Groundbreaking Study Finds Literacy in Kingdom of Judah was Widespread


Photo by Michael Cordonsky, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority

By TPS • 10 September 2020

A groundbreaking study conducted by Tel Aviv University in conjunction with a forensic handwriting examiner which examined texts from the biblical-period fortress at Tel Arad found that they were written by 12 different authors showing that contrary to popular belief, many people in the kingdom of Judah could read and write and literacy was not the exclusive domain of a few royal scribes.

The researchers at Tel Aviv University used state-of-the-art image processing and machine learning technologies and collaborated with a retired superintendent and senior questioned document examiner from the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science who examined 18 ink-inscribed pottery shards from the Tel Arad military post dating back to around 600 BCE.

“There is a lively debate among experts as to whether the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were compiled in the last days of the kingdom of Judah, or after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians,” explained Dr. Arie Shaus. “One way to try to get to the bottom of this question is to ask when there was the potential for the writing of such complex historical works.”

For the period following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, there is scant archaeological evidence of Hebrew writing in Jerusalem and its surroundings, whereas for the period preceding the destruction of the Temple, an abundance of written documents has been found.

To answer the question of who could have written these documents, the researchers examined the writings found in Tel Arad that were discovered in the 1960s.

Tel Arad was a small military post on the southern border of the kingdom of Judah; its built-up area was about two dunams and it housed between 20 and 30 soldiers.

“We examined the question of literacy empirically, from different directions of image processing and machine learning,” said Shira. Faigenbaum-Golovin. “Among other things, these areas help us today with the identification, recognition and analysis of handwriting, signatures, and so on. The big challenge was to adapt modern technologies to 2,600-year-old ostraca (pottery shards). With a lot of effort, we were able to produce two algorithms that could compare letters and answer the question of whether two given ostraca were written by two different people.”

In 2016, the researchers concluded that algorithmically, and with high statistical probability, 18 texts were written by at least four different authors. Combined with the textual evidence, the researchers concluded that there were at least six different writers. The study aroused great interest around the world.

Now, in an unprecedented move, the Tel Aviv University researchers have decided to compare the algorithmic methods, which have since been refined, to the forensic approach. Yana Gerber, a retired superintendent, joined the team. After an in-depth examination of the ancient inscriptions, Gerber found that the 18 texts were written by at least 12 distinct writers with varying degrees of certainty.

“This study was very exciting, perhaps the most exciting in my professional career,” says Gerber. “These are ancient Hebrew inscriptions written in ink on shards of pottery, utilizing an alphabet that was previously unfamiliar to me. I studied the characteristics of the writing in order to analyze and compare the inscriptions, while benefitting from the skills and knowledge I acquired during my bachelor’s degree in classical archaeology and ancient Greek at Tel Aviv University.”

The text included routine issues such as orders concerning the movement of soldiers and the supply of wine, oil and flour, correspondence with neighboring fortresses, and orders that reached the Tel Arad fortress from the high ranks of the Judahite military system.

“I had the feeling that the time stood still and there was no gap of 2,600 years between the writers of the ostraca and ourselves,” she shared.

Gerber explained that “handwriting is made up of unconscious habit patterns. Handwriting identification is based on the principle that these writing patterns are unique to each person and no two people write exactly alike. It is also assumed that repetitions of the same text or characters by the same writer are not exactly identical and one can define a range of natural handwriting variations specific to each one.”

Shaus conceded that “we were in for a big surprise: Yana identified more authors than our algorithms did.”

He noted that the algorithms are of a “cautious” nature – they know how to identify cases in which the texts were written by people with significantly different writing; in other cases, they refrain from definite conclusions.

“Thanks to the findings, we were able to construct an entire flowchart of the correspondence concerning the military fortress – who wrote to whom and regarding what matter,” he said, reflecting the chain of command within the Judahite army.

“For example, in the area of Arad, close to the border between the kingdoms of Judah and Edom, there was a military force whose soldiers are referred to as Kittiyim in the inscriptions, most likely Greek mercenaries. Someone, probably their Judahite commander or liaison officer, requested provisions for the Kittiyim unit. He writes to the quartermaster of the fortress in Arad ‘give the Kittiyim flour, bread, wine’ and so on. Now, thanks to the identification of the handwriting, we can say with high probability that there was not only one Judahite commander writing, but at least four different ones. It is conceivable that each time another officer was sent to join the patrol – they took turns,” he added.

According to the researchers, the findings can shed new light on Judahite society on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple – and possibly on the setting of the compilation of biblical texts.

“It should be remembered that this was a small outpost, one of a series of outposts on the southern border of the kingdom of Judah,” said Dr. Barak Sober. “Since we found at least 12 different authors out of 18 texts in total, we can conclude that there was a high level of literacy throughout the entire kingdom. The commanding ranks and liaison officers at the outpost, and even the quartermaster Eliashib and his deputy, Nahum, were literate.”

“Someone had to teach them how to read and write, so we must assume the existence of an appropriate educational system in Judah at the end of the First Temple period. This, of course, does not mean that there was almost universal literacy as there is today, but it seems that significant portions of the residents of the kingdom of Judah were literate,” he added.

This data is important to the discussion on the composition of biblical texts. If there were only two or three people in the whole kingdom who could read and write, then it is unlikely that complex texts would have been composed during this period.

Prof. Israel Finkelstein said that “until now, the discussion of literacy in the kingdom of Judah has been based on circular arguments, that is, on what is written within the Bible itself, for example on scribes in the kingdom.”

“We have shifted the discussion to an empirical perspective. If in a remote place like Tel Arad there was, over a short period of time, a minimum of 12 authors of 18 inscriptions, out of the population of Judah which is estimated to have been no more than 120,000 people, it means that literacy was not the exclusive domain of a handful of royal scribes in Jerusalem. The quartermaster from the Tel Arad outpost also had the ability to read and appreciate them,” he added.


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