is the study of ancient writing, and, especially, the science of dating alphabetic letters and scripts by the stage of their evolution, or, in other words, by typological sequencing. It is one of the typological sciences, sciences much used by historians and archaeologists, by which we date ancient manuscripts and inscriptions; pottery; styles of painting, sculpture, and glyptic; architectural periods; fashions in music, clothes, and weapons—to single out a few familiar instances. Indeed all artifacts devised by human hand are capable of being analyzed in sequences according to their characters and given relative and often absolute dates.
Paleographers are guided by two basic postulates in their endeavors: (1) that artifacts, including scripts, inevitably change in the course of time, and (2) that there is continuity in their change. All script styles evolve, sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly, depending on the intensity of usage, but one typological feature or cluster of features (style) arises in continuity with its predecessor(s). If one thinks for a moment about scripts, it is obvious that they change, letter by letter, over the generations, and often at different paces. On the other hand they cannot change abruptly or completely, or the reader would be confused or lost. A letter written in an avant-garde fashion must still resemble its older form sufficiently to be recognized and not confused. The point can be illustrated—perversely—by giving an example where two different English letters were confused in their development. “þ,” the obsolete English letter thorn, came to be confused with the letter y. The word “the” (older “þe”) came to be written “ye,” and confused with the plural pronoun ye. So “ye olde shoppe,” properly translated into modern English as “the old shop,” was confusedly translated “your old shop” and thought to be elegant or “old timey,” especially in New England tourist shops. This kind of confusion cannot be permitted to happen often or communication fails. Letter signs must be easily recognized—intelligible. Change is inevitable, but there must be continuity in change. Language operates in similar typologies. To understand Chaucerian English, we must study it—almost as studying another related Germanic tongue. And yet we can trace the changes in English from Chaucer's time, generation by generation, until we arrive at our present-day speech.
The dating of ancient scripts or manuscripts is of little difficulty—given sufficient study and a good eye for form—if we have ample materials, and a series of documents with firm dates, that is, dated by archaeological context or by references in their contents, or, best, when documents bear date formulas in a known chronology. Ancient Latin and Greek paleography are highly developed disciplines, thanks to the plethora of dated documents and a scholarly tradition of detailed analysis of the several styles of script. The typological development of the several styles of Jewish scripts has been less well known in the past, owing to a relative paucity of well-dated scripts from Palestine.
In 1937, there were a sufficient number of documents and inscriptions in the Jewish scripts of the Hellenistic and Roman periods to enable W. F. Albright to publish a programmatic study which organized the basic typological outlines of the development of the late Aramaic script of the Persian chancellery (used throughout the Persian Empire) and the early Jewish formal hands which developed from it. Indeed, at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, when Greek replaced Aramaic as the lingua franca, local national scripts began to spring up and develop independently in many areas of the Near East, of which the best known in the Western part of the empire were Nabataean, Palmyrene, and Judean (or Jewish). The Jewish scripts which evolved into an independent tradition in Judea are traditionally called “Hebrew,” qualified as “square” or “Assyrian” (that is, Aramaic). The surviving, archaizing form of the Old Hebrew script that we term “Paleo-Hebrew” was largely displaced for ordinary purposes by the Jewish descendant of the official Aramaic script of the fourth century BCE, that is, at the close of the Persian sway over Syria-Palestine. The Jewish script is a distinct national script, not evolved directly from Old Hebrew, and clearly distinguishable from the Aramaic hand from which it did evolve in the course of the early third century BCE, with the end of Persian rule and the beginning of Hellenistic times. So we best call it “Jewish”—the script at home in Judea, and occasionally used by Jews in the Diaspora. The Paleo-Hebrew script died away in the first and second centuries CE, totally displaced in the Jewish community, and surviving as a sacred script only in the remnant Samaritan community.
