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The Ancient Hebrew Alphabet
By Jeff A. Benner

Old Hebrew and the Samaritan Alphabet

Figure 1 – The Modern Hebrew Alphabet

The mention of the Hebrew alphabet brings to mind the Hebrew letters that are familiar to many today that are used in Torah scrolls, Hebrew Bibles and even in Modern Hebrew Books and Newspapers. However, history suggests that these Hebrew letters are not the same Hebrew letters used in antiquity.

In 1854, Thomas Hartwell wrote; "The present Hebrew Characters, or Letters, are twenty two in number, and of a square form: but the antiquity of these letters is a point that has been most severely contested by many learned men."

Figure 2 – Judean Half Shekel (Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)

Hartwell continues: "But the most decisive confirmation of this point is to be found in ancient Hebrew coins, which were struck before the [Babylonian] captivity, and even engraven on all of them are manifestly the same with the modern Samaritan." [1]

The Samaritans are, according to themselves, the descendants of the Northern Tribes of Israel that were not sent into Assyrian captivity, and have continuously resided in the land of Israel.

Figure 3 – The Samaritan Torah Scroll

The Torah Scroll of the Samaritans use an alphabet that is very different from the one used on Jewish Torah Scrolls. According to the Samaritans themselves and Hebrew scholars, this alphabet is the original "Old Hebrew" alphabet.

Even as far back as 1691, this connection between the Samaritan and the "Old" Hebrew alphabets was made by Henry Dodwell; "[the Samaritans] still preserve [the Pentateuch] in the Old Hebrew characters." [2]

Humphrey Prideaux also writes in 1799; "And these five books [of the Samaritans] still have among them, written in the old Hebrew or Phoenician character, which was in use among them before the Babylonish captivity, and in which both these and all other scriptures were written, till Ezra transcribed them into that of the Chaldeans." [3]

This same theory is presented in the 1831 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana; "During the Babylonish captivity , they received from the Chaldees the square character in common use; and in the time Ezra, the old Hebrew manuscripts were copied in Chaldee characters." [4]

Figure 4 – A portion of the Aleppo Codex

The Hebrew Torah (Pentateuch) was originally written with an alphabet similar to that of the Samaritans, but after the Exile in Babylon it was transcribed with the Chaldean square alphabet, which was still used 1,000 years ago for the Aleppo Codex and is still used today in modern Hebrew.

Old Hebrew and the Phoenician Alphabet

Figure 5 – A portion of a text from a Phoenician inscription

While Prideaux noted that the Old Hebrew alphabet was the same as the Samaritan alphabet, he also pointed out that it is identical to the Phoenician alphabet. When we compare the letters of these three alphabets, we can see this similarity.

Figure 6 – The letter "beyt" in Old Hebrew, Samaritan and Phoenician

This is the letter beyt in the Old Hebrew.. the Samaritan… and the Phoenician. Note the close similarity of each. Also note the similarities of the letter hey in each of these alphabets.

The 1831 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana also makes this connection between the Phoenician, Samaritan and Hebrew alphabets; "[the Hebrews] written characters were the same as the Phoenician, to which the letters of the Samaritan manuscripts approach the nearest." [5]

The Phoenicians lived north of the land of Israel centered around the Biblical cities of Sidon and Tyre, in modern day Lebanon, between the 16th and 3rd Century BC.

The Phoenicians shared the same alphabet with the Hebrews and the Samaritans. It was also evident that the Phoenicians and Hebrews spoke the same language as the "Foreign Quarterly Review" wrote in its 1838 publication; "The learned world had almost universally allowed that the Phoenician language was, with few exceptions, identical with the Hebrew" [6]

While the origins of the Old Hebrew alphabet was widely accepted, this theory was based on a limited amount of evidence as the "Foreign quarterly review" points out; "What is left [of Phoenician] consists of a few inscriptions and coins…" [7]

Figure 7 – Sarcophagus found in Sidon with Phoenician inscription

The first major discovery connecting the Phoenician alphabet and language with Hebrew occurred on January 19th, 1855, when Turkish laborers accidently uncovered an ancient sarcophagus in Sidon, a Phoenician city. On this sarcophagus was a lengthy inscription written in the Phoenician alphabet and language, which was found to be identical to Hebrew with only a few exceptions.

Old Hebrew Discoveries

Figure 8 – Meshe Stele inscription

The Meshe Stele, also called the Moabite Stone, was discovered in 1868 in the Biblical city of Dibon, the capital of the Moabites. The inscription was written with the same letters as the Phoenician, old Hebrew and Samaritan and it was discovered that Moabite language was also the same as Hebrew with some minor variations.

