|c. 1000 BCE – 135 CE|
|ISO 15924||Phnx (115), Phoenician|
The Paleo-Hebrew script (Hebrew: הכתב העברי הקדום), also Palaeo-Hebrew, Proto-Hebrew or Old Hebrew, is the writing system found in Canaanite inscriptions from the region of biblical Israel and Judah. It is considered to be the script used to record the original texts of the Hebrew Bible due to its similarity to the Samaritan script, as the Talmud stated that the Hebrew ancient script was still used by the Samaritans. The Talmud described it as the "Libona'a script" (Aramaic לִיבּוֹנָאָה Lībōnāʾā), translated by some as "Lebanon script". Use of the term "Paleo-Hebrew alphabet" is due to a 1954 suggestion by Solomon Birnbaum, who argued that "[t]o apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable".
The first Paleo-Hebrew inscription identified in modern times was the Shebna inscription, found in 1870, and then referred to as "two large ancient Hebrew inscriptions in Phoenician letters". Fewer than 2,000 inscriptions are known today, of which the vast majority comprise just a single letter or word. The earliest known examples of Paleo-Hebrew writing date to the 10th century BCE.
Like the Phoenician alphabet, it is a slight regional variant and an immediate continuation of the Proto-Canaanite script, which was used throughout Canaan in the Late Bronze Age. Phoenician, Hebrew, and all of their sister Canaanite languages were largely indistinguishable dialects before that time. The Paleo-Hebrew script is an abjad of 22 consonantal letters, exactly as the other Canaanite scripts from the period.
By the 5th century BCE, among Judeans the alphabet had been mostly replaced by the Aramaic alphabet as officially used in the Achaemenid Empire. The "Jewish square-script" variant now known simply as the Hebrew alphabet evolved directly out of the Aramaic script by about the 3rd century BCE (although some letter shapes did not become standard until the 1st century CE). By contrast, the Samaritan alphabet, as used by Samaritans, is an immediate continuation of the Proto-Hebrew script without intermediate non-Israelite evolutionary stages. There is also some continued use of the old Hebrew script in Jewish religious contexts down to the 1st century BCE, notably in the Paleo-Leviticus text found in the Dead Sea scrolls.
The Paleo-Hebrew and Phoenician alphabets developed in the wake of the Bronze Age collapse, out of their immediate predecessor script Proto-Canaanite (Late Proto-Sinaitic) during the 13th to 12th centuries BCE, and earlier Proto-Sinaitic scripts.
The earliest known inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew script is the Zayit Stone discovered on a wall at Tel Zayit, in the Beth Guvrin Valley in the lowlands of ancient Judea in 2005, about 50 km (31 mi) southwest of Jerusalem. The 22 letters were carved on one side of the 38 lb (17 kg) stone, which resembles a bowl on the other. The find is attributed to the mid-10th century BCE. The so-called Ophel inscription is of a similar age, but difficult to interpret, and may be classified as either Proto-Canaanite or as Paleo-Hebrew. The Gezer calendar is of uncertain date, but may also still date to the 10th century BCE.
The script on the Zayit Stone and Gezer Calendar are an earlier form than the classical Paleo-Hebrew of the 8th century and later; this early script is almost identical to the early Phoenician script on the 9th-century Ahiram sarcophagus inscription. By the 8th century, a number of regional characteristics begin to separate the script into a number of national alphabets, including the Israelite (Israel and Judah), Moabite (Moab and Ammon), Edomite, Phoenician and Old Aramaic scripts.
Linguistic features of the Moabite language (rather than generic Northwest Semitic) are visible in the Mesha Stele inscription, commissioned around 840 BCE by King Mesha of Moab. Similarly, the Tel Dan Stele, dated approximately 810 BCE, is written in Old Aramaic, dating from a period when Dan had already fallen into the orbit of Damascus.
The oldest inscriptions identifiable as Biblical Hebrew have long been limited to the 8th century BCE. In 2008, however, a potsherd (ostracon) bearing an inscription was excavated at Khirbet Qeiyafa which has since been interpreted as representing a recognizably Hebrew inscription dated to as early as the 10th century BCE. The argument identifying the text as Hebrew relies on the use of vocabulary.
From the 8th century onward, Hebrew epigraphy becomes more common, showing the gradual spread of literacy among the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah; the oldest portions of the Hebrew Bible, although transmitted via the recension of the Second Temple period, are also dated to the 8th century BCE.
Use in the Israelite kingdoms
The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was in common use in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah throughout the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. During the 6th century BCE, the time of the Babylonian exile, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was gradually replaced by the use of the Imperial Aramaic alphabet. The letters of Imperial Aramaic were again given shapes characteristic for writing Hebrew during the Second Temple period, developing into the "square shape" of the Hebrew alphabet.
