Judah’s military correspondence from ca. 600 BCE: Evidence of widespread literacy but not evidence of the Bible

An important article by Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin et al has been published t0day in ‘Early Edition’ form, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. The article demonstrates that literacy was widespread in Judah in ca. 600, that Hebrew could be written and read by both high and somewhat lower ranks of the military, and that military officers produced detailed texts inscribed on pottery shards (ostraca).

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovina, Arie Shausa, Barak Sobera, David Levina, Nadav Na’amanb, Benjamin Sassc, Eli Turkela, Eli Piasetzkyd, and Israel Finkelstein, “Algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judah’s military correspondence sheds light on composition of biblical texts,” PNAS, early edition, April 11, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1522200113

Arad ostraca, ca. 600 BCE
Arad ostraca, ca. 600 BCE

The authors examined over 100 ostraca found at the fortress of Arad, in southern Judah, on the border with Edom. The examination aims to provide material evidence to address two related questions:

1. Did “the first major phase of compilation of biblical texts in Jerusalem” take place “before or after the destruction of the city by the Babylonians in 586 BCE?”

2. What was the level of literacy at the time? In particular, the authors note that “identifying the number of ‘hands’ (i.e., authors) involved in this corpus can shed light on the dissemination of writing, and consequently on the spread of literacy in Judah.”

The article summarises that “the inscriptions contain military commands regarding movement of troops and provision of supplies (wine, oil, and flour) set against the background of the stormy events of the final years before the fall of Judah”. They mention that one of the inscriptions (Ostracon 18) refers to “the house of Yahweh” (p. 1), which they identify with the temple in Jerusalem.

However, the “House of Yahweh” need not refer to the temple at Jerusalem. The Elephantine correspondence confirms that, as late as ca. 400 BCE, worship of Yahweh co-existed with the worship of other gods, even by a community which was under the authority of the Jerusalem governor and priests. This is a long way from the Bible’s picture of centralized worship of one god (Yahweh). Furthermore, it does not cohere with the two standing stones which Yohanan Aharoni found in the earlier temple at Arad (not still standing in 600 BCE), and which William Dever plausibly suggests represent Yahweh and his divine consort Asherah. These considerations make it difficult to make the leap from a widespread basic literacy among certain military administrators to the composition of the books of the Bible in something like their current form.

The authors selected 18 inscriptions for handwriting analysis, based on their legibility and length. Handwriting analysis revealed at least four distinct hands. The archaeological and textual contexts revealed a further two distinct hands, bringing the total to at least six distinct hands. They also identified the following five authors by name or rank (p. 3):

1. The King of Judah;

2. An unnamed military commander: the author of ostracon 24;

3. Malkiyahu, the commander of the Arad fortress: mentioned in ostracon 24 and the recipient of ostracon 40;

4. Eliashib, the quartermaster of the Arad fortress: the addressee of ostraca 1–16 and 18; mentioned in ostracon 17a; the writer of ostracon 31;

5. Eliashib’s subordinate: addressing Eliashib as “my lord” in ostracon 18.

The authors conclude that ” it is reasonable to deduce the proliferation of literacy among the Judahite army ranks ca. 600 BCE” (p. 3). This conclusion is corroborated by “the existence of other military-related corpora of ostraca, at Horvat ‘Uza and Tel Malh.ata in the vicinity of Arad, and at Lachish in the Shephelah—all located on the borders of Judah.”  They summarise that, “in other words, the entire army apparatus, from high-ranking officials to humble vice-quartermasters of small desert outposts far from the center, was literate, in the sense of the ability to communicate in writing.” Such a level of literacy, the authors claim, must have been supported by “an appropriate educational system…  in Judah at the end of the first Temple period.”

The article notes the difficulty of comparing the situation in subsequent centuries: “not a single securely dated Hebrew inscription has been found in this territory for the period between 586 and ca. 350 BCE—not an ostracon or a seal, a seal impression, or a bulla [the little that we know of this period is in Aramaic, the script of the newly present Persian empire]” (p. 4). The abstract adds that “a similar level of literacy in this area is attested again only 400 y later, ca. 200 BCE.”

