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Re: orion-list writing systems

Hi, Paul,

To answer your first question, no, you did not misunderstand.
There are very few people who specialize in writing systems as
complete systems working as a whole rather than as parts...
As a result, a bib means looking at quite a few diverse fields and
different aspects. I'm sending a basic reading list (in a separate
post) that touches on various aspects... I think you it will be
fairly clear why I am trying to bring all the information together
under one roof, so to speak.

Your second question is neither offensive nor naive. Qumran material
is still very new, only 50 odd years, and people have had to look to
other areas in order to work with it. Scribal basic training is really
_very_ basic, and involves the same minimum requirements in Chinese and
Mayan writing systems. (Talk about out of the Qumran field <G>... but
studying Chinese and Mayan systems helps to retain objectivity and
maintain perspective.)

We do have evidence from the ANE that many of the patterns held for
earlier periods... particularly scribes as notaries and in a position
of trust. On the Semitic side of the ANE, contracts were required for
transactions at a very early date. In some areas, it was law, in others
merely custom. Custom, however, rather quickly takes on aspects of law
stronger than the written law. Back at Sumer, they had a place for
everything and everything was in its place. Archaeologists digging around
there found baskets of clay tablets: each basket was neatly indexed by
content - and the contents of each basket were of the same type of
transactions - and the same size. Later, under Hammurabi, every
transaction, no matter how small, had to be in writing and in detail.

While even the most literate person may feel quite comfortable writing
a letter to a friend or to a business associate, he will leave writing
a contract to a professional. Those professionals were what we lump
into a class called 'scribes'.

Forgery and fraud were (and are) always serious problems and many methods
and techniques were devised to keep things under control... from seals to
filling tablets from edge-to-edge (so as to allow no room for changes) to
baking official documents to prevent, er, emendations - to requiring a
specified amount of margin on the right and cutting off next to the text
on the left on papyri receipts to particular ways of folding letters and
even to the clever Roman practice of writing all correspondence with respect
to a complaint to be written on one page. (That's why so many of the
papyri have a large, empty lower margin.) Jewish law is unusual in that it
required a contract be in the hand of the party and is rather obviously
yet another fraud prevention technique. Well, that ostracon tells us one
of the ways they handled the problem with a semi-literate.

The problem of the semi-literate brings us back to your point about
using Medieval MSS to look at Qumran practices. If we confine ourselves
to the Qumran texts, the "Qumran orthography," for example, seems quite
unusual; however, it is only the best studied. This type of orthographic
"help" is quite a repetitive occurrence and displays a very typical
pattern. It shows up every time the quality of education goes down and
the quantity of semi-literates goes up. More than anything else, the
orthographic help systems give us quite a bit of sociological information
for a period. At Qumran, it tells us that semi-literacy, probably about
the equivalent of a modern 5th grader in an American school, was on the
increase but that true literacy was in decline, a point that has interesting

Of all the orthographic "help" systems devised across the centuries,
_The Ormulum_, [White, R. M., notes, and Robert Holt, ed. _The Ormulum_.
Oxford: Clarendon, 1878. Reprt. New York: AMS, 1974] is the most relevant
to Qumran studies... not for the edition - which is just about worthless,
but for the introduction and facsimile of one leaf of the MS. (The editors
standardized the graphs of an MS where the orthographic system is what
it's all about. Back in 1894 Arthur Napier was shocked to find that, for
example, Orm used three 'g' forms but the editors had emended the text
and collapsed the three into one standard form.)

Hope this helps,


Dr. Rochelle I. Altman, co-coordinator IOUDAIOS-L  risa@hol.gr

For private reply, e-mail to "Rochelle I. Altman" <risa@mail.hol.gr>
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