Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Comments on the Gezer Calendar Script

In my previous post on the Gezer Calendar inscription, I didn’t go into too much detail about the script in which it was written. That’s because I’m not really trained as a paleographer. I’m a biblical studies person who dabbles in Northwest Semitic inscriptions. I enjoy epigraphy and paleography, but I’ve never had a chance to study with a specialist in Semitic inscriptions and scripts.

In comments on the previous post, I was asked whether the Gezer Calendar shows any evidence of being a distinctly Hebrew script (i.e., not Phoenician). Here I offer my non-specialist evaluation of the script. I rely heavily on Yardeni and Cross for my quasi-expertise.

Yardeni (1997, 15) identifies the script as Phoenician. Gibson (1971, 1) calls it the “Old Hebrew script” but goes on to point out close parallels with characters from Old Byblian texts (i.e. Phoenician). Since the Phoenician script served as an international script until the 8th century BCE (Yardeni 1997, 15), a Hebrew inscription in Phoenician script would not be unusual.

There is some debate over whether the language of the text is Hebrew or Phoenician. The dividing line between the two languages is not very distinct at this stage. An important feature identifying the language of the inscription as Hebrew is the reconstruction of {h} in the name in the margin, making a Yahwistic theophoric element. One isogloss indicating a northern Hebrew dialect is the diphthong reduction with קץ .Cross believes Gezer shows initial tendencies marking the emergent Hebrew script (1980, 14).

The identification of the script as Phoenician is an indicator of the age of the inscription, placing it earlier than the Hebrew texts of the mid to late 9th century BCE. According to Yardeni (1997, 17), Hebrew inscriptions from the later time period show tendencies distinct from the Phoenician script such as a cursive leftward curve to the long downstrokes. In the Gezer script, the downstrokes on the “long-legged” letters tend to be straight. However, the Gezer script also has other features which Yardeni identifies as Hebrew tendencies including the waw with a concave top (though inconsistent in this text) and the x-shaped taw (ibid.). The elongated vertical strokes of ‘aleph, waw, kaph, mem, and resh are also rudimentary features of Hebrew script (Cross 1980, 14). The abcedary found at Tell Zayit exhibits similar archaic features and has also been identified as Hebrew and dated to the mid-10th century.

The paleographical evidence for dating the Gezer Calendar to the 10th century is strong. The ‘aleph, waw, and zayin are more advanced than 11th century, but the script lacks the cursive tendency indicative of Hebrew scripts of the 9th century and later (Cross 1980, 14, 18 n. 16).

It may be best to identify the Gezer script as transitional Hebrew between the standard Phoenician from the 10th century and the earliest Hebrew from a century later since it shows features of both scripts.


Cross, Frank Moore. 1980. “Newly Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts.” BASOR 238: 1-20.

Gibson, John C. L. 1971. Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions. Vol. 1: Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions. Oxford: Clarendon.

Yardeni, Ada. 1997. The Book of Hebrew Script. Jerusalem: Carta.


  1. Good points, Doug.

    You might want to look at Chris Rollston's arguments, against Cross, that elongation is found in nearly all early Iron Age linear scripts. He points out that the Tel Fekhariye (very archaic-style Old Aramaic) and even Izbet Sarta (who knows?) inscriptions show it. See his "The Tel Zayit Abecedary and Evidence for Israelite Literacy" in Ron Tappy, ed. Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan, esp. pp. 85-86.

    As you rightly point out, if the root for the word קץ is indeed קיצ this would point in the direction of a language variety closer to Phoenician or Israelian (northern Hebrew), as against the Judean we recognize as "Hebrew." But the root itself is also found in Aramaic, so it could be seen as common NWS stock.

    Looking at this inscription again for the first time in a long while, the only thing I immediately noticed as a distinctively Hebrew lexical item is the zmr "prune" root.

  2. Thanks, Seth. I'm clearly not current on the latest literature in paleography and epigraphy. (Hence the disclaimer.)Once I get my exams and dissertation out of the way, I'll be free to nurture my side interest in those areas more. I was taught the inscription was likely Israelite Hebrew, but the secondary readings we have for our classes on these inscriptions are a bit out of date. Thanks for your input.

  3. Dennis Pardee has an extremely thorough grammatical argument in favor of identifying the Gezer text as Phoenician.

    Pardee, Dennis. Forthcoming. A Brief Case for the Language of the ‘Gezer Calendar’ as Phoenician. In Linguistic Studies in Phoenician, ed. Robert D. Holmstedt and Aaron Schade. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

    (His "brief case" runs 45 pages! Moreover, his incredible footnotes will complete your secondary literature file in every way.)

  4. Thanks, Rob. I'll keep an eye out for it. I wouldn't have any objection to considering Gezer to be Phoenician. It will be interesting to see his argument.

  5. Doug,
    I studied the Gezer Calendar in detail from a Lexical and Paleographical perspective. It will be interesting to see Pardee's argument that Gezer is Phoenician has merit. I agree with Seth that ZMR is clearly a Hebrew term. McCarter argued that the script is Southern Canaanite, while the older arguments from Cross, Naveh and others is that Gezer was a Phoenician script, but hebrew in Orthography. Doug, you can contact me at this email address to discuss orthography and Epigraphy..