An overview and summary of the argument.

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An overview and summary of the argument.

Based on a comparison of the script of the Sinaitic inscriptions with cognate ancient scripts from the Levant, on an examination of the few Greek translations or transcriptions of Sinaitic inscriptions and other purely Greek graffiti in the vicinity, and on the account of Cosmas Indicopleustes cited supra, the conclusion was reached in the 19th century that the majority of the Sinaitic inscriptions were greetings of “personal-name son of personal-name”. The Sinaitic script was discovered to be an irregularly-formed variety of that used around the turn of the Christian era in the Nabataean kingdom, whose capital was at Petra in the ancient land of Edom. Amongst the Nabataeans the script was used to write a dialect of Aramaic. Similarly in the case of the Sinaitic inscriptions, individual words were easily identifiable as Aramaic or “Hebrew” (as Beer the decipherer of the script called it, “Hebrew” being the ancient term for Aramaic), written in the Nabataean-like script, e.g. the noticeable initial word formed of three consonants sh-l-m: this could be read, as in Aramaic, sh’lam, equivalent to the Classical Hebrew shalom, “Peace, Greeting, Health, or Hail”, the kind of word which would introduce a greeting. Likewise a terminal phrase was frequently employed in the Sinaitic inscriptions formed of three characters, which could be read b--b: this would be vocalized something like beub, literally “in good”, presumably in the sense “wishing well, all is well” or similar. Another word commonly found in the Sinaitic between the initial sh-l-m and the final b--b, written with two Sinaitic characters, was understood to be the word b-r = Aramaic bar, son. Thus the common form of the Sinaitic inscriptions was as follows: sh’lam (“Greeting!”), personal-name bar (“son-of”) personal-name beub (“in good”). A not insignificant number of supposed personal names, however, were the product of “emendation” of the original Sinaitic characters, and some required the omission of whole strings of characters in the original because they could not be molded into recognizable Semitic nominal forms.

That the inscriptions were greetings written by Nabataean pastoralists in the early Christian centuries is the favored understanding today. This “received wisdom” has been questioned only by those few scholars best equipped to form a detached view of the problem, but in their case very tentatively, and much more vociferously, since the inscriptions first began to be studied in earnest at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by individual advocates of the literal truth of the Biblical text, who saw, and still see, in the Sinaitic inscriptions the handiwork of the wandering Israelites.

The earliest explanation of the inscriptions by the 6th century AD candid and percipient merchant-monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, was that the Sinaitic inscriptions were indeed written by Israelites at the time of the Exodus. A couple of centuries earlier than Cosmas an anonymous and observant Christian pilgrim to Sinai in the late 4th or early 5th century AD described them as comprising “Hebrew inscriptions”, located in recesses used as resting-places on the approach to the town of Pharan in Wadi Feiran, or “memorial inscriptions” on the route from Wadi Feiran eastwards towards the Wilderness of Paran. Cosmas Indicopleustes described the inscriptions, more precisely, as comprising names, in the form so-and-so of such and such a family, in such-and-such a year or month, located in halting-places along the way, where the ancient Israelites were stationed, of the kind travelers might leave inscribed near inns.

This ancient explanation is perfectly in accord with the findings of modern investigators: the inscriptions are, for the most part, personal names, cast in the form so-and-so son of so-and-so, or, as the phrase might also be translated, member (“son”) of such-and-such a tribe. They comprise greetings or memorials. Occasionally a date is added at the end. The initial formulaic phrase is the Aramaic sh’lam, “greeting, peace, attention, hail, here you are” etc. It is translated into Greek as “MNESTHE” or “AL(L)SO”, viz. respectively “May it/he be remembered, or, noted!” and (literally) “Jump to it!”. It is translated “Attention!” here. The other common initial formula d’kir, meaning “(May it be) registered, recorded, remembered, noted”, is also translated into Greek as MNESTHE, and similarly, therefore, here as “For your attention!” Some of the bi-lingual inscriptions, in which the Sinaitic is translated into Greek, suggest a military or quasi-military context for the composition of the originals. In such a context, to match the proposed translation “Attention!” for the initial formula, the final beub might be translated “Present and correct!”

On this understanding, the inscriptions are greetings or memorials of named individuals, perhaps in a military or quasi-military context, of personal-name son of personal-name. The only difference between the modern and the ancient interpretation is the date assigned to them. In the absence of an external, objective, method to date the inscriptions, resort must be had to internal evidence, to hints supplied in the content of the inscriptions themselves.

First it should be noted that the Nabataean script closest in form to the Sinaitic is virtually identical to the square Hebrew or Ashurit script employed by Jews in Jerusalem in the Second Temple period. Traditionally it was this Ashurit script that was given to Moses by God Himself on Mount Sinai. On the basis of the testimony of Cosmas Indicopleustes, the inference might legitimately be drawn that the inscriptions are greetings or memorials of the Hebrews as they traveled the wastes of Sinai, and that they were composed by Hebrew scribes at the time of the wilderness wanderings in the Ashurit script given to them by God on Mount Sinai. Cosmas identifies Mount Sinai as Mount Serbal, and it is around Mount Serbal, in Wadi Feiran at its base, and in the adjoining wadis, that the inscriptions cluster in the greatest abundance. The Book of Numbers says that the Israelites were mustered at the “written marks” of the numerous individual households which comprised the host, in the area at the foot of, and radiating away from, Mount Sinai, and this would explain the function, nature, and location of the Sinaitic inscriptions precisely. As the “writing of God” (Exodus 32. 16, Deuteronomy 10. 4), the script was employed by the Israelites only for “sacred” purposes, that is, for inscriptions or writings executed at the command of God Himself. Hence its attestation only in the desert of Sinai, for the “written marks” which were divinely ordained as a tool to number the hosts, and not, for example, in the land of Canaan after the invasion, where no such divine command authorized its use. (One exception would have been the copy of the Law Joshua was instructed to inscribe in public view in Canaan, though that has been lost. The Law written by Moses was executed in the original Sinaitic Ashurit, and Ezra revived the style in a modified form in post-Exilic times.)

What if there is evidence to suggest the substance of the inscription comprises more than mere names or titles? Often the Sinaitic in such cases is wantonly emended or characters are left unidentified in the standard treatments. If the character-strings are transcribed without emendation or omission, what usually emerges is a combination of a personal name and a phrase or phrases. These latter most often relate to an event or a set of circumstances bearing a similarity to those known from the Hebrew scriptures to have occurred at the time of the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. The form of the typical Sinaitic inscription is that of a greeting or of a memorial of named individuals, but there are other inscriptions in which phrases are added to the personal names within the framework of a greeting or memorial, e.g. indicators of the time when the inscription was executed, agreeing with the Biblical chronology of the Exodus, or statements relating to events at the Exodus. These latter classes of inscription provide invaluable, circumstantial, historical, evidence confirming the Biblical account of Israel’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt and the wilderness wanderings.

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