The Samaritans, who remained in the Land of Israel, continued to use their variant of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, called the Samaritan script. After the fall of the Persian Empire, Jews used both scripts before settling on the Assyrian form.
The Paleo-Hebrew script evolved by developing numerous cursive features, the lapidary features of the Phoenician alphabet being ever less pronounced with the passage of time. The aversion of the lapidary script may indicate that the custom of erecting stelae by the kings and offering votive inscriptions to the deity was not widespread in Israel. Even the engraved inscriptions from the 8th century exhibit elements of the cursive style, such as the shading, which is a natural feature of pen-and-ink writing. Examples of such inscriptions include the Siloam inscription, numerous tomb inscriptions from Jerusalem, the Ketef Hinnom scrolls, a fragmentary Hebrew inscription on an ivory which was taken as war spoils (probably from Samaria) to Nimrud, the Arad ostraca dating to the 6th-century BCE, the hundreds of 8th to 6th-century Hebrew seals from various sites, and the Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll discovered near Tel Qumran. The most developed cursive script is found on the 18 Lachish ostraca, letters sent by an officer to the governor of Lachish just before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. A slightly earlier (circa 620 BCE) but similar script is found on an ostracon excavated at Mesad Hashavyahu, containing a petition for redress of grievances (an appeal by a field worker to the fortress's governor regarding the confiscation of his cloak, which the writer considers to have been unjust).
Decline and late survival
After the Babylonian capture of Judea, when most of the nobles were taken into exile, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet continued to be used by the people who remained. One example of such writings are the 6th-century BCE jar handles from Gibeon, on which the names of winegrowers are inscribed. Beginning from the 5th century BCE onward, the Aramaic language and script became an official means of communication. Paleo-Hebrew was still used by scribes and others.
The Paleo-Hebrew script was retained for some time as an archaizing or conservative mode of writing. It is found in certain texts of the Torah among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated to the 2nd to 1st centuries BCE: manuscripts 4Q12, 6Q1: Genesis. 4Q22: Exodus. 1Q3, 2Q5, 4Q11, 4Q45, 4Q46, 6Q2, and the Leviticus scroll (11QpaleoLev). In some Qumran documents, the tetragrammaton name of the Israelite deity, YHWH, is written in Paleo-Hebrew while the rest of the text is rendered in the adopted Aramaic square script that became today’s normative Jewish Hebrew script. The vast majority of the Hasmonean coinage, as well as the coins of the First Jewish–Roman War and Bar Kokhba's revolt, bears Paleo-Hebrew legends. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet fell completely out of use among Jews only after 135 CE.
The paleo-Hebrew alphabet continued to be used by the Samaritans and over time developed into the Samaritan alphabet. The Samaritans have continued to use the script for writing both Hebrew and Aramaic texts until the present day. A comparison of the earliest Samaritan inscriptions and the medieval and modern Samaritan manuscripts clearly indicates that the Samaritan script is a static script which was used mainly as a book hand.
The Talmudic sages did not share a uniform stance on the subject of Paleo-Hebrew. Some stated that Paleo-Hebrew was the original script used by the Israelites at the time of the Exodus, whereas the Aramaic square script was brought from Assyria and introduced for writing Torah scrolls in the post-exilic period, while others believed that Paleo-Hebrew merely served as a stopgap in a time when the ostensibly original script (the Assyrian Script) was lost. According to both opinions, Ezra the Scribe (c. 500 BCE) introduced, or reintroduced the Assyrian script to be used as the primary alphabet for the Hebrew language. The arguments given for both opinions are rooted in Jewish scripture and/or tradition.
A third opinion in the Talmud states that the script never changed altogether. Rabbi Eleazar from Modiin, the sage who expressed this opinion, based his opinion on a scriptural verse, which makes reference to the shape of the letter vav. He argues further that, given the commandment to copy a Torah scroll directly from another, the script could not conceivably have been modified at any point. A different version of the debate in the Jerusalem Talmud refers to the circular shapes of the letters Ayin in Paleo-Hebrew and Samekh in square script on the stone tablets as miracles according to the respective sages arguing for one script or the other. This third opinion was accepted by some early Jewish scholars, and rejected by others, partially because it was permitted to write the Torah in Greek.
