The invention of the alphabet early in the 2nd millennium BCE was a revolutionary step in the spread of literacy, as the previous writing systems were too complicated to be mastered except by specially trained individuals. Unlike the Mesopotamian cuneiform script and the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, which required the knowledge of hundreds of signs, the alphabetic system greatly simplified reading and writing by reducing the number of signs to less than thirty. Over time the alphabetic system was adopted by the Greeks and Romans and passed to all the nations of the Western world.
The early Hebrew script branched off from the Phoenician script sometime in the 10th or 9th century BCE, developing independent features. However, it was only around 800 BCE that it became widespread, as literacy became fairly common among the inhabitants of Israel and Judah.
Most ancient Hebrew inscriptions date from the late First Temple Period (the 8th–6th century BCE), and they include inscriptions written by professional scribes as well as less-skilled hands. These inscriptions are a crucial source of information about all aspects of life, from the royal court through the religious realm and down to the individual.