In the past half century the field of early Jewish paleography has grown rich in materials for typological analysis, and, as well, has furnished the paleographer with a series of absolutely dated documents which yield us pegs in the typological sequence, dividing up periods, and specifying the speed of changes in the scripts—the emergence of new forms and styles of script. The caves of the Wadi Qumran, emanating out from the community center on the Dead Sea, have yielded up more than eight hundred documents on skin and papyrus (and, in one instance, copper), ranging in date from the mid-third century BCE to the third quarter of the first century of the Common Era. These manuscripts and manuscript fragments exhibit a variety of scripts, predominantly early Jewish, including formal and cursive styles, more rarely Paleo-Hebrew, and, sporadically, Greek. There is even an esoteric manuscript written in a mixture of these three scripts (4Q186).
Hardly less important for Jewish paleography are the documents of the Wadi Murabba῾at and other caves further south in the Judean Desert. These date in large part to the first and second centuries CE, many of the documents containing date formulas that pin them to a day, month, and year. There are materials in the Jewish formal scripts, and, more significant, perhaps, in the true Jewish cursive, as well as in Greek, Latin, and Nabataean.
The dating of documents and inscriptions of the Herodian Age (30 bce–70 ce) is now capable of great refinement. The limits of the period are marked by materials bearing dating formulas, or otherwise absolutely dated within narrow limits by archaeological or historical context, for example, the Tomb of Jason (before 31 bce), or the Queen Helena Inscription (c.50 ce). The ossuary inscriptions, which presently number several hundreds and whose number continues to expand, virtually all date to the last century before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce. They are written in formal, semicursive, and cursive Jewish hands, and sometimes in Greek. Thanks to stratigraphic excavations in Qumran and Jerusalem, especially, the sequence of pottery types of the Herodian Age have been given increased precision, and the finds of pottery, coins, lamps, and other artifacts in the ossuary tombs excavated with scientific rigor provide extra confirming controls and checks.
From the excavations of Khirbet Qumran have come a small group of useful inscriptions tied into the stratigraphy of the site. A recently discovered ostracon, evidently written in the sectarian community to judge from its content, is dated “in the second year,” presumably the second year of the first revolt against Rome (67 ce).
Again, excavations at Masada have produced ostraca, papyri, and leather manuscripts deposited in loci sealed by the fall of the bastion to the Romans in 73 ce. These include biblical fragments, a Ben Sira scroll, and fragments of sectarian documents.
Until recently, the dating of documents in the Archaic or Proto-Jewish period (c.265–150 bce) has been based largely on typological sequence, making use of some fourth- and third-century papyri from Egypt for comparison. New discoveries in Palestine of dated documents stemming from the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the third century BCE are especially important for the dating of the beginning of the Archaic series. The Samaria Papyri from the Wadi ed-Daliyeh provide a series of legal contracts, dated by the Persian kings, mostly from the reigns of Artaxerxes III (359–338 bce) and Darius III (338–331 bce). Historical and archaeological evidence combine to show that the Samaritan owners of the documents perished in an attack by troops of Alexander the Great in 331 bce, providing a precise terminus ad quem for the abandonment of the papyri in the Daliyeh cave. A series of ostraca in Aramaic script from the end of the fourth and the beginning of the third centuries BCE stem from Idumean circles living on the border of Judea in the south, notably from Mareshah, Khirbet el-Qom, and vicinity. André Lemaire has recently published nearly two hundred Aramaic ostraca, many bearing date formulas, the oldest from 362, the latest from 331 bce (the latter the second year of Alexander the Great, according to the Egyptian reckoning of his reign). Another 201 Aramaic ostraca stemming from the period between 361 and 311 bce have been published by Israel Eph῾al and Joseph Naveh (1997). A cave in Ketef Yeriḥo (the “Mount of Temptation”) has produced a well-preserved papyrus of the beginning of the third century, dated by associated materials in the findspot as well as typology. Lawrence Geraty has published an ostracon from Khirbet el-Qom, a receipt for money paid, dated in the sixth year (of Ptolemy Philadelphus), 277 bce.
A marriage contract from Mareshah bears the date 176 bce, the 136th year of the Seleucid Era. Its semicursive script is virtually identical with that of the Nash Papyrus.
In the present state of paleographical study, therefore, we are able to draw a typological line of developments of several script styles, appearing in scores if not hundreds of documents inscribed on a variety of materials, their evolution pegged by a series of absolute dates at intervals in the early Hellenistic period, in the Hasmonean, and in the Herodian Ages—and indeed, through the subsequent era between the two Jewish revolts against Rome.
