Richard Steiner, Professor at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Deciphers Semitic Serpent Spells in Egyptian Pyramid

Feb 12, 2007 — Richard Steiner, PhD, professor of Semitic languages and literature at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, deciphered the earliest connected Semitic texts and presented the results of this research publicly for the first time at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dr. Steiner’s lecture, entitled “Proto-Canaanite Spells in the Pyramid Texts: A First Look at the History of Hebrew in the Third Millennium BCE,” was sponsored by the Academy of the Hebrew Language in cooperation with the Hebrew University and the World Union of Jewish Studies. His lecture is posted online at http://hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il.

In his presentation, Dr. Steiner interpreted Semitic passages in Egyptian texts that were discovered more than a century ago, inscribed on the subterranean walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara in Egypt. The pyramid dates from the 24th century BCE, but Egyptologists agree that the texts are older. The dates proposed for them range from the 25th to the 30th centuries BCE. No connected Semitic texts from this period have ever been deciphered before.

“This finding should be of great interest to cultural historians,” said Dr. Steiner, a past fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University and a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. “Linguists, too, will be interested in these texts. They show that Proto-Canaanite, the common ancestor of Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite and Hebrew, existed already in the third millennium BCE as a language distinct from Aramaic, Ugaritic, and the other Semitic languages. And they provide the first direct evidence for the pronunciation of Egyptian in this early period.” The texts will also be important to biblical scholars, since they shed light on several rare words in the Bible, he said.

The passages, serpent spells written in hieroglyphic characters, had puzzled scholars who tried to read them as if they were ordinary Egyptian texts. In August 2002, Dr. Steiner received an e-mail message from Robert Ritner, professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, asking whether any of them could be Semitic. “I immediately recognized the Semitic words for ‘mother snake,’” Dr. Steiner said. “Later it became clear that the surrounding spells, composed in Egyptian rather than Semitic, also speak of the divine mother snake, and that the Egyptian and Semitic texts elucidate each other.”

Although written in Egyptian characters, the texts turned out to be composed in the Semitic language spoken by the Canaanites in the third millennium BCE, a very archaic form of the languages later known as Phoenician and Hebrew. The Canaanite priests of the ancient city of Byblos, in present-day Lebanon, provided these texts to the kings of Egypt. While the Egyptians took a disparaging view of their neighbors’ culture, their fear of snakes and desire to protect royal mummies against them made them open to the borrowing of Semitic magic

“This is a sensational discovery,” said Moshe Bar-Asher, Bialik Professor of Hebrew Language at the Hebrew University and president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. “It is the earliest attestation of a Semitic language, in general, and Proto-Canaanite, in particular.”

The discovery has made news around the world, appearing in USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, National Geographic, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, and MSNBC.com.

Dr. Steiner plans to publish his findings in an English article or monograph intended for specialists in Semitics and Egyptology.

Founded in 1886, Yeshiva University brings together the heritage of Western civilization and the ancient traditions of Jewish law and life. More than 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students study at YU’s four New York City campuses: the Wilf Campus, Israel Henry Beren Campus, Brookdale Center, and Jack and Pearl Resnick Campus. YU’s three undergraduate schools –– Yeshiva College, Stern College for Women, and Sy Syms School of Business ––– offer a unique dual program comprised of Jewish studies and liberal arts courses. Its graduate and affiliate schools include Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. YU is ranked among the nation’s leading academic research institutions.

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