The Tel Arad Ostraca — Notes from a Frontier Fortress in Ancient Judah

June 17, 2018

 

The analysis of writing on fragmentary ostraca from Tel Arad tells a fascinating story about literacy in biblical times. I’ve asked Adam Hemmings, a researcher based in London and a graduate of the University of Chicago and the School of Oriental and African Studies, to explain what this find might mean for biblical scholarship.

 

Over 2600 years ago, a dusty frontier fortress just west of the Dead Sea in the kingdom of Judah was an unlikely hive of activity. Notes were hurriedly scribbled in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet on shards of pottery, now called ostraca, requesting provisions and organizing supplies. Clearly, these instructions were being passed to different people who understood the shorthand style:

 

“And a full homer of wine, bring tomorrow; don’t be late. And if there is vinegar, give it to them.”

 

But what could the instructions written and given by a small group of soldiers possibly tell us about the proper dating of the biblical texts? A new analysis of the shards by a crack team from Tel Aviv University suggests that if these simple instructions were being written down and passed around, then literacy itself — an obvious prerequisite for the works of the Bible — may have been widespread enough to allow for biblical compositions.

 

An issue of major debate amongst biblical scholars is whether the core texts of Judaism were written before or after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the subsequent exile to Babylon of the remaining population of Judah (or at least the elite). Many scholars believe that it was during this Babylonian Exile that the majority of the Hebrew Bible was consolidated from earlier oral traditions, or invented altogether as a history for the Jewish people. However, recent archaeological discoveries continue to challenge this view and do seem to show that at least some of the texts were extant and in written form well before the 6th century BCE.

 

The latest study carefully examined 16 ostraca from Tel Arad dating from around 600 BCE and tried to determine how many people had written the notes. Using a specially designed image processing computer program to analyze the handwriting of each inscription, the researchers discovered the potential presence of at least six literate individuals within a garrison of about 30 men. This quite substantial number of 20% of the soldiers is unusual in an ancient society, especially since one could expect only a single scribe being assigned to such a small fortress. In addition, it is possible that more individuals were literate, as we do not know how many read the instructions as opposed to simply writing them. If this statistic is representative of Judahite society as a whole, then literacy levels would have been easily capable of producing the biblical texts before the Babylonian Exile.

 

In order to have this many literate individuals, even including military men at a remote border fort, the ability to educate large numbers of people could quite plausibly have existed. At the bare minimum, it suggests a highly developed central apparatus to organize such scribal learning. The next logical step is to surmise that the composition of biblical texts was at least possible, perhaps even probable. Ultimately, there is much that has been presumed about the writing of the Bible based on lack of evidence. When new evidence such as this arises about biblical societies, long standing assumptions must be challenged: What new discoveries tantalizingly wait beneath the sands?

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