The Story of the Old Hebrew Script

Marek Dospěl August 08, 2021 /

THIS RARE SEAL IMPRESSION was excavated in Jerusalem’s City of David. Used to seal a document, this bulla (a lumpchunk of clay with an impressed inscription) bears the words “to Natan-Melech, servant of the king.” Written in the Old Hebrew script, it dates to the sixth century B.C.E. and possibly refers to the court official mentioned in 2 Kings 23:11. Credit: Eliyahu Yanai / Public domain

The scribes of King Hezekiah would surely get lost in modern Israel if they were to follow signs written in today’s Hebrew alphabet. Although they would likely recognize the spoken language as related to their vernacular, they would not be able to read the language—just like most of us would be at loss in front of a medieval manuscript, even if penned, in careful hand, in our mother tongue.

Individual scripts evolve over time, which is why we may find it difficult to decipher even our own grandmother’s handwriting. Additionally, in different time periods, the same language may be recorded in different writing systems (scripts). And that is what would make modern Hebrew script unintelligible to people living under King Hezekiah (around 700 B.C.E.), and vice versa. While the Hebrew of today is written in “square script,” the literati of the ninth through the sixth centuries B.C.E. used the so-called Paleo-Hebrew (or Old Hebrew) script.

Writing for the Summer 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Matthieu Richelle offers “A Very Brief History of Old Hebrew Script.” A professor of Old Testament at the Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium, Richelle introduces the script, its different styles, and the different kinds of writing it was used to record. In charting the script’s evolution, Richelle puts the history of the Old Hebrew script in the context of other Levantine alphabetic writing traditions, such as Phoenician and Aramaic.

Unlike ancient Egyptian authors, who used the elaborate hieroglyphic script to record monumental inscriptions and the cursive hieratic script to write down everyday texts, “Old Hebrew scribes,” notes Richelle, “used the same script for all categories of texts, whether monumental inscriptions, everyday messages, or signatures.”

ISSUED BY THE JEWS IN JERUSALEM after the Zealots retook the city from the Romans, in 66 C.E., this silver half-shekel coin dates to year two of the First Jewish Revolt. Along the beaded rim, the front side (left) reads, “half of a shekel,” with “year 2” over the chalice, while the back side (right) says, “holy Jerusalem,” inscribed around a sprig of three pomegranates. The rebels used Old Hebrew script to declare independence and to evoke their glorious past. Credit: Classical Numismatic Group / CC BY-SA 3.0

Used widely between the early ninth and mid-sixth centuries B.C.E., the Old Hebrew script is attested in numerous iconic objects, including the Siloam Tunnel Inscription, the Lachish Letters, and a plethora of bullae (imprinted lumps of clay used to seal documents). Richelle introduces these precious artifacts and illustrates them with photographs.

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