January 20, 2017

The Rosetta Stone and the Behistun Rock

By Joe R. Price

Words are tools by which we teach, transfer knowledge and share insight. God chose the use of words, both oral and written, to communicate with man (2 Pet. 1:20-21; Heb. 1:1-2; John 12:49-50).

The Bible is the inspired record of God’s word and will to us (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 2:10-13; 14:37; Rom. 16:25-26; Eph. 3:3-5). While the original autographs were inspired of God, we understand that neither the copies nor translations of the biblical manuscripts are inspired. Without an ability to know the languages in which the Bible was written it would be impossible to produce a translation of it, much less a trustworthy one. A language which cannot be understood cannot be translated. Neither can an unknown language communicate its message to others (cf. 1 Cor. 14:9-11).

The ability to understand the Hebrew and Greek languages and to correctly translate them means we can have trustworthy, reliable translations of God’s word. In like manner, the ability to decipher other ancient forms of writing makes it possible to learn about long lost civilizations. And, with such knowledge in hand we have more abundant evidence at our disposal of the truthfulness and accuracy of the Bible.

For example, the ancient Egyptians wrote using hieroglyphics (picture script), while the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians used cuneiform (wedge-shaped) characters. Until the first half of the 19th century these languages were unknown to modern man. Language “keys” were needed to unlock or decode the meaning of their shapes, symbols, and letters. The Rosetta Stone and the Behistun Rock gave scholars the keys they needed to unlock the meaning of these languages. Amazing details were revealed about past civilizations once it was possible to interpret these dead languages.

The Behistun Rock

Engraved on a cliff ledge 345 feet about the ground, the Behistun Inscription stands as a monumental feat of the ancient world. Located at the foot of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran near the modern town of Bisitun, the Behistun Rock was commissioned by King Darius I of Persia (522-486 B.C.). Here is a typical description of this amazing relief:

King Darius I of Persia had it cut in the rock at the time of one of his great military victories. It includes a large panel which depicts the scene of his victory, and then three panels underneath with the text. Each panel is in a different language: Old Persian, Akkadian (or Babylonian), and Elamite. In the text Darius describes how he established himself as king with the help of the god Ahuramazda by defeating his main rival, Gaumata. Darius had it cut in the rock and then knocked out the ledge which was below the inscription so that it couldn’t be tampered with. This allowed the inscription to survive through the millennia.1 

The value of the Behistun Rock, in addition to its sheer grandeur and the magnificence of its construction, is its tri-language inscription of a single text. The three different cuneiform languages appearing on the rock cliff — Old Persian, Akkadian (or Babylonian) and Elamite — rendered the key needed to understand these languages. 

In 1835, British officer Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson began his work of copying and deciphering the Behistun Inscription. He literally clung to the side of the cliff in order to copy this massive text which covers the face of a rock half the size of a football field. The work of Rawlinson and his colleagues in first translating the Old Persian, and then unlocking the mystery of the Akkadian (Babylonian) language, provided a means of understanding ancient Babylonia and Assyria as never before.
Rawlinson had . . . thus provided the keys with which to unlock the treasured secrets of the vanished nations of the Babylonian-Assyrian Civilizations. Thriving cities, bannered armies, and industrious citizenry of forgotten centuries came into full view.2

The Rosetta Stone

If the Behistun Rock unlocked the ancient world of the Mesopotamian peoples, the Rosetta Stone did that and more for ancient Egypt. Found in 1799 by a French army officer during Napo- leon’s expedition into Egypt, it is also known as the Stone of Rosette (named for the village in the western Nile Delta near its place of discovery). Still in excellent condition, the Rosetta Stone is housed at the British Museum in London.

A black basalt slab measuring about three feet tall and two feet, four inches wide, the Rosetta Stone contains three scripts of the same text: At the top is Egyptian hieroglyphs (the script of official and religious texts), in the middle is Demotic text (everyday Egyptian script) and on the bottom is Greek. The engraving is the record of a 196 B.C. decree by a council of priests in Memphis, Egypt, in which they honored the first anniversary of Ptolemy V, Epiphanes (ca. 203-181 B.C.). 

Using a knowledge of the Greek language, French Egyptologist, Jean Francois Champollion, and British physicist, Thomas Young, deciphered the hieroglyphics in 1822. The heretofore “silent” symbols of hieroglyphics sprang to life, unmasking the ancient Egyptian world.

The Value of These Discoveries

The Rosetta Stone and the Behistun Rock are of tremendous value in helping to determine the content of ancient texts and their subsequent translation into modern languages. The deciphering tools they hold help to confirm the historical accuracy of biblical references to the same peoples and nations whose languages have been translated. Because of the Rosetta Stone and the Behistun Inscription an abundance of material contemporary with the Bible is now available to us. This material provides a valuable external source of evidence which demonstrates the validity and accuracy of the Bible.

These two archaeological and linguistic achievements stand, not only as monuments to the scholarship of man, but also as monuments to the integrity and historicity of the Biblical text.

Read More About the Rosetta Stone:

Text of the Rosetta Stone: http://pw1.netcom.com/qkstart/rosetta.html
“The Stone of Rosette” (Danielle Jantzen): http://www.students.sunysuffolk.edu/~jantd09/ paper06.html

Read More About the Behistun Rock:

1. Text of the Behistun Rock: http://wwwhost. utexas.edu/courses/classicalarch/readings/ behistun.html
2. “Behistun Inscription” (Jon Bartlett): http://seminary. georgefox.edu/courses/bst550/reports/ Jbartlett/BI.html

1 “Behistun Inscription,” by Jon Bartlett (http://seminary.georgefox.edu/courses/bst550/reports/Jbartlett/BI. html)
2     Archaeology and the Bible, Frederick G. Owen, 36; Cited by Jon Bartlett

6204 Parkland Way, Ferndale, Washington 98248 joe@bibleanswer.com

Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p14  January 4, 2001