Newswise — The ability to read and write was more widespread than expected among the people of Judah in the late 7th century BCE, according to a study published September 9, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Arie Shaus of Tel Aviv University, Israel, and colleagues.
Arad is a well-preserved desert fort from the southern part of the biblical kingdom of Judah. Excavations at the site have yielded over 100 Hebrew ostraca – ink inscriptions on pottery – dating to around 600 BCE. These inscriptions written over a short period of time provide an opportunity to assess literacy level among the military personnel of Judah at the time.
In this study, Shaus and colleagues conducted handwriting analysis of 18 inscriptions with the goal of determining the number of writers represented. They utilized algorithmic analyses to statistically compare writing styles, while the inscriptions were independently analyzed by a professional forensic document examiner. Together, the examination revealed at least 12 distinct writers, at least 3 of whom were writing at Arad (which is estimated only to have accommodated 20-30 soldiers), and at least 4 of whom were commanders among the regional military.
These results indicate a high literacy rate among the military for the time, notably higher than previous estimates for the Arad inscriptions. Combined with evidence for high literacy in religious and civic contexts, this suggests the presence of an education system in Judah at the time. This also has important ramifications for understanding the composition and dissemination of fundamental biblical texts of the time. Archaeological evidence suggests that this Hebrew literary activity declined or possibly ceased after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
Dr. Shaus notes: “The study presents the first of its kind combined algorithmic and forensic analysis of ancient Hebrew texts from a small military fortress of Arad, dated to the late First Temple period, ca. 600 BCE. An identification of at least 12 unique writers within 18 of Arad inscriptions, probably written within a short time span, suggests a significant literacy rate in the Kingdom of Judah, with the ability to compose biblical texts during this period as a possible by-product.”
Funding: The research reported here received initial funding from European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement 229418, and by ISF grant 2062/18. It was supported by generous donations from Jacques Chahine (made through the French Friends of Tel Aviv University) and the Dan David Foundation; all the above were awarded to IF. BS was supported through Math+X grant 400837 from the Simons Foundation, as well as by Duke University.
Competing Interests: No authors have competing interests.
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