Analysis Hints at Widespread Literacy in Ancient Hebrew

By Kershner, Isabel | International New York Times, April 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

Analysis Hints at Widespread Literacy in Ancient Hebrew


Kershner, Isabel, International New York Times


A study by researchers at Tel Aviv University could have some bearing on a century-old debate about when the main body of biblical texts was composed.

CORRECTION APPENDED

The requests for wine, flour and oil read like a mundane, if ancient, shopping list. But a new analysis of the handwriting suggests that literacy may have been far more widespread than previously known in the holy land toward the end of the First Temple period. The findings, according to the researchers from Tel Aviv University, could have some bearing on a century-old debate about when the main body of biblical texts was composed.

"To Eliashib: And now, give the Kittiyim 3 baths of wine, and write the name of the day," reads one of the texts, composed in ancient Hebrew using the Aramaic alphabet, and apparently referring to a Greek mercenary unit in the area.

Another says: "And a full homer of wine, bring tomorrow; don't be late. And if there is vinegar, give it to them."

The study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, combined archaeology and applied mathematics, and involved computerized image processing and the development of an algorithm to distinguish between the various authors issuing the commands. Biblical scholars were also consulted.

Based on a statistical analysis of the results, and taking into account the content of the texts that were chosen for the sample, the researchers concluded that at least six different hands had authored the 18 missives at around the same time. Even soldiers in the lower ranks of the Judahite army, it appears, could read and write.

"There is something psychological beyond the statistics," said Israel Finkelstein of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations at Tel Aviv University, one of the leaders of the project. "There is an understanding of the power of literacy. And they wrote well, with hardly any mistakes."

The study was based on a trove of about 100 letters inscribed on pottery, known as ostracons, that were unearthed in an excavation of the Arad fort and dated to about 600 B.C. That was shortly before Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah, and the exile of its elite to Babylon -- and before many scholars believe the five books of Moses were first written down.

The Arad citadel was small, far-flung and on an active front, close to the border with the rival kingdom of Edom. The fort itself was only about half an acre in size, and probably would have accommodated about 30 soldiers. The wealth of texts found there, recording troop movements, provisions and other daily activities, were created within a short time, making them a valuable sample for looking at how many different hands wrote them.

One of the explanations for why the main body of biblical literature was not written down in anything like its present form until after the destruction and exile of 586 B.C. is that there was not enough literacy or enough scribes before then to support such a huge undertaking.

But if the literacy rates in the Arad fortress were repeated across the kingdom of Judah, which had about 100,000 people, there would have been hundreds of literate people, the Tel Aviv research team posits. That could have provided the infrastructure for the composition of biblical works that constitute the basis of Judahite history and theology, including early versions of the books of Deuteronomy to Second Kings, the researchers said. …

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