Researchers Reveal Secrets of 2,800-year-old Hebrew Texts Using Artificial Intelligence

Analysis of inscriptions found at ancient Samaria suggests literacy was not particularly widespread in the heyday of the Kingdom of Israel

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Colorized image of two ostraca found in the palace at Samaria
Colorized image of two ostraca found in the palace at SamariaCredit: Courtesy of the Semitic Museum/Harvard University
Ariel David
Ariel David

A team of Israeli researchers has harnessed the power of artificial intelligence for an unusual purpose: studying Hebrew inscriptions on fragments of clay that were found in the ruins of Samaria, once the capital of the biblical Kingdom of Israel. This high-tech analysis enabled them to deduce that a large collection of inscribed pottery shards, dated to some 2,800 years ago, had been penned by just two scribes.

The study, published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, suggests that while the northern Israelite monarchy had developed a centralized bureaucracy, literacy may have been very rare even in the heyday of the kingdom. This avenue of research into inscriptions from the First Temple period also has broader implications for scholars trying to understand when the earliest version of the Bible was first written down.

The Samaria inscriptions are a collection of more than 100 inscribed potsherds, also known as ostraca, that were found in the early 20th century in the royal palace at Samaria. This city was the seat of power of the northern Kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the southern Kingdom of Judah, which had its capital in Jerusalem.

The ostraca were inked using the paleo-Hebrew alphabet and served an administrative purpose, recording the arrival at the Israelite capital of various goods, mainly oil and wine, from various surrounding villages. The inscriptions span at least seven years.

The texts are dated according to the regnal year of a specific king, and are spread over year 9, 10 and 15 of his reign. Unfortunately, the name of the ruler is never mentioned, but based on the shape of the letters, experts have dated the inscriptions to the first half of the 8th century B.C.E.

If we go by the Bible, this would likely place them during the time of Joash or his son, Jeroboam II, who were the only kings of Israel to reign for longer than 15 years during this period.

This was the heyday of ancient Israel, which then controlled vast territories ranging from modern-day Syria to Sinai. It was about half a century before the Assyrian Empire would steamroll into the Levant, destroying Samaria and conquering the northern kingdom around 720 B.C.E. (but sparing Judah and its capital Jerusalem).

The new study of the Samaria ostraca was conducted by a trio of young mathematicians at Tel Aviv University who used advanced image processing and machine learning techniques to teach a computer to compare the handwriting on 31 of the inscriptions, letter by letter, and come up with the most likely number of scribes.

Ruins of Omri's Palace, Samaria
Ruins of Omri's Palace, SamariaCredit: Matson Collection / Library of C

With a 95 percent probability, that number was just two, says Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, a Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematics and one of the lead authors of the study.

Although the Samaria ostraca were found more than a century ago, many questions remained open. One of them was whether they were penned in Samaria itself or in the multiple rural locations from which the goods they recorded were dispatched. It now seems likely that the former scenario is correct. Given that only two hands were responsible for writing them, it seems reasonable that this was done in the capital rather than by two scribes constantly travelling from village to village, Faigenbaum-Golovin explains.

The analysis also showed that the two scribes worked contemporaneously and carried out the same work.

“There was no correlation between one scribe and a specific year or a specific kind of record; it’s not as if one was in charge of recording the arrival of wine and the other of oil,” she says.

“If only two scribes wrote the examined Samaria texts contemporaneously, and both were located in Samaria rather than in the countryside places mentioned in the inscriptions, this would indicate [that there was] a centralized bureaucracy at the peak of the Kingdom of Israel’s prosperity,” explains Prof. Israel Finkelstein, one of Israel’s leading biblical archaeologists and a member of the team of high-tech historical sleuths.

Credit: Matson Collection / Library of C

This result, along with the fact that there are relatively few other textual finds from Israel in this period, suggests that literacy was not that widespread throughout the kingdom, Finkelstein adds. “It was probably limited to the capital, to the palace and perhaps the priests,” he says.

Well-educated Judahites

This finding comes particularly into focus when compared to a previous study published by the same team of researchers, based on their examination of Judahite ostraca found in a fortress near the modern-day city of Arad, in the Negev desert. Those inscriptions are dated to around 600 B.C.E., nearly two centuries later than the Samaria ostraca, and shortly before Judah and Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, in 586 B.C.E.

For that investigation, the algorithm developed by the mathematicians showed that at least six different writers had composed the 18 inscriptions which were examined.

Another view of the palace associated with Omri and his son Ahab
Latter-day view of the palace associated with Omri and his son AhabCredit: Daniel Ventura

Back when this study was released in 2017, it was hailed as proof that literacy was widespread in late First Temple period Judah. Now that result is complemented by the new analysis on the Samaria material.

To briefly put it all together: In the capital of the prosperous Israelite kingdom that stretched across much of the southern Levant, just two scribes were responsible for writing the 31 inscriptions that were analyzed. Some two hundred years later, in a tiny military outpost on the periphery of the much smaller Kingdom of Judah, there were at least six people who could read and write properly.

“This really shows us that there was a transition from the first half of the 8th century B.C.E., when there was very little proliferation of writing, to the end of 7th century B.C.E., when it became much more common,” Faigenbaum-Golovin postulates.

The quest to trace the development of literacy in the ancient Israelite kingdoms is connected to a much a broader debate on the composition of the earliest biblical texts.

Most scholars have long recognized that the Bible was written, edited and re-edited by multiple hands over many centuries and using a variety of sources. But there is no agreement on when this process began and when the first biblical scribes put pen to parchment. One school of thought contends that this must have occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile because there is not enough evidence of widespread literacy and scribal activity in the First Temple period that could have sustained such a massive literary undertaking.

The findings on the Arad ostraca provided evidence that countered this view, supporting a competing hypothesis according to which at least parts of the Bible were compiled in Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple. This probably would have occurred in the late 7th century B.C.E. under the Judahite King Josiah.  It was under Josiah, the Bible says, that the Book of Deuteronomy was “found,” (2 Kings 22), after which the king conducted a religious reform to centralize worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and stamp out pagan cults.

But Josiah’s scribes probably did not come up with the Book of Books from nothing. They worked to compile and edit earlier traditions that were both oral and written, some of which may have reached Judah, along with a flood of refugees, when the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians.

While the new analysis of the Samaria ostraca does not show widespread literacy, nor does it rule out that some texts that eventually made it into the Bible were produced in the Kingdom of Israel, Finkelstein avers.

Excavating the palace associated with kings Omri and Ahab, Samaria
Excavating the palace associated with kings Omri and Ahab, SamariaCredit: Matson Collection / Library of Congress

As mentioned, not many written records from this kingdom have reached us, but archaeologists have uncovered some inscriptions showing that the few northern Israelites who could write had a talent for composing literary texts. These include the writings found at Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite outpost in the Sinai, which have given scholars an in-depth view into the religious beliefs of the kingdom. There is also the Tel Deir Alla inscription, a prophetic text that was unearthed on the eastern side of the Jordan Valley.  

“These texts date more or less to the same time of the Samaria ostraca,” Finkelstein says. “This means that even though the number of scribes was still low, there was already an ability to compose literary texts, including, in my opinion, biblical texts.”

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