Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription

<< Back to Scholar's Study

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.

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Add Your Comments

7 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  • 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. (

    • Jacob says

      Ryan, what we call Hebrew was never referrred to as such in the Hebrew Bible itself. It IS in fact called the Language of Canaan in Isaiah 19:18, and in fact a close examination of the text and its context makes that clear. It is indeed talking about a “judgment against Egypt”, but the ‘agent’ of that judgment is the Land of Judah. The relevant passage needs to read starting with Isaiah 19:17 and continue to 19:20:

      “And the land of Judah shall also be the dread of the Egyptians; they shall quake whenever anybody mentions it to them, because of what the Lord of Hosts is planning against them. In that day, there shall be several towns in the land of Egypt speaking the language of Canaan and swearing loyalty to the Lord of Hosts; one shall be called Town of Heres. In that day, there shall be an altar to the Lord inside the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border. They shall serve as a symbol and reminder of the Lord of Hosts in the land of Egypt, so that when [the Egyptians] cry out to the Lord against oppressors, He will send them a savior and champion to deliver them.”

      It is plainly obvious from the text that “Judah” (Judean colonists in Egypt) speaking the “Language of Canaan” (i.e. Hebrew) are to form the nucleus of Yahweh-worship in Egypt that will spread from their towns of settlement to the wider Egyptian population.
      In fact, three of these Jewish-inhabited towns in Egypt are known from the Hebrew Bible itself (Jeremiah 44:1 – Migdol, Tahpanhes and Memphis)
      A futher two are known from a later time, Heliopolis and Leontopolis.

      The commentary from the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges summarizes the process being described here:

      “The process of conversion in this and the following verses is finely conceived. First, the name of Jehovah is made known by the religious observances of the Jewish colonists and proselytes; then, in a time of trouble, the Egyptians turn to Him instead of to their false gods, and learn to know Him through His answer to their prayers (20, 21); finally this experience of Jehovah is deepened and purified by a discipline similar to that to which Israel was subjected in the time of the Judges (22).”

      Elsewhere (e.g. 2 Kings 18:26, 28), the language spoken in the Kingdom of Judah is called “Yehudith” (“Judean”), in order to distinguish it from “Aramith” (Aramaic), which was the usual language of communication with the Assyrian king’s messengers.

      The reference in Nehemiah 13 to the “language of Ashdod” in distinction to the “language of Judah” is from the time that the Jews had already returned to Jerusalem from the Exile, by which time the spoken language in many of these areas had already switched to dialects of Aramaic, and says nothing about the language situation in the pre-exilic era.

      At no point point in the Hebrew Bible is the language of the Hebrews/Jews/Israelites ever called “Hebrew”. It is called either “the Language of Canaan” or “Judean”.

      As for the language called “Hebrew” in the New Testament, it is clearly a form of Aramaic spoken by the Jews of that era, and is not are reference to the Biblical Hebrew language spoken in former times.

  • 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?”

    • Jacob says

      Ryan, it appears you are confusing Hebrew LANGUAGE, which continued to be used after the Babylonian Exile, with Hebrew SCRIPT, which clearly changed during the Exilic era from paleo-Hebrew (known in Jewish tradition as k’tav ‘Ivri, “Hebrew script”) to Aramaic (known as k’tav Asshuri, “Assyrian script”).
      The same language was merely written with a new alphabet. It is in this post-exilic Aramaic SCRIPT that the Dead Sea Scrolls (including the Habakkuk Commentary, which was written in a standard Masoretic-type Hebrew, by the way) were written. In some places, however, even the Dead Sea Scrolls preserved the name of God in paleo-Hebrew (Canaanite-type) lettering, as a kind of archaicism. Incidentally, Samaritan Hebrew preserves a modified form of the old paleo-Hebrew script. The simple point is that one language can be written in more than one script: witness Serbo-Croatian, which can be written in both Cyrillic and Latin letters. Witness the Turkish language, which at one time was written in Arabic letters, but is now written in Latin letters. Other examples abound.

      Regarding the inscriptions mentioned in this article, they can be defined as either “Canaanite” or “paleo-Hebrew” or both, since neither the language nor script had sufficiently diverged to make clear differences detectable. What IS relevant, however, is that they were located and dated to a place and time of Israelite settlement; Christopher Rollston’s attempts to label the Gezer Calendar (10th century BCE) as “Phoenician” is both geograhically and historically untenable. During the time period in question, Gezer would likely already have had an Israelite population, and the Bible records that it was rebuilt by Solomon.
      Moreover, the name of the scribe recorded in the Gezer Calendar, “Abijah”, is typically Israelite, not Phoenician.
      The inscriptions you claim are “Canaanite” are simply archaic forms – both linguistically and in script – of other inscriptions from a later era, which are still written in paleo-Hebrew but clearly Israelite in their subject matter and content.

      Your argument that the “Language of Canaan” could not be Hebrew because the Canaanites were descendants of Ham, whereas the Hebrews were descendants of Shem, appears to be based on theological, not linguistic considerations. Canaanite/Phoenician is linguistically classified as a northwest Semitic language. The division of nations in Genesis 10 does not follow clear linguistic criteria. Just take a look at the nations descended from Shem:
      Elam (non-Semitic language from ancient Iran),
      Asshur (Semitic language),
      Arpakhshad (non-Semitic name, possibly Hurrian/Urartian),
      Lud (Lydians – Indo-European speaking people of Anatolia)
      Aram (Semitic language)

      There is no basis to the claim that those dwelling in Egyptian would have used the “language of Canaan” in order to communicate to the Egyptians “since the Egyptians would also speak the same Hamitic language”.
      Ancient Egyptian language has been deciphered, and it is VASTLY different from ancient Canaanite. Even in the Bible, the Israelites were fully aware of the Egyptians speaking a foreign language (Psalm 81:5, Psalm 114:1), though they had no problem at all communicating with the Canaanite peoples around them.
      The notion that Moab did not speak Hebrew because “they had mingled with the Canaanites” holds no water. The Bible is perfectly up-front about the Israelites mixing with Canaanites and marrying Canaanite women, especially in the period of the Judges, but also in the patriarchal age (see the example of Judah himself), not to mention the marriage with a Moabitess in the Book of Ruth.

      Question: If “the Canaanites did not develop their own language until around 800BCE”, then what language did they speak before that time, considering that by 800BCE the Canaanites were for all intents and purposes “history” as far as the Bible is concerned?

  • Varghese says

    Here are some other inscriptions that look similar:

  • Some HTML is OK

    or, reply to this post via trackback.

Send this to a friend

Hello! Your friend thought you might be interested in reading this post from
Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription!
Here is the link:
Enter Your Log In Credentials...

Change Password