|Time period||10th century BCE – 135 CE|
The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet (Hebrew: הכתב העברי הקדום) is an abjad offshoot of the ancient Semitic alphabet and closely related to the Phoenician alphabet from which it descends. It dates to the 10th century BCE or earlier. It was used as the main vehicle for writing the Hebrew language by the Israelites, who would later split into Jews and Samaritans.
It began to fall out of use by the Jews in the 5th century BCE when they adopted the Aramaic alphabet as their writing system for Hebrew, from which the present Jewish "square-script" Hebrew alphabet descends. The Samaritans, who now number less than one thousand people, continue to use a derivative of the Old Hebrew alphabet, known as the Samaritan alphabet.
|Hebrew letter||Paleo-Hebrew letter||English Name|
The earliest known inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was discovered on the stone on a wall at Tel Zayit, in the Beth Guvrin Valley in the lowlands of ancient Judea. The 22 letters were carved on one side of the 38 lb stone (17 kg) - which resembles a bowl on the other. Next would be the Gezer calendar dated to the late 10th century BCE. The script of the Gezer calendar bears strong resemblance to contemporaneous Phoenician script from inscriptions at Byblos. Clear Hebrew features are visible in the scripts of the Moabite inscriptions of the Mesha Stele. The 8th-century Hebrew inscriptions exhibit many specific and exclusive traits, leading modern scholars to conclude that already in the 10th century BCE the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was used by wide scribal circles. Even though very few 10th-century Hebrew inscriptions have been found, the quantity of the epigraphic material from the 8th century onward shows the gradual spread of literacy among the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah.
In 1855 a Phoenician inscription in twenty-two lines was found among the ruins of Sidon. Each line contained about forty or fifty characters. A facsimile copy of the writing was published in United States Magazine in July 1855. The inscription was on the lid of a large stone sarcophagus carved in fine Egyptian style. The writing was primarily a genealogical history of a king of Sidon buried in the sarcophagus. It was in the Hebrew language except for a few words.
The independent 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 amulets, a fragmentary Hebrew inscription on an ivory which was taken as war spoils (probably from Samaria) to Nimrud, and the hundreds of 8th to 6th-century Hebrew seals from various sites. 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. (cf. the Mesad Hashavyahu petition for favorable judgment.)
Decline of use
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, when the Aramaic language and script became an official means of communication, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was preserved mainly for writing the Tanakh by a coterie of erudite scribes. Some Paleo-Hebrew fragments of the Torah were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls: manuscripts 4Q12, 6Q1: Genesis. 4Q22: Exodus. 1Q3, 2Q5, 4Q11, 4Q45, 4Q46, 6Q2: Leviticus. 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 only after 135 CE.
Use of Paleo-Hebrew by Samaritans
Sometime in the last two centuries BCE the Samaritan alphabet began to diverge from the Jewish one. Unlike the Jews, the Samaritans have continued to use this 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.
According to the Babylonian Talmud
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, while others believed that Paleo-Hebrew merely served as a stopgap in a time when the 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. It would seem that the sage who expressed this opinion did not believe that Paleo-Hebrew ever existed, despite the strong arguments supporting it. His stance is rooted in a scriptural verse, which makes reference to the shape of the letter vav. The sage 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. This third opinion was accepted by the early Jewish scholars. This argument, however, is also weak because it was permitted to write the Torah in Greek.
Current use in Sacred Name Bibles
The Paleo-Hebrew script has been recently revived for specific use in several Sacred Name Bibles: including Zikarown Say’fer, The Besorah and the Halleluyah Scriptures. These translations use it for writing the Tetragrammaton and other divine names, incorporating these names written in this script in the midst of the English text.
The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was unified with the Phoenician alphabet and added to the Unicode Standard in July, 2006 with the release of version 5.0.
The Unicode block for Paleo-Hebrew, called Phoenician, is U+10900–U+1091F. It is intended for the representation of text in Palaeo-Hebrew, Archaic Phoenician, Phoenician, Early Aramaic, Late Phoenician cursive, Phoenician papyri, Siloam Hebrew, Hebrew seals, Ammonite, Moabite, and Punic.
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
- "Alphabet, Hebrew". Encyclopaedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition Version 1.0). Ed. Cecil Roth. Keter Publishing House. ISBN 965-07-0665-8
- Jewish Encyclopedia: The Hebrew Alphabet
- omniglot.com: Aramaic/Proto-Hebrew alphabet
- Ancient Hebrew alphabets
- The Alphabet of Biblical Hebrew