First Person: A Little Jot on a Jerusalem Column

From the January/February 2019 Biblical Archaeology Review

Robert CargillOn October 9, 2018, archaeologists at the Israel Museum held a dramatic unveiling of a stone column section that was unearthed during an excavation directed by the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Danit Levy near Binyanei Ha’Uma in Jerusalem.

On the face of the column drum, which had been discovered in reuse as part of a Roman structure, was a 2000-year-old inscription written in Hebrew letters of a style used during the reign of Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.). Apparently, someone from the first century B.C.E. jotted his name and city on a column in Jerusalem. According to scholars, the inscription reads, “Ḥananiah son of Dodalos of Jerusalem.”

Exactly who this individual was remains a mystery. Perhaps it identifies the one who carved the column, or perhaps it’s a graffito carved by a passerby. Whoever it was, he left his mark.

At first glance, the inscription appears rather benign. But to those of us who study Jerusalem, its history, and especially the text of the Hebrew Bible and who pay particularly close attention to the spelling of key words, this inscription carries far more linguistic weight than that of the stone itself.

Israel Museum curators have called “Gabriel’s Revelation” the most important document found in the area since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Read the original English publication of “Gabriel’s Revelation” by Ada Yardeni along with Israel Knohl's article that made scholars around the world reconsider links between ancient Jewish and Christian messianism in the free eBook Gabriel’s Revelation.


Photo: Danit Levy, Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Jerusalem Column is the first inscription from the Second Temple period where the full spelling of the Hebrew name of Jerusalem (ירושלים) appears. By “full spelling,” I mean a spelling of Jerusalem that includes the letter yod (י) between the lamed (“l”; ל) and final mem (“m”; ם) at the end of the name.

As many readers may know, Jerusalem in Hebrew is pronounced as Ye-roo-sha-lai-eem. However, early in the history of the Hebrew language, words weren’t always written with the vowels we see today, nor with many of the vowel letters—typically waw (ו) and yod (י), but also aleph (ℵ) and heh (ה)—that appear more frequently in spellings later in Hebrew’s development. (William Schniedewind discusses this phenomenon later in this issue.)

Early in the Hebrew language’s development, Jerusalem was spelled without the final yod, as ירושלם. In fact, of the 660 times that the name “Jerusalem” appears in the Hebrew Bible, all but five instances appear as this shorter version, ירושלם. However, in Jeremiah 26:18, Esther 2:6, 1 Chronicles 3:5, and 2 Chronicles 25:1 and 2 Chronicles 32:9—all relatively late Hebrew Bible texts chronologically—the spelling of Jerusalem appears as ירושלים, that is, with the extra yod as the penultimate letter.

What is interesting is that the Masoretes, the medieval Jewish scribes who added the vowels and cantillation marks to the Hebrew Bible to standardize pronunciation and make it easier to read, pointed the shortened spellings of Jerusalem (the instances without the extra yod) so that they would be pronounced as if the yod were present. That is to say, the Masoretes were convinced that Jerusalem was always pronounced in antiquity the way it was pronounced in their time—and the way it is pronounced today in Israel—as Yerushalayim, not as Yerushalem. The only problem was that there was no archaeological evidence to prove this pronunciation … until now!

With the discovery of the Jerusalem Column, we have our earliest archaeological evidence that Jerusalem was spelled, and therefore indeed pronounced, with the second yod, not as Yerushalem, but as Yerushalayim during the Second Temple period, just as it was spelled in the five instances of Jerusalem that appear in the late texts from the Hebrew Bible. The column is archaeological corroboration not only of these later Biblical spellings, but also of the Masoretic assumptions from a millennium later. It is also further confirmation of prevailing scholarly theories concerning the history of the Hebrew language, spelling, and the orthographic inertia that pervades scribal convention.

And all this from just one tiny letter—a little yod—a letter that the King James Version of Matthew 5:18 transliterates as the common word we still use today for something written quickly: “jot.”

“First Person: A Little Jot on a Jerusalem Column” by Robert R. Cargill originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

2,000-Year-Old Jerusalem Inscription Bears City’s Name

Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem

The King of Judah, Jars of Wine, and the City of Jerusalem by Christopher Rollston

Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription

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  • David says

    But back to the column; I doubt it was signed by the carver, as that would be considered vandalism by whomever commissioned it.
    More likely, it was by a later passerby who actually did vandalize it.

  • Wes says

    For those that argue so ardently for BC vs. BCE and AD vs CE., when was Christ actually born? It is possible that this event as understood by Biblical scholars, historians or archeologists has an uncertainty of several years, plus or minus the current accepted date – which by the way is not based on the date of birth ofJesus Christ.

    Now should there be new evidence that ties it down exactly to, say 11 July 3 BC or 12 August 2 AD, should we readjust all the calendars? Will all the non Christians agree to this program? Or what if it is mistake and re-adjusted? Or are we dealing with inerrant numbers as well as texts?

