Hebrew Written in Egyptian Characters?

Critics have long mocked the Book of Mormon concept of “reformed Egyptian” or any kind of Egyptian writing being used the way the Book of Mormon specifies. The idea of writing Hebrew in Egyptian characters, reformed or not, was just silly to our educated foes. I’ll agree it was silly in Joseph Smith’s day, but since then many examples of this kind of thing have been found. The most recent example involves the earliest known Semitic writing. A breaking story at Eurakalerts.com is “Earliest Semitic Text Revealed in Egyptian Pyramid Inscription.” Scholars were unable to decipher some puzzling Egyptian text in a pyramid inscription until someone suggested they try reading it not as Egyptian but as a Semitic language. Turns out that Egyptian characters were being used to write an archaic form of the languages later known as Phoenician and Hebrew. Doesn’t prove anything, but perhaps it’s at least good for a laugh of our own. (And please don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is somehow “evidence” for Book of Mormon plausibility when we find things like examples of “reformed Egyptian” or ancient writing on gold plates or sacred records buried in stone boxes or other things that were laughable in 1830. Remember, there isn’t a shred of “evidence” for the Book of Mormon, so such things must be something else.)

A hat tip to D. Charles Pyle.

May 6 Update: I noticed that a critical source discussing this blog is mocking the idea of “reformed Egyptian” and seems to think that I thought I was “proving” the reality of reformed Egyptian in the Book of Mormon. That is an unjustified interpretation of what I said. Without the gold plates in front of us, there is no question that “proof” of reformed Egyptian on the gold plates is not possible. But I was addressing the issue of whether it is possible or even plausible that some ancient peoples wrote Semitic words in a modified Egyptian script. The recent find I discussed strikes me as an example of an early Semitic language being expressed not in the the native scripts of its speakers, but in a foreign Egyptian script. That’s not proof for “reformed Egyptian” on the golden plates, but it does make the idea of Egyptian scripts for Semitic words less laughable than it was in 1830.

But it is a dire mistake to think that I am excited about this recent find as some kind of huge breakthrough for Mormons. It’s almost a yawner, a minor contribution at best, because there already are several other well-known discoveries that already make a good cause for the plausibility of Semitic writing in a modified Egyptian script. Since the critics who, predictably, are mocking this concept have not bothered to explore the link that I offered on reformed Egyptian, let me share some related information right here to make it a little harder to overlook.

Here is an excerpt from William Hamblin’s article, “Reformed Egyptian,” from the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (see the original for the cited references):

Does the Book of Mormon’s assertion that the Nephites took Egyptian characters and modified them to write Hebrew words make historical and linguistic sense?3 It is a common phenomenon for a basic writing system to undergo significant changes in the course of time, especially when written with new writing materials.4 Turning specifically to Egyptian, there are numerous examples of modified (or reformed) Egyptian characters being used to write non-Egyptian languages, none of which were known in Joseph Smith’s day.

Examples of “reformed Egyptian”

Egyptian hieratic and demotic. The Egyptian language was written in three related but distinct scripts. The oldest is hieroglyphic script, dating to around 3000 B.C.; it was essentially a monumental script for stone inscriptions. Hieratic, a second script, is a modified form of Egyptian hieroglyphics used to write formal documents on papyrus with brush and ink, and demotic is a cursive script.5 Thus, both the hieratic and demotic scripts could be considered “reformed” or modified versions of the original hieroglyphic script. These are both examples of writing the Egyptian language in reformed versions of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script; there are also several examples of the use of reformed or modified Egyptian characters to write non-Egyptian languages.

Byblos Syllabic texts.
The earliest known example of mixing a Semitic language with modified Egyptian hieroglyphic characters is the Byblos Syllabic inscriptions (eighteenth century B.C.), from the city of Byblos on the Phoenician coast.6 This script is described as a “syllabary [that] is clearly inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, and in fact is the most important link known between the hieroglyphs and the Canaanite alphabet.”7 Interestingly enough, most Byblos Syllabic texts were written on copper plates. Thus, it would not be unreasonable to describe the Byblos Syllabic texts as a Semitic language written on metal plates in “reformed Egyptian characters,”8 which is precisely what the Book of Mormon describes.

Cretan hieroglyphics. Early forms of writing in Crete apparently developed from a combination of “Egyptian hieroglyphic, Mesopotamian cuneiform and Phoenician native signs into one single, new pictographic script.”9 Note again that there is a mixture of Semitic (Mesopotamian and Phoenician) and Egyptian writing systems, precisely as described in the Book of Mormon.

