The Oldest Hebrew Script and Language

Christopher Rollston examines the Qeiyafa Ostracon, Gezer Calendar and other candidates for the oldest known Hebrew inscription

Qeiyafa Ostracon and Gezer Calendar

Christopher Rollston examines the Qeiyafa Ostracon, Gezer Calendar and other inscriptions in a search for the oldest Hebrew script and language.

In the BAR article “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription,”* epigraphy scholar Christopher Rollston asks a seemingly straightforward question: What is the oldest Hebrew inscription? His examination requires him to address the fundamental questions of epigraphy. Is a text written in Hebrew script necessarily in the Hebrew language? And was the Hebrew language originally written in an alphabet that predates Hebrew script? Christopher Rollston examined four contenders for the oldest Hebrew inscription—the Qeiyafa Ostracon, Gezer Calendar, Tel Zayit Abecedary and Izbet Zayit Abecedary—to explore the interplay between early Hebrew script and language.

In his study, Christopher Rollston distinguishes between purely Hebrew script and other visually similar alphabets while examining relationships between alphabets and languages. Not only can a single language be written in various scripts, but a single script can be used for dozens of languages. English shares the Latin script with most Western languages; finding Latin letters does not necessarily mean that a text is English.

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.

Old Hebrew script derived directly from Phoenician, and Christopher Rollston contends that Old Hebrew script did not split off from its Phoenician predecessor until the ninth century B.C.E. The Hebrew language existed well before then; the oldest extant Hebrew language texts are recorded in Phoenician script. Identifying the oldest combination of Hebrew script and language is hindered by a diverse set of complications including the poor condition of texts, the existence of cognates, regional variation, partial language preservation, limited number of artifacts and myriad other difficulties.

The Qeiyafa Ostracon and Gezer Calendar are the best known contenders that Christopher Rollston examines. The five-line Qeiyafa Ostracon** has garnered a great deal of attention since its 2008 excavation at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the fortified tenth century B.C.E. Judahite city located on the border of Judah and Philistia. The faded text on the Qeiyafa Ostracon has challenged potential translators; what is known is that its variations and left-to-right orientation signal a pre-Hebrew script deriving from Early Alphabetic rather than Phoenician writing. Most scholars agree with Christopher Rollston about the type of script, but he suggests that the language may not be Hebrew. The lexemes, or word roots, could come from one of several Semitic languages. This interpretation of the Qeiyafa Ostracon raises a new set of questions. Could the Qeiyafa Ostracon be from a non-Judahite site? Or could another language have been the lingua franca of the period? More simply, could the text have been imported from elsewhere, or written by a foreigner? The Qeiyafa Ostracon is a significant puzzle piece in the development of Hebrew writing, but there are still too many unanswered questions for the Qeiyafa Ostracon to be considered the oldest Hebrew inscription.

Visit the BAS Scholar’s Study page Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription.

The Gezer Calendar is a small limestone tablet listing seasonal agricultural activities in seven lines of uneven letters. Scholarly opinions on the Gezer Calendar have shifted over the past century of scholarship. In 1943, William Foxwell Albright stated that “the Gezer Calendar is written in perfect classical Hebrew.” More recent scholarship questioned the idea that the Gezer calendar has distinctively Hebrew script or language. Christopher Rollston contends “there is no lexeme or linguistic feature in the Gezer Calendar that can be considered distinctively Hebrew” and Joseph Naveh says that “No specifically Hebrew characters can be distinguished.” Christopher Rollston concludes that the Gezer Calendar is written in Phoenician rather than Hebrew script, though the late tenth or early ninth century B.C.E. includes elements described by Frank Cross as “the first rudimentary innovations that will mark the emergent Hebrew script.”

