The Paleo-Hebrew script (Hebrew: הכתב העברי הקדום), also Palaeo-Hebrew, Proto-Hebrew or Old Hebrew, is the writing system found in Canaanite inscriptions from the region of biblical Israel and Judah. It is considered to be the script used to record the original texts of the Hebrew Bible due to its similarity to the Samaritan script, as the Talmud stated that the Hebrew ancient script was still used by the Samaritans. The Talmud described it as the "Libona'a script" (Hebrew: לִיבּוֹנָאָה Lībōnāʾā), translated by some as "Lebanon script". Use of the term "Paleo-Hebrew alphabet" is due to a 1954 suggestion by Solomon Birnbaum, who argued that "[t]o apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable".
|c. 1000 BCE – 135 CE|
|ISO 15924||Phnx (115), Phoenician|
The first Paleo-Hebrew inscription identified in modern times was the Shebna inscription, found in 1870, and then referred to as "two large ancient Hebrew inscriptions in Phoenician letters". Fewer than 2,000 inscriptions are known today, of which the vast majority comprise just a single letter or word. The earliest known examples of Paleo-Hebrew writing date to the 10th century BCE.
Like the Phoenician alphabet, it is a slight regional variant and an immediate continuation of the Proto-Canaanite script, which was used throughout Canaan in the Late Bronze Age. Phoenician, Hebrew, and all of their sister Canaanite languages were largely indistinguishable dialects before that time. The Paleo-Hebrew script is an abjad of 22 consonantal letters, exactly as the other Canaanite scripts from the period.
By the 5th century BCE, among Judeans the alphabet had been mostly replaced by the Aramaic alphabet as officially used in the Achaemenid Empire. The "Jewish square-script" variant now known simply as the Hebrew alphabet evolved directly out of the Aramaic script by about the 3rd century BCE (although some letter shapes did not become standard until the 1st century CE). By contrast, the Samaritan alphabet, as used by Samaritans, is an immediate continuation of the Proto-Hebrew script without intermediate non-Israelite evolutionary stages. There is also some continued use of the old Hebrew script in Jewish religious contexts down to the 1st century BCE, notably in the Paleo-Leviticus text found in the Dead Sea scrolls.