Q&A: Why is God’s name written in old Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

[continued question, by Alfredo Torres:]

At circa 500 BCE Jews return to Judea from Babylon with a new Assyrian/Aramaic alphabet. Almost five centuries latter, at the time of the second temple destruction, Jews still use old/paleo Hebrew for G’d’s name—not only in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but in almost all archaeological findings that includes letter/words (sarcophagus/coins/seals/pottery/masonry/ I am looking for the historical finding like Josefus Flavius saying “The people thought Assyrian/Aramaic Hebrew was artificial/foreign/less sacred”)

Answer: The use of Assyrian script for Hebrew had been a contentious issue for centuries. The educated Judean elite who had been exiled to Babylon, and their descendants who returned to the Holy Land, had grown accustomed to using its language (Aramaic), and its script (Assyrian) when writing Hebrew (it was the same alphabet, but in different forms). But how could one justify writing in a script other than the one that was used in the Ten Commandments and throughout the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, until their fall? It was a conundrum that remained unresolved until the times of the Gemara (200–600 CE), when, in Tractate Sanhedrin 21:2, a typically Talmudic interpretation and justification was provided:

אמר מר זוטרא ואיתימא מר עוקבא, בתחילה ניתנה תורה לישראל בכתב עברי ולשון הקודש, חזרה וניתנה להם בימי עזרא בכתב אשורית ולשון ארמי. ביררו להן לישראל כתב אשורית ולשון הקודש, והניחו להדיוטות כתב עברית ולשון ארמי. מאן הדיוטות, אמר רב חסדא כותאי. מאי כתב עברית, אמר רב חסדא כתב ליבונאה. רש”י: ‘אותיות גדולות, כעין אותן שכותבין בקמיעות ומזוזות’. (סנהדרין כא, ב)

Mar Zutra says—and some say that it is Mar Ukva who says: Initially, the Torah was given to the Jewish people in the Hebrew script, the original form of the written language, and the sacred tongue [Hebrew]. It was given to them again in the times of Ezra in Assyrian script and the Aramaic tongue. The Jewish people chose the Assyrian script and the sacred tongue, and left Hebrew script and the Aramaic tongue for the commoners. Who are these commoners? Rav Ḥisda said: The Kutim [the Samaritans]. What is Hebrew script? Rav Ḥisda says: Libona’a script.

Today, we don’t know what libona’ah means. The medieval commentator Rashi interpreted it to mean “large letters” (i.e., sprawling and less disciplined than the Assyrian script, which had been honed by generations of imperial scribes into something more compact and suitable for large texts)—which is true. But the word sounds more pejorative than that (like hona’ah = fraud, deception), and was probably meant to be, given Rav Ḥisda’s attribution of it to the Samaritans (whom the Jews regarded as no longer part of the nation, although they shared much of the original faith, and some of them were undoubtedly descended from northern Israelites) and to the descendants of Assyrians who had been transplanted in the country after the Assyrian conquest.

All this justification, however, was given centuries after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. So writing God’s name in Old Hebrew characters instead of Assyrian was both about playing safe (in case writing in Assyrian would prove to be sinful), and a way of showing veneration of His name (much as observant Jews today write ‘G-d’ instead of ‘God’).

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