The other night I went to see the film Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy. This film, which I recommend, addresses the argument that Moses could not have written the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) because he had no means to do so – no alphabet to write with. Modern scholars will tell you that the first instances of inscriptions in the Hebrew alphabet do not occur until somewhere around 900 BC, over 500 years after the Exodus according to thebiblicaltimeline. If Moses did not write the Torah during his lifetime, then at best what we have is a set of oral traditions attributed to him that were written down much later – some would say as late as the 5th or 6th century BC. And if this is true, then the historical elements must certainly have been corrupted and/or exaggerated as they were passed from generation to generation. In short, if the Torah was not written at the time of Moses, then the Torah cannot possibly provide reliable history.
If, as told in Exodus, Moses was brought up in Pharaoh’s court, then he certainly would have been able to read and write Egyptian Hieroglyphics. However, hierogyphs were not suitable to write a work the length of the Torah, and because of the difficulty in learning to read and write hieroglyphs (Similar to modern Mandarin Chinese characters, Egyptian Hieroglyphs each represent a word or concept and there are over 1,000 characters to learn), only the scribes, priests, and nobility were literate. Moses needed to write in something that would support much broader literacy – he needed an alphabet. So, if written Hebrew didn’t appear until the 10th century BC, what alphabet did Moses use?
The Hebrew alphabet didn’t just appear, it derived from something older. Traditionally, the first alphabet has been attributed to the Phoenician’s and the oldest inscription in the Phoenician alphabet can be found on the sarcophagus of king Ahiram of Tyre (the biblical Hiram, contemporary of Solomon). But even older inscriptions in a very similar script can be found in the highlands of Israel. And this script can be shown to have derived from something even older, a script with its origins in Egypt. The oldest inscriptions in an alphabetic script date from the late 12th Dynasty of Egypt, from the time of Pharaoh Amenhemat III, the Pharaoh of Joseph, and they use a small subset of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic character set as phonetic letters – symbols that morphed over time into the letters we are familiar with today in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Cyrillic, and more. This script, known as proto Sinaitic, would have been available to Moses and perhaps broadly to the Children of Israel at the time of the Exodus, and it’s this script that I believe was used by Moses to write the Torah.
What does this mean for thebiblicaltimeline? Fundamentally, if Moses wrote the Torah, then we have an eyewitness account of the events of the Exodus and the sojourn in the wilderness. And if Moses was able to write the Torah, then the events of Joshua, Judges, and later historical books could also have been written contemporaneous to the actual events (which doesn’t rule out later compilation and editing). And if these events were recorded as they were happening or shortly thereafter, then we have highly reliable history on which to base the timeline, at least as far back as the time of Moses.
What about Genesis then? The book of Genesis, even if it was written at the time of Moses, covers events from at least 200 years earlier (Joseph) to as much as 3,000 to 4,000 years earlier (Creation). We don’t know what sources Moses used for Genesis. Events beginning with Joseph could have been written down and perhaps the accounts of Abraham through Joseph were initially written down by Joseph himself (who as Pharaoh’s vizier would certainly have been literate). The creation story and the flood could have come from oral histories, or perhaps as some suppose Moses borrowed them from Sumerian literature. Or maybe, just maybe, people have been writing things down for even longer than anyone currently believes. Maybe writing (most likely in a form similar to cuneiform) goes back even before the Flood …