Although the article acknowledges other possibilities for composition of the Bible, it offers this evidence for widespread literacy in ca. 600 BCE as the basis for “works such as the Book of Deuteronomy and the history of Ancient Israel in the Books of Joshua to Kings” (p. 4). The article’s contention is that “the spread of literacy in late-monarchic Judah provides a possible stage setting for the compilation of literary works”

The strength of the article lies in its identification of the extent of literacy in far-flung reaches of Judea, among various ranking members of the military and military administration. Now this is a very basic level of literacy: the ability to write a few requisition orders and the like. Yet it would be not too rash to say that, given the literacy levels in the military establishment, we would expect that scribal literacy would be competent to produce more literary works of the forms which we find in the Hebrew Bible/Tanach. Indeed, the Tell Deir ‘Alla plaster inscription, written in a Hebrew dialect and located bang in the middle of Israelite territory during the period of its hegemony in the region, dates some two centuries before this. So scribes would be capable of the literary forms found in the Hebrew Bible. This doesn’t really tell us about the general literacy in the wider population, as the article implies it does. But more important is the question of literacy among the elites, which the article provides reasonable evidence for.

The question is: would these elites in fact have written such texts in ca. 600 BCE? And here the issue of content makes it unlikely that much of what we now find in the Hebrew Bible was composed this early. As already mentioned, the existence of an earlier temple to Yahweh (and Asherah) at Tel Arad and continued worship of many gods by priests of Yahweh, as evidenced from the Elephantine correspondence, is highly inconsistent with Deuteronomy’s prohibitions against worshiping other gods and centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Sure, it is possible that a “Yahweh-only party” or some similar group existed which differed from the royal establishment, and which disseminated a version of Deuteronomy as early as ca. 600 BCE. But if the Elephantine correspondence is anything to go by, it does not seem to have affected the worship of multiple gods before the fourth century BCE.

Further, following Nebuchadnezzar’s sack of Jerusalem and deportations, the scribal and ruling elite resided in Babylon, and other places such as Persia and Egypt. So the lack of evidence for literacy in Judea from 600-200 BCE is not determinative for the likely setting for the writing of biblical books. They could have been written in many other places, and quite plausibly were composed in Babylon. This is consistent with the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, which present Ezra as bringing the Torah from Babylon and introducing it to the Judean Jews, who had not hitherto been observing its laws.

So this article provides some insights into the extent of literacy in ca. 600 BCE Judah. It is also quite plausible that many of the sources for the biblical books were composed during this period. For we can observe many earlier layers within the final form of the books which now comprise the Hebrew Bible. But it would be a great leap to suggest that many if any of the books of the Hebrew Bible were in fact written as early as the ‘pre-exilic’ period. What this article provides is evidence of seventh-century BCE literacy, not evidence of the seventh-century BCE  literary composition of the books which became the Hebrew Bible.

There are lots of media stories on this one. Most focus on the article’s conjecture that parts of the Bible were written in the First Temple period. The Daily Mail is a bit behind the pack, discovering that the Bible is an anthology and, oddly, concluding from the journal article’s findings that “the writers of the Bible may have been far more numerous than previously believed”:


5 thoughts on “Judah’s military correspondence from ca. 600 BCE: Evidence of widespread literacy but not evidence of the Bible

  1. “What this article provides is evidence of seventh-century BCE literacy, not evidence of the seventh-century BCE literary composition of the books which became the Hebrew Bible.”

    I think this is the key observation.

    Even if literacy in Judah declined sharply for the next four centuries, it must have been preserved by scribal schools elsewhere (e.g. Babylon or Alexandria), so maybe that’s where you would want to investigate the DH’s literary composition.


    • I have changed that. There is evidence that Jewish Elephantine priests both saw Jerusalem as authoritative and also accepted the worship of other gods. The evidence does not allow definite conclusions on whether worship of Yahweh among other gods still extended to the Jerusalem priesthood in the fifth century BCE.


  2. The Elephantine texts come from an isolated and vulnerable population. They had to plead for foreign support before they could rebuild their own temple! I think we need to be cautious about taking their apparent ecumenicism as evidence for attitudes of priests in Judea, or perhaps even an honest reflection of their own views.


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