New study: literacy more widespread around ancient Israel than previously thought

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

Some skeptics like to attack the traditional authorship of the gospels by arguing that the gospels couldn’t have been written by anyone close to Jesus, because they were all illiterate. The impression I get from the skeptics is that they think that illiteracy was widespread in and around ancient Israel.

But then, in the radically leftist New York Times, of all places, there is news about a new peer-reviewed study:

Eliashib, the quartermaster of the remote desert fortress, received his instructions in writing — notes inscribed in ink on pottery asking for provisions to be sent to forces in the ancient kingdom of Judah.

The requests for wine, flour and oil read like mundane, if ancient, shopping lists. But a new analysis of the handwriting suggests that literacy may have been far more widespread than previously known in the Holy Land around 600 B.C., toward the end of the First Temple period. The findings, according to the researchers from Tel Aviv University, could have some bearing on a century-old debate about when the main body of biblical texts was composed.

[…]The new study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, combined archaeology, Jewish history and applied mathematics, and involved computerized image processing and the development of an algorithm to distinguish between the various authors issuing the commands.

Based on a statistical analysis of the results, and taking into account the content of the texts that were chosen for the sample, the researchers concluded that at least six different hands had written the 18 missives at around the same time. Even soldiers in the lower ranks of the Judahite army, it appears, could read and write.

[…]The study was based on a trove of about 100 letters inscribed in ink on pieces of pottery, known as ostracons, that were unearthed near the Dead Sea in an excavation of the Arad fort decades ago and dated from about 600 B.C. That was shortly before Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah, and the exile of its elite to Babylon — and before many scholars believe the major part of the biblical texts, including the five books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch, were written down in any cohesive form.

The Arad citadel was small, far-flung and on an active front, close to the border with the rival kingdom of Edom. The fort itself was only about half an acre in size, and probably would have accommodated about 30 soldiers. The wealth of texts found there, recording troop movements, provisions and other daily activities, were created within a short time, making them a valuable sample for looking at how many different hands wrote them.

[…]One of the longstanding arguments for why the main body of biblical literature was not written down in anything like its present form until after the destruction and exile of 586 B.C. is that before then there was not enough literacy or enough scribes to support such a huge undertaking.

But if the literacy rates in the Arad fortress were repeated across the kingdom of Judah, which had about 100,000 people, there would have been hundreds of literate people, the Tel Aviv research team suggests.

That could have provided the infrastructure for the composition of biblical works that constitute the basis of Judahite history and theology including early versions of the books of Deuteronomy to II Kings, according to the researchers.

I just heard a debate on the weekend in which atheist historian Bart Ehrman made the argument that around the time of Jesus, almost no one was literate. Therefore, it’s unlikely that anyone who was an eyewitness to Jesus’ would have been able to write anything down about it.

I think this evidence does have some bearing on that question, because it shows that literacy of at least Hebrew was more widespread in the area than previously thought. That means that the people around Jesus are more likely to be able to keep their own notes, and then pass those notes off to a writer of Greek. Instead of having stories being circulated for the 30-35 years between the death of Jesus and the writing of Mark (note: I think Mark was written much earlier than that), you would have written notes by the eyewitnesses that could then be translated into Greek.

But there’s more interesting stuff about Bart Ehrman’s charge of widespread illiteracy. Consider this post that I found on Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin’s blog, where he makes the case that Bart Ehrman is even wrong about his estimate of illiteracy. And when I say wrong, I mean it looks like Ehrman deliberately misrepresents a primary source that he quotes in order to make his point. Maybe that will be fixed in a future edition of his book, but it wasn’t fixed in the debate on Saturday – he used the same botched quote then.

6 thoughts on “New study: literacy more widespread around ancient Israel than previously thought”

  1. I’m a little startled that he didn’t also latch on to this point:
    This is not an apt description of Jesus’s disciples. They were not upper-crust aristocrats.

    Those are NOT the only folks who would be literate– there’s also those whose job would require them to read.

    Like…doctors …and whatever you’d call saint Paul’s old job as a religious enforcer…. (He had to read the scriptures, at the very least, just like Jesus; I believe Jimmy Akin is also where I saw the “Jesus was an illterate bumpkin” debunked, with bonus “did He speak two or five languages?” points.)

    Hm, poking around for the list I remember of the description, I see that it’s got Dr. Ehrman confusing the term for “not a recognized Jewish scholar” with “has no education at all.”


      1. It was a blanket claim about Jesus’ followers, actually…. it even sort of makes sense, if you consider that Christianity was unusually attractive to those who weren’t as well off, but it breaks down on details since at least one was a doctor, and I believe there was a tax collector among the 12, too….

        Considering that the Guy was put in the tomb owned by a member of the priest group, it doesn’t hold up very well when examined. But it is what a lot of folks want to believe, so they will believe it.


        1. If we’re talking about the claim from NT scholars, it’s certainly not a blanket claim about early Christians. It’s a claim about traditional authorship of the gospels and probable pseudpigraphy in the epistles. Paul and Joseph of Arimathea have never been referenced by this argument.

          As for Luke’s profession, be careful not to ascribe anachronistic implications. The Greek word ἰατρός doesn’t refer to a “doctor” or “physician” as we think of them today. Rather, the Hellenic physician generally attempted to perform religious rituals aimed at reconciling a person with the divine, who had apparently cursed the ill by way of disease. Some Hellenic physicians were very well educated, to be sure; but it’s not necessarily the case that every physician was an educated person.

          Still, even if Luke was educated enough to be literate, there are a number of other reasons scholars doubt the traditional ascription of Luke-Acts to him.


          1. I wasn’t referring to the discussions among those who are genuinely interested in the answer; I was referring to a pretty standard claim from agnostics/atheists who are looking for excuses– scholars of any flavor are only invoked if they say the right thing, and to heck with the evidence. *wry*

            You may want to watch your own anachronisms– remember that until just recently even in our own culture, the job of scribe was extremely common.

            Some more evidence based arguments:


  2. So, even taking this new information into account, how should we think this affects the usually arguments regarding illiteracy rates in ancient Jewish people?

    Even if we taken an incredibly optimistic view of this data, at most it would seem to imply that upwards of 20% were literate enough to scrawl a few words in their native language. It would still seem quite exceptional for any lower-class Galilean Jew to be able to compose highly literate Greek works.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s