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The Evolution of Two Hebrew Scripts, Jonathan P. Siegel, BAR 5:03, May-Jun 1979.

Paleo-hebrew_alphabetPaleo-Hebrew or Phoenician script was used before Aramaic script was introduced by Jews returning from Babylonia.

In BAR’s version of Superman’s original costume, pictured in “The Hebrew Origins of Superman,” in this issue, Superman the scribe wears the Hebrew letter samekh on his chest. But even people who know how to read modern Hebrew—as it is printed in Israel as well as in synagogue prayer books in this country—will not recognize this letter. That is because this particular samekh dates from the 10th century B.C. and, at that time, the letter samekh was written as it is pictured on Superman’s chest—in what scholars call paleo-Hebrew script.

The paleo-Hebrew alphabet differs radically from the modern Hebrew alphabet.

Until the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. the paleo-Hebrew script was the only alphabet used by the Israelites. After the Babylonian destruction, Judean leaders and the important people of the country were deported to Babylon. Fifty years later, Cyrus, King of Persia, who fell heir to the Babylonian empire, declared that the Judean exiles could return to their land and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. According to the Bible, 42,000 Judeans chose to return (Nehemiah 7-66).

They brought back with them a new language—Aramaic—and a new script—the square Aramaic script—both of which were in common use in the Persian Empire. Ultimately, the Aramaic script replaced the older paleo-Hebrew script, but for hundreds of years the two scripts were used simultaneously by the Jews.

The older paleo-Hebrew script was derived from the very earliest alphabetic writing, known to scholars as proto-Canaanite or proto-Sinaitic. The Phoenicians derived an alphabet from this proto-Canaanite model, and the Hebrews may have taken their alphabet from the Phoenicians rather than directly from proto-Canaanite. In any event, the paleo-Hebrew script so closely resembles the Phoenician alphabet that it is often referred to as Phoenician script.

The enormously important Izbet Sartah abecedary from the 11th century B.C., which was reported to BAR readers in September/October 1978 (see “An Alphabet from the Days of the Judges,” BAR 04-03, by Aaron Demsky and Moshe Kochavi), is written in the paleo-Hebrew script. So are all the beautiful religious inscriptions from the 8th century B.C. recently discovered at the Sinai outpost of Kuntillet Ajrud (see “Did Yahweh Have a Consort?” BAR 05-02, by Ze’ev Meshel). This same script is used in the 10th century B.C. Gezer calendar and the Samaria and Arad ostraca, the Siloam inscription from Hezekiah’s tunnel, and the splendid roaring lion seal of Shema, all dating to the 8th century B.C.

The Bible indirectly refers to paleo-Hebrew script three times. In each case, the Hebrew word tav is used. Tav is the name of the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which in the paleo-Hebrew script is written as “X.” In the three passages where tav appears, in Ezekiel 9-4, 6 and Job 31-35, it is translated as “mark” or “signature,” because tav is understood to mean the paleo-Hebrew letter which is written as “X.” Thus, Job’s signature was really an “X.”

The square Aramaic script which the Jews brought back with them from the Babylonian exile also derives from the original proto-Canaanite alphabet, but via an entirely different route, which accounts both for the similarities and the marked differences.

During the Second Jewish Commonwealth (from the return of the exiles in 538 B.C. to Bar-Kochba’s defeat in 135 A.D.), examples of both the older paleo-Hebrew script and the newer square Aramaic script can be found. Coins were minted with inscriptions in the older paleo-Hebrew script (see p. 31), but increasingly, the square Aramaic script was used—first in secular then in sacred texts. Not surprisingly, Aramaic became the second language of Judea.

Initially, the Aramaic language and script were reserved for official correspondence with the Persian government. In the Samaria papyri, discovered in 1962 by Tamireh bedouin north of Jericho (see “Bedouin Find Papyri Three Centuries Older Than Dead Sea Scrolls,” BAR 04-01, by Paul Lapp), the official documents, written during the second half of the fourth century B.C. (350–300 B.C.), are in the Aramaic script and language, as we might expect of legal-administrative texts. But the papyri were sealed with wax bullae or scalings with inscriptions in the paleo-Hebrew script—the script most likely to be known by local officials. Thus, by Alexander the Great’s time, we find two languages (Hebrew and Aramaic) and two scripts (paleo-Hebrew and square) being used simultaneously by the Jews.

But by the first century A.D. the Aramaic script had become predominant. In Matthew 5-18, Jesus said, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota or one keraia shall pass from the Law.” We know Jesus was referring to the Aramaic script, in which the letter yodh (iota in Greek) is the smallest letter of the alphabet, because yodh in paleo-Hebrew is a large and more complicated letter. Keraia (literally “little horn”) denotes the yodh or “crown” attached to certain letters in the Aramaic script. Thus Jesus was familiar with the Pentateuch written in this script, probably similar to the Isaiah scroll from Qumran.

During the first Jewish revolt against Rome (66–73 A.D.) coins with Hebrew inscriptions in paleo-Hebrew script were minted, replacing momentarily the Roman coins which had been standard currency. (See Matthew 22-19–21a.) But at Masada, the Zealots preserved Biblical books in the square Aramaic script and even cast their lots (by which they decided the order in which they would commit suicide) in the Aramaic script.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bar Kochba letters has added important evidence for the period 150 B.C.–135 A.D. when the two Hebrew scripts existed simultaneously—the Aramaic script ultimately predominating. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in the Hebrew language and the Aramaic script, but in some scrolls the tetragrammaton (the divine name) is written in paleo-Hebrew script. (See “The Name of God in the New Testament,” BAR 04-01, by George Howard.) The pesher (commentary) on Habakkuk (see p. 32) and the Psalms scroll from Qumran cave 11 are outstanding examples of this phenomenon. In addition, we have a few fragments of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus written entirely in the paleo-Hebrew script. (Later it became a religious law that Pentateuchal scrolls used in synagogues could be written only in the Aramaic script. All others had to be hidden away.)

The final triumph of the square Aramaic script occurred after the Bar Kochba or Second Jewish Revolt (132–135 A.D.). Coins minted during the war carried inscriptions in paleo-Hebrew script; when Bar Kochba wrote a private letter to Joshua ben Galgala, however, he used the square Aramaic script. After Bar Kochba’s defeat, Judea was completely under Roman domination. Only Roman coins (with Latin inscriptions) were circulated. But in their own homes and schools Jews used the Aramaic script.

The archaeological evidence clearly indicates that before 135 A.D. Jewish scribes could still write Hebrew texts in both alphabets. After 135 A.D. the picture changed radically—the older paleo-Hebrew script died out entirely (except for the Samaritansb). The square Aramaic script became the only Hebrew script—used to this day in Israel and the Diaspora.

a. “‘Show me the money for the tax’. And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”.

b. The small remnant of Samaritans which survives to this day—chiefly in Nablus on the West Bank and Holon south of Tel Aviv—continues to use this ancient alphabet.

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