Origins of Hebrew Writing
The development of alphabetic script in which each sign represents a single consonant is one of the greatest cultural achievements known. Alphabetic writing first appeared in the mid-2nd millennium BCE in the region of Syria – Eretz-Israel. The syllabic scripts of the Ancient Near East, such as the Mesopotamian cuneiform scripts and Egyptian hieroglyphics, possessed hundreds of signs. Mastery of these scripts was gained only after years of study, and thus reading and writing were restricted to very few individuals. The invention and development of alphabetic script, with its limited number of signs, simplified reading and writing and placed these skills within the reach of larger parts of the population. Alphabetic script spread throughout the Ancient Near East and came to be adopted by the Greeks, Romans, and, eventually the entire western world.
The beginnings of the alphabet are seen in several inscriptions that have been found in Eretz-Israel, written in “proto-Canaanite” script. This script, the earliest alphabetic writing known, includes twenty-seven signs representing consonants, without any vowels. This is a picture script, in which each sign represents the first consonant of the object depicted.
The earliest proto-Canaanite inscriptions were written in both vertical and horizontal lines, from left to right, right to left, back and forth. Over time, the horizontal right to left practice became dominant. As evidenced in several abecedaries (alphabetic practice texts) from Eretz-Israel and Ugarit, the order of the letters became fixed around the end of the second millennium BCE.
Phoenician script is a direct continuation of proto-Canaanite script. In the mid-11th century BCE, after the number of letters had been reduced to twenty-two, the linear forms crystallized. Early Hebrew script developed from either proto-Canaanite or Phoenician script; and by the 9th century BCE, it was clearly independent.
The inscriptions surviving from the days of the First Temple have been mainly preserved on non-perishable materials: they were incised on stone, stamped or incised on clay, or written in ink on pottery shards. These documents attest first-hand to the period described in the Bible.