The Paleo-Hebrew scripts, found at Qumran for the most part in Pentateuchal manuscripts, are more difficult to date, the script evolving very slowly. When initially found at Qumran, there was some confusion about their date. However, the appearance of Paleo-Hebrew inscriptions on late-fourth-century bullae, and on inscriptions from the ruins of the city on the slopes of Mount Gerizim, destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 128 bce, have aided in clarifying the chronology. In the Hasmonean and Roman periods dated coins with Paleo-Hebrew legends, and an occasional inscription, from a tomb or from the Temple area, bring us up to 70 ce. We have mentioned above the occasional appearance of Paleo-Hebrew writing on manuscripts which are inscribed basically in the Jewish character. They permit us to date one script by the other. The best study is that of Mark McLean (see Bibliography). The dates of the Qumran Paleo-Hebrew scripts fall within the limits of the manuscripts in the Jewish hands—as might be expected. The earliest form of the script is probably found in a manuscript of Deuteronomy (Paleo-Deuteronomys [4Q46]) from the second half of the third century; the latest is the Paleo-Leviticusa (11Q1) from circa 1–50 ce. The relatively well preserved Exodus scroll, 4QPaleo-Exodusm (4Q22) may be dated to circa 100–50 bce.
In 1991 and 1996, two groups of manuscripts, most from Qumran, were tested by radiocarbon dating methods, one group (1991) by the Institut für Mittelenergiephysik, Zürich, the second (1996) by NSF Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility. One Paleo-Hebrew manuscript was included (paleo-Exodusm). Manuscripts in Jewish scripts from across the spectrum were also tested. The results were remarkably in agreement with dates arrived at earlier on paleographic grounds. The radiocarbon method gives a fairly broad range of dates. Paleographical analysis is more precise, and often can narrow the range of dates to a half century.
The evolution of the formal Jewish hand (or book hand) is now well established in three major phases: the Archaic (c.275–150 bce), the Hasmonean (c.150–30 bce), and the Herodian (c.30 bce–70 ce). Each of these stages is marked by general typological shifts, including clusters of features we call style. At the same time there is a steady evolutionary change within each period, and many manuscripts can be dated to phases within the major periods, especially within the Hasmonean and Herodian eras. Indeed it is not too much to say that, thanks to the rapid evolution of the Jewish hands in these two periods, the paleographer can often fix a characteristic book hand within fifty years in terms of absolute dates.
We may illustrate these general shifts, to be discussed below in greater detail, with one or two of the more obvious traits of each period. The Archaic book hand is marked by two characteristics surviving from the end of the Persian era: the widely differing sizes of letters below and above the ceiling line, and the preservation of variety in the width of strokes (“shading”), according to a fixed fashion. The Hasmonean hand preserves in part the tradition of large and small letters, with letters hung from the ceiling line (usually marked in drypoint). But the tendency to uniformity of size—begun in Aramaic or Archaic cursives of the third century—has set in, “infecting” the formal character. Shading is idiosyncratic. The Herodian hand sharply breaks with the tradition of variety in size, according to fixed canons, and tends to standardize letter height. Letters continue to be hung from the ceiling line, but a feeling for a base line sets in and occasionally a base guideline is marked in drypoint. “Tittles,” or keraiai (not to be confused with Medieval tagin), archaic survivals or idiosyncratic in Hasmonean scripts, develop and multiply, becoming standard parts of letters. In elegant hands, new techniques of shading are often used.
We shall deal in turn with (I) the origin of the Archaic Jewish hand, (II) the development of the formal Jewish hands, and (III) the evolution of scripts in cursive traditions.
The Origin of the Archaic Jewish Hand.
