Talk of ancient handwriting set the science world aflutter on Tuesday thanks to a new study that used mathematical analysis of clay-pot letters to determine that there was a “high level of literacy” in ancient Israel. The story, first reported in The New York Times, generated breathless headlines: “Bible was written way earlier than we thought,” announced sciencealert. “Bible is really old,” championed livescience.
Not so fast.
The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a cache of 100 letters written in ink on clay pottery and unearthed during the excavation of a fort in Arad, near the Dead Sea. The clay letters, known as ostraca, were dated to 600 BCE, before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE. Many (though by no means all) scholars believe that it was during the Israeli exile following Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest that many parts of the Bible came to be written down.
The use of digital imaging allowed researchers to develop an algorithm that could distinguish between the various authors of the ostraca. Based on a statistical analysis of these results, the study concluded that at least six different hands were responsible for 16 pieces of contemporaneous correspondence.
Some of the literature covered by the study is strikingly relatable. Among the trove’s treasures are shopping list-styled requests for wine, flour, and oil. One more detailed piece that was analyzed was a roll call of those present.
The study concludes by suggesting both that there was a higher level of literacy in Israel at an earlier time than was previously thought, and that writing had spread down the ranks of social classes.
So how does the existence of 7th-century BCE shopping lists relate to the Bible?
The answer lies in the lack of material evidence for the widespread use of writing during that time period. As Israel Finkelstein, one of the co-authors of the piece, noted for The New York Times, there’s very little archeological evidence for Hebrew inscriptions prior to 200 CE, so the analysis of this handwriting changes our understanding of literacy in ancient Israel. For those scholars who argued that the Bible must have been written during or after the exile only because there was no widespread literary culture before then, well, they have to sharpen their arguments.
But, to be very clear: None of the texts discovered in Arad and analyzed were fragments of the Bible. To suggest that a heightened level of literacy in general provides hard evidence of the dating of the Bible is to present a very incomplete picture of how scholars date texts.
There’s more to dating a historical document than asking just “When does it claim to be written?” and “Were people writing then?” Scholarly debate about this involves both linguistic dating and looking for cultural and historical clues in the writing that might betray that it was written later than the events it describes.
For example, one of the arguments for dating the creation story found in Genesis 1 is that it seems to be literarily dependent upon the Babylonian creation myth the Enuma Elish. Given that the latter was written in the 18th-16th centuries BCE, even a conservative estimate of the date of the composition of Genesis (the traditional religious view puts it in the mid-15th century BCE) would make the Enuma Elish considerably older than the Bible. In other words, we know who was copying from whom.
More important for this particular story, it’s not clear that the ability to compose shopping lists is evidence of the kind of widespread literacy Finkelstein is claiming. Shopping lists and psalmody are stylistically removed from one another. Moreover, the claim that there was widespread literacy rests on the idea that we have a small community at a fort in Arad writing correspondence. World-renowned epigrapher Christopher Rollston, a professor at George Washington University, in D.C., questions this finding. He told The Daily Beast that “in reality we don’t know how many of these ostraca might, or might not, have been produced at the site of Arad.” They may have come from the surrounding region or from Jerusalem.
Even more devastating for the study’s findings, Rollston points out that the ostraca included in the study do not all come from the same time period. He points to the original archaeological study on the site by Yohanan Aharoni, conducted in the mid-1960s, which dated the 16 ostraca to three different chronological periods. He told me that “rather than assuming a ‘proliferation of literacy,’ I think the inscriptional evidence reveals that at a military fortress, there were people who could read and write…people such as the scribe of the army and people such as high military officials.”
In some ways this argument isn’t even that novel. Rollston himself argued in an article published a decade ago that there is inscriptional evidence for the presence of scribes in Israel in 800 BCE. Additional detailed, sophisticated, and substantive scholarly arguments for the early dating of the Torah have been made by William Schniedewind, author of How the Bible Became a Book and Seth Sanders, in The Invention of Hebrew. Tellingly, even these authors have reservations about this new evidence. Schniedewind told me the study is “more than a bit overblown” and that the appeal to science “lends the impression of greater authority” than the study possesses.
In the end it’s sad that the results of this study have been so overstated. The ostraca provide intriguing information about life and literacy in the ancient world. There’s even a reference to Greek mercenaries in Palestine before 586 BCE. Technologically speaking, it stands at the cutting edge of the digital humanities and pioneers, an exciting area of research. But the debate is far from settled, and if an argument for the dating of the Torah is what you’re looking for, you’re better off reading Rollston, Schniedewind, and Sanders.