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In groundbreaking study, Israeli researchers discover texts from Biblical Tel Arad fortress written by 12 different authors

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According to the Tel Aviv University team, this could mean that “many of the inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah during that period were able to read and write, with literacy not reserved as an exclusive domain in the hands of a few royal scribes.”

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In a monumental discovery, Israeli researchers have found that the 18 ancient texts from the Tel Arad military post, which date back to around 600 BCE, were written by no less than 12 people.

According to the Tel Aviv University (TAU) team, this could mean that “many of the inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah during that period were able to read and write, with literacy not reserved as an exclusive domain in the hands of a few royal scribes.”

The study, which was conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from TAU and by a forensic handwriting specialist from the Israel Police.

According to Dr Arie Shaus of the university’s Department of Applied Mathematics, there is a major debate among experts “as to whether the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were compiled in the last days of the kingdom of Judah, or after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians.”

He explained that one way to try to get to the bottom of this question “is to ask when there was the potential for the writing of such complex historical works. 

“For the period following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC, there is a very scant archaeological evidence of Hebrew writing in Jerusalem and its surroundings, whereas for the period preceding the destruction of the Temple, an abundance of written documents has been found,” Shaus said. “But then the question arises – who wrote these documents? Was this a society with widespread literacy, or was there just a handful of literate people?”

In a bid to answer this question, the researchers examined the writings found in Tel Arad, which are known as ostraca. Ostraca are fragments of pottery vessels containing ink inscriptions. These ancient items were discovered at the Tel Arad site during the 1960s. 

During biblical times, Tel Arad was a small military post on the southern border of the Judean kingdom. 

“Its built-up area was about two dunams and it housed between 20 and 30 soldiers,” the researchers said.

Explaining their method, Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, also from TAU’s Applied Mathematics Department said that they “examined the question of literacy empirically, from different directions of image processing and machine learning

“Among other things, these areas help us today with the identification, recognition and analysis of handwriting, signatures, and so on,” she said. “The big challenge was to adapt modern technologies to 2,600-year-old ostraca. With a lot of effort, we were able to produce two algorithms that could compare letters and answer the question of whether two given ostraca were written by two different people.”


Above Image: Examples of two Hebrew ostraca from Arad. 
(Photo credit: Yana Gerber and the Israel Antiquities Authority.)
Featured Image: Hebrew ostraca from Arad. 
(Photo Credit: Michael Cordonsky, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

In 2016, the researchers published a study, which algorithmically, and with high statistical probability, claimed that 18 Tel Arad texts were written by at least four different authors. 

After combining this finding with the textual evidence, they then concluded that at least six different writers had written the ancient texts.

To take this research even further, the TAU researchers recently decided to compare the 2016 algorithmic methods, which have since been refined, to the forensic approach. 

And this is where Yana Gerber, a retired superintendent and senior questioned document examiner from the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science, came into the picture. 

Following an in-depth examination of the ancient inscriptions using her expertise, Gerber discovered that the 18 texts were most probably written by at least 12 distinct writers. 

She examined the original Tel Arad ostraca at the Israel Museum, the Eretz Israel Museum, the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, and the Israel Antiquities Authority’s warehouses at Beit Shemesh.

“This study was very exciting, perhaps the most exciting in my professional career,” Gerber highlighted. “These are ancient Hebrew inscriptions written in ink on shards of pottery, utilizing an alphabet that was previously unfamiliar to me.” 

Gerber explained that she studied the characteristics of the writing in order to analyze and compare the inscriptions while at the same time using the knowledge and skills that she learned during her bachelor’s degree in classical archaeology and ancient Greek at Tel Aviv University. 

“I delved into the microscopic details of these inscriptions written by people from the First Temple period, from routine issues such as orders concerning the movement of soldiers and the supply of wine, oil and flour, through correspondence with neighboring fortresses, to orders that reached the Tel Arad fortress from the high ranks of the Judahite military system,” she said, adding that she had this feeling that despite the age of the ancient text “there was no gap of 2,600 years between the writers of the ostraca and ourselves.”

The researchers stressed that this discovery points to evidence of a high literacy level throughout the Judean Kingdom 

According to Dr Barak Sober of TAU’s Department of Applied Mathematics, people need to remember that this was a small outpost, “one of a series of outposts on the southern border” of the Judean kingdom.

“Since we found at least 12 different authors out of 18 texts in total, we can conclude that there was a high level of literacy throughout the entire kingdom,” he pointed out. “The commanding ranks and liaison officers at the outpost, and even the quartermaster Eliashib and his deputy, Nahum, were literate. Someone had to teach them how to read and write, so we must assume the existence of an appropriate educational system in Judah at the end of the First Temple period.”

However, he made it clear that this does not mean that there was almost universal literacy like there is today, but it seems that significant portions of the residents of the kingdom of Judah were literate.

“ This is important to the discussion on the composition of biblical texts,” he said. “If there were only two or three people in the whole kingdom who could read and write, then it is unlikely that complex texts would have been composed.” 

Examples of Hebrew ostraca from Arad.
(Photo Credit: Michael Cordonsky, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to the researchers, the findings also shed a new light on what was happening in Judean society on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple, as well as on the setting of the compilation of biblical texts.

Delving deeper into this, Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations explained that “whoever wrote the biblical works did not do so for us so that we could read them after 2,600 years, they did so in order to promote the ideological messages of the time.” 

Finkelstein emphasized that there are different opinions regarding the date of the composition of biblical texts. 

“Some scholars suggest that many of the historical texts in the Bible – from Joshua to II Kings – were written at the end of the 7th century BC, that is, very close to the period of the Arad ostraca,” he said. “It is important to ask who these texts were written for. According to one view, there were events in which the few people who could read and write stood before the illiterate public and read texts out to them. 

“A high literacy rate in Judah puts things into a different light,” Finkelstein added.

He made it clear that until now, the discussion of literacy in the kingdom of Judah was based on circular arguments, meaning, “on what is written within the Bible itself, for example on scribes in the kingdom.

“We have shifted the discussion to an empirical perspective,” he said. “If in a remote place like Tel Arad there was, over a short period of time, a minimum of 12 authors of 18 inscriptions, out of the population of Judah which is estimated to have been no more than 120,000 people, it means that literacy was not the exclusive domain of a handful of royal scribes in Jerusalem.” 

Finkelstein concluded that this shows that even “the quartermaster from the Tel Arad outpost had the ability to read and appreciate them.”

Concluding, Shaus said that thanks to the findings, the research team was also “able to construct an entire flowchart of the correspondence concerning the military fortress – who wrote to whom and regarding what matters,” which” reflects the chain of command within the Judahite army.

By analyzing the writing, “we can say with high probability that there was not only one Judahite commander,” he concluded.

The team of researchers included: Dr. Arie Shaus; Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin; and Dr. Barak Sober of the Department of Applied Mathematics; Prof. Eli Piasetzky of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy; and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations; and forensic expert Yana Gerber, who served for 27 years in the Questioned Documents Laboratory of Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science, and in the police’s International Crime Investigations Unit. 

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