The starting point for the study of Jewish paleography is the Persian chancellery hand in use at the end of the Persian Empire. This official Aramaic hand finds its origin in an elegant cursive script which took form in the sixth century and evolved into its classical style in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. This standard Aramaic character was in regular use throughout the Persian Empire, from Asia Minor to North Arabia and Upper Egypt, and from Palestine to the eastern reaches of Iran. While it evolved steadily in these centuries, it remained relatively undifferentiated by local peculiarities in the western reaches of the Empire until the Persian rule was swept away by the forces of Alexander in 331 bce. So powerful was its sway that formal and lapidary Aramaic styles became moribund, and the chancellery hand, while cursive in its origin, was used not only for commercial and diplomatic correspondence and contracts, but as a fully formal script used on stone monuments.
The immediate ancestor of the earliest formal Qumran scripts has proved to be this standard Aramaic cursive. The earliest of the formal scripts from Qumran is the old Samuel manuscript, Samuelb, which dates to the mid-third century BCE. I have designated it an Archaic Jewish formal—although one may prefer to describe it as Proto-Jewish. It is little influenced by the vulgar Aramaic cursive which developed in the third century BCE in Palestine and Egypt, when Greek replaced Aramaic for official purposes. On the other hand, the earliest Qumran exemplar of the cursive tradition, the archaic manuscript of Exodus and Leviticus (Exodus-Leviticusf), makes it evident that a cursive stream flowed parallel to the formal, stemming from the vulgar Aramaic cursives of the third century. In the formal character of the mid-third century, the extreme difference in the length of various letters below the ceiling line continues, preserving the long slender letters of the classical tradition; in the cursive, letter forms become squat, more regular in size.
One very important development which was destined to modify radically the size and form of letters characterizes the fourth-century and, especially, the third-century scripts. This is the trend to create what may be called semiligatures, a tendency of the scribe to bend the final stroke of a letter in the direction of writing, that is, to the position of forming the next letter. Especially affected were the long downstrokes of such letters as kaf, nun, pe, and frequently tsadi. However, other letters were affected by the tendency, notably mem, whose left oblique is bent upward to the left, and lamed, whose broad sweep down to the right tends to narrow, and, in the course of the third century, straightens and begins the development of a tick downward and to the left. Naturally this tendency was felt most strongly in the case of letters in nonfinal positions, so that we see here the commencement of the development of “medial” forms of the letters. The “final” letters, actually the older forms of the letters, were preserved where the tendency to create semiligatures was not so strong. By the third century, the distinction between final and medial letters was fullblown, though different script traditions froze different sets of medial and final forms. In the course of time, certain forms were lost (for example, final lamed), and secondary distinctions between final and medial forms elaborated (for example, the artificial distinction between medial and final he, and between medial and final alef in certain cursive scripts).
The Development of the Formal Jewish Scripts.
Out of scores of exemplars of the formal hands of the Hasmonean period, three typical specimens exist, the first from the transitional period at the beginning of the Hasmonean development (Deuteronomya), the second from the middle of the Hasmonean period (Deuteronomyc—contemporary with Isaiaha), and the third a late transitional hand from the end of the Hasmonean or the beginning of the Herodian (Samuela). The absolute dates for this series can be fixed between c.175 bce and c.30 bce.
Out of the great riches of manuscripts from the Herodian Age, we have chosen seven typical formal scripts. The first two are Early Herodian, one fully formal (1QM), the second a popular Round or Rustic semiformal (Numbersb). The script of the War Scroll (1QM) is an excellent example of the delicate, usually minuscule, formal script which evolved directly from the transitional hands of the type of Samuela. Its lapidary equivalent is found in the Tomb Inscription of the Bene Ḥezir from about the turn of the Common Era. An additional five scripts have been chosen to represent the complex evolution of the late Herodian hand. Danielb and Deuteronomyj, especially the latter, exhibit the characteristic thick lines and squat configuration of the late formal scripts of Qumran. Perhaps the latest formal hand at Qumran is to be found in 4QPsalmsb. Its script is very nearly as evolved as the hand of another manuscript of Psalms from the Naḥal Ḥever dating to the end of the first century of the Common Era. The last script in the series is from a dated Hebrew contract inscribed in 133 ce.
Perhaps it will be useful to single out a few salient features in the evolution of each letter of the alphabet in the formal series. A more detailed and nuanced discussion can be found in my monograph “The Development of the Jewish Scripts” (1961).
