fact, that of Warburton; and he thinks that the recent discoveries as to the hieroglyphics of Egypt fully establish it. The opinion of this learned prelate was, that the primitive mode of writing among the Egyptians was by figurative delineations or hieroglyphics; that this becoming too tedious and voluminous, by degrees they perfected another character, which he calls the running-hand of hieroglyphics, resembling the Chinese characters; which being at first formed only by the outlines of figures, became at length a kind of marks; and at last led to the compendious use of letters by an alphabet. His argument against the knowledge of letters by the immediate descendants of Noah is as follows: "For, if the invention of the alphabet had preceded the dispersion, we should have found the use of it generally established among mankind, and hieroglyphics and picture writing entirely lain aside. But this is not the case. The Mexicans and the Peruvians, up to the fifteenth century, and, to this day, the Chinese, have no knowledge of the alphabet. They all, like the Egyptians, made use of hieroglyphics, more or less abridged, more or less symbolical, or, if you please, more or less arbitrary; but they had no knowledge of the alphabet. The invention of letters, therefore, must have happened after the dispersion, at a time when picture or hieroglyphical writing was generally used; it was thus imported into the respective countries, by the primitive inhabitants, as they separated themselves from the common society, carrying in their migrations those partly true and partly false notions of the Deity, and of the great event which had submerged the world; notions which, in fact, are to be found in the theology and ritual of all the nations in the universe, although more or less disfigured and altered."

But as the running-hand hieroglyphics, spoken of by Warburton, were no more alphabetical than the hieroglyphics themselves, still we are left to make the inquiry, Who was the inventor of the Egyptian alphabet? This is supposed by the Marquis on the authority of a passage in Plato, to be a secretary of one of the kings of Egypt. This king is called Thamus; who forbade his ingenious secretary, Thouth, or Theuth, to make the invention public; lest the people should no longer pay attention to the hieroglyphics, which would then be soon forgotten. The secret, however, soon escaped; and as it diminished to a prodigious degree the difficulty of writing, it was generally adopted by the Egyptians, and from them passed into other nations. "The first," says the Marquis, "who seem to have got a knowledge of this system, were the Phenicians; they imparted it to the Arabians, to the Jews, and carried it over to Greece. From that country it was exported to the several islands, carries to the continent, and reached the northern nations. The Chinese alone refused to adopt the valuable discovery; proud of the antiquity of their social establishment, believing themselves superior to the rest of mankind, they still adhered to their ancient mode of writing. This, as I have already observed, though originally the same with that used by the Egyptians, became, in process of time, materially different, being made up of arbitrary marks, which are for the most part ideo-graphical. With the discovery of the alphabet, however, a very material change took place in regard to hieroglyphics. Originally, as we have seen, they had been the common, nay, the sole mode of writing, employed by the nation at large, in all the transactions of life, and through the policy of King Thamus, the alphabetical letters were kept secret: but, as soon as this discovery became known, the contrary happened; alphabetical writing became common, and hieroglyphics mysterious, not because they were purposely hidden in mystery, but simply because they required greater application and greater trouble. They indeed still continued to be used in matters of religion, funerals, public monuments, and the like; but in all business, and common transactions, the alphabetical writing was employed. This was a necessary consequence of the general use of hieroglyphics in their primitive state; for although the Egyptians might, and, in fact, did, give the preference to the alphabet, yet they did not think it necessary to erase the old hieroglyphical characters from their temples, from their obelisks, from their tombs, and religious vases. The priests, therefore, still continued to study and preserve the knowledge of hieroglyphics; and these, partly by their showy nature, partly by the continuation of the old custom, continued still to be used in public monuments of a votive and funereal nature. To distinguish them, therefore, from the alphabetical letters newly invented, they obtained the name of sacred, on the score of their being employed only in matters of religion. The priests, however who had already invented a new set of arbitrary marks, as a shorter way of hieroglyphical writing, which they employed exclusively in transactions which concerned their body and their pursuits, after the invention of the alphabet, turned these marks into letters, and thus they formed another set of characters, or mode of writing, to which they gave the appellation of hieratic, as belonging exclusively to their order. In these characters they wrote all historical, political, and religious transactions. And as the common, or demotic letters were employed in all the common business of life, and hieroglyphics confined to public monuments, and funereal and votive ceremonies, the Egyptians became possessed of at least three different modes of writing, or sets of characters, which were hieroglyphic, demotic, and hieratic. Whether the priests had invented another set of characters, unknown to the people, and in which they concealed their doctrine and their knowledge, is a question which cannot be solved at present. The want of monuments disables us from saying any thing of a decisive nature on this subject. One thing alone we can suppose with certainty, that if such a mode of writing did ever exist, and for the purpose for which it is supposed to have existed, the knowledge of it must have been confined to the priests only, and the records so written concealed with the greatest care from the eye of the nation. If, therefore, such records exist, they must be sought for in the dwelling of the hierophant, in the most recondite places of the temples; perhaps in those subterraneous passages which now lie hidden under mountains of sand, and in which no one but the priests were ever permitted to enter."

