The Bible Is Really Old, Handwriting Analysis Reveals
Key parts of the Old Testament may have been compiled earlier than some scholars thought, suggests a new handwriting analysis of text on pottery shards.
The shards, found at a frontier fort dating to around 600 B.C., were written by at least six different people, suggesting that literacy was widespread in the ancient kingdom of Judah, said study co-author Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist and biblical scholar at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
“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.”
The writing shows that the kingdom had the intellectual resources to write and compile large chunks of the Old Testament during this period, he added.
Religious scholars have long fiercely debated when the Bible was written. Up until around the middle ages, people believed the Bible was written almost in real-time (as events were occurring).
Text in the Bible mentions scribes and literate officials for the kingdom of Judah, which remained a state from roughly the 10th century B.C. to 586 B.C., when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem, destroyed the temple and forced most of the Jewish elites into exile in Babylonia. So scholars assumed the text must have been written prior to the destruction of the temple.
But that line of reasoning assumed the biblical accounts were historically accurate. Another possibility is that those details about literate people were anachronisms inserted by later writers based on their own cultures, Finkelstein said. In recent years, one camp of scholars has pushed for a later date for the compilation of the Old Testament, with some even arguing the compilation occurred centuries later, when the Greeks or Persians ruled in what is now Israel, Finkelstein said.
He said he and his colleagues realized there might be a different way to address the question. Decades earlier, archeologists had uncovered archaic Hebrew ink inscriptions on ostraca, or pottery shards, from a frontier fort called Arad, a remote garrison located far away from Judah’s central city, Jerusalem. Finkelstein said he wondered whether these inscriptions, which were written over the span of a few months in 600 B.C., could reveal how many people could read and write at the time.
To answer that question, Arie Shaus, a mathematics and archaeology doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University, along with Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, an applied mathematics doctoral candidate at the university, and colleagues, relied on machine learning. They used computer programs to scan digital images of the text, systematically fill in missing lines of text and analyze each stroke. Finally, the computer algorithms compared the script on each of the 18 inscriptions to see whether they were written by the same hand. (The ancient Hebrew text was written in an Iron Age script that is no longer used.)
All told, at least six different people wrote or read the script on the ostracas, including individuals ranging in rank from the commander of the fort, a man named Malkiyahu, all the way down to the deputy quartermaster, a soldier with a low rank, below the person running the fort’s storage depots, the researchers reported today (April 11) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While none of these inscriptions were Shakespeare, most were written with proper spelling and syntax, the researchers found.
“This is really quite amazing,” Finkelstein said, “that in a remote place like this, there was more than one person, several people, who could write.”
What’s more, other border forts have similar ostraca, suggesting that writing at that time was widespread, at least within the Judahite army, the researchers reported. Other archaeological evidence suggests that no more than 100,000 people lived in Judah at the time. Together, these lines of evidence suggest that a substantial fraction of the population (possibly several hundreds of people) could read and write, Finkelstein said.
Early biblical compilation
In order for so many low-ranking soldiers to be able to read and write, there must have been some kind of Judahite educational system, Finkelstein said.
That, in turn, suggests there were enough literate people at that time to compile some portions of the Old Testament, such as the Book of Deuteronomy, parts of Genesis, and the books of Joshua to 2 Kings, Finkelstein said.
By contrast, after the destruction of the first temple, when Israel’s educated people were either killed or exiled to Babylonia, there is not so much as a pottery shard, seal or stamp with a single piece of writing from the region for more than 200 years, Finkelstein said. This suggests it’s much less likely these books were compiled after the temple’s destruction, he said.
The findings are very important and dovetail with other lines of research, said Christopher Rollston, a Near East scholar at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. There is no doubt that the elites in Judahite society could read and write around 600 B.C., Rollston said.
“In fact, I have argued in print that the literacy of elites (scribes, high governmental and religious officials) is already present by circa 800 [B.C.]”
However, not everyone agrees with all of the paper’s assumptions. While the notion that many could read and write in the Kingdom of Judah during the seventh century B.C. is widespread, “I do not share the authors’ opinion that literacy among the elite declined after the seventh century [B.C.],” said Ernst Axel Knauf, a theology scholar at Bern University in Switzerland, who was not involved in the study.