Alef in the Archaic period is small, often with a crescent-shaped left leg. In the Hasmonean period, the letter begins to enlarge, becoming by the end of the period “standard” letter size. In the Herodian period, the left arm and, especially, the right leg develop more and more distinctive keraiai (“tittles”), and in the Late Herodian period the oblique axis and the left leg are penned as an inverted “V,” and become increasingly heavy lined and squat.
Beit in the late Archaic and early Hasmonean times is narrow, and the downstroke curves softly into a short base. In the semiformal and semicursive scripts the beit becomes broad and enlarged, a development which invades the formal character of Hasmonean times. At the end of the Hasmonean period, the downstroke is drawn almost vertically and bends in a right angle to the horizontal base. In the Herodian period, the base line is no longer penned from right to left, but rather from left to right, often breaking through the right downstroke.
The changes in gimel are subtle. In the Archaic period the left leg of the letter moves down the right leg from near the top to the increasingly curved or doubly curved middle or lower part of the right leg. In the Herodian period, the top of the right leg develops a keraia.
Dalet is a very narrow letter in the Archaic period, begun with a tick, and drawn without lifting the pen. In the Hasmonean period the letter broadens under the influence of the semiformal dalet. By the end of the Hasmonean period, it is penned in two strokes. The tick enlarges, and the horizontal part of the head completes the first stroke. The pen is then lifted and the right down stroke is drawn separately; in the Herodian period, the horizontal often breaks through the right leg owing to the change in the manner of penning the letter.
The typological shifts of he are complex, making it very useful in dating. The right leg is drawn first, then a shaded left horizontal is penned, attached slightly below the top of the right leg, slanting slightly down usually; the left leg is drawn down from the horizontal. In the Hasmonean period, the leg is drawn continuously following the horizontal stroke, often looped back in a triangular motion. In the Herodian period the fashion of making the he once again changes, the right leg penned upward, moving in a triangular motion into the horizontal, and then in another triangular motion into the left downstroke, leaving triangular blobs of ink at the two top corners.
Vav and yod should be described together. The Archaic vav begins with a curl, later becoming a hook, and a straight vertical. Yod is made either with a three-movement set of strokes, down to the left, up and around and down again to the right, or typologically later, made in a two-movement inverted “V.” In Hasmonean times, the tops of both vav and yod become an angular hook, often shaded, so that a triangular effect is given. In late Hasmonean times the right downstroke of yod lengthens and straightens, and in the early Herodian period, vav and yod become virtually, if not actually, indistinguishable. Finally, in the late Herodian period, vav and yod again are increasingly distinguished, vav becoming slightly longer, yod tending to shorten.
Early zayin is an uncomplicated single downstroke. Then, in the mid-Hasmonean period, it develops a bend or a bulge to the right at the top of the downstroke, a bulge which becomes a triangular tick or keraia in the Herodian Age.
Ḥeit in the Archaic period is made with a right upstroke, a cross bar, and a left downstroke. The top corners are simple, with no evidence of looping from one stroke into another. In the Hasmonean period there begins some tendency to loop, particularly at the upper right corner. In the Herodian period this looping tends to create a triangular bulge on the right corner.
Ṭeit in the third century is made with the left vertical, beginning high above the ceiling line and descending into a curved or even bluntly pointed base, then angling up in an oblique stroke before finally curling to meet the left vertical at the ceiling line. In Hasmonean scripts, the left downstroke shortens and the base straightens out toward the horizontal. At the end of the Hasmonean and the beginning of the Herodian age, a new style of penning the ṭeit makes its appearance. The top, curled stroke to the left is drawn downward, and often in the Herodian period breaks through the lower horizontal base.
In the old Samuel scroll, kaf has a “figure-3” shape. The medial and final forms in this period are similarly hooked at the top, left, and the final form curves little if at all as it plunges below the (theoretical) base line. In the Hasmonean period the form broadens, and in the Early Herodian period a new final form is introduced in which the top bar is shaded and eventually loops into the downstroke.
