Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem

Alan Millard examines the Proto-Canaanite script of the earliest alphabetic text ever found in Jerusalem

jerusalem inscription

During excavations at the Temple Mount, Eilat Mazar discovered a lettered inscription featuring the earliest alphabet ever found in Jerusalem. The inscription precedes the development of the Paleo-Hebrew script used by the Israelites in the First Temple period. What does the inscription say? Alan Millard examines the evidence and current theories. Sherd: Ouria Tadmor, courtesy of Eilat Mazar. Drawing: Ada Yardeni, courtesy of Eilat Mazar.

During the 2012 excavations at the southern wall of the Temple Mount, archaeologist Eilat Mazar discovered an inscription with the earliest alphabet letters ever found in Jerusalem. The inscription—carved on a storage jar—is written in the Proto-Canaanite script and dates to the 11th or 10th century B.C.E. In “The New Jerusalem Inscription—So What?” in the May/June 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, author Alan Millard provides a paleographic assessment of the inscription and explains how these earliest alphabet letters from Jerusalem can illuminate the scope of literacy during the time of David and Solomon.

This Jerusalem Proto-Canaanite inscription precedes the development of the Paleo-Hebrew script, which was used by the Israelites until the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. When the Judean exiles returned from Babylon, they brought back the square Aramaic script, which ultimately replaced the Paleo-Hebrew script. Both the Paleo-Hebrew and the square Aramaic scripts, however, were used together for hundreds of years.

In the free eBook Gabriel’s Revelation, discover the meaning of the inscription of “Gabriel’s Revelation” on a first-century B.C. “Dead Sea Scroll in Stone” and learn what made scholars around the world reconsider links between ancient Jewish and Christian messianism.

The spectacular discovery of the inscription—the earliest alphabet letters found in Jerusalem—immediately inspired a number of epigraphers to attempt to translate it. Alan Millard notes that at least seven different readings have been proposed by as many eminent epigraphers.

This Proto-Canaanite Jerusalem inscription dates to a time before the direction of letters (whether they were read right to left or left to right) had been firmly determined and before a distinction between Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician had been established. Eilat Mazar has tentatively dated the wall in which the inscribed jar was found to the 10th century B.C.E.

Alan Millard believes that we will likely never know with certainty what the earliest alphabetic text from Jerusalem says. What we can conclude is that the storage jar was inscribed in a place where ordinary workmen made pots, not in the lofty study of a royal scribe. Along with other early inscriptions, including the Gezer Calendar and the Qeiyafa Ostracon, Millard contends that this inscription from Jerusalem may signal widespread—if elementary—literacy during the time of David and Solomon.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “The New Jerusalem Inscription—So What?” by Alan Millard as it appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.

Learn more about the development of writing in the Levant in the BAS Library:

Christopher A. Rollston, “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2012.

Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman, “Beth Shemesh,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1997.

Jonathan P. Siegel, “The Evolution of Two Hebrew Scripts,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1979.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.

Visit the BAS Scholar’s Study page Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription to read assessments by scholars Christopher A. Rollston, Yosef Garfinkel and Aaron Demsky.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on May 9, 2014.


17 Responses

  1. John David Reynolds says:

    Would have been interesting to see some of the theories with regard to what the inscription said.

  2. ilan bergman says:

    Its interesting that Bar Kochba in the letters they found, wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic and a couple in Greek. Yet on his liberty coins during his revolt, he used Paleo-Hebrew to inscribe them.

  3. Steve bush says:

    Good material. Thanks.
    Steve Bush

  4. David Dickerson says:

    In the 1611 KJV, there were 2 letters written, 1 to the king & 1 to the reader. In the 2nd letter, the translators said they did their best but there is chance of error. I know of at least 2. That is why I use a Strong’s complete concordance

  5. Kenneth Redmon says:

    The Septuagint was translated from the Paleo Hebrew around 280 BC, and calls the Israelites ANGELS OF GOD. You must go back as far as possible, to have the True Meaning of the Word of God. All translations of today are Corrupted by men and the Serpent Seed. But the Truth will be given to them that have the Spirit of Truth within Their Hearts, which will led you to ALL TRUTH. Check History of the Flood, Septuagint around 3800 Bc, According to the KJV around 2300 BC. In either case it could not have been worldwide, Adam was not the First Man, He was the First Son of God Luke 3:38, there were many Ages Before Adam was put into the Garden of Eden, many Trees in the Garden of Eden that was People, Nations and Races Ezekiel 31. Open your eyes and let the Spirit led You. Let us all go on into the Rock of the Ages, and the Blessed Holy One.

  6. Melanie R. Taylor says:

    When did the hebrews start teaching the torah? I was under the impression that in every area of Israel that the male child starting at age 6 or 7 went to a school that taught the torah until they were 12 and if they showed promise they kept studying until they became Rabbis. Was this schooling adopted after the babalonian captivity? While in this school they would read from the torah so of course literacy was widespread.

