In the May/June 2012 BAR, epigrapher Christopher A. Rollston’s “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” considered four contenders as candidates for the oldest Hebrew inscription: the Qeiyafa Ostracon, the Gezer Calendar, the Tel Zayit Abecedary and the Izbet Sartah Abecedary. Rollston asks: Is the script really Hebrew? Is the language Hebrew? Should the inscription be read right-to-left like modern Hebrew or left-to-right? How old is it? Where did it come from? Rollston concludes by stating that the earliest Old Hebrew inscriptions come from periods that postdate the inscriptions from Qeiyafa, Gezer, Tel Zayit and Izbet Sartah. Rollston’s thoughtful discussion was met by dissenting responses from distinguished archaeological and Biblical scholars, including Yosef Garfinkel, the director of excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, and Aaron Demsky, a professor of Biblical history and the founder of the Project for the Study of Jewish Names at Bar-Ilan University.
Interested in ancient inscriptions? Read Alan Millard’s assessment of the oldest alphabetic inscription ever found in Jerusalem in “Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem.”
Yosef Garfinkel’s “Christopher Rollston’s Methodology of Caution,” which appears in the September/October 2012 BAR, critiques Rollston’s approach for rejecting associations with the Hebrew language without proposing viable alternatives. He discusses the importance of the Qeiyafa Ostracon and other inscriptions for their understanding of the language used by local populations, arguing that archaeological evidence forms the basis of cultural associations, instead of pure textual analysis. His discussion serves as an indictment against both academic speculation and over-cautious reasoning, promoting the idea that the language in all four inscriptions can serve as a useful tool in understanding the early phase of Hebrew language in the Iron Age.
Read Yosef Garfinkel’s “Christopher Rollston’s Methodology of Caution.”
After we went to press on the September/October 2012 BAR, we received a communication from the distinguished senior Israeli epigrapher Aaron Demsky, also disagreeing with Professor Chrstopher Rollston’s conclusion rejecting all four candidates for the oldest Hebrew inscription. Professor Demsky argues that two of the four contenders are Hebrew inscriptions—the Gezer Calendar and the Izbet Sartah Abecedary. The latter is older and therefore deserves the honor of the oldest Hebrew Inscription. Professor Demsky’s web-exclusive analysis is a must-read for students and others grappling with the question of what makes a Hebrew inscription.
In the enhanced edition of the BAS Ancient Inscriptions: Voices from the Biblical World CD-ROM, you can view 295 maps, color images and drawings, accompanied by captions written by Professor P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University. Ancient Inscriptions: Voices from the Biblical World is a unique tool for scholars, teachers and laypeople who are fascinated by the ultimate human artifact: the words of our ancient ancestors.
Originally published in 2012, updated in 2014.