The TAU researchers analyzed multi-spectral images of 16 Hebrew inscriptions, which were written in ink on ostraca (broken pottery pieces), using a computer software program they developed. The ostraca, which date to 600 B.C.E., according to the researchers, were excavated from the Judahite fortress at Arad in southern Israel.
The researchers say they were able to identify at least six different handwriting styles on the inscriptions, which contained instructions for the movement of troops and lists of food expenses. A TAU press release notes that “the tone and nature of the commands precluded the role of professional scribes.”
“The results indicate that in this remote fort, literacy had spread throughout the military hierarchy, down to the quartermaster and probably even below that rank,” state Faigenbaum-Golovina, Shausa and Sober in their paper.
“Now our job is to extrapolate from Arad to a broader area,” explained TAU Professor of Archaeology Israel Finkelstein, who heads the research project, in the TAU press release. “Adding what we know about Arad to other forts and administrative localities across ancient Judah, we can estimate that many people could read and write during the last phase of the First Temple period. We assume that in a kingdom of some 100,000 people, at least several hundred were literate.”
Israel Museum curators have called “Gabriel’s Revelation” the most important document found in the area since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Read the original English publication of “Gabriel’s Revelation” along with Israel Knohl’s BAR article that made scholars around the world reconsider links between ancient Jewish and Christian messianism in the free eBook Gabriel’s Revelation.
So when was the Hebrew Bible written? What does literacy in the Iron Age have to do with it?
Scholars have debated whether the texts of the Hebrew Bible were written before 586 B.C.E.—when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, razed the First Temple and exiled the Jews—or later on, in the Persian or Hellenistic period. If literacy in Iron Age Judah was more widespread than previously thought, does this suggest that Hebrew Bible texts could have been written before the Babylonian conquest?
The Tel Aviv University researchers think so, based on their study of the ostraca from Arad.
Not quite, says epigrapher Christopher Rollston, Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures at the George Washington University. In a lengthy blog post analyzing the TAU study, Rollston contends that there is not enough information from these ostraca to make estimates about the literacy of Iron Age Judah. Rollston points out that, according to a publication by Yohanan Aharoni, the original excavator at Arad, the 16 ostraca came from different strata dated across the seventh and early sixth centuries—and therefore do not all date to 600 B.C.E. Moreover, we cannot tell how many of these inscriptions were written at the Arad fortress and how many came from elsewhere.
“Rather than arguing on the basis of 16 ostraca (that ended up at Arad) that we have a ‘proliferation of literacy,’” Rollston says, “I would simply conclude that we have some readers and writers of inscriptions at Arad. That’s all we can say.”
Rollston notes that he and others have argued, however, that there is enough epigraphic evidence from ancient Israel to conclude that “already by 800 B.C.E. there was sufficient intellectual infrastructure, that is, well-trained scribes, able to produce sophisticated historical and literary texts.”
“Additional detailed, sophisticated and substantive scholarly arguments for the early dating of the Torah have been made by William Schniedewind, author of How the Bible Became a Book, and Seth Sanders, in The Invention of Hebrew,” observes Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, in The Daily Beast.