Meroitic. Meroitic, the script of ancient Nubia (modern Sudan), “was first recorded in writing in the second century B.C. in an ‘alphabetic’ script consisting of twenty-three symbols, most of which were borrowed or at least derived from Egyptian writing….The script has two forms, hieroglyphic and cursive.”10 Meroitic hieroglyphic signs were “borrowed from the Egyptian…[and] the cursive script derived mainly from the Egyptian demotic script.”11

Psalm 20 in demotic Egyptian.
Scholars have also recently deciphered an Aramaic version of Psalm 20:2-6 that was written in demotic Egyptian characters.12 This is precisely what the Book of Mormon claims existed: a version of the Hebrew scriptures in the Hebrew language, but written using Egyptian characters.

Proto-Sinaitic and the alphabet. Semitic speakers of early second millennium B.C. Syria and Palestine seem to have adopted reformed or modified versions of both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform into syllabic and alphabetic systems of writing. Ultimately, this reformed Egyptian script became the basis for the Phoenician alphabet, from which nearly all subsequent alphabets derive.13 “The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were written in a Semitic language, and…their letters were the prototypes for the Phoenician alphabet. The letters are alphabetic, acrophonic in origin, and consonantal, and their forms are derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.”14 “Since the Canaanite/Phoenician syllabary formed the basis of the Greek alphabet, and the Greek in turn of the Latin, it means, in the words of Gardiner, that ‘the hieroglyphs live on, though in transmuted [or could we not say reformed?] form, within our own alphabet.'”15 In a very real sense, our own Latin alphabet is itself a type of reformed Egyptian, since the ultimate source of our characters is Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Reference 12 cited by Hamblin regarding the writing of part of Psalm 20 in Egyptian sounded interesting, so I paid $8 to download that article: Richard C. Steiner, “The Aramaic Text in Demotic Script: The Liturgy of a New Year’s Festival Imported from Bethel to Syene by Exiles from Rash,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 111/2 (1991): 362–63. Steiner discusses an Aramaic text in Demotic – literally a reformed version of Egyptian – that apparently reflected traditions brought from Bethel of the tribe of Ephraim to a location in Egypt. The authors were actually focusing on an Egyptian ceremony and Steiner indicates that the passage from Psalm 20 has been paganized. But it does show one path leading to Hebrew written in an Egyptian script. According to Steiner,

The text contains two dialogues dealing with the history of the community. In one of them, a man of the community relates that he was forced to abandon his hometown-a magnificent “city full of ivory houses when its spring dried up (XI/6-1 I). The dialogue is immediately followed by the pagan version of psalm 20 (XI/ 11-19), which has been linked by M. Weinfeld and Z. Zevit to Jeroboam’s temple at Bethel. It appears, therefore, that the drought-stricken city described in the dialogue is Bethel [a city in Ephraim]. The text betrays its place of origin both in a plea to “raise up our home, Syene” . . . and in the second historical dialogue (XVI/ 1-6). The latter purports to be a conversation between the (Egyptian or Rashan) king and the young spokesman of a newly arrived troop . . . of Samaritans . . . . The king inquires about the boy’s origin, who replies that he is from Judea (rylhwt), his brothers are from Samaria . . ., his sisters are now being brought from Jerusalem. . . . It appears that the Rashans either lived among or were themselves soldiers from Judea and Samaria. Either way, a link with Elephantine seems unavoidable.

It may not be surprising that soldiers or others who had come from Israel would adopt Egyptian language and even elements of Egyptian culture and religion, and would use a popular reformed Egyptian script to repeat a form of Jewish verse. Some of the other references cited by Hamblin may have more interesting material, but in any case, it does weaken the common argument that people from Israel would never have stooped to write their ideas in Egyptian. (Just like we would never stoop to conduct business in reformed Arabic numerals. Oh, did I say I paid $8 for that article? I meant $VIII.)


Author: Jeff Lindsay

15 thoughts on “Hebrew Written in Egyptian Characters?

  1. Fascinating, Jeff. I hadn’t seen this.

    For some of Richard Steiner’s previous work along these lines, see footnote 4 to my “Enallage in the BoM,” here:


    Robert Ritner, who referred this text to Steiner, published a translation of the Sensen Papyrus in Dialogue and the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, an article that has received a couple of reviews in the FR.

  2. If it’s not evidence, why bring it up?

    As an agnostic, I think this kind of thing counts as circumstantial evidence. It’s not enough evidence to win a case, but it’s still evidence.

