The Hebrew bible’s transcription date has long been a debated topic. Did a majority of compilation occur before or after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E.?
Researchers from Tel Aviv University, publishing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have delved into the literacy rate of Kingdom of Judah’s administrative, priestly, and military systems. Their work was based off 16 ink inscriptions found on pottery shards, known as ostraca, which were discovered in the ancient desert fortress Arad and dated to around 600 B.C.E., right before the kingdom’s destruction.
“By using novel image processing and machine learning algorithms, we deduce the presence of at least six authors in this corpus,” wrote the researchers. “This indicates a high degree of literacy in the Judahite administrative apparatus and provides a possible stage setting for compilation of biblical texts.”
“After the kingdom’s demise, a similar literacy level reemerges only ca. 200 B.C.E.,” they added.
The studied inscriptions consist of instructions for troop movements and food expenses.
The New York Times characterized the food requests as “mundane, if ancient, shopping lists.” The Arad citadel, according to the media outlet, was on the kingdom’s border with the rival kingdom of Edom. Roughly half an acre in size, Arad probably housed around 30 soldiers. If the dating is correct, Arad was occupied shortly before Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the kingdom.
“Following the fall of Judah, there was a large gap in production of Hebrew inscriptions until the second century B.C.E.,” said Prof. Israel Finkelstein, of the university’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, in a statement. “This reduces the odds for a compilation of a substantial biblical literature in Jerusalem between ca. 586 and 200 B.C.E.”
The evidence indicates that an educational structure that supported literacy was in place before the destruction of the First Temple. According to the researchers, literacy was an integral part of the military hierarchy, spreading down to the quartermaster and possibly to even lower ranks.
Based on the study, the researchers said that of the roughly 100,000 people living in the Kingdom of Judah, at least several hundred were literate.
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