Artificial Intelligence Sheds New Light on the Origins of the Bible
Inked inscriptions from the fortress of Arad, located in southern Judah. Image: Michael Cordonsky / Tel Aviv University / Israel Antiquities Authority
Twenty six hundred years ago, a band of Judahite soldiers kept watch on their kingdom’s southern border in the final days before Jerusalem was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar. They left behind numerous inscriptions—and now, a groundbreaking digital analysis has revealed how many writers penned them. The research and innovative technology behind it stand to teach us about the origins of the Bible itself.
“It’s well understood that the Bible was not composed in real time but was probably written and edited later,” Arie Shaus, a mathematician at Tel Aviv University told Gizmodo. “The question is, when exactly?”
Shaus is one of several mathematicians and archaeologists trying to broach that question in a radical manner: by using machine learning tools to determine how many people were literate in ancient times. Their first major analysis, which appears today in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, suggests that the ability to read and write was widespread throughout the Kingdom of Judah, setting the stage for the compilation of Biblical texts.
Although parts of this conclusion remain controversial, the technology behind the study could revolutionize our understanding of literacy and education in Biblical times.
Most scholars agree that the earliest Biblical texts—including the Book of Joshua, Judges, and the two Books of Kings—took shape during what’s known as the late First Temple Period, before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian king in 586 BCE. But the circumstances surrounding the writing of these texts, including when they were first penned and by how many authors, remain unclear. Curiously enough, texts that have nothing to do with the Bible may shed light on the matter.
Artificial Intelligence Sheds New Light on the Origins of the Bible
Aerial view of the Tel arad fortress, where the inscriptions used in the present study originated.
For instance, during this time period people wrote a wide variety of information down on ceramic pottery shards called ostraca. “These texts are very mundane in nature,” Shaus said, citing military commands and supply orders as some of the more popular topics of discussion.
Aside from how much wine Judahite soldiers required, however, there’s another layer of information we can extract from ostraca: how many people knew how to write. That’s exactly what Shaus and his colleagues did, analyzing a group of 16 well-preserved ceramic shards from a remote military fortress located near the southern border of Judah. Most of these ostraca date to around 600 BCE, practically the eve of the kingdom’s fall.
The first step of this analysis involved the researchers using novel image processing tools to restore characters that had been partially rubbed away. They then developed machine learning algorithms that could compare and contrast the shape of the ancient Hebrew characters in order to identify statistically distinct handwritings. In principle, this is similar to the algorithms tech companies use for digital signature detection.
“Handwriting analysis is a big area that’s seen a lot of research in recent years,” Shaus said. “Nevertheless, we had to develop our own tools and this was quite challenging. The medium is very deteriorated and so is the writing.”
Eventually, the team devised a handwriting recognition tool that worked beautifully on modern Hebrew, and they decided to put it to the test on ancient inscriptions. All in all, their analysis revealed at least six different authors behind the 16 ostraca. Examining the contents of the text itself, the researchers concluded that these authors spanned the entire military chain of command. “The commander down to the lowest water master could all communicate in writing,” Shaus said. “This was an extremely surprising result.”
It’s a result that the researchers say points to a “proliferation of literacy” throughout Judahite society by 600 BCE, implying that the educational infrastructure to support Bible writing almost certainly existed.
But not everyone is comfortable with all aspects of this conclusion.
“This is a highly innovative and important study,” Christopher Rollston, an expert on archaeology and Bible studies at George Washington University told Gizmodo, noting that there’s ample archaeological evidence portions of the Bible were written as early as 800 BCE. But who was really able to write at that time?
“I think that literacy was confined to elites, basically scribes, high military officials, and priests,” Rollston said, adding that by the late First Temple Period, it’s possible reading and writing had spread to more of this upper class.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Shaus’ work is the introduction of sophisticated image recognition technology to the study of ancient texts. The Tel Aviv research group is keen to share their tools for reconstructing letters and deciphering handwriting with other archaeologists. By applying these methods more broadly, we might be able to hone in on when, where, and by whom history’s most enduring book was first written down.
“We’re bringing new evidence to the game,” Shaus said. “Now, we’ll see what else comes out.”