An Ancient Hebrew Inscription Supports the Traditional Spelling of “Jerusalem”

January 17, 2019 | Robert Cargill
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Last fall, archaeologists discovered a column with a Hebrew inscription, dating from the 1st century CE, reading “Hananiah son of Dodalos of Jerusalem.” Most interesting to philologists was the fact that the Hebrew word for the city was spelled with the letter yud before the final mem, reflecting the modern orthography and pronunciation: Y’rushalayim. This spelling is found in the later books of the Bible, such as Chronicles and Esther, whereas the earlier books omit the yud, suggesting the pronunciation Y’rushalem. As Robert Cargill explains, the inscription is the oldest extant example of the newer spelling:

What is interesting is that the Masoretes, the early-medieval Jewish scribes who added the vowels and cantillation marks to the Hebrew Bible to standardize pronunciation and to make it easier to read, [placed the vowels in] the shortened spellings of Jerusalem (the instances without the extra yud) so that they would be pronounced as if the yud were present. That is to say, the Masoretes were convinced that Jerusalem was always pronounced in antiquity the way it was pronounced in their time—and the way it is pronounced today in Israel—as Y’rushalayim, not as Y’rushalem. The only problem was that there was no archaeological evidence to prove this pronunciation . . . until now!

With the discovery of the Jerusalem column, we have our earliest archaeological evidence that Jerusalem was spelled, and therefore indeed pronounced, with the second yud, not as Y’rushalem, but as Y’rushalayim, during the Second Temple period. . . . The column is archaeological corroboration not only of the later biblical spellings, but also of the masoretic assumptions from a millennium later. It is also further confirmation of prevailing scholarly theories concerning the history of the Hebrew language, spelling, and the orthographic inertia that pervades scribal convention.

And all this from just one tiny letter—a little yud—a letter that the King James Version of Matthew 5:18 transliterates as the common word we still use today for something written quickly: “jot.”

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