Spread from southern Mesopotamia to Egypt in the 3rd millennium BCE in the form of cuneiform (wedge-shaped) signs; this was largely replaced by an alphabetical system in Palestine early in the 2nd millennium BCE, based on consonants (vowels borrowed from the Phoenicians were added by the Greeks at some time before the 8th cent. BCE). Inscriptions, to be permanent, were incised in stone, as (it is recorded) on the tables of the Law brought by Moses from Sinai (Exod. 31: 18). But a prayer scroll (pre-exilic) has been discovered in Jerusalem, and one of the Qumran scrolls has the writing on sheets of copper. For everyday use leather and papyrus were available as writing material, and both took ink made from soot and applied with a brush or pen.

The OT records exchanges of written communications. Letters were frequently sent and received at the royal courts of Israel and Judah, from David's time (2 Sam. 11: 14) and in the reign of Hezekiah (2 Chron. 30: 1), and also to and from the Persian court (Ezra 4: 7).

It was not uncommon for people in Israel to be able to read—even for children (Isa. 10: 19) though it was not in general a literate society; and when Baruch wrote down the words of Jeremiah, and the king required them to be read to him by an official (Jer. 36: 21), it may well have been that the king could not himself read. According to the NT, Paul dictated letters (Rom. 16: 22), but it is likely that he could read both Hebrew and Greek. Certainly he signed his letters with his own hand (Col. 4: 18). The letters of Paul were read aloud in the Church meetings, and sent on to other Churches (Col. 4: 16). When Philemon received his private letter, he would have read it aloud, since silent reading was generally unknown in antiquity.