The Oldest Hebrew Script and Language

Christopher Rollston examines the Qeiyafa Ostracon, Gezer Calendar and other candidates for the oldest known Hebrew inscription

In a recent BAR article,* epigraphy scholar Christopher Rollston asks a seemingly straightforward question: What is the oldest Hebrew inscription? His examination requires him to address the fundamental questions of epigraphy. Is a text written in Hebrew script necessarily in the Hebrew language? And was the Hebrew language originally written in an alphabet that predates Hebrew script? Christopher Rollston examined four contenders for the oldest Hebrew inscription – the Qeiyafa Ostracon, Gezer Calendar, Tel Zayit Abecedary and Izbet Zayit Abecedary – to explore the interplay between early Hebrew script and language.

In his study, Christopher Rollston distinguishes between purely Hebrew script and other visually similar alphabets while examining relationships between alphabets and languages. Not only can a single language be written in various scripts, but a single script can be used for dozens of languages. English shares the Latin script with most Western languages; finding Latin letters does not necessarily mean that a text is English.

Old Hebrew script derived directly from Phoenician, and Christopher Rollston contends that Old Hebrew script did not split off from its Phoenician predecessor until the ninth century B.C.E. The Hebrew language existed well before then; the oldest extant Hebrew language texts are recorded in Phoenician script. Identifying the oldest combination of Hebrew script and language is hindered by a diverse set of complications including the poor condition of texts, the existence of cognates, regional variation, partial language preservation, limited number of artifacts and myriad other difficulties.

Qeiyafa Ostracon and Gezer Calendar

Christopher Rollston examines the Qeiyafa Ostracon, Gezer Calendar and other inscriptions in a search for the oldest Hebrew script and language.


 

 
Read Alan Millard’s assessment of the oldest alphabetic inscription ever found in Jerusalem in “Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem.”
 

 
The Qeiyafa Ostracon and Gezer Calendar are the best known contenders that Christopher Rollston examines. The five-line Qeiyafa Ostracon** has garnered a great deal of attention since its 2008 excavation at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the fortified tenth century B.C.E. Judahite city located on the border of Judah and Philistia. The faded text on the Qeiyafa Ostracon has challenged potential translators; what is known is that its variations and left-to-right orientation signal a pre-Hebrew script deriving from Early Alphabetic rather than Phoenician writing. Most scholars agree with Christopher Rollston about the type of script, but he suggests that the language may not be Hebrew. The lexemes, or word roots, could come from one of several Semitic languages. This interpretation of the Qeiyafa Ostracon raises a new set of questions. Could the Qeiyafa Ostracon be from a non-Judahite site? Or could another language have been the lingua franca of the period? More simply, could the text have been imported from elsewhere, or written by a foreigner? The Qeiyafa Ostracon is a significant puzzle piece in the development of Hebrew writing, but there are still too many unanswered questions for the Qeiyafa Ostracon to be considered the oldest Hebrew inscription.

The Gezer Calendar is a small limestone tablet listing seasonal agricultural activities in seven lines of uneven letters. Scholarly opinions on the Gezer Calendar have shifted over the past century of scholarship. In 1943, William Foxwell Albright stated that “the Gezer Calendar is written in perfect classical Hebrew.” More recent scholarship questioned the idea that the Gezer calendar has distinctively Hebrew script or language. Christopher Rollston contends “there is no lexeme or linguistic feature in the Gezer Calendar that can be considered distinctively Hebrew” and Joseph Naveh says that “No specifically Hebrew characters can be distinguished.” Christopher Rollston concludes that the Gezer Calendar is written in Phoenician rather than Hebrew script, though the late tenth or early ninth century B.C.E. includes elements described by Frank Cross as “the first rudimentary innovations that will mark the emergent Hebrew script.”

Christopher Rollston

Rollston continues his analyses on some other contenders for the oldest Hebrew inscription. He finds the Tel Zayit Abecedary to be fully Phoenician script, despite the excavation epigrapher claiming that the abecedary indicates the transition between the scripts. Finally, the oldest contender, the Izbet Sartah Abecedary, which dates to roughly 1200 B.C.E., predates the development of any Hebrew script, and appears to be written in Early Alphabetic script, which is not closely related to Old Hebrew script. While some scholars have presented these and other Iron Age I inscriptions as Hebrew script, Rollston suggests that we have to look to a slightly later period to find the first Hebrew language recorded in a purely Hebrew script.

