Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook

by Frank Moore Cross
Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003. 371 pp.
$69.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Christopher A. Rollston

The corpus of Northwest Semitic inscriptions (Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Ammonite, Moabite, Palmyrene, Nabataean, etc.) is not nearly as large as the corpus of Mesopotamian cuneiform texts (Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian) or Egyptian texts (hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts). However, the corpus of (linear) Northwest Semitic inscriptions is by no means minuscule. Ostraca (notes on potsherds), seals, bullae (clay seal impressions), monumental stone inscriptions and inscribed prestige objects of various sorts (arrowheads, bowls and ivory) are all well-attested. Moreover, the field of Northwest Semitic epigraphy and paleography (dating by means of development of the form and ductus [the direction, number and order of the strokes that form a letter] of the letters) has made enormous progress in recent years. Among the nephilim (see Genesis 6:4) in this field is Frank Moore Cross. Fellow paleographer Kyle McCarter has referred to Cross’s status in the field as sans pareil.1 Most experts would concur. Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook, a collection of many of Cross’s articles (sometimes updated slightly), is especially welcome.

Among its gems is an article originally published in 1961 entitled “The Development of the Jewish Scripts,” which Cross refers to as “my first major venture into palaeography.” In this path-breaking article Cross analyzes the chronological development of and contemporary variation in Jewish scripts of the Second Temple Period. Much has been written on this subject since Cross’s seminal article, but more than four decades later it still remains the single most authoritative treatment of the script of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Cross also published three other articles in 1961 and 1962, republished here, that trace the development of Hebrew script during the Biblical period (Iron Age) remain fundamental for the field.

Some scholars have criticized Cross for his relatively precise palaeographic dating. Regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, some have argued that palaeography is simply an insufficient basis for dating the diverse manuscripts in this collection that spans nearly four centuries. Others have also been very critical of his analysis of the Iron Age Hebrew script. Most scholars, however, are convinced by Cross’s analysis. During the early 1990s, sophisticated new carbon 14 tests on 14 Dead Sea scrolls confirmed Cross’s palaeographic dating of Qumran manuscripts. With his customary trenchant and deft wit, Cross is reported to have said that these tests “vindicated the confidence I have always had in the accuracy of …carbon 14 dating.”2

This is not to say to that Cross’s typologies have not needed refinement over the years on the basis of newly discovered inscriptions. But Cross has always been willing to revise his understanding of the nature and development of a script tradition based on new evidence. This has occurred mainly in the development of the Hebrew script. He is well aware of the fact that the “sample size” of the extant epigraphic materials from this period is a mere fraction of what was originally produced.

This collection contains other historic contributions from Cross’s pen—such as articles on the early history of the alphabet. He has also documented the development of an independent Ammonite script, as distinct from the Aramaic script.

And Cross has been one of the best at ferreting out forgeries (along with the great Israeli palaeographer Joseph Naveh). More than 30 years ago, Cross conclusively demonstrated that a Phoenician inscription reported to have been found at Pouso Alta in Brazil recording the sensational story of a Phoenician ship that was encircling Africa when it was blown off course, to the distant region of the Americas was a forgery.3 He did this on the basis of its flawed paleography and orthography (spelling).a

Cross has always affirmed that palaeography requires an “eye for form.” Some scholars have it, and some simply do not. Sometimes a fine archaeologist (who controls sequences of pottery typology), or even an epigrapher (who can read the script well, but may not be able to see the precise nuances of script variation and evolution) will have difficulty with Cross’s typologies as they don’t understand the science and method behind it. In short, Cross has a peerless “eye for form.” This volume admirably demonstrates this.



a. See Frank M. Cross, “Phoenicians in Brazil?” BAR 05:01.

1. Eretz Israel 26: Frank Moore Cross Volume (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1999), xi.

2. Eretz Israel 26, xi.

3. Frank Moore Cross, Orientalia 37 (1968), pp. 437–460; reprinted in Leaves as chapter 34.

Christopher Rollston holds a Ph.D. in Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures from Johns Hopkins University, teaches Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Emmanuel School of Religion, a Graduate Seminary, and is the editor of MAARAV, an academic journal specializing in Northwest Semitic languages and literatures.

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