Thursday, November 9, 2017

What Was the Language of Nephi’s Father?

One of the first things Nephi tells us is that he made a record of his proceedings in his days. He further states that he made his record in the language of his father, and that language consisted of “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2), and that he made it according to his own knowledge (1 Nephi 1:3). He then proceeds to tell us that his father “dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days” (1 Nephi 1:4).
So why, exactly, is Nephi telling us this? What is so important to know that Lehi knew the Egyptian language—or at least one form of it? After all, Lehi was of the tribe of Menasseh, living at (outside) Jerusalem, and obviously would have known and spoke Hebrew. In addition, everyone knows the Jews did not write in Egyptian—or do they?
    In a paper read at an International Egyptological Conference at BYU-Hawaii (February 2006), Dr. David Calabro, Professor Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and a post-doctoral research fellow for the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, states that “It is fairly well-known that scribes in the Iron Age kingdom of Judah employed at least a limited set of Egyptian hieratic signs” and that “the use of hieratic numerals was widespread in Judah before the Persian period, as it was in the northern kingdom of Israel prior to the Assyrian conquest.” According to the original Italian text (Tell el-Qudeirat), “the dating of this is the 9th through the 7th century B.C. , which saw the Israelites “pre-hexyl” adopted some Egyptian scribal traditions, in particular the script hieratic and the corresponding numeral system (“The Hieratic Scribal Tradition in Preexilic Judah,” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation, and Reinterpretation in Ancient Egypt, edited by Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee, British Archaeological Reports International Series 2397 (Oxford, Archaeopress, 2012, pp77-85).
    According to the Interpreter, A Journal of Mormon Scripture, on one ostracon (a potsherd used as a writing surface), which contains an intermixture of Hebrew and hieratic, Calabro noticed that “the use of hieratic signs extended beyond simply inserting them as symbols to substitute for Hebrew words,” showing this was not simply Hebrew written with an Egyptian script. Still, Calabro pointed out that in some places, the order of hieratic signs was “contrary to common Egyptian practice … but in accordance with expected Hebrew word order as well the probable word order in spoken Egyptian.”
    On another ostracon from the same collection, which is fully written in hieratic (ancient Egyptian priestly scripts), key differences in the paleography of the hieratic signs and contemporary hieratic from Egypt, noting that the examples from Judah appear more similar to earlier Egyptian writing, “which again points to an independent Judahite development of hieratic script.”
    On a third potsherd, a mixture of hieratic and Hebrew, containing the specific use of hieratic alphabetic signs, rather than just numerals and measurements, which Calabro claims “offers the first example of hieratic unilateral signs in late monarchic Judah, thus strengthening the assertion that the hieractic signs in use there were part of a basically complete system.”
    According to Calabro, the writing was closer to New Kingdom scriptus (q1550-1070 B.C.) and more specifically the eighteenth dynasty (1543-1292 B.C.), which may suggest that the use of hieratic in Israel began closer to that time, and subsequently developed independently. In fact, some signs from an inscription on a ostracon found at Tell el-Qudeirat showed the evidence of “an extensive hieratic component in the scribal education of Judahites, at least in the place where the ostracon was composed.”
    Evidently, the Judahite hieratic tradition, developing independently from the contemporary scribal traditions in Egypt, must have diverged from them at an earlier period. It is therefore not inconceivable that the tradition of hieratic writing in the southern Levant has its ultimate roots in a period even before the New Kingdom, perhaps being used on documents now lost. This indicates that the hieratic tradition in Judah lasted in a fuller form than only the isolated use of numbers and units of measurement. In particular, it included hieratic alphabetic signs, logographic signs … and Egyptian conventions of sign sequence. This does not, however, exclude the possibility of New Kingdom (and later) influence on this tradition. In addition, while all these came from the Negev region in southern Judah and shows that the widespread distribution of hieratic numerals and other isolated hieratic signs in Judah indicates a presence of scribes educated in this Judahite variety of Egyptian script.
    Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1996), reported that “an Egyptian script was possibly used to write Hebrew text on the Nephite record. Documents from the correct location and time period have texts and languages in varying scripts that lend credence to this scribal phenomenon,” stating that the text on the ostracon was “written in a combination of Egyptian hieratic and Hebrew characters, but can be read entirely as Egyptian. Of the seventeen words in the text, ten are written in hieratic and seven in Hebrew” (Ricks and Tvedtnes, “Notes and Communications: Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters,” Neal A. Maxwell Institute, BYU, p 161)
    Obviously, the significance to this is that the underlying language was Egyptian, not Hebrew. In fact, we can also include Stefan Wimmer, who has carefully studied the hieratic texts from Israel and Judah. Wimmer reasoned, based on some chronological changes in Israelite hieratic texts consistent with changes in Egyptian script, that there was “continued contact of some sort between Egyptian and Hebrew scribes, probably over several centuries.” (Stefan Wimmer, Palästiniches Hieratisch: Die Zahl- und Sonderzeichen in der althebräishen Schrift (Wiesbaden: Harraossowitz, 2008).
    In addition, in discussing 1 Nephi 1:2, John S. Thompson said, “The kind of Egyptian script being employed on those artifacts dating around the time of Lehi is hieratic, but since Demotic was the script of the day in northern Egypt and abnormal hieratic was predominant in southern Egypt, the normal hieratic tradition in Canaan must have been adopted from an earlier time…even earlier in the tenth century B.C.—and was in continued use in Israel” (“Lehi and Egypt,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 266).
   Biblical scholars Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager in Life in Biblical Israel, speaking of cursive hieroglyphics, similarly explain, “Documents from the kingdoms of both Israel and Judah, but not the neighboring kingdoms, of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., contain Egyptian hieratic signs and numerals that had ceased to be used in Egypt after the tenth century B.C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, p311).
    So, coming back to Nephi, how should we interpret his language, and why did he include it in the first place? Obviously, the practice of writing in hieratic Egyptian seems to have been going on for several centuries and was no particularly a government or state practice, but one passed on within the family—“the language of my father.” And evidently in Nephi’s day, the hieratic script was often intermixed with Hebrew script, incorporating Hebrew word orders and scribal habits, thus differing from Egyptian as it was written in Egypt.
     Sydney B. Sperry referred to it eighty years ago as ““a Hebraized Egyptian,” (Improvement Era, Vol 38/3, 1935, p140), Calabro called it a “Judahite variety of Egyptian script”; and Wimmer referred to it as: “Palästiniches Hieratisch” (“Palestinian Hieratic”), which all seem somewhat like Nephi’s “learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.”
    However, this does not mean that Nephi’s writing was Hebrew language in an Egyptian script, as Hugh Nibley pointed out long ago that such an arrangement would be awkward. What we now understand is that this was not how hieratic was used in Nephi’s day—Nephi was writing Egyptian the way the Jews had learned to write it, according to their own independent scribal tradition, which had some natural merging of the different inflectional varieties of both Hebrew and Egyptian, yet was nonetheless Egyptian, not Hebrew.
    It would have been as natural for Nephi to start out his writing, coming from a multi-cultural language usage of Hebrew and Egyptian, to state that “I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.,” for he was not writing in Hebrew, and he was not writing in the Egyptian language of the day, but in a form he had much earlier learned from his father and the Egyptians had stopped using some time earlier. The clarification created from late pre-hexilic scribal practice in Judah allows for an interpretation of Nephi’s statement that resolves its uncertainty, and to see exactly what Nephi meant regarding the “language of the Egyptians,” according to “the learning of the Jews.”
    What we learn from this is more than two-fold, but these two thoughts need to be understood: 1) Nephi’s writing is both authentic and current for his day, in the Egyptian language he had learned from his father, known from an earlier time, and 2) The “Reformed” part is simply an understanding that the common Egyptian language of Nephi’s day was not the language he used, but of an earlier period. We also understand that Nephi understood he was writing to a future people that would have no idea of his background and writing method, so he stated it in the beginning for our benefit. It should also be understood that while many language scholars have completely misunderstood the reasoning for Nephi telling us this, yet, the Egyptian writing by Israelite scribes has been known and attested to in Nephi’s very time period since at least the 1960s.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Thanks Del.
    For the few who think Joseph made up the Book of Mormon- how in the world would he have known about "Hebraized Egyptian ". Seems he had thousands of "lucky guesses".