When Was the Hebrew Bible Written?

Earlier than previously thought, say Tel Aviv University researchers

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2016.—Ed.


 
arad-ostraca

When was the Hebrew Bible written? Ostraca with Hebrew inscriptions excavated from the Iron Age fortress at Arad in Israel may provide clues, say researchers from Tel Aviv University. Photo: Michael Cordonsky, courtesy Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Was the Hebrew Bible written earlier than previously thought? That’s what a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. The study was led by Tel Aviv University (TAU) doctoral students Shira Faigenbaum-Golovina, Arie Shausa and Barak Sober.

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.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 15, 2016.
 

 

Learn more about ancient inscriptions in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Military Correspondence: Send Wine

Computer Program Learning to Read Paleo-Hebrew Letters

Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription

Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem

Ancient Aramaic Business Records

The Phoenician Alphabet in Archaeology by Josephine Quinn
 


 

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  • Eliyahu says

    It is generally agreed that the Greek alphabet and its primitive forms were based on the Phoenician/Canaanite alphabet. But that alphabet is more or less the same as the old Hebrew alphabet. Moreover, we now have a very clear inscription on stone that says Beyt David likely from middle of the First Temple Period, 750 bce more or less.
    Now the early Greek alphabet/s/ are dated to the 9th and 8th centuries. And they were made in imitation of the Canaanite/Phoenician. So the latter must have been in use earlier. It is inconceivable that the Israelites too would not have had the Old Hebrew alphabet not long after the Canaanites/Phoenicians if not at the same time. So that should date the use of the alphabet in ancient Israel.

  • Paul says

    No one has actually stated authoritatively when the Hebrew Bible was written. The oldest copy is from 900 CE, the Alleppo Codex. Components of it have been found which date to about 100CE. The Jewish religion came into being about 250 BCE with Zoroastrian influence, prior to that there had been different polytheist religions. Thus it is most probable the first books of the Hebrew Bible were written in about 200 BCE and added to for the next 300 years ending up with the present version. The historical elements were based on oral myth, and have much in common with other Middle East tribal myths. The question of when people could write is entirely irrelevant.

  • atheist says

    Mohamed’s wife’s cousin wrote down the words of god in the quran that mohamed received from god therefore the words in the quran may not necessarily come directly from god and so may not also be reliable PS: it was Isaac who was to be sacrificed by abram and couldn’t have been Ishmael that would calling god a liar no?

  • susan says

    Sue says
    Ric how refreshing to read yours: Yes they were able to read and write from the beginning of time as God tells us in His written word. His word is truth so if you want the truth of a matter READ it. The apostles also , as it is written, wrote their letters and John edited at the end. God made sure His word was recorded for all time.
    Sue

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