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.

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.

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.


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  • Pannobhasa says

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

  • ilan 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.

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