Biblical-Period Kingdom of Judah Had Higher Literacy Rate Than Expected

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A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University and Duke University and an expert from Israel Police has analyzed 18 ancient inscriptions dating back to around 600 BCE from Arad, a well preserved desert fort on the southern frontier of the Biblical Kingdom of Judah, and found that the texts were written by at least 12 authors.

Ink inscriptions on clay (ostraca) from Arad. These documents are dated to the latest phase of the First Temple Period in Judah, around 600 BCE. Image credit: Michael Cordonsky / Tel Aviv University / Israel Antiquities Authority.

Ink inscriptions on clay (ostraca) from Arad. These documents are dated to the latest phase of the First Temple Period in Judah, around 600 BCE. Image credit: Michael Cordonsky / Tel Aviv University / Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Hebrew inscriptions from the Arad fort, located in the arid southern frontier of Biblical Judah, are one of a few text collections from the First Temple period.

Dated to 600 BCE, more than 100 ostraca — texts written in ink on clay potsherds — provide a record of distribution of provisions to military units shortly before the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah by the invading Babylonian army.

The texts include administrative records, such as lists of names, probably produced at the fort itself, as well as orders that were dispatched to Arad from higher echelons in the Judahite military system, as well as correspondence with neighboring forts.

One of the inscriptions mentions the ‘King of Judah’ and another the ‘House of YHWH,’ probably referring to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Some orders of provisions refer to the Kittiyim, seemingly a Greek mercenary unit/s, which assisted in protecting the Negev desert border from the neighboring Kingdom of Edom.

“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,” said Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Arie Shaus, lead author of the study.

“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 very scant archaeological evidence of Hebrew writing in Jerusalem and its surroundings, but an abundance of written documents has been found for the period preceding the destruction of the Temple.”

“But who wrote these documents? Was this a society with widespread literacy, or was there just a handful of literate people?”

In the study, Dr. 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.

“We examined the question of literacy empirically, from different directions of image processing and machine learning,” said co-author Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, also from Tel Aviv University.

“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.”

“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.”

“This study was very exciting, perhaps the most exciting in my professional career,” said co-author Yana Gerber, a forensic handwriting specialist who served for 27 years in the Questioned Documents Laboratory of the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science and its International Crime Investigations Unit.

“These are ancient Hebrew inscriptions written in ink on shards of pottery, utilizing an alphabet that was previously unfamiliar to me.”

“I delved into the microscopic details of these inscriptions written by people from the First Temple period, from routine issues such as orders concerning the movement of soldiers and the supply of wine, oil, and flour, through correspondence with neighboring fortresses, to orders that reached the Tel Arad fortress from the high ranks of the Judahite military system.”

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

“Handwriting is made up of unconscious habit patterns,” she added.

“The 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.”

“Thus, forensic handwriting analysis aims at tracking features corresponding to specific individuals, and concluding whether a single or rather different authors wrote the given documents.”

“The examination process is divided into three steps: analysis, comparison, and evaluation,” she explained.

“The analysis includes a detailed examination of every single inscription, according to various features, such as the spacing between letters, their proportions, slant, etc.”

“The comparison is based upon the aforementioned features across various handwritings. In addition, consistent patterns, such the same combinations of letters, words, and punctuation, are identified.”

“Finally, an evaluation of identicalness or distinctiveness of the writers is made.”

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.

“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,” Dr. Shaus said.

“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.”

“Whoever wrote the Biblical works did not do so for us, so that we could read them after 2,600 years,” said Tel Aviv University’s Professor Israel Finkelstein, senior author of the study.

“There are different opinions regarding the date of the composition of Biblical texts.”

“Some scholars suggest that many of the historical texts in the Bible, from Joshua to II Kings, were written at the end of the 7th century BCE, very close to the period of the Arad ostraca.”

“It is important to ask who these texts were written for. According to one view, there were events in which the few people who could read and write stood before the illiterate public and read texts out to them.”

“A high literacy rate in Judah puts things into a different light.”

“Until now, the discussion of literacy in the Kingdom of Judah has been based on circular arguments, 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.”

The study was published online in the journal PLoS ONE.


A. Shaus et al. 2020. Forensic document examination and algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judahite Biblical period inscriptions reveal significant literacy level. PLoS ONE 15 (9): e0237962; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0237962

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