Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On European knowledge of the ancient Hebrew and Samaritan alphabet

As you can see by the image that adorns the top of this blog--

--and many prior posts, I am interested in the Pheonician/ Paleo-Hebrew alphabet known to Jewish tradition as כתב עברית, and by other names, as well as its offspring, the alphabet of the Samaritans.

Although the Samaritan alphabet was mostly unknown to Europeans until the travels of Pietro della Valle in the early 17th century (he brought a complete manuscript of the Samaritan Pentateuch from Syria to Europe), much less it's ancient ancestor Paleo-Hebrew, neither was it entirely unknown, as Jews had either not entirely forgotten their ancient ancestral alphabet, or contacts between European and Eastern Jews brought knowledge of the Samaritan alphabet to them. It sometimes surfaced in decorative form in mystical texts. See this post, which reproduced an image from a 15th century Judeo-Arabic text of the alphabet of the כט אלסאמרה והו כתב עברי:

Thus, in Avraham de Balmes' work on Hebrew grammar, the מקנה אברם printed on Bomberg's press in 1523, we find the following:

Several decades after de Balmes, Azariah de Rossi's Me'or Enayim included an analysis of this script. See this 4-year old post (which happens to have been one of my most popular post, judging by the continual hits it receives). The alphabet, allegedly כתב עברית, as printed in that book is more realistic than the one in Mikne Avram in that it more closely resembled the actual Samaritan. But it still was not really the Paleo-Hebrew used in the time of ancient Israel.

I came across Wilhelm Schickard's Bechinath Happeruschim (1624), in which he reproduces de Balme's text and graphic:

However, at this time he was able to supplement it with a better version of the Samaritan alphabet. Actually, he ought to have been able to use the true alphabet, della Valle having brought the Samaritan manuscript back to Italy eight years earlier.

By the late 17th century, Europeans had become pros at the Samaritan alphabet and text:

The above being from Johannes Leusden's 1699 Philologus Hebraeo-mixtus, which also happens to contain the following very interesting illustration (as well as several others!):

Since the origin of the Greek alphabet was also of great interest in Europe, and since it so happens to have descended from the Phoenician, which is more or less identical with Paleo-Hebrew, the antiquity of Greek was also an object of scholarly and archaeological discovery. By the mid-18th century it was already realized that the Samaritan is not identical with כתב עברית more or less once it was noticed that the ancient Hebrew script was in fact probably identical with the Punic alphabet used by the Carthaginians. Artifacts belonging to these descendants-of-Canaanites could be found in Europe itself, often in the form of coins found in Spain and Sicily, as well as places like Malta, and of course North Africa. Below is a page which discusses this very point, from a 1748 text called 'The History of the Carthaginians,' in a multi-volume encylopedia called 'An Universal history, from the earliest account of time.'

The sources for this discussion and analysis is Valentin Ernst Loescher's De causis linguae hebraeae (1706) and Adriaan Reland's Antiquitates sacrae veterum Hebraeorum (1712)..

Loescher included images of Punic coins, and an alphabetic table:

From the 50th volume of the Royal Society's Philosophical transactions (1758).

Just to sort of illustrate that we are still talking about the very early stages of paleography and archaeology, a very primitive time really, see below:

As you can see, even the character of the Egyptian writing system was still totally obscure in Europe.

Someone writing in 1749 makes clear that paleography was very little developed at the time, even though no doubt some of it more reflects the lack of Hebrew expertise of the author:

However, the following shows his acumen and instinct regarding paleography:

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