The whole of this account, we may however observe, is far from being satisfactory. Whether the early Egyptians wrote hieroglyphics at all, no monuments yet discovered are so ancient as to prove; since all such characters now known must have been written subsequently to the advancement of the kingdom into great power, and after considerable progress had been made in architecture and other arts. The passage, too, in Plato, on which the argument is made to depend, may just as well refer to the running-hand or abridged hieroglyphical signs, as to alphabetical writing; and the supposition, that the priests gave an alphabetical character to this kind of abridged pictorial writing after the discovery of the real alphabet, (and alphabetical Ackerblad and Dr. Young have proved it to be,) is quite hypothetic. We think it more probable that alphabetical writing is much older than the hieroglyphics; that the phonetic hieroglyphics were fanciful representations of the alphabetic characters, intermingled with those symbols which idolatry and the natural peculiarities of Egypt would suggest; that the whole was originally easy to be deciphered by those who knew letters at all; and that the leading motive of fixing them on public monuments in preference to literal inscriptions, was the taste of the day, which custom, and antiquity, and superstition at length consecrated. We have thus an easy way of accounting for the alphabetical, though obscure, character of the hieroglyphic running-hand, or hieratic writing, so much used in manuscripts. As an abridged form of the hieroglyphical outline, it would at least be phonetic wherever the hieroglyphic was so; and where that was symbolical, it would naturally present greater difficulty in deciphering, which, in fact, has been proved to be the case, by modern students in the art. It is, indeed, acknowledged by those who advocate the priority of the hieroglyphic to the alphabetic signs, that the number of ideas which could thus be expressed is few; and this the Marquis Spineto considers as a presumptive proof of his theory. In these early ages, "the position of mankind after the flood," he observes, "was such as to preclude the possibility of supposing that they had many ideas and many wants; therefore we may reasonably conclude, that their language consisted of words only which were intended to express the things most necessary to life, and consequently contained a small number of words." We know, indeed, that it is the notion of many infidel writers, that the original race or races of mankind were a sort of savages; and that a state of society gradually increased the ideas, and enriched the language of those who at first were capable of uttering but a few simple articulate sounds; but that any person should talk in a similar strain, who professes to receive the Mosaic history, is absurd. The antediluvians had surely much knowledge. Many arts were invented before the flood; and the ark itself is a vast monument of mechanical skill. Arts, science, morals, legislation, theology, were all known before the flood; and were all transmitted from the old world to the new, by Noah and his sons. These were not men "of few ideas," nor was the pastoral mode of life incompatible with great moral knowledge, eloquence, and the highest and richest poetry, as we see in the book of Job. Men were not then, as many moderns have supposed, a race of babies, able only to ask for what they needed to eat and drink, or childishly to play with; and we may therefore rest assured that they had a language so copious, and enunciations of ideas so various in their respective tongues, that picture writing neither was nor could be adequate to their full expression. The true origin of hieroglyphic writing is still unexplained; and will, after all, probably, remain inexplicable: but it has little claim to be considered as the first mode of expressing the sounds of language. As for the Chinese language, it is evident that it cannot be urged in proof of alphabetical writing having in all eases passed through the process above mentioned; for to this day the Chinese have no alphabet. As a language it is indeed peculiar, as being wholly monosyllabic; and we must be better acquainted with the early circumstances of that people before we can account for either. See Writing .

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [2]

Letters —The word γράμματα ( John 7:15) may be intended to indicate literature in general, as it might do in  Acts 26:24. But to the ordinary Jew γρ. were practically constituted exclusively by the Sacred Scriptures, certain esteemed Apocryphal books, and the Rabbinical commentaries upon them. The surprise of the question recorded in the reference suggests consideration of the amount of human learning Jesus possessed.

