Biblical Archaeology Review 38:4, July/August 2012

ReViews: The ABCs of Early Israel

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel

By Christopher A. Rollston (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), xix + 171 pp., 71 figures, $21.95 (paperback)

Did ancient Israelites write? Is there evidence apart from the Hebrew Bible? If so, what did they write? And who could write?

Inscriptions on stone, notes and scribbles on pots and potsherds, names on seals and other writings are often so interesting you don’t ask how they were written or who the writers were. Chris Rollston does that in this readable new book.

He also sketches the early history of the alphabet—to about 900 B.C., when monuments from Byblos show that the letters had reached their basic shapes. His detailed analysis reveals how small changes in letters appear at Byblos over a century or so of use. That Phoenician script, he argues, was used for the Gezer Calendar late in the tenth century and in the Aramaic language Tell Fekheriyeh statue a century later.

The author’s drawings of the shapes of the letters—his special expertise—illustrate the differences between Hebrew and Phoenician. If the letter b (bet) leans leftward, it’s Phoenican (or Aramaic), if it leans backward (to the right), it’s Hebrew. If the tails of k (kaph), m (mem) and n (nun) curl to the left, they are Hebrew.

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