In an earlier post I discussed the Qeiyafa Ostracon, identifying it as the earliest extant example of Hebrew writing. That was what was being reported at the time, but the truth appears to lie elsewhere. The May/June 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review discussed this inscription, noting the many problems associated with the identification.
First, the script. Is it Hebrew? No. The paleo-Hebrew script evolved from the Phoenician script around the 9th century BC, and the Phoenician script emerged from the Early Alphabetic (Canaanite) script around the mid-10th century BC. The Early Alphabetic script was wild and ill-defined. It contained 27 or 28 consonants, the slant of each letter varied, and it could be written left-to-right, right-to-left, left-to-right-then-right-to-left (“as the ox plows”), or even vertically. In contrast, the Phoenician and paleo-Hebrew scripts contained 22 consonants, letter slants were much more standardized, and it was always written right-to-left. Importantly, the script of the Qeiyafa Ostracon is written left-to-right and the slants of certain letters vary widely, indicating that it is written in the Early Alphabetic script. This proves that it was written earlier than 1000 BC, but does not tell us what language it was written in.
There is a difference between script and language. Just as the French, Spanish, and English languages all utilize the Latin script, likewise many different Semitic languages shared the Early Alphabetic and Phoenician scripts including Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite, Ugaritic, Aramaic, etc. The paleo-Hebrew script did not come on the scene until the 9th century, but of course the Hebrew language existed long before then. While the script of the Qeiyafa Ostracon is not Hebrew, is the language Hebrew? We can’t be sure. Related languages often shared the same spellings, so it can be difficult to positively identify the language in which an inscription is written. For example, bn is the spelling for “son” in Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic, so if we find an inscription with the word bn in it, it could have been written in any of those languages. To positively identify the language in which an inscription was written we need to find words or grammatical structures that were unique to one particular language. That proves difficult in the case of the Qeiyafa Ostracon because many of the letters are very faded, making it impossible to identify any distinctly Hebrew words, and thus impossible to identify the language with any certainty. It could be Hebrew, Canaanite, Phoenician, or Moabite.