An eclectic team of scholars from Tel Aviv University recently published research indicating that some Israelite military personnel serving around 600 BCE knew how to read and write. Two Southern Baptist seminary professors contacted by Baptist Press seized on the findings as evidence that most of the Hebrew Bible was written hundreds of years before. Go figure.

The Arad Letters were written in a "paleo-Hebrew" or Phoenician style script, unlike the Aramaic block letters adopted later. [Photo: Israeli Antiquities Authority]

The Arad Letters were written in a “paleo-Hebrew” or Phoenician style script, unlike the Aramaic block letters adopted later. [Photo: Israeli Antiquities Authority]

The authors of the study analyzed 16 letters among the hundred or so notes scribbled on broken pieces of pottery (called “ostraca”) that archaeologists led by Yohanon Aharoni found in the southern Judahite fortress of Arad some 50 years ago. Those short letters (rarely more than a paragraph), along with similar ostraca from the same time period found in the fortified city of Lachish, have been known to the scholarly community for decades.

Having in our possession handwritten letters — mostly military orders and lists of provisions to be supplied — is exciting, but not earth-shaking. The letters are clearly written by several different people of varying skill. Some may be from as early as the 8th century, while most come from around 600 BCE and represent correspondence between an official named Elyashib and his superior officer. The Tel Aviv team, which published its findings in the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, said they utilized “novel image processing and machine learning algorithms,” along with techniques from handwriting analysis, to determine that the 16 letters studied were written by at least six different persons.

That’s interesting, but not at all surprising. Even in a land where most people were illiterate, one would expect military officials — who can’t operate if they can’t communicate — to be trained in the art of reading and writing.

Both authors of the original article and professors interviewed by Baptist Press have sought to apply the findings to the longstanding study and debate of how the Hebrew Bible came to be written. More conservative scholars tend to take literally internal claims that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that Joshua wrote the book of Joshua, and so forth. Scholars taking a more analytical approach point to a broad spectrum of evidence indicating that, while oral traditions and possibly some written documents may well go back as far as Moses — when the Hebrew language was just developing — much of the Old Testament was put together in its final form just before, during, and in the years following the exile (roughly 597-538 BCE).

Nothing in the Tel Aviv team’s findings calls this view into question, though Daniel Warner of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary told Baptist Press that the research “really puts a damper into the liberals who have hounded us that most of [the Old Testament] was developed during the intertestamental period or the Babylonian captivity. That’s just one more nail slammed in the coffin.”

It is no such thing. Analytical studies that dig beneath the surface of the Bible are alive and well and completely unfazed by the unspectacular announcement that some of Judah’s military officials could read and write. And no reputable scholar that I know claims that any of the Old Testament was developed during the intertestamental period (between the writing of the Old and New Testaments), which would be a contradiction in terms.

Warner’s hyperbolic statement fails to note that even those who believe multiple authors contributed to the Pentateuch over a long period of time suggest that the earliest strata may go back to the 10th century, hundreds of years before the Arad Letters were written, even though we have only the sketchiest of very primitive Hebrew inscriptions from that period. If anything, the team’s findings support the idea that the years leading up to the exile, when literacy was becoming more widespread, would have been a fruitful time for literary enterprises. Those who were taken into exile and exposed to the highly developed corpus of Babylonian literature could have been even more capable — as well as theologically motivated — to take the various sources they had and compose lengthy biblical texts, such as what critical scholars refer to as the “Deuteronomistic History,” a thematically united series of narratives stretching from Joshua through 2 Kings.

I’m happy to know that Israeli mathematicians and handwriting experts think findings such as the Arad Letters are worthy of additional study. Even so, it’s quite a long stretch from an order that Elyashib should “Issue Shemaryahu one lethek ration of flour” to an extended theological history of Israel’s fortunes stretching from their deliverance from Egypt to their exile in Babylon.

Molehills do not mountains make.


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