    I personally have no qualms with using AD or BC and have done so all my life. But if it gives inquiries more objectivity when discussing historical or archeological matters with people who do not share my beliefs or customs, then I am quite content to slip into BCE or CE – as it were for the sake of argument.

    So for now, I believe that the conversion between the two measures is easier than English and metric units…

  • Eliyahu says

    I think we can see just how the name of Jerusalem was pronounced in the BCE period. And we can understand the religious meaning of why the name was changed in Hebrew to the -ayim ending that the author is discussing.

    I makes sense in determining how the name was pronounced by looking at Greek and Latin renditions of it. The alphabets used by these two tongues have the virtue of supplying vowels whereas Hebrew and other Canaanite languages lack them, except for vav & yod as noted in the article. You can find the name rendered Hierosolyma in Greek and Hierusalem in Latin [not to mention some other spelling variations]. These transliterations do not show the -ayim ending. My opinion is that the -ayim ending came from a later view of the holy city that saw it as two cities, just as the -ayim ending in the name Mitsrayim refers to the two Egypts, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. In Arabic as readers may know, the country is called simply Misr or Masr, as if it were one and not divided in Lower and Upper.
    In the case of Jerusalem, these two cities were the Earthly and the Heavenly Jerusalem. [this opinion is not original with me but it is the most convincing].
    On another point, the Greek version –with HierosOlyma, with O after the S– conveys the original pronunciation of the vowel qamets which was like aw in saw, not as we currently pronounce it in modern Hebrew as ah. NB the Ashkenazi and Yemenite Jews preserved the original pronunciation of qamets as qomets or if you like, Kawmets.

  • Asherz says

    The city of Jerusalem is mentioned 667 times in the Scriptures, Tanach. In four cases the spelling is with a Yud for the penultimate letter. Jeremiah, Esther and twice in 2 Chronicles.
    Mr. Cargill should take this into account when he writes an essay as the one here.

  • BAS says

    B.C.E. really? We dig inscriptions out of the ground and we are informed and supported by them immensely. Our case grows stronger the more we dig up. I encourage all readers of these comments to read books of yesteryear where time was calculated as B.C. for good meaning, Before Christ. To try to change this intentionally to Before Common Era is revisionistic, and not true to history. Why be true in one area and not another?

    • David says

      Excuse me, but Judaism predates Christianity by some 1400 or so years, and the history of the Hebrews another 1200 or so years before that. So, frankly, “BC” is an incorrect rendering of Jewish history. If you intend to be such a stickler for accuracy in dating terminology, then you should be encouraging BAR to use Hebrew dating for Jewish history. I’d be equally at home with it, as should you.

      • DENNIS says

        This could get sticky since you’d have to use “Ab urbe condita” or “A.U.C.” dating when touching on the Roman Era. BTW, 2019 is 2772 A.U.C.

    • Walter says

      The Christian Era was formulated in 525 C.E. by the monk Dionysius Exiguus who worked in Rome. It was not used to date historic events until the Venerable Bede, an English monk, used in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 CE. All of that was long after the inscription discussed in this article.

      Look, if you wish, you may think of C.E as referring to the Christian Era. In the study of chronology, an era is “a system of chronology dating from a particular noteworthy event”. That event is called the epoch.

      For the Christian Era established by Dionysius, the epoch is the January 1 immediately following the birth of Jesus on the immediately preceding December 25. The system of counting the Christian Era is ordinal from the epoch, which is why the 21st Century of the Christian Era began on 1 January 2001.

      Even within Christianity the use of the Christian Era is not universal. Several eastern churches did not, and some still do not, use it.

      It should be noted that the Gospels do not support Dionysius’s epoch. Matt 2:1 links the Nativity to the reign of Herod who died 4 years earlier. And, Luke 2:1 says it occurred during the enrollment when Quirinius was governor of Syria. An office that worthy assumed 6 years later. Take your pick.

      Largely because of the economic and political dominance of European and North American countries populated by Western Christians since the Nineteenth Century, the Christian Era has become more or less universal. Six billion people who are not Christians use it for most secular purposes, such as government and commerce. Insisting on the use by them of the initials AD, which means the Year of Our Lord, seems a bit presumptuous.

      • DENNIS says

        I agree wholeheartedly. Actually regarding your last sentence, I consider it more than “presumptuous”; it is arrogant. BTW, I’ve noticed that it is usually fundamentalists that complain the most about common era dating; I consider them the Christian equivalent to the Taliban or DAESH.

    • DENNIS says

      Before Common Era is ACCURATE because the Gregorian (Christian) calendar and dating is EXACTLY that: the system used COMMONLY worldwide even though many, if not most countries have their own local calendar/dating system. Even these United States has a national legal dating system in addition to the Gregorian. The US dating system uses 1776 as its start point so we are currently in the year 242 of the Independence of the United States (using July as the first month). Israel uses the Hebrew system (the oldest continuously used system); Moslem countries use the Moslem calendar that starts in 622 CE, eyc.

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