 


 

Notes

Read Christopher Rollston’s detailed analysis of the Gezer Calendar, Qeiyafa Ostracon and several other inscriptions in “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription” from the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

* “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription” from the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

** To read more on the Qeiyafa Ostracon’s inscription, read Gerard Leval’s “Ancient Inscription Refers to Birth of Israelite Monarchy” from the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a library member yet? Sign up today or read an analysis of Leval’s article in Bible History Daily.

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11 Responses

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  1. Paul says

    The language of Canaan {Isaiah 19:18}.

  2. Joseph says

    The pivotal issue is not attended:

    Where are the Canaanite or Phoenician ‘alphabetical books’ pre-dating the Hebrew? By books I mean alphabetical; multi-page; continuing narrative. As seen with the Hebrew. We should see 1000′s of such examples: those nations were older and bigger at one time.

  3. Fount says

    I believe Rollston starts too late in history in beginning his analysis.

    Moses WROTE the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) between 1446 BC and 1406 BC. So, Moses must have written in proto-Sinaitic (a/k/a Proto Canaanite) in order to have written the books.

    Then, after almost 200 years in the Holy Land, the Judge Deborah asks why “Dan stayed in ships?” This 1210 BC question hints at an early relationship between Dan and the Phoenicians (the boat people). So, it then makes more sense that the Tribe of Dan brought their now 300 year old modified Proto-Sinaitic language to the Phoenicians (who had no writing prior to 1100 BC).

    So secular historians jumped on the Phoenicians “inventing” the language which the Hebrews then later borrowed (at first exactly) and later slightly modified. Can’t be giving God’s people any credit here…
    (As another side note, Dan looks to have actually moved up to the area of the Phoenicians in 1039 BC.)

    So to recap – Rollston starts too late – he needs to look at Phoenician itself as the earliest truly Hebrew script.

  4. David says

    I find that experts tend to leave out the simplest mitigating factors and ignore the evidence that contradicats their opinion. Mr. Rollston is no different. Or they let politics or the prevailing opinions sway their conclusions. In my research it is well known that no one knows which language came first or who copied whom and it is impossible to tell. I am under the opinion that Mr. Rollstons conclusions are another attempt to steal literacy away from the ancient Hebrews.

  5. Scott says

    The entire Mediterranean was one big international mixing bowl from practically the beginning. to credit anyone as the author is a challenge, since the oldest inscription does not indicate that its author was the one who introduced that writing alphabet.

    But Israel did have a literary tradition that led to the bible, which Survived from approx. 200 BC to present, pretty much unchanged. It is not hard to imagine that it also survived a shorter period of 1500 BC to 200 BC.

    Who has a literary tradition of copying their religious and political writings on parchment going back to 1500 BC and surviving so well for so long.

    Indications are that an entire bureaucracy built into the priesthood must have been like no other nation around them and certainly make them a good candidate for having the oldest and strongest literary/literacy tradition, which survives with history and chronology in tact. With the exception of Egypt, we don’t know much about anyone prior to 1200 BC or even 800 BC. Monumental inscriptions are not as impressive as Israel’s solid literary history, maintained by priests, even as Ireland preserved the libraries of Roman antiquity to re-introduce into Europe by their monks. I say the likelihood is that Israel is the likely author of the first script and used by others in the mixing pot of the Mediterranean.

  6. chris says

    one thing i wanted to say is someone asked where are the Canaan books? That is silly um book burning anyone? The bible itself says they destroyed everything, except animals and virgin women. So you believe they took the land but left books? When the command was no to follow their ways? History is written by the winners, Or do you believe Columbus discovered America and asked the Indians to leave nicely? I thank whomever for posting that verse Isaiah 19:18. History does show the Babylonian creation story, epic of Gilgamesh are similar not to mention the colophons.

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  9. ed says

    To attempt to link abcedaries and fragmentary inscriptions to a specific language is fruitless. If I find a paper with the modern Roman alphabet how do I know if it is being used to write Latin, English, French, Turkish or any of a dozen other languages? This is another example of imposing ones prejudices on the evidence.Z.B. Who says Moses,raised an Egyptian prince, did not write the Pentateuch in Egyptian?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. A Call for Kremlin to clean postsoviet mess in the Middle East « Christian Concepts Daily linked to this post on June 2, 2012

    [...] Was the Hebrew language originally written in an alphabet that predates Hebrew script? Christopher Rollstone BAR [...]

  2. History of Hebrew Calligraphy: Qeiyafa Ostracon linked to this post on February 20, 2013

    [...] which is considered to be the oldest if not the oldest inscription in Hebrew to be discovered. The Qeiyafa Ostracon was first excavated in 2008 excavation at Khirbet Qeiyafa. This used to be a fortified tenth century BC.E city located [...]


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