The invention of the alphabet

I’ve written a more popular essay* on the early alphabet over at The Bible and Interpretation. Go there for a bit of light reading.

 

*Even my popular essays have footnotes. I will not claim that this is some inherently good thing. As I wrote the essay, I began to wonder if I’d lost the ability to write for those who aren’t specialists in my field. Perhaps someday I’ll write a “Biblical Hebrew Grammar for Dummies” without a single footnote. Speaking of which, a departed friend and colleague once told me that best thing about emeritus status was no longer needing to support every idea in an article with footnotes! He showed me his last article, and it didn’t contain a single one. By the way, if you’re wondering, I wrote this footnote simply for the fun of it and for the “meta-ness” of it all (for inspiration, see below, M. Fox, “On Footnotes, Hebrew Studies 1987).

Fox_OnFootnoes_HS1987

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The Alphabet was not Invented by the Hebrews

Note here for the promised link to a related essay on the alphabet.

A review of Douglas Petrovich, The World’s Oldest Alphabet: Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script, with a contribution by Sarah K. Doherty and introduction by Eugene H. Merrill (Jerusalem: Carta, 2016).

Shortly after Douglas Petrovich’s book on the early alphabetic texts appeared at the end of 2016, I was asked to deliver a guest lecture on the topic during my last sabbatical. Before the request, I wasn’t aware of Petrovich’s monograph, though I had noticed various online comments and essays (even interviews) he’d given on the subject.

I will admit that I found it odd that Petrovich should be weighing in on the discussion since he studied no Hebrew grammar or Northwest Semitic epigraphy with me at the University of Toronto, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on Near Eastern archaeology.

And so the lecture was an opportunity to consider in detail the argument Petrovich mounted about the early alphabetic texts, which I’d not previously given a great deal of thought beyond discussing them during the first week in my Hebrew epigraphy seminars.

My initial impressions of Petrovich’s book were threefold. First, as with most Carta products, the production quality was high. The maps are wonderful, the illustrations clear and useful, and the paper is both heavy and high quality. Second, the amount of research that went into this study was striking. Which brings me to the third impression—it was mind-boggling that all this effort was spent on an argument that was explicitly tied to Petrovich’s assumptions about the Bible as an accurate historical resource and his desire to bolster the traditional chronology for the Patriarchs and Moses.

And as I continued the book, I was deeply disappointed that a work with so many flawed notions of Hebrew grammar would have been published. (And, as I soon discovered, the analysis of Egyptian was equally problematic.) Moreover, Petrovich’s writing style often reads more like a set of course lectures and he often cites sources in an exaggerated way if he wants to impress the reader with their authority.

Petrovich’s argument has been responded to by Alan Millard, Christopher Rollston, and on Rollston’s blog also the Egyptologist Thomas Schneider (links provided further below). I will also soon be addressing the topic on another online forum (and when it appears I will insert a link here). But none of these responses address the serious flaws of Hebrew in Petrovich’s analysis. This is what I will cover in this post.

See my review below …

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