  7. Howard West says:

    The reason that it is so difficult to trace back the origins of Hebrew script: is because it was based on a regional universal system. That system was Cuneiform in origin. (1) The symbols are called Cuneus: (Latin, wedge-form) the symbols used to make this code. These symbols where formed on soft clay tablets or tables with a piece of a reed also called a stylist that is either pushed or pulled in the soft clay of the table. This same system was used in the Jewish watchtowers of Isaiah:

    Prepare the tables, (clay tables) watch in the watchtowers…. O princes and anoint the shield” (2)

    The watchmen in the towers, prepare clay tables then anoint the shield. So what do they have to do with alphabets? The thread that will start to unravel this knot comes from Greece, Xenophon (434-355 years before the Christian era (3))the ancient Greek war hero and historian unlocks this riddle in his history of ancient Greece called Hellenica. Nevertheless, Xenophon’s words like Cassandras’ words have been rejected by the Gatekeepers of knowledge. Even so, Hellenica contains the phrase to: “Signal with a Shield” This refers to reflecting sunlight with a mirrored shield. Those mirrors were called aspis(4): the ancient Greek word for snakes or mirrored shields. The messages that were sent by these ancient heliographs were called “aspasmos(5)” to “handle the shield.”

    Today Dave is thought to be Saul’s armor bearer. What if that is an incorrect interpretation? And what he really was communication officer for King Saul? The Hebrew words used for these glittering golden or quicksilver-coated shields are, Shalat that means: dominions, in power, have power or rule.(6) Other words used for those types of shields are Magen,(7) all means: to deliver up, present or a scroll. Kydow a spark or blink of light.(8) The Hebrews scribes who used these shields were called armor bearers, and the communications were called “saw-far”(9) which translate to “Collect and record with slashes or marks.”

    “And King David took the (sun disks) Shields of Gold that were on the horses of the servants of Hadarezer, and brought them to Jerusalem and likewise from Tibhath and from Berothi cities of Hadarezer.”

    Additional evidence is that both the Hebrew and Greek alphabets have the same order as the northern Semite alphabet of the Hittites, the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, also mirror the early Ugaritic Cuneiform symbol because they were all alphanumeric/ heliographic codes. These codes allowed the most used letters to have the simplest symbol that corresponds to 1, 5, 10, 2, 4, 6, 9, 50 and 100. Here is the kicker; the message would be totaled, so that when it was received, a line cipher was given with the numeric total of the message or line by line. If the totals did not match up? The mismatch allowed the error to be discovered and allowing message be re-sent or corrected. There are at least two places where this principle is still used, first in computer code writing so that the errors in the written code can be found if the computer or software has a malfunction and which allows the line cipher to locate where the error is so that error can be fixed.

    Then there are the Jews, who still use those number values of their alphabet to total their Holy Scriptures. This is so that, the WORD of GOD would be constant without variations in its transcriptions.

    my footnotes did not transfer to site

  8. Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem – Biblical Archaeology Society | Cip's Blog says:

    […] Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem – Biblical Archaeology Society. […]

  9. Elemental Manipulation says:

    John B. You are one step closer to a truth that the world cannot handle.

  10. Kings David and Solomon ruled over a well-organized, fully urbanized Judahite state in 10th century B.C.E. | Noah begat three sons says:

    […] Precursor to the Paleo-Hebrew script discovered in Jerusalem […]

  11. In the news: Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem | Petros Koutoupis says:

    […] Biblical Archaeology Society Article: Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem Author: Robin Ngo Date: 05/09/2014 Synopsis: Alan Millard examines the Proto-Canaanite script of […]

  12. JohnB says:

    This finding and it’s accompanying speculation as to its origin begs the question: In what language and script did Moses write the first books of the bible and in what language and script did Jehovah write the Commandments? In the former case, the Hebrews would have been more familiar with the Egyptian hieroglyphics than a proto-Cannanite language and script. It stands to reason, therefore, that, in the latter case – the tablets – would have had to have been written in a language and script that was understood by those reading them. We imagine them being written in Hebrew. But is that really the case???

  13. Jim Bridges says:

    It seems a bit of a stretch to infer widespread literacy from this discovery. And since it is a proto-Canaanite inscription, possibly from the 11th century BCE, it may indicate little about literacy among the Jews.

  14. Paul Revere Sunday Edition: May 11th, 2014 | says:

    […] Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem – Bible History Daily […]

  15. Shirley Zolman says:

    Read all that and no decipher! bummer! want to know the thought process back then.

  16. Links & Quotes | Craig T. Owens says:

    […] “… this inscription from Jerusalem may signal widespread—if elementary—literacy during the time of David and Solomon.” Read more about this archeological discovery in Jerusalem. […]

  17. Sharon Raj says:

    vry exclnt praise god bible is real always.

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