Literacy in Ancient Israel and Judah


Megan Sauter
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 6, 2020)—Also known as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible was composed over a long span of time. Numerous opinions exist as to when the earliest biblical traditions were first put down in writing.

Many scholars think they could not have been written before the eighth century B.C.E. However, Matthieu Richelle of the Faculté Libre de Théologie Évangélique and the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris) questions this assumption. After examining the epigraphic and archaeological evidence of ancient Israel and Judah, he thinks the biblical traditions could have been written down during the ninth or even tenth century B.C.E. In the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Richelle details his reasoning in the article “When Did Literacy Emerge in Judah?”

There are two significant reasons to think that writing was prevalent in Israel and Judah during the early first millennium B.C.E.:
(1) They developed a national script in the ninth century.
(2) Within this script, they developed cursive features already in the ninth century.

The existence of a national script, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, in the early ninth century B.C.E. suggests that they were writing lengthy texts, not just short notes. Further, some inscriptions from Tel Rehov and Megiddo—dated to the tenth or ninth century B.C.E.—have cursive features. The use of cursive in texts is indicative of an existing literary production.

This is not proof that biblical texts were written during the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E., but it certainly shows that they—or other literary works—could have been.

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