  3. This isn’t evidence. It is merely a case of egyptians writing semitic phrases in their own language.

    Hardly the same thing as a hebrew writing in “reformed egyptian”.

  4. That isn’t the Grand Canyon.

    It’s just a big hole in Arizona caused by the Colorado river.

    I’m afraid the above post betrays an intellectual rigidity about the term that the text itself does not justify.

    Have you had experience in historical methodology vis-a-vis ancient texts?

  5. Jeff, this particular case of a Semitic-related language written in Egyptian seems about as unrelated to the Book of Mormon as possible, and is certainly not conclusive evidence of the truth claims of Mormonism.

    First of all, it’s purported to be the earliest known Semitic text. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find the earliest known Latin texts to be written in whatever alphabet was in use before the Latin alphabet was developed (Greek or something? I honestly don’t know what it would’ve been), but it would certainly be odd to find Latin or any Latin-based language written in that alphabet nowadays.

    In other words, this new finding only serves to show how Semitic languages got started (note they’re calling this “proto-Canaanite”), and says nothing about the various ways Semitic languages may have been written centuries later on another continent around the time when the Book of Mormon was supposedly written. I may certainly be wrong, but I can only imagine that once the Hebrew alphabet was developed they would’ve stopped using Egyptian characters altogether.

    On top of that, the text in question is an Egyptian spell to ward off snakes (!) and appears to have been written in proto-Canaanite because the Egyptians assumed the snakes could only understand proto-Canaanite. That’s a far cry from an Israelite text and in fact doesn’t appear to have been written by Semites at all.

    It’s as if I were to tell you I knew some Russians who wrote drinking songs in French using the Cyrillic alphabet, and that this supports the possible existence of a reformed Cyrillic Arabic that the Muslims used to write the earliest drafts of the Koran. In fact, my drunk Russian friends (while they certainly are intriguing) don’t validate the existence of Cyrillic Arabic in the least. (I’ll admit that maybe the proto-Canaanite/Reformed Egyptian connection is a bit less tenuous than what I just made up, but you get my drift.)

    I mean no offense whatsoever, but I think it’s really misleading and irresponsible of you to call this evidence. If it’s evidence at all, it’s anecdotal at best, which is why the anti’s say there aren’t any shreds of evidence for the Book of Mormon. I’ll readily and sincerely concede you have a shred or two (or ten or a hundred maybe), but I haven’t seen anything concrete, yet.

    Grace and peace to you.

  6. I think it very important that we recognize what the BOM does and does not say about reformed egyptian. It DOES NOT say that R.E. is a systematic linguistic subfamily like French or English. Quite the contrary, Moroni notes in Mormon 9 that the Hebrew was “reformed by us [the Nephites]” indicating that the changes were quite local and provincial. They could well have followed Nephi’s lead (whose record, according to Nibley, was probably in straight-out demotic Egyptian).

    Folks make a fuss about “not finding” the language. Like other obscure provisional dialects, we can take a fair guess that we never will “find” it.

  7. Russell,

    Your comment about the grand canyon makes me think that you believe I was arguing semantics.

    On the contrary, it is one thing for a hebrew to write hebrew text using the Egyptian alphabet, and an entirely different thing for an Egyptian to write hebrew text using the egyptian alphabet. In the first case the hebrew is writing in a non-native alphabet, in the second, the eqyptian is using a native alphabet to write a spell that must be written verbatim to work.

    This is not semantics

  8. Again Russell,

    The argument here is not whether “reformed egyptian” ever existed (though I highly doubt it). The argument is that the cited reference is not evidence supporting the book of mormon.

    Don’t confuse the two.

  9. The original post pretty specifically spells out that he was not suggesting it was evidence. Or does that matter anymore?

  10. ruadamu2,

    He specifically said “doesn’t prove anything” before making the comment that was sarcastic. It is quite clear that Jeff in no way intended to suggest that this evidence of a Semitic language being written in Egyptian proved the Book of Mormon to be true. He simply showed that one criticism of the Book of Mormon is hereby defunct, if for no other reason than because someone did write Hebrew in Egyptian characters, something you have previously suggested simply did not happen. Thanks for stopping by, though. Your comments often tend to bring up some lovely points of doctrine and thereby share a lot more good with believers than the dissent you wish to sew.

  11. Of course this find isn’t meant as proof for the Book of Mormon. It merely illustrates that there are examples of Semitic writing in an Egyptian script, contrary to some allegations.

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