After the disappearance of final (nonhooked) lamed found in the earliest Archaic formals, the small, hooked medial form comes to dominate in all positions. In the later periods, its evolution is slow. Scribes sometimes experiment in penning the lamed in varying styles, but the main line of evolution is not sidetracked. Intermittently in the Hasmonean period, a hook develops at the top of lamed. In the Herodian period the hook becomes a keraia.
Medial mem and especially final mem are large letters in the Archaic period, extending well below a theoretical base line. The right side of the medial form is drawn in the same pattern as the kaf is made, then the left arm is added last. Final mem, like medial mem, is often open. In the course of the Hasmonean age, medial mem increasingly loses it long, slender form, and by the end of the period is standard letter size. The final form develops similarly though not so dramatically. The left downstroke cuts through the head of the letter, and is drawn vertically downward, in the mid- and late-Hasmonean period, touching the base of the letter. The base of the letter meets the right downstroke. Like kaf, the lower right part of the letter becomes increasingly angular. At the end of the Hasmonean period, the left downstroke of final mem moves to the right at the top and finally disappears, giving the form a boxlike shape in Herodian times. In late Herodian times, the fashion of making the medial mem changes. The left diagonal is drawn upward, and the former tick beginning the letter is penned last, a short vertical stroke drawn down into the oblique, sometimes cutting it.
Nun in nonfinal positions steadily shortens in the Hasmonean period, in line with the trend toward uniform letter size. In the Herodian period a tick rightward at the top of the stroke—in both medial and final nun—becomes a keraia.
In the third century, the samekh in semicursive scripts loses its complex doubly hooked head. The letter is drawn beginning with an upstroke on the left, into a looped head. The right side is curved around, but remains open at the base until the close of the Hasmonean period. In the Herodian period, the form is totally closed, and takes on a somewhat triangular shape.
῾Ayin in the Archaic and early Hasmonean periods is a small letter drawn just under the ceiling line. It increases in size toward the end of the Hasmonean period, following the general trend toward uniformity of letter size. The right leg turns leftward obliquely, breaks through the left leg, and lengthens. The tendency for the ῾ayin to rotate clockwise becomes fully developed in the Herodian period.
Medial pe in the Hasmonean script ceases to be made with a gentle curve into the base, but, following a general trend in the Hasmonean period (beit, kaf, mem, tsadi), the right downstroke turns in a right angle into a fully horizontal base. In the Herodian period the heads of both medial and final pe become curled under.
Medial tsadi follows the Hasmonean tendency to turn a straight or gently curved base into an angular base. The vertical downstroke of the final form lengthens—influenced by other final forms, notably kaf and nun. In the Herodian scripts the right arm develops a keraia at the top, and sometimes both arms have keraiai.
Qof in Archaic era scripts is small (enlarging in the semiformal). A short downstroke tends to lengthen in the Hasmonean scripts. In Herodian scripts the long “tail” persists with little change.
The changes in the development of reish are subtle. The narrow Archaic reish, often confused with vav, broadens in Hasmonean scripts, and the ticked or sharp right shoulder becomes increasingly rounded.
The evolution of shin is very slow in the Archaic and Hasmonean periods. At the end of the Hasmonean period, and persisting through the Herodian, the rightmost downstroke develops a tick, and eventually a keraia.
Tav in the Archaic period is a very large letter, extending well below the (theoretical) base line. The left leg is long and doubly curved. By mid-Hasmonean times, tav is shrunken, coming into line with the trend to uniformity of letter size. The left leg no longer ends in a curved flourish, but in an angular base. By Herodian times, the right leg has lengthened to roughly the length of the left.
Scripts in the Cursive Tradition.
Vulgar cursive scripts, diverging from official Aramaic cursive style, appear first in the third century BCE. From these scripts develop in the Hasmonean period two distinct cursive traditions, one we term semicursive, the other cursive or extreme cursive. They are distinct styles, lasting over centuries of time. They often influence the formal and, especially, the semiformal styles, but, oddly enough, the influence is not always in the same direction. The cursive traditions are sometimes influenced by formal style, and in some periods exhibit fewer ligatures than the formal scripts.
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Frank Moore Cross