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The Rosetta Stone

September 6, 2018

 

Introduction

 

The Rosetta stone is a tri-lingual inscription carved in black granite with the same text inscribed in three ancient languages; Hieroglyphic, Demotic and Greek.  The text is a decree jointly issued by the king and a council of Egyptian priests in 196 BC with the purpose of affirming the royal cult of 13-year-old Pharaoh Ptolemy V, demonstrating his benevolence towards his people and his faithfulness to the gods on the first anniversary of his coronation.  Moreover, the text claims that priests placed identical copies of the decree in temples throughout the land (Ray 2007: 1).  The stone probably sat in the ruins of a temple for centuries, most likely in Sais, until workers repurposed it as building material used for a fifteenth century fort erected in the town of Rosetta.  During Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, French soldiers restructured the building, now named Fort Saint Julien, to prepare for an Ottoman attack in July 1799. While clearing debris in preparation for reconstructing its fortifications, a French officer discovered the stone and transported it from Rosetta to Cairo for inspection by the Institut d’Egypte.  After the French defeat at the Battle of Alexandria and their subsequent capitulation to the English, the stone became a spoil of war.  The Rosetta stone, along with a large amount of other antiquities were shipped to London.  First exhibited at the British Museum in June 1802, the Rosetta stone remains on display in the museum’s collection to this day.

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

While its intertestamental date and the immediate historical context surrounding its composition do not directly relate with the biblical account, the decipherment of the Rosetta stone opened a huge new and exceedingly rich world of Egyptian texts and epigraphic monuments.  These texts, including religious, literary, and annalistic, as well as monumental inscriptions, often correspond with and contextualize biblical history and literature, especially concerning the critical earlier history of Israel and the Hebrew tribes.

 

Physical Description

 

The surviving portion of the Rosetta stone is 46 inches high, 30 inches wide and 12 inches deep. Originally, the stone was considerably taller, with the missing uppermost register decorated with figures of the king and gods.  Only a third of the hieroglyphic text is extant and the bottom right corner of the Greek text is broken off, as is a small portion of the Demotic text (Ray 2007: 3).  The Horn Museum Rosetta Stone is a facsimile of the original trilingual text.

 

Historical Significance

 

The Rosetta stone is arguably the most famous artifact from antiquity on display at the British Museum. For centuries, Egyptologists and biblical scholars viewed the exceedingly rich corpus of ancient Egyptian inscriptions from the outside.  The Egyptian language utilized pictographs, known as Hieroglyphs, was a locked box as knowledge of the language was long forgotten and the priceless information it held remained undecipherable.  The Rosetta stone became the key to unlock this treasure chest of information and essentially created the field of Egyptology.  Using the Greek text and their knowledge of Coptic and other languages, Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young amazingly read the Hieroglyphic text following years of work.  For their pioneering achievement, science, ancient historians and biblical scholars owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to both Champollion and Young as well as their successors.

 

Parallels

 

Following the decipherment of the Rosetta stone, additional fragments of multi-lingual texts have turned up in Egypt.  A similar scenario involving the decipherment of cuneiform writing occurred with the Behistun Inscription, a multilingual royal inscription of Darius the Great of Persia carved on the face of a cliff in western Iran between 522-486 BC.  The inscription included three versions of the same text in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian (Akkadian).  Known from travelers since the late sixteenth century, attempts to read the inscription faltered until Sir Henry Rawlinson began transcribing and deciphering the three texts in 1835.  After a number of years, Rawlinson and several colleagues read all three text and thus opened up the field of Assyriology to scholarship. 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Kemp, B. J.

2006    Ancient Egypt:  Anatomy of a Civilization.  Second edition.  New York: Routledge.

 

Parkinson, R.

1999    Cracking Codes:  The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment.  Berkeley: University of                        California.

 

Ray, J.

2007    The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt.  Cambridge:  Harvard University.

 

Robinson, A.

2012    Cracking the Egyptian Code:  The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François                                          Champollion.  New York:  Oxford University.

            

Shaw, I., ed.

            2000    The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford:  Oxford University.

            

Solé, R., and Valbelle, D.

2001    The Rosetta Stone:  The Story of the Decoding of Hieroglyphics.  Trans. S. Rendall                      from French.  New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

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