Israeli researchers now think literacy may have been widespread in ancient times much earlier than previously thought.
They have analysed inscriptions found on ancient fragments of pottery found in the Negev desert.
The 2,600 year-old pottery is on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The fragments were found at the remote fort of Arad in the Negev desert.
It mean key parts of the Old Testament may have been compiled much earlier than scholars thought.
Why is this significant?
Most scholars agree that the key biblical texts were written in the 6th century BCE (Before Common Era), during the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the First Temple.
But the existence of multiple writers well before this time suggests literacy was already widespread in the ancient kingdom of Judah – and the Bible may have been authored earlier than previously thought.
Archaelogist Israel Finkelstein from Tel Aviv University explains:
“We checked the number of hands (writers) in sixteen Arad inscriptions and discovered that there are six hands and that literacy goes down in the chain of command of the Kingdom of Judah all the way to the deputy quartermaster of the fortress.”
“This means that there was some sort of educational system in Judah, it was literate more than one could have thought before, and this reflects, of course, on the bigger questions of the composition of biblical texts.”
What is the pottery like?
- Known as the “Arad ostraca”
- Discovered in the ruins of the Arad fort in 1960s
- Mundane military orders concerning troops and supplies of the garrison
The latest technology
This latest study combined Archaelogy, Jewish history and applied mathematics.
Sophisticated imaging tools and software were used to reconstruct the Hebrew letters partially erased over time.
A computer algorithm was then employed to analyze the writing to detect differences in style, as Arie Shaus, a Tel Aviv University doctoral student, explains:
“In our project we’re dealing with texts that are very ancient and have deteriorated. So for example, if you look at one of the letters, you can hardly see the letter itself.”
“As a first step, you need to reconstruct this letter and then, only then, the whole game of identifying or analysing different authors begins.”
A contemporary high level of literacy would support the idea that some biblical texts had already been authored by 600 BCE.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known collection of biblical texts, are believed to date from several centuries later.