Use of Proto-Hebrew in modern Israel is negligible, but it is found occasionally in nostalgic or pseudo-archaic examples, e.g. on the ₪1 coin (𐤉𐤄𐤃 "Judea") and in the logo of the Israeli town Nahariyah (Deuteronomy 33:24 𐤁𐤓𐤅𐤊 𐤌𐤁𐤍𐤉𐤌 𐤀𐤔𐤓 "Let Asher be blessed with children").
In 2019, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) unearthed a 2,600 year-old seal impression, while conducting excavations at the City of David, containing paleo-Hebrew script, and which is thought to have belonged to a certain "Nathan-Melech," an official in King Josiah's court.
Table of letters
Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew characters were never standardised and are found in numerous variant shapes. A general tendency of more cursive writing can be observed over the period of c. 800 BCE to 600 BCE. After 500 BCE, it is common to distinguish the script variants by names such as "Samaritan", "Aramaic", etc.
There is no difference in "Paleo-Hebrew" vs. "Phoenician" letter shapes. The names are applied depending on the language of the inscription, or if that cannot be determined, of the coastal (Phoenician) vs. highland (Hebrew) association (c.f. the Zayit Stone abecedary).
|Letter||Name||Meaning||Phoneme||Origin||Corresponding letter in|
|𐤀||ʾālep||head of cattle (אלף)||ʾ [ʔ]||𓃾||ࠀ||א|
|𐤁||bēt||house (בית)||b [b]||𓉐||ࠁ||ב|
|𐤂||gīmel||camel (גמל)||g [ɡ]||𓌙||ࠂ||ג|
|𐤃||dālet||door (דלת)||d [d]||𓇯||ࠃ||ד|
|𐤅||wāw||hook (וו)||w [w]||𓏲||ࠅ||ו|
|𐤆||zayin||weapon (זין)||z [z]||𓏭||ࠆ||ז|
|𐤈||ṭēt||wheel (?)||ṭ [tˤ]||?||ࠈ||ט|
|𐤉||yōd||arm, hand (יד)||y [j]||𓂝||ࠉ||י|
|𐤊||kāp||palm of a hand (כף)||k [k]||𓂧||ࠊ||כ, ך|
|𐤋||lāmed||goad (למד)||l [l]||𓌅||ࠋ||ל|
|𐤌||mēm||water (מים)||m [m]||𓈖||ࠌ||מ, ם|
|𐤍||nūn||fish (נון)||n [n]||𓆓||ࠍ||נ, ן|
|𐤎||sāmek||pillar, support (סמך)||s [s]||𓊽||ࠎ||ס|
|𐤏||ʿayin||eye (עין)||ʿ [ʕ]||𓁹||ࠏ||ע|
|𐤐||pē||mouth (פה)||p [p]||𓂋||ࠐ||פ, ף|
|𐤑||ṣādē||?||ṣ [sˤ]||?||ࠑ||צ, ץ|
|𐤓||rēš||head (ראש)||r [r]||𓁶||ࠓ||ר|
|𐤔||šīn||tooth (שין)||š [ʃ]||𓌓||ࠔ||ש|
|𐤕||tāw||mark, sign (תו)||t [t]||𓏴||ࠕ||ת|
The Unicode block Phoenician (U+10900–U+1091F) is intended for the representation of, apart from the Phoenician alphabet, text in Palaeo-Hebrew, Archaic Phoenician, Early Aramaic, Late Phoenician cursive, Phoenician papyri, Siloam Hebrew, Hebrew seals, Ammonite, Moabite, and Punic.
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
- Ancient Hebrew writings
- Ancient North Arabian
- Biblical Hebrew orthography
- History of the Hebrew alphabet
- Proto-Canaanite alphabet
- Sanhedrin (tractate) 21b: "אמר מר זוטרא ואיתימא מר עוקבא בתחלה ניתנה תורה לישראל בכתב עברי ולשון הקודש חזרה וניתנה להם בימי עזרא בכתב אשורית ולשון ארמי ביררו להן לישראל כתב אשורית ולשון הקודש והניחו להדיוטות כתב עברית ולשון ארמי. מאן הדיוטות אמר רב חסדא כותאי מאי כתב עברית אמר רב חסדא כתב ליבונאה" (translated: "Mar Zutra says, and some say that it is Mar Ukva who says: Initially, the Torah was given to the Jewish people in Ivrit script, the original form of the written language, and the sacred tongue, Hebrew. It was given to them again in the days of Ezra in Ashurit script and the Aramaic tongue. The Jewish people selected Ashurit script and the sacred tongue for the Torah scroll and left Ivrit script and the Aramaic tongue for the commoners. Who are these commoners? Rav Chisda said: The Samaritans [Kutim]. What is Ivrit script? Rav Chisda says: Lebanon script.")
