Arad Texts Confirm Widespread Literacy in Judah
Analysis of 16 texts written on pottery shards confirm that ordinary people were literate in Old Testament times.
The Bible is not often mentioned in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A paper by scholars including Israel Finkelstein (advocate of a late chronology) concludes that ordinary soldiers at a remote desert outpost called Arad were literate. By doing handwriting analysis of inscriptions on 16 pottery shards, they deduced that six different individuals, each of which knew how to write and spell correctly. Rachel Pells writes in The Independent:
The writing, dating back to around 600 BC, details nothing extraordinary and consists mostly of shopping lists and broken military commands. By comparing the different handwriting however, historians were able to deduce that the messages had been written by several different people across a range of social classes.
“In other words, the entire army apparatus, from high-ranking officials to humble vice-quartermasters of small desert outposts, was literate,” the academics wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
What this implies is that Judah had an educational apparatus capable of teaching these representative individuals reading and writing. “We’re dealing with really low-level soldiers in a remote place who can write,” Finkelstein told Live Science. “So there must have been some sort of educational system in Judah at that time.”
600 BC was just before the Babylonian Captivity (586 BC). Advocates of the late chronology used to believe that most of the Old Testament was compiled after the return to Jerusalem. This new analysis supports the idea that literacy was widespread earlier, meaning that Judeans were capable of compiling lengthy Biblical texts before the invasion. The paper states,
The spread of literacy in late-monarchic Judah provides a possible stage setting for the compilation of literary works. True, biblical texts could have been written by a few and kept in seclusion in the Jerusalem Temple, and the illiterate populace could have been informed about them in public readings and verbal messages by these few (e.g., 2 Kings 23:2, referring to the period discussed here). However, widespread literacy offers a better background for the composition of ambitious works such as the Book of Deuteronomy and the history of Ancient Israel in the Books of Joshua to Kings (known as the Deuteronomistic History), which formed the platform or Judahite ideology and theology (e.g., ref. 25).
Arad is a desert outpost west of the southern tip of the Dead Sea. The paper did not make clear if these ostraca are new discoveries or re-analyses of existing finds from the site. The inscriptions mention the “king of Judah” and “the house of YHWH” (the temple)—a reference to the first temple built by Solomon, validating its existence.
Of course people were literate back then. This is a small acknowledgement by liberals that Old Testament people were not stupid. Other inscriptions and texts date back even further. Conservatives believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch in 1440 BC, many centuries before, very probably relying on earlier texts for Genesis from records kept by the patriarchs and possibly even by texts kept by Noah from the antediluvian world. These are long, complex books, full of details, names, events and places that can often be independently corroborated. God told Moses to command the people to write His word and wear it on their wrists and foreheads. He commanded them to teach their children His laws and statutes. It assumes they knew how to read and write.
And, of course, there is the matter of inspiration. God is, and always has been, a communicator of His revelation to mankind. He created people as intelligent communicators from the beginning. What is surprising is not that soldiers in Arad were literate in 600 B.C., but that skeptics continue to doubt the clear evidence of the Bible itself after so many repeated falsifications of their skepticism. That skepticism often takes its root from evolutionary beliefs that people were gradually becoming intelligent from their ape-like past. For many examples of extraordinary knowledge among ancient peoples, see Bruce Malone’s fascinating book Brilliant: Made in the Image of God.