Figure 9 – The Siloam Inscription

The Siloam Inscription, discovered in 1880, is written on the wall of Hezekiah's tunnel, which connects Gihon spring to the Pool of Siloam in East Jerusalem. This Hebrew inscription was written in the same style as the Phoenician and Moabite inscriptions.

Figure 10 – The Gezer Calendar

During the excavation of the city of Gezer, 30 miles from Jerusalem, a limestone tablet was discovered in 1908 with a Hebrew inscription written in the old Hebrew alphabet.

Figure 11 – A Lachish Ostracon

In 1935 eighteen ostraca (broken pottery fragments) were discovered in the ancient city of Lachish with Hebrew writing in the old Hebrew alphabet.

Figure 12 – An Ammonite inscription

In 1966 an inscription was discovered in Amman Jordan with an Ammonite inscription whose alphabet and language was also similar to Phoenician and Hebrew.

Figure 13 – The Tel Dan Inscription

The Tel-Dan Stele, discovered in northern Israel in 1993, is an Aramaic inscription using the same old Hebrew script. This inscription also revealed another amazing fact.

Figure 14 – The phrases "king of Israel" (top) and "house of David" (bottom).

The inscription includes the phrase מלך ישראל (melek yisrael) meaning "king of Israel" and the line below reads בית דוד (beyt david) meaning "house of david." These phrases are extra-Biblical evidence confirming the existence of not only the nation of Israel, but also king David.

Old Hebrew to Greek and Aramaic

Figure 15 – The Greek Alphabet on ancient inscription

The old-Hebrew alphabet, also called paleo-Hebrew, was adopted by the Greeks around the 12th century BC.

Figure 16 – The first five letters of the Old Hebrew alphabet

The first five letters of the Hebrew alphabet are aleph, beyt, gimel, dalet and hey. These same letters, adopted by the Greeks, became the alpha, beta, gamma, delta and E-psilon (meaning simple E).

Figure 17 – The first five letters of the Old Greek alphabet

While Hebrew is usually written from right to left, Greek was written left to right and the orientation of the letters were reversed.

Figure 18 – The Modern Greek alphabet

Over the centuries, these ancient Greek letters evolved into their Modern Greek forms.

Figure 19 – The Modern Roman alphabet

Our English alphabet is Roman, and because the Romans adopted the Greek alphabet, we are able to see our own modern English alphabet in these ancient Hebrew turned Greek letters, the A, B, C, D and E.

The Aramaic Alphabet

As previously mentioned, the old Hebrew alphabet was used by all Semitic peoples including the Arameans (also called the Chaldeans), but evolved independently from the Hebrew.

Figure 20 – 5th Century B.C. Hebrew (Aramaic) alphabet

By the 5th century B.C., the time of the Israelites captivity in Aramea (or Babylon), it no longer resembled the old Hebrew it came from and it is this Aramaic "square" script that Israel adopted during their captivity.

Figure 21 – The modern Hebrew (Aramaic) alphabet

This old Aramaic alphabet, now being used by the Israelites, continued to evolve into the modern letters we are familiar with today.

Alphabet Origins

By the end of the 19th century, the translation of the Semitic alphabet was well established. The only mystery was the origin of this alphabet as mentioned in "A Compendius and Complete Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament" published in 1886.

"א, (aleph), The first letter in the Hebrew alphabet… Its nameאלף (aleph) is fromאלף (eleph) meaning a yoke-beast, ox or heifer; and it's oldest figure probably pictured a bovine head." [8]

The 1922 New Larned History for Ready Reference, Reading and Research, in its entry for the letter "A," also notes the suspected origins of the Hebrew alphabet. "A, the initial letter of the English and almost all other alphabets… The Phoenicians called the letter "aleph" seemingly because of the resemblance of the character to the head of an ox. Although nothing is known with any degree of certainty concerning the ultimate origin of this letter." [9]

What the editors of the New Larned History did not know, was that this mystery was solved just a few years earlier by Sir William Flinders Petrie.

The Proto-Semitic Alphabet

In 1905, a new discovery in the Sinai Peninsula changed the world's perception of the origins of this Semitic alphabet.

Flinders Petrie, a renowned Egyptologist and pioneer in modern archeology, discovered inscriptions of previously unknown symbols at Serabit el-Khadim.

