Literacy in ancient Israel and Judah

Also known as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible was composed over a long span of time. Numerous opinions exist as to when the earliest and latest biblical traditions were first put down in writing.

The Hebrew Bible contains 35 books sorted into three sections: the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Nevi’im (the “prophets” consisting of 19 books), and the Ketuvim (the “writings” consisting of 11 books). The Old Testament of most Protestant Bibles has 39 books because the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah are split into two books, whereas each of these appears as a single book in the Hebrew Bible. The latest books of the Hebrew Bible, such as Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah, describe events from the fifth century B.C.E. and would have been written afterward—meaning that the very earliest the Hebrew Bible could have been compiled in its entirety is the fifth century B.C.E., with some scholars suggesting much later dates.

What about a start date? When was the Hebrew Bible first written? Many scholars think the earliest biblical traditions could not have been written before the eighth century B.C.E. However, Matthieu Richelle of the Faculté Libre de Théologie Évangélique and the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris) questions this assumption. After examining the epigraphic and archaeological evidence of ancient Israel and Judah, he thinks the biblical traditions could have been written down during the ninth or even tenth century B.C.E. In the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Richelle details his reasoning in the article “When Did Literacy Emerge in Judah?”

There are two main reasons why many scholars think reading and writing were not prevalent in ancient Israel and Judah until the eighth century B.C.E.:

(1) There are significantly less alphabetic inscriptions from ancient Israel and Judah dated to the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E. than from later periods.

(2) They think Israel and Judah did not reach the “level of development” necessary to produce literary texts until the eighth century B.C.E.

Richelle acknowledges the first point. There is a near absence of alphabetic inscriptions dated to the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E. from ancient Israel and Judah. However, there are some. Further, even though many such texts haven’t survived, it doesn’t mean they never existed. Richelle notes, “Many epigraphists will argue that there is no simple correlation between the quantity of discovered texts and the number of documents that actually existed. We have hundreds of Hebrew seals and bullae from the ninth to sixth centuries, pointing to the existence of hundreds of papyri, and yet only one such papyrus from this period has ever been found, in a cave in the Wadi Muraba‘at, near the Dead Sea.”

He deconstructs the second point altogether. Many scholars think that in order to produce literary texts, a society must first reach a certain “level of development,” which they often connect with state formation. There is no consensus among scholars as to when Israel and Judah developed as nations. Some think this was not until the eighth century B.C.E. Others think earlier—by the tenth or ninth centuries. Still others think later than the eighth century or earlier than the tenth century. There is a variety of opinions to say the least!

Regardless of when Israel and Judah developed as nations, this doesn’t necessarily affect their ability to produce literature. Richelle clarifies, “The supposed correlation between the ‘level of development’ (assuming it could be assessed) and the existence of literature—has never been proven. In fact, it cannot be proved in the context of ancient Israel since one parameter, the presence of literature, is in large part undetectable by archaeological means. In addition, there are possible counter-examples, like Moab in the ninth century, where the long text on the Mesha Stela was written.”

Richelle then gives two reasons why writing was likely prevalent in Israel and Judah during the early first millennium B.C.E.:

(1) They developed a national script in the ninth century.

(2) Within this script, they developed cursive features already in the ninth century.

Nimshi’s Jar. This storage jar from Tel Rehov in ancient Israel bears a ninth-century inscription that says, “belonging to Nimshi.” The second and third letters of the inscription (the nun and the mem) display lengthened downstrokes, which are cursive features. When was the Hebrew Bible first written? The use of cursive in texts like this is indicative of an existing literary production and shows that writing was prevalent in ancient Israel by the ninth or even tenth century B.C.E. Thus, biblical texts could have been penned in the early first millennium B.C.E. Drawing: Courtesy Amihai Mazar, Tel Rehov Excavations, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The existence of a national script, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, in the early ninth century B.C.E. suggests that they were writing lengthy texts, not just short notes. Further, some inscriptions from Tel Rehov and Megiddo—dated to the tenth or ninth century B.C.E.—have cursive features. Richelle notes, “Such features in the shape of letters develop when scribes write quickly on mediums like papyrus and leather … Since cursive features are probably the result of decades of fast writing, they may point in any case to fast writing already in the tenth century.”

Detail of the inscription on Nimshi’s Jar. Drawing: Courtesy Amihai Mazar, Tel Rehov Excavations, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

So when was the Hebrew Bible first written?

Richelle cautions that we should not take the above reasoning as proof that biblical texts were written during the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E., but it certainly shows that they—or other literary works—could have been. Learn more about literacy in ancient Israel and Judah in Matthieu Richelle’s piece “When Did Literacy Emerge in Judah?”—published in the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review—and in his book The Bible and Archaeology (Hendrickson, 2018).

Subscribers: Read the full piece “When Did Literacy Emerge in Judah?” by Matthieu Richelle in the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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This article was first published in Bible History Daily on April 1, 2020.</em

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