Understanding the Alphabet of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Development, Chronology, Dating


Understanding the Alphabet of the Dead Sea Scrolls—Development, Chronology, Dating

By Ada Yardeni
(Jerusalem: Carta Jerusalem, 2014), 80+ figures, 40 pp., $18 (paperback)
Reviewed by Martin Heide

Ada Yardeni has a diploma in graphic arts and calligraphy, as well as a Ph.D. in Semitic languages, paleography and epigraphy. And she has managed to combine her skills in both fields. It is not only that she can make the reader understand the development of these scripts; she can look at the ancient scribe right over his shoulder. The reader gets an idea of how ancient letters were “stroked” into being. Moreover, her drawings of letters gives other paleographers an idea of what a good drawing should look like.

This little book is an easy-to-understand (well, relatively easy) introduction to the paleography of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a kind of summary of the author’s well-known monograph The Book of Hebrew Script (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002). While the latter is much more wide-ranging, the former focuses especially on the paleography of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition, it is more user-friendly, having high-resolution color photos and Yardeni’s drawings often side by side.

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The reader is first taken on a short historical tour, beginning with the emergence of the pre-exilic Hebrew alphabet from the Phoenician script.

She then points out how the pre-exilic Hebrew script was constantly subject to change, dependent on the materials used, on the purpose of the text, on the scribes themselves and on influences from outside (e.g , the Assyrian conquest of the northern state of Israel in the eighth century B.C.E. and the Babylonian conquest of Judah in the sixth century B.C.E.). With the Persian period, the Aramaic script came into general use, along with local developments. One of these developments is called the “Jewish” script, and Yardeni demonstrates its emergence in detail. The “Jewish” script is also the script employed in most of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After these introductory remarks, the main part of the book is subdivided into seven chapters: (1) paleography as a tool in the reading and dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls; (2) toward the birth of the “Jewish” script; (3) prominent characteristics of certain late Aramaic and early “Jewish” letters; (4) main phases in the evolution of the “Jewish” script; (5) morphological aspect of the letters; (6) paleography as a tool for the reading of damaged texts; and (7) characteristics of pre-“Jewish” manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Many color photos and drawings document the evolution of the various “Jewish” letter forms during the Second Temple Period. Yardeni owes much, of course, to the grandmasters of ancient Hebrew paleography, Harvard’s Frank Moore Cross and Hebrew University’s Joseph Naveh. Each of her drawings looks very much like the original it represents, and she avoids introducing her own style into the drawing itself.

As Weston Fields remarks in the foreword, “This impressive book … makes it easy to understand why one never hears a single criticism of Ada Yardeni’s professional abilities as a paleographer.”

Martin Heide is professor of Semitic languages at Philipps-Universität-Marburg, Germany.

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