Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible History, Christianity, Science

New Information on Literacy Rates in Ancient Judah

A new study using computer-aided handwriting analysis suggests that literacy rates may have been higher in the ancient Kingdom of Judah than previously thought. The story’s pretty fascinating, and you can read more about it at these links (thanks to SPG and Graham for sending these my way):

One of the things that always interests me with these kinds of articles is how wide the gulf is that separates the views of modern scholarship from those of your average fundamentalist congregation. Most of the Christians that live in my area still believe that Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy, Joshua wrote Joshua, Samuel wrote Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel, etc. Most of them are completely unaware that the majority of scholars have a radically different view. On the other hand, while scholars are certainly aware of the traditional view of the Bible’s composition, they’re so far beyond it that they don’t even reference it in these kinds of articles. It’s like they’re living in two different dimensions. I’m one of those who’s crossed from one to the other, and it’s almost disorienting to think back on how I used to view the world.

15 thoughts on “New Information on Literacy Rates in Ancient Judah”

  1. I read that last week and found it interesting. According to what I’ve read, there is no archaeological history of Israel having a written language until about 1000 BCE, when some words were found inscribed on a broken shard of pottery. How quickly it spread, and to what extent, we still don’t know, but as per this article, it would seem that new knowledge is coming to light.

    Still, it likely would not have filtered down to the common classes, such as fishermen. Even here in America, with its strong emphasis on basic education, there are still those who can’t read nor write. My own grandfather couldn’t, but he could employ his math skills in his head faster that one with a calculator can today.


  2. I never understood the argument for Samuel writing the books in his name. He does not even make it through book 1, so is hardly likely the author. However given the bizarre story of the Medium at Endor in 1 Samuel 30, perhaps the prophet dictated it from the grave.

    The inclusion of times like ‘to this day’ in some of the books implies authorship some considerable time after the narrated events were suggested to have taken place.


  3. Excellent! Saved to Favourites.

    I know the articles are talking aboiut an earlier period, but it helps to know that before the Jewish revolt the high priest Yehoshua ben Gamla (cir. 64 C.E.) appointed teachers in every town and village of every province throughout Palestine to provide an education for boys aged six and up. Regarded as the founder of formal Jewish education for children, Gamla’s sweeping policy directive assumes a vast stock of professionally literate laypeople ready to fill classrooms in every miniscule, deadbeat, backend, go-nowhere village across Palestine which, in-turn, presupposes that major regional centers already had well established education systems dating back decades, if not centuries.


  4. Boy, you know it is biblical archeology when assumptions fly around in flocks. The article said the ostracons were from a military outpost, a remote military outpost. How would one communicate with a remote military outpost? Hmm. Since there was not telegraph, telephone, teleanything, I suspect it would be through writing. Consequently, the soldiers involved, at least some of them, had to be able to read and right. That would be a requirement for being posted to such a place, no? If only the senior officer could read and right that would be a mistake because if that officer went down in a skirmish (officers were targeted in ancient warfare, “cut off the head of the serpent,” etc.) they would be automatically out of communication. So, whereas maybe only one in 30-50 ordinary citizens might be able to read, the ratio would be higher in this situation. Also, these shards often involved directions regarding provisions. In an outpost of 30 people (and being reduced to writing on broken pieces of pottery) would anyone write down an order that could be just given orally? In a group of 30 soldiers, I suspect that each could talk to the others almost daily. But if there were someone in charge of provisions, they might want to see an order (to avoid soldiers making up their own orders) or it might have been the case that the soldier had to take a written order to the quartermaster by regulation.

    And this is one frickin’ outpost, a military one (= non-ordinary) and people are extrapolating to an entire region? Sounds like biblical archeology to me.

    And why all of the fuss? All of this “research” is being made to support the ideas about scripture, quoted in their scriptures. None of which gets at the critical point which is whether the scriptures had divine origins or are they like the shopping lists on the ostracons, just shit made up. This question cannot be answered, but these people keep accumulating circumstantial evidence to support their worldview (but which really does not).

    And John, did Yehoshua ben Gamla’s establishment of schools (the beginning of the Rabbinical school system, no) include the teaching or reading or writing or did it involve just the memorization of scripture (that so many of those schools did and still do)? If we specifically do not know that scribe training was part of the curriculum, I think we can assume it was not. If it was, it would have been a major educational innovation and raised eyebrows for miles around. we we think “school” we think readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic, but in those days, well I would really like to know what the curriculum was.

    Sorry about the rant.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I also can’t understand how Christians ignore their own Bibles. Acts 4:13 clearly states that Peter was uneducated and yet they’ll argue he wrote 1 and 2 Peter. I once pointed out how many discrepancies Acts presents to the Christian history and suggested a new canon. The response was “no it’s the inspired inerrant word of god.” But…. Oh I give up.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Hi Nate, thanks for this, I hadn’t seen it before. I’m not so interested in the OT implications, but what this says about first century literacy. Some people say it was only about 3% for full literacy, with a larger number able to read but not write, but it always seemed to me that the Jews, with their emphasis on scriptures and Law, would be higher. Maybe this work supports that, maybe not.


  7. Regarding the ostraca found in the fort, it dated only to 600 BCE, while much of the Torah was written at least 300 years earlier – the first indication that the Jews even had a written language only dates to pottery found with proto-Hebrew inscriptions dated to 1000 BCE.

    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.

    What is the percentage of ‘a few hundred’ out of 100,000? Let’s see – 3 gozinta….

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 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.”
    When Was the Hebrew Bible Written?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Whatever happened to the good old days, when a fag was just a cigarette? They’re gone – that’s the last time I leave it to Beaver –!

    Liked by 2 people

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