Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Still more on the Bible and literacy in ancient Judah

ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS (REALLY): From Tablet to Scroll: How Was the Bible Written? Many scholars believe the Jewish holy text was completed by the end of the fifth century B.C.E., but almost no manuscripts from the period survive (Philippe Bohstrom, Haaretz).
So how was the Jewish holy text first put in writing? What material was used and how did the text itself survive through the centuries to reach us?

The material upon which books were copied at the time, mainly papyrus and leather parchment, is perishable and particularly sensitive to the humid climate in the Jerusalem area. That any fragments of biblical manuscripts from antiquity have survived is quite remarkable when you think of what happened to the writings of other civilizations.
There follows a good survey of the Phoenician, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian writing systems. (A more or less related post is here.)
All these methods would have been available to the early Israelite scribes of the Bible.

“The majority of writing would have been done on papyrus, leather and wax-coated wooden tablets. The recovery of numerous clay bullae, which once sealed the papyri, attests to their existence,” says Allan Millard, professor of Hebrew and ancient Semitic languages at Liverpool University.

Millard is convinced that writing was widespread across the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. He argues that the number of sites, the quantity of ephemeral texts and the multitude of seals and impressions bearing owners’ names should dispel any notion that writing was rare. If scribes were employed for legal and administrative duties such as making lists, setting out legal deals and writing letters, he believes it is reasonable to expect some to have spent time writing other texts, as in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Compositions among Hebrew ostraca and graffiti prove they could do so. One ostracon found in the desert outpost of Arad bears part of a literary text and another from the fort at Hovrat Uza is of prophetic nature. There are lines of a prophetic verse painted on wall plaster at Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai from the early eighth century B.C.E.

Millard contends that some parts of the Bible could date as far back as the 13th century B.C.E.

While many scholars take a much more conservative approach, most believe that by the time of the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian period (the eighth to sixth centuries B.C.E.), large parts of the Hebrew Bible had already been written down.
This article is clearly inspired by the recent computer-aided study of Iron Age II Hebrew epigraphic texts, on which more here and links. More on the texts from Kuntillet Ajrud is here, here and here.