With the rudiments of the Law every Jew was made thoroughly and intimately conversant from his earliest intelligent years (see Education). The education of the Jewish child had the primary purpose of enabling him to read the passages which it was essential for him to know for the proper discharge of his religious duties. Beyond this elementary knowledge comparatively few carried their studies. It was, indeed, the ideal of Judaism that every Israelite should have a professional acquaintance with the Law in its details. But only a small fraction attended the schools of the scribes at which advanced instruction was given in its more recondite matters and the commentaries upon them contained in the Midrash and other Rabbinic books. It would seem from the surprise-expressed in this question that Jesus had not prosecuted such studies, at least in the recognized schools, whether from disinclination or from poverty which prevented Him from paying the fees exacted in spite of the understanding that such instruction should be gratuitous. There are convincing indications, however, that Jesus was to some extent familiar with the literature studied in the schools, both from His direct reference to passages contained in it, and from striking parallelisms in language and thought between various sayings of His and maxims of uncanonical books such as Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon.* [Note: With  Matthew 6:7, cf.  Sirach 7:14;  Matthew 6:14 ( Mark 11:26), cf.  Sirach 28:2-4;  Matthew 6:20, cf.  Sirach 29:11;  Matthew 7:1-2, cf.  Sirach 31:15;  Matthew 19:12, cf.  Wisdom of Solomon 3:14;  Matthew 27:43;  Matthew 27:55, cf.  Wisdom of Solomon 2:16 to  Wisdom of Solomon 18:20;  Mark 9:44, cf.  Sirach 7:17;  Luke 11:41, cf.  Sirach 3:30;  Luke 12:16-20, cf.  Sirach 5:1;  Sirach 11:18-19;  John 17:19, cf.  Sirach 36:4.] He is also evidently acquainted with the kind of teaching supplied by the scribes. In the apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy, Jesus is credited with an intimate and astounding acquaintance with ‘learning,’ partly derived from the reading of books. The bestowal of the title ‘Rabbi’ upon Him implies that, though not having studied after the usual manner, He was recognized to possess learning. But He Himself in His reply accepts the implication of the question that His teaching was not derived from any human source, but was the immediate communication from His heavenly Father. See also Learning.

A. Mitchell Hunter.

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary [3]

 Luke 23:38 The Hebrews have certain acrostic poems which begin with the letters of the alphabet, ranged in order. The most considerable of these is   Psalm 119:1-176 , which contains twentytwo stanzas of eight verses each, all acrostic; that is, the first eight begin with Aleph, the next eight with Beth, and so on.  Psalm 25:1-22   34:1-22 , have but twenty-two verses each, beginning with the twentytwo letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Others, as  Psalm 111:1-112:10 , have one-half of the verse beginning with one letter, and the other half with the next. Thus, Blessed is the man who feareth the Lord,

Who delighteth greatly in his commandments.

The first half of the verse begins in the Hebrew with Aleph; the second with Beth.  Psalm 37:1-40   145:21 are acrostic.   Lamentations 1:1-5:22 are also in acrostic verse, as well as   Proverbs 31:8-31 . In  John 7:15 , the word "letters" means learning; the Jews said of Christ, Whence this man's qualifications to teach us the Scriptures, since he has not learned of the doctors of the law?

Paul speaks of "the letter" in distinction from "the spirit,"  Romans 2:27,29   7:6   2 Corinthians 3:6; contrasting the mere word of the law and its outward observance, with its spiritual meaning, and cordial obedience to it through the Spirit of Christ.

Epistolary correspondence seems to have been little practiced among the ancient Hebrews. Some few letters are mentioned in the Old Testament,  2 Samuel 11:14   Ezra 4:8 . They were conveyed to their destination by friends or travelers,  Jeremiah 29:3; or by royal couriers,  2 Chronicles 30:6   Esther 8:10 . The letter was usually in the form of a roll, the last fold being pasted down. They were sealed,  1 Kings 21:8 , and sometimes wrapped in an envelope, or in a bag of costly materials and highly ornamented. To send an open letter was expressive of contempt,  Nehemiah 6:5 . In the New Testament we have numerous examples of letters, from the pens of the apostles.