Thursday, April 14, 2016

More on the ancient Judean literacy study

CANDIDA MOSS: Does This Ancient Handwriting Prove the Bible’s Age? A new study of 100 letters written on clay pottery shows early literacy in ancient Israel—but can it really prove when the Bible was composed?. A brief, sensible, evaluation of the claims of the study.
In the end it’s sad that the results of this study have been so overstated. The ostraca provide intriguing information about life and literacy in the ancient world. There’s even a reference to Greek mercenaries in Palestine before 586 BCE. Technologically speaking, it stands at the cutting edge of the digital humanities and pioneers an exciting area of research. But the debate is far from settled, and if an argument for the dating of the Torah is what you’re looking for, you’re better off reading Rollston, Schniedewind and Sanders.
That sounds about right.

The original story was noted here. Other recent blog responses include:

Peter Gurry: Handwriting Analysis and Dating the Bible (ETC).

Deane Galbraith: Judah’s military correspondence from ca. 600 BCE: Evidence of widespread literacy but not evidence of the Bible (Remnant of Giants).

As some of the writers above have pointed out, the Arad ostraca are documentary (administrative) texts, not literary texts. It would be helpful to collect and discuss the pre-exilic epigraphic literary texts in this context. Simon Parker's book, Stories in Scripture and Inscriptions: Comparative Studies on Narratives in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions and the Hebrew Bible (OUP, 1997) is also relevant, if now a little dated. And the priestly-blessing silver amulets from Ketef Hinnom (see immediately preceding post) are arguably also from the late seventh/early six centuries BCE and are much more relevant to the question of the composition of the biblical texts, not least because they actually contain a text found in the Bible.

I wrote the above last night and was about to press "send" this morning, when I came across this very important blog post by Christopher Rollston: The Tel Aviv University PNAS Study: Some Methodological Musings. He writes on the basis of his technical expertise, but still quite accessibly. Two excerpts:
But most importantly, to reiterate, I am contending that the epigraphic evidence at hand demonstrates rather nicely that there were educated scribes in Israel and Judah by the late 9th and early 8th centuries BCE and that these scribes were capable of writing fine historical and literary texts. Thus, in sum, as for the PNAS article, I would say (with some good-natured humor and a turn of phrase), “I see your 600 and raise you 200” (i.e., to ca. 800 BCE).
And his conclusion:
So, in sum, the Tel Aviv Epigraphic Project is scintillating. The technology and talent that the authors of this PNAS article bring to the table is unmatched anywhere in the world. But the sociological conclusions about the “proliferation of literacy” in Judah is not something that can be posited on the basis of this study. The methodology is stunningly important, but I would wish to see more caution regarding the conclusions.