- This name is most likely derived from Lubban, i.e. the script is called "Libanian" (of Lebanon), although it has also been suggested that the name is a corrupted form of "Neapolitan", i.e. of Nablus. James A. Montgomery, The Samaritans, the earliest Jewish sect (1907), p. 283.
- The Hebrew scripts, Volume 2, Salomo A. Birnbaum, Palaeographia, 1954, "To apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable. I have therefore coined the term Palaeo-Hebrew."
- Avigad, N. (1953). The Epitaph of a Royal Steward from Siloam Village. Israel Exploration Journal, 3(3), 137–152: "The inscription discussed here is, in the words of its discoverer, the first 'authentic specimen of Hebrew monumental epigraphy of the period of the Kings of Judah', for it was discovered ten years before the Siloam tunnel inscription. Now, after its decipherment, we may add that it is (after the Moabite Stone and the Siloam tunnel inscription) the third longest monumental inscription in Hebrew and the first known text of a Hebrew sepulchral inscription from the pre-Exilic period."
- Clermont-Ganneau, 1899, Archaeological Researches In Palestine 1873–1874, Vol 1, p. 305: "The most important of these discoveries is certainly that which I had the good fortune to make of two large ancient Hebrew inscriptions in Phoenician letters... I may observe, by the way, that the discovery of these two texts was made long before that of the inscription in the tunnel, and therefore, though people in general do not seem to recognise this fact, it was the first which enabled us to behold an authentic specimen of Hebrew monumental epigraphy of the period of the Kings of Judah."
- Millard, A. (1993), Reviewed Work: Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions. Corpus and Concordance by G. I. Davies, M. N. A. Bockmuehl, D. R. de Lacey, A. J. Poulter, The Journal of Theological Studies, 44(1), new series, 216–219: "...every identifiable Hebrew inscription dated before 200 BC... First ostraca, graffiti, and marks are grouped by provenance. This section contains more than five hundred items, over half of them ink-written ostraca, individual letters, receipts, memoranda, and writing exercises. The other inscriptions are names scratched on pots, scribbles of various sorts, which include couplets on the walls of tombs near Hebron, and letters serving as fitters' marks on ivories from Samaria.... The seals and seal impressions are set in the numerical sequence of Diringer and Vattioni (100.001–100.438). The pace of discovery since F. Vattioni issued his last valuable list (Ί sigilli ebraici III', AnnaliAnnali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientate di Napoli 38 (1978), 227—54) means the last seal entered by Davies is 100.900. The actual number of Hebrew seals and impressions is less than 900 because of the omission of those identified as non-Hebrew which previous lists counted. A further reduction follows when duplicate seal impressions from different sites are combined, as cross references in the entries suggest... The Corpus ends with 'Royal Stamps' (105.001-025, the Imlk stamps), '"Judah" and "Jerusalem" Stamps and Coins' (106.001-052), 'Other Official Stamps' (107.001), 'Inscribed Weights' (108.001-056) and 'Inscribed Measures' (109.001,002).... most seals have no known provenance (they probably come from burials)... Even if the 900 seals are reduced by as much as one third, 600 seals is still a very high total for the small states of Israel and Judah, and most come from Judah. It is about double the number of seals known inscribed in Aramaic, a language written over a far wider area by officials of great empires as well as by private persons.
- Graham I. Davies; J. K. Aitken (2004). Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance. Cambridge University Press. p. xi. ISBN 978-0-521-82999-1.
This sequel to my Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions includes mainly inscriptions (about 750 of them) which have been published in the past ten years. The aim has been to cover all publications to the end of 2000. A relatively small number of the texts included here were published earlier but were missed in the preparation of AHI. The large number of new texts is not due, for the most part, to fresh discoveries (or, regrettably, to the publication of a number of inscriptions that were found in excavations before 1990), but to the publication of items held in private collections and museums.
- Feldman (2010)
- Shanks (2010)
- Hoffman, Joel M. (2004). In the beginning : a short history of the Hebrew language. New York, NY [u.a.]: New York Univ. Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-8147-3654-8. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
By 1000 B.C.E., however, we see Phoenician writings [..]
- Israel Finkelstein & Benjamin Sass, The West Semitic Alphabetic Inscriptions, Late Bronze II to Iron IIA: Archeological Context, Distribution and Chronology, HeBAI 2 (2013), pp. 149–220, see p. 189: "From the available evidence Hebrew appears to be the first regional variant to arise in the West Semitic alphabet – in late Iron IIA1; the scripts of the neighbouring peoples remain undifferentiated. It is only up to a century later, in early Iron IIB, that the distinct characteristics in the alphabets of Philistia, Phoenicia, Aram, Ammon and Moab develop."