Christopher Rollston

Rollston continues his analyses on some other contenders for the oldest Hebrew inscription. He finds the Tel Zayit Abecedary to be fully Phoenician script, despite the excavation epigrapher claiming that the abecedary indicates the transition between the scripts. Finally, the oldest contender, the Izbet Sartah Abecedary, which dates to roughly 1200 B.C.E., predates the development of any Hebrew script, and appears to be written in Early Alphabetic script, which is not closely related to Old Hebrew script. While some scholars have presented these and other Iron Age I inscriptions as Hebrew script, Rollston suggests that we have to look to a slightly later period to find the first Hebrew language recorded in a purely Hebrew script.


Subscribers: Read Christopher Rollston’s detailed analysis of the Gezer Calendar, Qeiyafa Ostracon and several other inscriptions in “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription” in the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a subscriber yet? Join today.

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.


* “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription” from the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

** To read more on the Qeiyafa Ostracon’s inscription, read Gerard Leval’s “Ancient Inscription Refers to Birth of Israelite Monarchy” from the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a subscriber yet? Join today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription
Christopher A. Rollston, Yosef Garfinkel, and Aaron Demsky weigh in

The King of Judah, Jars of Wine, and the City of Jerusalem by Christopher Rollston
The Jerusalem Papyrus and the forged words on it

Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem

Computer Program Learning to Read Paleo-Hebrew Letters

Can Abecedaries Be Used to Date the Book of Psalms?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on June 4, 2012.


13 Responses

  1. gideon tsur says:

    The ostracon from isbet sarta and ostracon from qeiyafa. Two earthenware plates used for learning. Both 12th century BC there is similarity between the letters that the two pottery sherds, written apparently by counting trainees, found in two distant sites as 50 km.

  2. connie says:

    For a people whose ancestors were brought here as slaves against their will, their history matters and finally we are learning its pros and cons. so skin color /tone does matter. Rev, 2:9 and 3:9 tells us that our history is from the beginning and it is a colored people as we have been called.

  3. Michelle says:

    Prepare Esau…
    The sons of Jacob
    Returning. ..
    And The Lion of the Tribe of Judah will protect us this time
    The True Israelites are coming home…

  4. Michelle says:

    So you know the true twelve tribes are people of color right …
    Rebecca had twins two nations…
    Why does Scripture describe Esau’s looks?? And not Josephs?
    Joseph was Negro
    Esau Caucasian. ..
    Esau, the Edomites ruling now
    The Twelve Tribes will inhabit the land once more and forevermore…
    Sons of Jacob returning…
    Prepare Edom ites for the Lion of the Tribe of Judah…

  5. Menachem Mannie Magid says:

    Every time we roll the Torah before replacing it into the arc, we point at it and chant respectfully, “This is the Torah that Moses gave to Israel, written by the mouth of God and the hand of Moses.” We accept that it is unchanged from its original, and this seems so far correct, by examination of the oldest texts discovered. The content of the Torah must place the actual writing of the script into the 12th century BCE, at a time when Philistines dominated SW Canaan and at a time within the Iron Age. I do not believe there is a record of Hebrew script that predates the Torah.

  6. Post 130: King David’s Palace Discovered? Archaeologists Find Huge Palace, Storeroom At Khirbet Qeiyafa Site and benefits of raw cocoa beans | savyatseventy says:

    […] familiar with the groundbreaking discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa. The five-line Qeiyafa Ostracon is potentially the oldest extant Hebrew inscription and some scholars interpret the text to refer to the birth of the Israelite monarchy. The […]

  7. Biblical Name Eshbaal Found Outside of the Bible | TaborBlog says:

    […] script was used in the late 11th–10th centuries B.C.E. Included in this important corpus is the five-line Qeiyafa Ostracon, a prize find unearthed during the 2008 season at Khirbet Qeiyafa and possibly the oldest Hebrew […]

  8. emadl says:

    What does a buffalo head sign mean to the Hebron

  9. ed l says:

    To attempt to link abcedaries and fragmentary inscriptions to a specific language is fruitless. If I find a paper with the modern Roman alphabet how do I know if it is being used to write Latin, English, French, Turkish or any of a dozen other languages? This is another example of imposing ones prejudices on the evidence.Z.B. Who says Moses,raised an Egyptian prince, did not write the Pentateuch in Egyptian?

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