Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel

By Christopher A. Rollston
(Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010),
xix + 171 pp., 71 figures, $21.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Alan Millard

Did ancient Israelites write? Is there evidence apart from the Hebrew Bible? If so, what did they write? And who could write?

Inscriptions on stone, notes and scribbles on pots and potsherds, names on seals and other writings are often so interesting you don’t ask how they were written or who the writers were. Chris Rollston does that in this readable new book.

He also sketches the early history of the alphabet—to about 900 B.C., when monuments from Byblos show that the letters had reached their basic shapes. His detailed analysis reveals how small changes in letters appear at Byblos over a century or so of use. That Phoenician script, he argues, was used for the Gezer Calendar late in the tenth century and in the Aramaic language Tell Fekheriyeh statue a century later.

The author’s drawings of the shapes of the letters—his special expertise—illustrate the differences between Hebrew and Phoenician. If the letter b (bet) leans leftward, it’s Phoenican (or Aramaic), if it leans backward (to the right), it’s Hebrew. If the tails of k (kaph), m (mem) and n (nun) curl to the left, they are Hebrew.

These Hebrew features were consciously created, Rollston contends, to make a distinct script as “a nationalistic statement” in the ninth century B.C.; they were “not merely an evolutionary development.” My own view, on the other hand, is that the development of Aramaic letters (used also in Hebrew) was very likely evolutionary. Unfortunately, we cannot demonstrate this beyond cavil because we have no examples from the tenth and ninth centuries B.C. on papyrus and leather, the normal materials for writing daily records.

Examples of inscriptions from Israel and neighboring kingdoms reveal their “form and function” as royal memorials, short messages, religious statements, marks of ownership or epitaphs. Rollston draws on fragmentary examples from Samaria and Jerusalem to counter scholars who have maintained there was no tradition of monumental inscriptions there, yet, oddly, he does not include the famous inscription describing the digging of the Siloam (Hezekiah’s) Tunnel.

The evidence for standard forms of writing and spelling suggests that scribes were members of an elite society centered in Jerusalem, but they could travel and so could their products. They could be hired to write legal deeds or letters. Rollston argues they did not learn their craft in schools, as sometimes supposed, but as apprentices, one or two attached to an established scribe, based in his home, following and watching him on his business. Rollston identifies a curiously inscribed stone from Jerusalem as a master’s model with a pupil’s poor copy.

How long did it take to learn to write? The great W.F. Albright thought a day or two would be enough for an alpha pupil. “Much longer,” Rollston would reply. Looking at current education in Hebrew and Arabic, he thinks competence would be gained only after five years or so.

If you own an ancient Hebrew inscription, a seal say, you may have paid highly for it. As the market has grown in the past 50 years, so looters and forgers have tried to keep up a supply. Rollston takes a lead in identifying fakes. He explains how forgers may work and how his expertise in Hebrew script, along with other factors, helps him to unmask their creations. He labels the “Moussaieff ostraca”* and the “Jehoash Tablet”** as fakes. Not all would agree, however. The geological aspects of the Jehoash (or Yehoash) Tablet apparently weigh in its favor.

Rollston also includes the ivory pomegranate inscription as a fake—without discussion—a verdict this reviewer rejects, in company with André Lemaire.

Rollston’s proposal that any publication using unprovenanced inscriptions should mark them clearly as such deserves to be followed universally.

Many will welcome Rollston’s conclusion, countering views that deny Hebrew books were written before 700 B.C.: “I am absolutely certain that a nation (Israel) that has a scribal apparatus that is capable of developing a national script and employing standardized orthographic conventions is certainly capable of producing literature.”

This book deserves to become a textbook for courses on Israelite culture. A chart of Old Hebrew and Phoenician alphabets, however, needs to be added as only advanced students can be expected to recognize the letters without one.




* Hershel Shanks, “The ‘Three Shekels’ and ‘Widow’s Plea’ Ostraca: Real or Fake?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2003.

** Hershel Shanks, “Is It or Isn’t It?: King Jehoash Inscription Captivates Archaeological World,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2003; Hershel Shanks, “Assessing the Jehoash Inscription—The Paleographer: Demonstrably a Forgery” and Edward L. Greenstein, “Assessing the Jehoash Inscription—The Linguist: Hebrew Philology Spells Fake,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2003.

André Lemaire, “Probable Head of a Priestly Scepter from Solomon’s Temple Surfaces in Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1984.



Alan Millard is Emeritus Rankin Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages in the University of Liverpool, England.

Posted in Reviews, Ancient Israel, Inscriptions.

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  • Steve says

    Thanks for this review. I am studying the history of the OT canon and thought I might delve into the latest evidence for Hebrew writing and ‘book’ composition capabilities. This was helpful.

  • Rick says

    A day to learn to write? Copying letters is one thing, as our 2nd graders can demonstrate, creating useful correspondence should take a while. But what is an “alpha pupil?” How old is he? Perhaps a 12 year old of 1000 BC could do it.

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