[b-hebrew] history of square script

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Fri Dec 5 12:31:28 EST 2003

On 04/12/2003 16:39, Elaine Keown wrote:

>          Elaine Keown
>          central Texas
>I'm looking for help on the history of Aramaic or
>Hebrew square script---I'm looking at them as,
>basically, a unit.  
>I assume square script starts in Elephantine in Egypt
>about 495 B.C., develops into slightly later square
>script in Qumran documents, but what then?  
>At Qumran, so far, I think 50-60% of the letters
>(depends on document) look modern to me (for the mss
>which *are* in square script).  
>But after Qumran, how long is the hiatus before we get
>to 100% of the letters appearing modern?  In Birnbaum,
>he seems to indicate it's another 600 years---I was
>very surprised by that........
>I also wondered if the Cairo Geniza had examples of
>slightly later square script development?  
>I'm drawing sample letters to re-use in a Web
>document, so references with photo/drawn facsimiles
>Thanks for all help--Elaine Keown
Elaine, I think this all depends on how you define "look modern". I take 
this as meaning "have almost exactly the same shape as in traditional 
printed Bible texts". At least, it would seem to mean that if you 
consider that only 50-60% of Qumran letters "look modern". If you are 
talking about having shapes that are immediately recognisable by 
Hebraists today, from a quick look at an extract from 1Q Isaiah I would 
say 80-90%. And looking at an alphabet from Elephantine, things are not 
much worse: samekh and ayin are now unrecognisable and some others 
ambiguous, but we are still talking about 50-60% with basically their 
modern shapes.

And we may be able to trace things back before Elephantine, even if 
these are the oldest surviving texts in "square" script. The Palmyrene 
alphabet given in http://std.dkuug.dk/jtc1/sc2/wg2/docs/n2311.pdf, 
figure 5.5 column XVIII, is in fact more like modern Hebrew than 
Elephantine is; but the table in that same document suggests that it 
separated from Hebrew at a date before the Elephantine texts. But 800 
BCE Aramaic shapes seem to have been more like paleo-Hebrew.

Jack Kilmon offers fonts based on Elephantine and other early shapes, at 
http://www.historian.net/files.htm. See also 
http://www.historian.net/hxwrite.htm which gives Genesis 1:1 in several 
different script variants.

But I am still confused. I read, for example at 
http://www.peshitta.org/initial/aramaic.html, that:

> Aramaic can be dated to five periods, dating from inscriptions that go 
> back to the first millennium B.C.:
>     * Old Aramaic, 925-700
>     * Official or Imperial (Assyrian) Aramaic, 700-200 (when the
>       language was still uniform)...
but I can't find any clear details or examples of what script was used 
for that "Official or Imperial Aramaic", other than the Elephantine 
papyri. So it remains unclear to me whether the square script was the 
generally used form of imperial Aramaic, as some state, or was a later 
and specifically Jewish innovation, as claimed by others. The evidence 
from Palmyrene favours the former, but I am not sure either way.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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