Many people tend to (misleadingly) identify the Bible as a single book; whereas it actually encompasses a compilation of sacred texts from both Judaism and Christianity. Simply put, from the historical perspective, Bible consists of a collection of scriptures that were not only composed by different authors, but were created at different time periods in different geographical locations. Now beyond the multifarious ‘scope’ of the Bible, there has always been a debate on when the first batch of these sacred texts was composed – with some scholars leaning towards the hypothesis that they were created after the destruction of Jerusalem (Judah’s capital city) in 586 BC, by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. But a new research, aided by advanced technological ambit, has shed light into how the literacy level of Judah was relatively high even during early 6th century BC. In essence, this discovery alludes to how some of the earlier texts of the Torah (part of the Old Testament) were possibly conceived just before the baleful event when Jerusalem was sacked and its inhabitants were exiled, in 586 BC.
The pertinent connection to relatively high levels of literacy in (very) early 6th century BC was found in a series of correspondence between military forces of Judah. The scope pertains to around 16 inscriptions found inside the desert fortress of Arad, which was located west of Dead Sea. These inscriptions comprised ceramic shards that were etched with ink script, and all of them were dated from around 600 BC. Better known as ostraca (pictured below), such shard-inscribed forms of communication were pretty common during that period of time. As for their content, the writings involved simple military-oriented stuff – with commands relating to provision of wine and food, along with the movement of troops. Here are two examples –
To Eliashib: And now, give the Kittiyim 3 baths of wine, and write the name of the day.
And a full homer of wine, bring tomorrow; don’t be late. And if there is vinegar, give it to them.
Now beyond the mundane nature of these commands, the researchers (from the archaeology department at Tel Aviv University) were actually surprised by the literacy level that was required for writing such commands. To that end, the experts analysed these writings in details – which involved both computerized image processing and the creation of an algorithm (for identifying the potentially different authors). They reached the conclusion that at least six different individuals were involved in composing the ostraca. More importantly, their probable military ranks were diverse, thus suggesting that even rank-and-file Judah soldiers were also expected to read and write.
So simply put, this period possibly corresponded to (relatively) more literates present among the common populace in Judah. Interestingly enough, the content present in the earliest biblical works mostly pertained to the ideological and theological side of affairs, and were probably composed by priests and high-ranking officials of the kingdom (who were close to the ruler). So connecting the age-old factors of ‘demand and supply’, it is entirely possible that these biblical works were created to be ‘consumed’ by people who could read and write – thus conforming to a literacy-based scenario prevalent circa 600 BC. As Israel Finkelstein, a professor at the Tel Aviv University, said –
…it makes sense that at least the literati could read them. If a large number of people could read the text, it could have been easier to distribute the ideas of the authors among the Judahite population of the time.
Quite intriguingly, scholars like Christopher Rollston have pointed out how rare ‘inscriptional’ evidences also hint at a period before 600 BC (or circa 8th century BC) when a few of the earliest Biblical texts were possibly conceived. On the other hand, some researchers have shown their skepticism regarding this Tel Aviv University study. According to them, in spite of the credible hypothesis that relates high literacy to the 600 BC threshold, there is no way to (precisely) infer the relation between the early texts of Bible and this particular time period just before the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar.
The study was originally published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.