Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription

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In the May/June 2012 BAR, epigrapher Christopher A. Rollston’s “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” considered four contenders as candidates for the oldest Hebrew inscription: the Qeiyafa Ostracon, the Gezer Calendar, the Tel Zayit Abecedary and the Izbet Sartah Abecedary. Rollston asks: Is the script really Hebrew? Is the language Hebrew? Should the inscription be read right-to-left like modern Hebrew or left-to-right? How old is it? Where did it come from? Rollston concludes by stating that the earliest Old Hebrew inscriptions come from periods that postdate the inscriptions from Qeiyafa, Gezer, Tel Zayit and Izbet Sartah. Rollston’s thoughtful discussion was met by dissenting responses from distinguished archaeological and Biblical scholars, including Yosef Garfinkel, the director of excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa and Lachish, and Aaron Demsky, a professor of Biblical history and the founder of the Project for the Study of Jewish Names at Bar-Ilan University.

Read Christopher Rollston’s “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” as it appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, or read a summary of the article in Bible History Daily.

Interested in ancient inscriptions? Read Alan Millard’s assessment of the oldest alphabetic inscription ever found in Jerusalem in “Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem.”

Yosef Garfinkel’s “Christopher Rollston’s Methodology of Caution,” which appears in the September/October 2012 BAR, critiques Rollston’s approach for rejecting associations with the Hebrew language without proposing viable alternatives. He discusses the importance of the Qeiyafa Ostracon and other inscriptions for their understanding of the language used by local populations, arguing that archaeological evidence forms the basis of cultural associations, instead of pure textual analysis. His discussion serves as an indictment against both academic speculation and over-cautious reasoning, promoting the idea that the language in all four inscriptions can serve as a useful tool in understanding the early phase of Hebrew language in the Iron Age.

Read Yosef Garfinkel’s “Christopher Rollston’s Methodology of Caution.”


After we went to press on the September/October 2012 BAR, we received a communication from the distinguished senior Israeli epigrapher Aaron Demsky, also disagreeing with Professor Chrstopher Rollston’s conclusion rejecting all four candidates for the oldest Hebrew inscription. Professor Demsky argues that two of the four contenders are Hebrew inscriptions—the Gezer Calendar and the Izbet Sartah Abecedary. The latter is older and therefore deserves the honor of the oldest Hebrew Inscription. Professor Demsky’s web-exclusive analysis is a must-read for students and others grappling with the question of what makes a Hebrew inscription.

Read Demsky’s “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?–A Reply to Christopher Rollston.”

At Khirbet Qeiyafa, the Biblical name Eshbaal has been found for the first time in an ancient inscription. Read more >>

Originally published in 2012, updated in 2014.

Posted in Scholar’s Study.

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  • Ryan says

    @Jake – this is in fact an ‘error’ on the scholarly view. The Hebrew word Ebry (which we call Hebrew in English) is NOT a ‘Canaanite tongue,’ and Isaiah 19:18 is NOT speaking of the language of Ebry/Hebrew, but of those “dwelling in Egypt” to declare the Name of Yahweh to the Egyptians (since the Egyptians would also speak the same Hamitic language). What is being called “Paleo-Hebrew” is NOT Hebrew, it is a Hamitic tongue, the ‘language/tongue of Canaan.’ Context is everything, and without context we have nothing. The context begins at verse 1 of Isaiah 19, and is describing a ‘judgment against Egypt,’ not speaking of the language of Ebry. Hebrew is NOT a Canaanite language. I can show you evidence and proof of this through email if you would like, as there is major evidence that supports Abraham speaking the Scriptural Hebrew (not the false Paleo Hebrew), which was passed down from Shem (ben Adam) to Moses and the Messiah, and is even found written today (in the Aleppo Codex). Nehemiah 13 explains the ‘travesty of the sons of Yahwdah adopting the language of Ashdod’ for which Nehemiah curses them, and demands that they return to their native tongue, which is evidenced that they did in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex. (

  • Jake says

    To Ryan (#2), it is not until the Hellenistic era that the language we now call “Hebrew” acquired that name.
    In the Bible itself, the language is not called Hebrew but rather, the “Language of Canaan” (see Isaiah 19:18, which is clearly using that name to designate the language associated with the worship of the Israelite God).

    Based on Biblical Hebrew and extra-Biblica Hebrew and other inscriptions, linguists classify Hebrew as a Canaanite language.

  • Ryan says

    AGAIN, these are NOT Hebrew inscriptions, they are Canaanite inscriptions. Moab (see the Mesha Stele) did not speak Hebrew, they had mingled with the Canaanites, and had adopted the Canaanite/Phoenician/Hamitic language! Canaanites were NOT Semites/Shemites (descandants of Shem), they were sons of Ham (see Gen 9:18). The Canaanite’s did not develop their own language until around 800BCE, which was long after the Hebrews had already had their own language (see Genesis 4:26).NONE of the Dead Sea Scrolls uses this language, except the Habakkuk Commentary, believed to be written by someone that was a Hebrew, teaching Canaanites the Hebrew language. It is 1 of 900+ texts, that is mixed with two totally separate languages. Sheesh, study sometime. “Hath not Yahweh made the wise of this world foolish?”

  • Varghese says

    Here are some other inscriptions that look similar:

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