Figure 22 – Ancient inscription from Serabit El-Khadim

Dr. Alan H. Gardiner, Another renowned Egyptologist, studied these inscriptions in detail. He discovered that these Sinaitic inscriptions consisted of a total of thirty-two symbols. Because of the limited number of symbols Dr. Gardiner determined that this was an alphabet. [10]

Gardiner was then able to easily identify this Sinaitic alphabet as Semitic because of the pictographic nature of this alphabet. The name of each Hebrew letter is a Hebrew word with meaning.

The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is called the aleph, a Hebrew word meaning "ox," The tenth letter is called the yud or yad meaning "hand" and the sixteenth letter is the ayin, a word meaning "eye."

Figure 23 – Ancient Sinaitic letters

Dr. Gardiner found that the letters in these ancient Sinaitic inscriptions were pictures of the very names of the Hebrew letters. The image of an ox head (left) was the letter aleph, the image of the hand (center) was the letter yad and the image of an eye (right) was the letter ayin.

This relationship between the pictograph and the names of the Semitic letters, Dr. Gardiner proposed, proved that this was the precursor to the previously known Phoenician/Old Hebrew alphabet.

Figure 24 – The L'Balt inscription

Once it was determined that the new script was Semitic, Dr. Gardiner, in 1916, was able to translate a portion of one inscription. This inscription includes the letters lamed, beyt, ayin, lamed and tav, which form the Semitic word לבעלת (l'balt), meaning "to the lady." [11]

Figure 25 – The Wadi El-Hhol inscription (Photograph by John Melzian of the West Semitic Research Project)

In 1999, John and Deborah Darnell were surveying ancient travel routes in the deserts of southern Egypt when they came upon another set of inscriptions very similar to the Sinaitic inscriptions found by Petrie.

Dating the Semitic Alphabet

The inscriptions discovered in the past century and a half, have been accurately dated through the advances of archeology. The original Semitic alphabet with its pictographic letters can be divided into three periods; Early, Middle and Late.

The early Semitic alphabet existed between the 20th and 12th centuries B.C. However, note that the 20th century date is based on the oldest inscriptions found thus far and it is possible that future discoveries may push the date of the Semitic alphabet back even farther into history. To date, the Wadi El-Hhol inscriptions found in southern Egypt are the oldest Semitic inscriptions found and date to between the 19th and 20th centuries B.C. The Sinaitic inscriptions from the Sinai Peninsula date to about the 15th century B.C.

The middle Semitic alphabet, the Phoenician and old Hebrew, was in use between the 12th and 4th century B.C. The Gezer calendar, Mesha Stele, Siloam inscription, the Lachish inscription and the Phoenician sarcophagus date to this time period.

The late Semitic alphabet, the square Aramaic script, was in use between 4th century BC and into modern times with the Modern Hebrew alphabet that is used to this day. The majority of the scrolls from the Dead Sea Caves is written in the late Semitic script and date to between the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. A few of the scrolls found in the dead sea caves, such as the Leviticus scroll, uses the middle Semitic script showing that the script did not fall out of use completely.

Figure 26 – Text from a Modern Hebrew Bible

The late Semitic script continued to be used for the works of the Talmud, the Masoretic Hebrew Bible as well the printed Hebrew Bibles of today.

^ 1. Thomas Hartwell, An introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Pub. 1854, Page 190

^ 2. Henry Dodwell, A Discourse Concerning Sanchoniathon's Phoenician History, Pub. 1691, Page 118

^ 3. Humphrey Prideaux, The Old and New Testament connected in the history of the Jews and Neighbouring Nations, Pub. 1799, Page 431

^ 4. Encyclopedia Americana, Hebrew Language and Literature, Pub. 1831, Page 212

^ 5. Encyclopedia Americana, Hebrew Language and Literature, Pub. 1831, Page 212

^ 6. The Foreign quarterly review, Phoenician Inscriptions, Pub. 1838, Page 446

^ 7. The Foreign quarterly review, Phoenician Inscriptions, Pub. 1838, Page 445

^ 8. Benjamin Davies, Edward Cushing Mitchel, A Compendius and Complete Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, Pub 1886, Page 1

^ 9. The New Larned History for Ready Reference, Reading and Research, Pub. 1922, Page 1

^ 10. The New Larned History for Ready Reference, Reading and Research: The Actual ..‎ - Page 225

^ 11. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures By University of Chicago. Dept. of Semitic Languages and Literatures (1919) Page 35 - the PSI proved the names of the Hebrew letters - aleph (ox) beyt (house) etc.