Alan Millard examines the Proto-Canaanite script of the earliest alphabetic text ever found in Jerusalem
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.
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.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.
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.
Become a member of Biblical Archaeology Society, and gain All Access with your membership today
The BAS Library includes online access to more than 9,000 articles by world-renowned experts and 22,000 gorgeous color photos from…
Plus, you get access to so much more from your All-Access pass:
Biblical Archaeology Review print edition:
Enjoy our current issues in the convenient, time-tested, paper magazine format…
Biblical Archaeology Review digital edition:
Stay on top of the latest research! You get …
All of this rich and detailed scholarship is available to you—right now—by becoming an All-Access member.
That’s right: when you join as an All-Access member, you get a ticket to four decades of study, insight and discovery. Why not join us right now and start your own exploration?
Whether you’re researching a paper, preparing a sermon, deepening your understanding of Scripture or history, or simply marveling at the complexity of the Bible – the most important book in history—the BAS All-Access pass is an invaluable tool that cannot be matched anywhere else.
You'll get to experience all the discoveries and debate in beautiful clarity with Biblical Archaeology Review, anytime, anywhere! And the Library is fully searchable by topic, author, title and keyword, and includes curated special collections on topics of particular interest.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to explore Bible history and biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.