Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Daniele Tripaldi (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

According to traditional classification, Hebrew is a "Semitic" language. More precisely, it belongs to the North-West group of these languages, along with, for example, Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite. What these conventional labels conceal is that the Canaanite language is fragmented but still basically homogeneous. "Hebrew" is then best interpreted as one of its local varieties, encompassing, specifically, the Canaanite dialects spoken in the territories of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, from the 12th - 11th century B.C. onwards.

The first, certain epigraphic documents come from Galilee and Samaria and date to the 9th or the first half of the 8th century B.C. The most ancient literary texts, preserved in the Hebrew scriptures, date approximately to the same time: the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5: 1-30; 10th - 9th century), the Song of Moses (Deut 32: 1-43; 8th century), the prophecies of Amos and Hosea. The fall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., and later of the kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C. lead to the quick disappearance of Hebrew as an epigraphic and spoken language. Its place was taken by Aramaic, already widespread as a consequence of the Assyrian conquests. 

Only the political and cultural establishment, deported to Babylon, kept using Hebrew as a written language to produce its own religious literature. In the following centuries, apart from liturgy, the use of Hebrew was limited to literary texts, and faced ever-mounting competition with and assertion of Aramaic and Greek. However, already in Maccabean and Hasmonean times (2nd - 1st century B.C.), attempts were made to revive Hebrew as a spoken, every day language. Even later, during the revolt against Rome bearing his name (132-135 A.D.), we find Simon Bar-Kochba writing letters in Hebrew, some of which have come to us, together with the ones he wrote in Aramaic and Greek. In spite of these isolated attempts, over the long term, Hebrew survived only in Rabbinic debates (2nd century B.C. - 2nd century A.D.), in the scribal praxis of few experts at first and in a multifarious literary production, later on. New attempts, made at the beginnings of the 20th century, succeeded and lead to its ultimate revival as an every day language only after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the diffusion of mass-media communication.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Hebrew

Further information

  1. Bibliography