Genesis of the Written Word


Genesis of the Written Word

Book Title

Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless

Publication Type




Year of Publication



Nibley, Hugh W. (Primary)






Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University


Provo, UT

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Bibliographic Citation

Nibley, Hugh W. "Genesis of the Written Word" In Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, 111-141. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004.


The most interesting thing about this article is that, within a month after it was printed, a cover story appeared in the prestigious journal Science recounting the strange achievement of an Apache In­dian by the name of Silas John, who not only claimed to have had a whole writing system revealed to him in a dream for holy purposes, but actu­ally produced the system, which turns out to be a highly efficient one; an instant alphabet, not out of nothing, but out of a dream.

The thing to notice here is that Silas John was a plain, simple, but deeply religious Indian, while the system of writing he produced sud­denly in 1904 was not only highly sophisticated but has proven perfectly functional. No long ages of evolution were necessary to its emergence; the thing was given, he always maintained, in a single vision, for the ex­press purpose of instructing men in the will of heaven and keeping them faithfully observant of it; it has never been used for anything else. Here in a leading scientific journal is a scientific description of how a system of writing actually came into being among a "primitive" people, and it confirms our own suspicions at every point. If it could happen in 1904 to a semiliterate Apache, could it not have happened earlier?

Only such evidence could break the vicious circular argument which has long prevented serious investigation into the origins of writing. Many writers in scientific journals have recently deplored the way in which scientific conclusions reached long ago and held as unimpeachable truths turn students away from avenues of research which might well prove most fruitful. The evolutionary rule of thumb, convenient, satis­fying, universal, is cited as the prime offender. Here is a test of how it works: Ask your students to write a paper on “A Day in the Life of a Primitive Man." None of them has ever seen a primitive man or ever will, but does that stop them? Before the question is on the board they are off and running and can go on writing at top speed indefinitely. They all know exactly how it should have been; evolution emancipated them from the drudgery of research. And in all of science there never was a more open-and-shut case than the origin of writing: intuitively we know it must have begun with pictures, and traditionally we know it can have developed in only one way—very slowly and gradually from simple to more complex forms, and all that. Some may elaborate on the theme with tree alphabets, oghams, runes, and (as we have) arrow markings, but if there ever was a hypothesis which enjoyed complete and unquestioning obedience, the origin of writing has been it. Yet the discerning Kipling, taking a hard, common-sense look at the official solution, found it simply absurd. It is the same hypothesis that we now dare to question, grateful for the support of the noble Silas John.

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