A collection of letters written on clay in the Kingdom of Judah some 2,500 years ago is shedding new light on the age of the oldest biblical texts, with the help of sophisticated imaging tools and complex software.
Biblical scholars have long agreed that Judaism's holy texts were put together by different sources over several centuries. When this process began is unclear.
One key question is whether the oldest books of the Bible were written before the destruction of Judah and its capital Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the subsequent exile to Babylon.
Now a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University says it has proved that ancient Judah had a high literacy rate and a sophisticated educational system, making it possible for the earliest nucleus of the Bible to be written in the First Temple period.
Military dispatches on clay
The research, first revealed in a Haaretz article last year, is to be published this week in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the university said in a press release.
“There’s a heated discussion regarding the timing of the composition of a critical mass of biblical texts, but to answer this, one must ask a broader question: What were the literacy rates in Judah at the end of the First Temple period? And what were the literacy rates later on?” said archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who leads the team together with the physicist Eliezer Piasetzky.
The unusual group of archaeologists, physicists and mathematicians designed specific imaging tools and algorithms to photograph, digitize and analyze a collection of inscribed potsherds found in the 1960s among the ruins of the Judahite desert stronghold of Arad, between Be’er Sheva and the Dead Sea.
Inscribed potsherds, or ostraca, are among the few surviving documents from the First Temple period. Most of the writing then was probably on fragile papyrus sheets, which have long disappeared.
The Arad ostraca are a collection of military dispatches dating to around the year 600 BCE and are mostly addressed to the fort’s quartermaster, Eliashiv, detailing troop movements and ordering distributions of provisions.
The analysis of texts by the Tel Aviv scientists went well beyond their literal content. The researchers selected 16 out of some 100 ostraca found in Arad; photographed and digitized them; and wrote software that could recognize and compare the handwriting on the most frequently-used letters of the alphabet.
“We designed an algorithm to distinguish between different authors, then composed a statistical mechanism to assess our findings," said Barak Sober, one of the mathematicians on the team. "Through probability analysis, we eliminated the likelihood that the texts were written by a single author."
In fact, the analysis found that just those 16 potsherds had been written by at least six different hands, showing that literacy was widespread in Judah’s army.
They could read in the ranks
It is hard to tell what percentage of the population in the tiny Kingdom of Judah – whose population numbered just around 100,000 – could read and write, Finkelstein said. But the fact that one of the Arad letters was penned by Eliashiv’s deputy means that literacy trickled down to the lower levels of society. It is unlikely that a member of a leading family would be given such a relatively lowly post in a remote desert fort, he said.
"We found indirect evidence of the existence of an educational infrastructure, which could have enabled the composition of biblical texts," said Piasetzky. "Literacy existed at all levels of the administrative, military and priestly systems of Judah. Reading and writing were not limited to a tiny elite."
On the other hand, Finkelstein noted: "Following the fall of Judah, there was a large gap in production of Hebrew inscriptions until the second century BCE, the next period with evidence for widespread literacy. This reduces the odds for a compilation of substantial Biblical literature in Jerusalem between ca. 586 and 200 BCE.”
The high literacy rate in pre-exilic Judah would have set the stage for the compilation of biblical works that constitute the basis of Judahite history and theology, such as the early version of the books of Deuteronomy through Kings II.
Scholars have long agreed that these are some of the most ancient parts of the Bible, but when that text was put to paper remains unclear. Many researchers think it was written down only during the Babylonian exile or even later, during the Persian period.
“Until now the arguments were all based on the text and they were all relative,” Finkelstein said. “We knew that text ‘x’ may have been written before text ‘y’, but there was no absolute chronology. What we need to do is go into the realm of empirical studies,” he said. “And at Arad we finally have the chance to attack the question in an empirical way.”
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