- Naveh, Joseph (1987), "Proto-Canaanite, Archaic Greek, and the Script of the Aramaic Text on the Tell Fakhariyah Statue", in Miller; et al. (eds.), Ancient Israelite Religion.
- Reinhard G. Kratz (2015). Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah. OUP Oxford. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-19-104448-9.
[...] scribes wrote in Paleo-Hebrew, a local variant of the Phoenician alphabetic script [...]
- On January 10, 2010, the University of Haifa issued a press release stating that the text "uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as ‘śh (עשה) ("did") and ‘bd (עבד) ("worked"), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah ("widow") are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other Canaanite languages. "Most ancient Hebrew biblical inscription deciphered". University of Haifa. January 10, 2010. Archived from the original on October 5, 2011. Retrieved November 5, 2011. See also: "Qeiyafa Ostracon Chronicle". Khirbet Qeiyafa Archaeological Project. Archived from the original on October 2, 2011. Retrieved November 5, 2011., "The keys to the kingdom". Haaretz.com. 6 May 2011. Retrieved 20 December 2014.
- The Mishnah, ed. Herbert Danby, Oxford University Press: Oxford 1933, s.v. Megillah 1:8, p. 202 (note 20); Yadayim 4:5–6, p. 784 (note 6) (ISBN 0-19-815402-X)
- Angel Sáenz-Badillos (1993). A History of the Hebrew Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55634-1.
- An illustration of the Siloam script is available at this link.
- An illustration of a tomb inscription said to be scratched onto an ossuary to identify the decedent is available here. An article describing the ossuaries Zvi Greenhut excavated from a burial cave in the south of Jerusalem can be found in Jerusalem Perspective (July 1, 1991), with links to other articles.
- Another tomb inscription is believed to be from the tomb of Shebna, an official of King Hezekiah. An illustration of the inscription may be viewed, but it is too large to be placed inline.
- An illustration of the Lachish script is available at this link.
- See Worker's appeal to governor.
- The conduct complained about is contrary to Exodus 22, which provides:"If you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep?"
- Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.
- e.g. File:Psalms Scroll.jpg
- Sanhedrin 22a
- Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:8.
- Zevachim 62a
- Megillah 3a
- Shabbat 104a
- Exodus 27, 10
- Rabbeinu Chananel on Sanhedrin 22a
- Maimonides. "Mishne Torah Hilchos Stam 1:19".
- This is in imitation of the "Yehud coinage" minted in the Persian period. Yigal Ronen, "The Weight Standards of the Judean Coinage in the Late Persian and Early Ptolemaic Period", Near Eastern Archaeology 61, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), 122–126.
- What's in a Name... - Israel Antiquities Authority (1 April 2019)
- after Fischer, Steven R. (2001). A History of Writing. London: Reaction Books. p. 126.
- The letters he and ḥēt continue three Proto-Sinaitic letters, ḥasir "courtyard", hillul "jubilation" and ḫayt "thread". The shape of ḥēt continues ḥasir "courtyard", but the name continues ḫayt "thread". The shape of he continues hillul "jubilation" but citation needed] see: He (letter)#Origins. [
- The glyph was taken to represent a wheel, but it possibly derives from the hieroglyph nefer hieroglyph 𓄤 and would originally have been called tab טוב "good".
- The root l-m-d mainly means "to teach", from an original meaning "to goad". H3925 in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to the Bible, 1979.
- the letter name nūn is a word for "fish", but the glyph is presumably from the depiction of a snake, which would point to an original name נחש "snake".
- H5564 in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance to the Bible, 1979.
- the letter name may be from צד "to hunt".
- "The old explanation, which has again been revived by Halévy, is that it denotes an 'ape,' the character Q being taken to represent an ape with its tail hanging down. It may also be referred to a Talmudic root which would signify an 'aperture' of some kind, as the 'eye of a needle,' [...] Lenormant adopts the more usual explanation that the word means a 'knot'." Isaac Taylor, History of the Alphabet: Semitic Alphabets, Part 1, 2003.
- "Alphabet, Hebrew". Encyclopaedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition Version 1.0). Ed. Cecil Roth. Keter Publishing House. ISBN 965-07-0665-8
- Feldman, Rachel (2010). "Most ancient Hebrew biblical inscription deciphered". Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
- Shanks, Hershel (2010). "Oldest Hebrew Inscription Discovered in Israelite Fort on Philistine Border". Biblical Archaeology Review. 36 (2): 51–56. Archived from the original on 2012-02-29. Retrieved 2020-06-20.