The Rosetta Stone

Most Americans who are familiar with the term Rosetta Stone envision interactive software designed to teach people new languages. If they know enough history, they may know that the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering its codes was a major breakthrough in history. That’s because it allowed linguists to finally understand the meaning of the mysterious, ancient Egyptian picture-writing known as hieroglyphics.

I had never learned of any religious significance to the Rosetta Stone until I was doing research for my recent book, In Search of Christian Origins: A Timeline of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Discovery

The story of the Rosetta Stone is a fascinating one. It began in 196 BC when words were chiseled into a hunk of rock. Today we know nothing about it until 1798, when French general Napoleon Bonaparte led a military campaign into Egypt to protect French trade interests in the Middle East. The French meant to accomplish that by keeping their rivals, the English, out of the region.

This was during the European Age of Enlightenment when exploration and scientific study were booming. Countries were obsessed with gaining knowledge about virtually every subject imaginable. Because of the potential for scientific discovery in Egypt, Napoleon brought 167 technical experts with him.

In 1799, near the Egyptian port city of Rashid, which the French  renamed Rosetta, army engineering personnel began to restore an old fort known to them as Fort Julien.

One of the officers leading the restoration was Pierre-Francois Bouchard. One day, in the rubble, he noticed an intriguing slab of rock with inscriptions covering one side. When Bouchard inspected it, he noticed that the engravings were in three different languages. The scientific personnel understood the first to be Egyptian hieroglyphics, another ancient Greek, but they couldn’t readily identify the third. Bouchard knew instantly that he had found something unique and possibly of great historical importance. That chunk of rock soon became known as “la pierre de Rosette” (the rock of Rosetta). 

The French transported the slab to Cairo. Their scientists discovered that the third language of the inscription was Demotic Egyptian, a form of writing that the Egyptians had been using since 650 BC. The technicians made tracings of the carvings and sent them off to Paris. Napoleon had examined the stone himself before he had to return to France on urgent business.

The fight over the slab

A year later at Fort Julien, British and Ottoman forces besieged the French encampment and eventually forced their surrender. There was a heated dispute over who had the rights to the antiquities the French had excavated. Force finally overcame diplomacy and the English took the Rosetta Stone to London where it was soon donated to the British Museum where it sits today.

The deciphering

Linguists from around the world studied the inscriptions on the stone from the various prints that were in circulation. It was especially difficult to make progress because hieroglyphics had begun to fall into disuse around the fourth century AD. That’s because when the Roman Empire became Christianized, they persecuted pagans and tried their best to eliminate other cultures. That included the Egyptian culture and their use of hieroglyphics. By the ninth century, even the Arabs who ruled Egypt had trouble deciphering the language. The Rosetta Stone was indeed the fortuitous “missing link”.

As far as a starting point, the ancient Greek language was widely known by scholars in the nineteenth century. In 1803, the French produced the first translation of the Greek script in French and Latin. It turned out to be a priestly decree inscribed in the three languages. By 1822, French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion had deciphered the hieroglyph script. In 1836 the French published a complete hieroglyphic dictionary based on his work.

The dawn of Archeology

The science of archeology was just beginning, so it was very coincidental that the Rosetta Stone was discovered when it was. Later in the century, as archeologists discovered and explored more tombs, they found staggering amounts of hieroglyphic writings that they were passionate to decipher.

Unexpectedly, the stone would become invaluable in understanding other religions beside that of Egypt. Until the time the time hieroglyphics was deciphered, no one knew how influential the Egyptian religion was to the development of Judaism, and then Christianity.

The view from inside Christian culture

In traditional Christian cultures such as Europe, the Americas, Australia, etc., people are taught that about six thousand years ago, God created the world and everything in it. If that were true, in that relatively short amount of time, it’s conceivable that the God of creation was the God the Jews worshipped. Jews believed themselves to be that One God’s chosen people. The the Jews and their spiritual descendants, Christians and Muslims, are all known as “children of Abraham” because they are spiritual descendants of the Jewish covenant between God and Abraham.

The Hebrew Bible traces Abraham’s genealogy all the way back to the first humans on earth– Adam and Eve. Then there was a exile from the Garden of Eden, a global flood, the repopulating of the earth, the tower of Babel, the Exodus out of Egypt, and the rest of Jewish history.

If the world was truly six thousand years old, that about summed up all of the history of mankind. The Old Testament covered everything that came before Christ and the New Testament and then organized Christianity influenced everything that came after that. It was all wrapped in a neat package. But not so fast! What did the Egyptians have to tell us?

The Bible is merely the history of the world from the Jewish perspective. And, since Christians evolved from the Jews they are almost never taught about other viewpoints of religious history.  It’s always the Judeo-Christian tradition and that alone. Also, the Old Testament is presented as the oldest and most important writing in history, therefore it is the authority that we should all believe in. But scholars are changing that concept. It turns out that it is not the oldest, nor maybe even the most important writing in history.

More to history than we realized

Following the evidence over the course of human history, Jews were actually late to arrive on the scene. They didn’t really coalesce as a culture until the first millennium BC. So, many great Middle Eastern civilizations preceded them. Powerful empires had already turned back to sand by then.  The residue of those nearby cultures would have naturally impacted the religions of the Jews and Christians. The Egyptians for one, left a profound impression on them, but it wasn’t just the Egyptian civilization. The Babylonians and Persians also preceded and greatly influenced the Jews during the Jewish Captivity of the sixth century BC.

Anything said about Judaism also applies to Christianity. Christianity began as a Jewish sect and, in many ways, it still is. That’s because of the great importance many Christians place on the Old Testament—the Jewish Bible. Those who take the Old Testament literally are true disciples of Judaism.

In the next post, I’ll go into more detail on exactly what imprint Egyptian religion left on Judaism and Christianity. I’ve read that there is little in the Old Testament, or even the New Testament, that is original. If someone studies almost any Jewish religious theme, there is a good chance they can trace its roots back to an earlier religion.

It’s only natural for societies to take what was handed down to them, learn from it, and then try to improve on it. Those men who compiled the Bible may not have even known where the stories they about wrote originated. I’m sure many of those stories came from vague oral histories, not from any identifiable writings. Those stories could have been passed down orally for so long that no one knew where they originated.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *