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INSCRIPTIONS. The word “inscription” is found only once in the Bible (Acts 17:23) but the discovery of many inscrs. from Bible times has revolutionized the knowledge of its background. Until a hundred years ago, students of the Bible were primarily limited in their research to a small number of books in monasteries and libraries. Such writings were largely of the nature of Josephus’ or Eusebius’. Now from all over the Bible lands inscrs. are available containing laws, treaties, decrees, private letters, memorials, etc. Such inscrs. lead back directly to the ancient setting bypassing the problems of MS transmission.

These inscrs. were incised on clay, marble, stone, metal, and terra-cotta. In the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates, clay was extensively used, but in Egypt the hieroglyphs were carefully incised on stone. In Greece the best inscribing was done in the 5th and 4th cent. b.c., in Athens. The direction of writing varies. The letters or symbols may be arranged vertically, and read from top to bottom, or horizontally, to read either from right to left or left to right; they also can be arranged in a pattern in which case their order may be indeterminate, or in a wandering curved line, or left to right and right to left alternately (boustrophedon, “as an ox ploughing”). Most Sem. inscrs. read from right to left; the earliest Gr. followed the same direction. The direction left to right became regular in Greece after the 6th cent. b.c. and consequently was adopted by the Roman and European systems.

The place and position of the inscr. varies with its use. Sometimes on Mesopotamian statues or reliefs the inscrs. were cut right across the figures without regard to artistic effect. In Egypt the inscrs. were often inscribed or painted upon the inner walls of tombs; these were intended for the benefit of the dead rather than a source of information for the living, but they now provide a wealth of information. On the other hand, inscrs. which were intended to be seen by the public and to perpetuate a record of events, or to supply useful information, were usually placed in locales of common resort, esp. temples and sacred precincts. Sometimes they were cut on convenient rock faces, sometimes on walls of public buildings.

In some cases (Moab) these inscrs. form the only source of information in the absence of literary records; in others (Greece and Rome) they offer a valuable supplement. These inscrs. were written in various languages, most of which have been deciphered, and originated in many various places.


Inscriptions relating to Palestine before the settlement of the Israelites


The earliest references to Pal. occur in two collections of writings found in Egypt, called the Execration Texts which date from the 20th and 19th centuries b.c. The Egyptians wrote the names of enemy tribes, towns, and rulers on clay figurines or vessels and then broke them in a symbolic act intended to insure the Pharaoh’s victory over the enemy named. Such cities as Ashkelon, Jerusalem, Aphek, Acre, Mash’al, Achshaph Tyre, and many others are named in these lists. Such texts yield valuable information on the political conditions in Syria-Palestine.

Later Egyp. inscrs. left by the Pharaohs describe their recurrent campaigns in Canaan to keep the city-states of that country under their domination. Thutmose III (c. 1490-1436 b.c.) listed in the temple of Amon at Karnak the names of 119 cities and towns which he captured in Canaan and Syria, thus recording the names of important cities of 15th century b.c. Pal. Together with his “annals” these lists serve to document the history of Palestine-Egypt relations. The names of places in Pal. contained in the later lists of Ramses II (c. 1290-1223 b.c.) on the Ramesseum at Thebes and of Ramses III (c. 1179-1147 b.c.) at Medinet Habu are mere copies of the list of Thutmose III. Other Pharaohs also engaged in campaigns to maintain their sovereignty over Canaan, the corridor to their great rivals in the N, the Hittites and Hurrians.

A number of Egyp. inscrs. have turned up at various sites in Pal. Three stelai, one of Ramses II and two of his predecessor Seti I (c. 1303-1290 b.c.), came from Beth-shan, which was occupied by an Egyp. garrison. The larger stele of Seti tells of the capture of Beth-shan by the ruler of Hamath and its relief by Seti; his smaller one mentions the Habiru (see Habiru, Hapiru). Many short hieroglyphic inscrs. on the scarabs of various Egyp. kings were also discovered in the mounds of Pal.


Some of these texts were incised on stone but most of them were incised on clay which was then baked. There is a vast amount of material preserved in Akkad.; several entire libraries have been found, containing many thousands of texts.

Much of the material written in Mesopotamia has great significance for Biblical studies. The Sumerian King List records the reigns of the earliest rulers in Mesopotamia who are noted for their longevity: the eight antediluvian kings are given reigns totaling 241,200 years!

The earliest known legal codes were written in cuneiform and the information they contain greatly illuminates the legal background of the OT. The most famous, the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1792-1750 b.c.) was beautifully inscribed on diorite and is known also from copies on clay tablets. Actually it was a compilation of laws already in existence, many of which were copied from Sumer. Similar collections of law date from the reign of Ur-Nammu (c. 2060 b.c.) of Ur; Bilalama (c. 1930 b.c.) of Eshnunna, and Lipit-Ishtar (c. 1865 b.c.) of Isin.

From Mari, on the middle of the Euphrates, 20,000 tablets from the 19th and 18th centuries have been recovered. These texts supply much information on the background of the Patriarchs. Another large collection of Akkad. texts was found at Nuzi, in NW Mesopotamia, an area inhabited largely by Hurrians. These texts illuminate many customs preserved in the OT such as the selling of birthright, and the fact that possession of household gods virtually gave title to an estate.

In Akkad. and Sumer. lit. are found the Creation Story (Enuma Elish) and the Flood Story (Gilgamish Epic), which have been compared with the Biblical accounts. The Flood Story is also preserved in Hittite and Hurrian versions.

The Tel El-Amarna tablets are clay tablets dating from c. 1400-1350 b.c., written in cuneiform, in a language which is a mixture of Akkadian and Canaanite. They were discovered in the palace of Pharaoh Akhenaton and were sent to him by his vassals in Phoenicia, Syria, and Canaan. These letters, supplemented by the letters found at Ta’anach, reflect the political and social systems of 15th cent. b.c. Canaan. The personal names in these letters bear witness to the ethnic composition of the country’s population at that time. Among others, the Hurrians who are known to have lived in Canaan (Gen 36:20) are prominently mentioned. Similar tablets written in cuneiform have been discovered also in Shechem, Gezer, Eglon (Tel el-Hesi), Jericho, and Megiddo.


This is a Canaanite dialect in alphabetic writing but in a cuneiform script. In addition to the many texts found at Ugarit (dating from the 14th cent. b.c.), other objects inscribed in this script and language have been unearthed in Pal.: a knife found near Mt. Tabor in lower Galilee and a clay mold of an axe blade found in Beth-Shemesh. The Ugaritic texts have provided much information on the religion and the language of the Canaanites.

Alphabetic texts.

At Serabit el-Khadim, in the Sinai desert, inscrs. in the Proto-Sinaitic script were found and dated in the 16th and 15th centuries b.c. These inscrs. are brief and their bearing on the OT is indirect but significant. About ten inscrs. in alphabetic writing dating from the second millennium b.c. have been found in Pal.; these are also very brief but significant for the knowledge of the history of the alphabet. Their language is apparently Canaanite.

Inscriptions of the Israelite period.

This section describes some inscrs. related to the conquest and settlement of Israel in Pal., and also to the remainder of Biblical history.


Merneptah (c. 1224-1216 b.c.) commemorated his achievements by inscribing a series of victory hymns on a stele which he set up in his mortuary temple at Thebes (a duplicate is preserved on the temple of Amon at Karnak). Here is found a reference to Israel which is described as defeated along with Ashkelon and Gezer.

The Sea Peoples, who had been repulsed by Merneptah, made a full scale attack on Egypt during the reign of Ramses III (c. 1179-1147 b.c.). Included in the Sea Peoples were the Philistines who settled on the Palestinian coastal plain after they were driven back by Ramses. The records of these naval and land battles were inscribed on Ramses’ mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.

Egyptian wisdom lit., as preserved in the Wisdom of Amenemope, has some striking parallels with Proverbs 22:17-23:14.

Shishak (Shoshenk) campaigned in Israel in the fifth year of the reign of Rehoboam, king of Judah (1 Kings 14:25, 26; 2 Chron 12:2-9). On the temple of Karnak, Shishak recorded the cities he conquered and confirms the account in 2 Chronicles 12 (esp. vv. 4 and 7) that Jerusalem was not captured, the Egyptians being satisfied with the heavy tribute from the Temple treasures including Solomon’s gold shields.


The royal annals of the Assyrian kings provided a valuable supplement to the historical books of the Bible. On the “monolith inscription” of Shalmaneser III (858-824 b.c.), Ahab, king of Israel appears as one of the leaders of an anti-Assyrian coalition. In the mid-9th cent. b.c., the growing menace from Assyrian imperialism forced the kings of Syria and Palestine to join forces in an attempt to stem the tide. The king of Aram-Damascus, and Ahab, king of Israel, who had hitherto been enemies, are described as leading the alliance which faced Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar in 853 b.c.

Another inscr. of Shalmaneser III (his “black obelisk”) describes, and illustrates with a relief, the submission of Jehu of Israel. These two events are not mentioned in the Bible. Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 b.c.) records how Menahem of Israel paid tribute (2 Kings 15:19, 20) and mentions the Syro-Ephraimite War, which involved Ahaz of Judah (cf. 2 Kings 16:5-18).

Sargon II (721-705 b.c.) described the destruction of Samaria and the deportation of the Israelite population (cf. 2 Kings 18:9-12). Sennacherib (704-681 b.c.) described his campaigns in Pal. and mentioned Sidon (in Phoenicia), Jaffa, Beth-Dagon, Eltekeh, Timnah, and Ekron in addition to forty fortified towns in Judah. His inscr. narrates how he locked Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage,” but it says nothing about the fate of Jerusalem which (2 Kings 18:17-35) withstood the Assyrian assault. Sennacherib based his general staff in Lachish. This is confirmed in the Bible and also in the reliefs showing the capture of Lachish which were unearthed in the excavations of Nineveh, Sennacherib’s capital.

The annals of Esarhaddon (680-669 b.c.) mention King Manasseh of Judah as a vassal, and those of Ashurbanipal (668-633 b.c.) describe his invasion of Syria-Palestine and Egypt.

Later Babylonian chronicles describe the fall of Nineveh and the collapse of the Assyrian Empire. These records fix the date of the fall of Nineveh and Jerusalem. About 300 tablets from Babylon, dated between 595 and 570 b.c., during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 b.c.), describe rations for captives and skilled workmen around Babylon. Listed in these records are Jehoiachin, king of Judah, and his five sons (cf. 2 Kings 25:27-30). Other Akkad. records also shed light on Nabonidus, Cyrus, and other personalities who are related to the OT record.


A number of inscrs. written in “Hebrew” have been found in Pal. At El-Khadr, near Bethlehem, were found three bronze javelin heads, each inscribed with the owner’s name. On the basis of paleography these arrowheads date from about the 12th century b.c. In Byblos, metal blades bearing indecipherable inscrs. were found, and in the Lebanon valley another arrowhead (dated c. the 11th cent. b.c.), bearing the owner’s name was found.

In the Gezer excavations, a list of the various agricultural seasons was found inscribed in early Heb. characters and dating from perhaps the 10th cent. b.c.

Phoenician inscrs. dating back to the 10th cent. b.c. are significant for the knowledge of the history of that period and place, and also provide information on the evolution of the alphabet. The longest Phoen. inscr. comes from Karatepe in E Cilicia and is esp. significant because the same text is found in hieroglyphic Hitt.

The Moabite stone, erected by Mesha, king of Moab, dates from the 9th cent. b.c. and is the only significant inscr. in the Moabite dialect of Canaanite. This inscr. mentions the Israelite ruler Omri and sheds additional light on OT history of that period.

About seventy ostraca with Heb. inscrs. were found at Samaria in the storerooms of the king’s palace. These date from about the 8th cent. b.c. and consist of invoices for the deliveries of oil and wine to the royal treasury.

Another group of twenty-one ostraca was uncovered at Lachish which date from the 6th cent. b.c., just before the capture of the town by Nebuchadnezzar, in the time of Jeremiah and Zedekiah.

The Siloam Inscription, found in an ancient tunnel in Jerusalem, dates from the reign of King Hezekiah and describes the construction of the tunnel which was a remarkable engineering achievement.

Two ostraca found at Tel Kasileh date from the 8th cent. b.c. and are certificates of the shipment of quantities of oil and gold sent through this port to Phoenicia or Egypt. These ostraca are not written with ink, like the others mentioned above, but are incised.

Three funerary inscrs. found in the village of Siloam, E of Jerusalem, originate from a date close to Hezekiah, judging from their paleography. Also dating from about the time of Hezekiah are rock engravings found in a burial cave E of Tel Lachish.

The Yabneh-Yam (Matzad Hashabzahu) ostraca were found in 1960 during the excavation of an ancient fort named Matzad Hashabyahu (on the sea coast S of Yabneh-Yam). The most significant ostracon of these, is a fourteen line Heb. letter which may date from the 7th cent. b.c.

Because the climate of most of Pal. does not share the extreme dryness of Egypt, organic writing materials like parchment or papyrus have rotted away over the centuries. Recently, however, a papyrus dating from about the 8th cent. b.c. was found in a cave of Wadi Murabba’at near the Dead Sea. This papyrus is a palimpsest, i.e. later writing has been superimposed upon an earlier text. The two decipherable lines of the original text suggest that the piece of papyrus was part of a long letter.

Hundreds of Heb. inscrs., usually very brief, have been found on such miscellaneous objects as seals, weights, jar handles, ossuaries, coins, etc.


A stele, found near Aleppo, was erected by “Ben-hadad, the son of Tabrimmon, the son of Hezion, king of Syria.” This is a confirmation of 1 Kings 15:18.

A brief Aram. inscr. on an ivory from Arslan Tash mentions the name of Hazael who is also mentioned in 2 Kings 8:15. This inscr. along with some Assyrian inscrs., confirms and illuminates the Biblical record.

Several significant Old Aram. inscrs, from Sujin and Zenjirli provide important information for the history of the Aram. kingdoms. Later Aram. inscrs. from various sites like Nerab and Ashur provide additional light on history and the Aram. language.

The most important discoveries from the Pers. period are the group of papyri found in Yeb (Elephantine, in upper Egypt). These documents illustrate the history and manner of life of a Jewish military colony. They also yield information bearing on the history of the Israelites in Pal. under Pers. rule.

Various other Aram. inscrs. of a later period are brief and contain largely personal names. These, however, do shed some light on the evolution of the Aram. language. Some of the Aram. DSS, for example the Genesis Apocryphon, are highly significant for Biblical studies.


Inscriptions on Jewish synagogues show that it was the custom in the Hellenistic period for Jews of the Diaspora to honor the pagan king and his family by naming the synagogue for them.

An inscr., found near Hefzi-bah, in northern Pal., consists of thirty-eight lines dealing with the damage caused to villages in the northern part of the country by the forced stationing of soldiers there. The contents reflect the reign of Antiochus III (223-187 b.c.). Another inscr. consists of eight lines engraved on marble and was discovered in the Acre excavations in 1959. This inscr. was a dedication to Zeus Soter, and it mentions Antiochus VII.

A number of Gr. inscrs. were found in the family burial sites in Maresha (159-119 b.c.). In Samaria (Sebastie), a number of inscrs. from the period of the Ptolemies were found. In Kefar Yasif, NE of Acre, a limestone tablet with a seven line inscr. was found. This inscr., dating from the middle of the 2nd cent. b.c. dedicated an altar to the eastern gods, Hadad and Atargatis.

The sands of Egypt have yielded a mass of Gr. papyri. These shed much light upon the life and language of the early centuries a.d.

A unique Lat. inscr. was discovered in the excavations of the Caesarea theater. This was a building dedicated in honor of the Emperor Tiberius, placed there by the perfect Pontius Pilate. See Writing.


Translations of the most significant inscrs. for Biblical studies are contained in J. B. Pritchard, ed., ANET2 (1955), and D. W. Thomas, ed., Documents from Old Testament Times (1958).

The following are of a general nature. M. Lidzbarski, Handbuch der nordsemitischen Epigraphik (1898); M. Lidzbarski, Ephemeris für semitische Epigraphik (1900-1915); G. A. Cooke, Text-Book of North-Semitic Inscriptions (1903); D. Diringer, Le iscrizioni antico-ebraiche palestinesi (1934); F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman, Early Hebrew Orthography (1952); H. Donner and W. Röllig, Kanaanaische und Aramaische Inschriften (1964).