For a text commonly thought of as foundation, it can feel odd to think that there was a time when it didn’t really exist. The Bible, though, has a birthday, and no one knows quite when it is.
The Bible may have been written earlier than previously thought, according to new analysis of ancient fragments of pottery found in Israel.
A study published revealed that researchers at Tel Aviv University believe literacy may have been far more widespread in ancient Judea than was previously known.
Talk of ancient handwriting set the science world aflutter thanks to a new study that used mathematical analysis of clay-pot letters to determine that there was a “high level of literacy” in ancient Israel. The story, first reported in The New York Times, generated breathless headlines: “Bible was written way earlier than we thought,” announced sciencealert. “Bible is really old,” championed livescience.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a cache of 100 letters written in ink on clay pottery and unearthed during the excavation of a fort in Arad, near the Dead Sea. The clay letters, known as ostraca, were dated to 600 BCE, before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE. Many (though by no means all) scholars believe that it was during the Israeli exile following Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest that many parts of the Bible came to be written down.
Handwriting on fragments of inscribed pottery dating back to around 600 BC found in the Tel Arad fortress in the 1970s has now been analysed using sophisticated technology. The inscriptions are mostly shopping lists (“and a full homer of wine, bring tomorrow; don’t be late,” reads one) and military commands, but – experts say – they are notable because they were written by a range of people across the social classes.
In analyzing 16 letters on pottery found at a fort in Arad, Israel, researchers at Tel Aviv University identified six authors, including the fort commander and a low-ranking quartermaster of the Judahite army. “And they wrote well, with hardly any mistakes,” study author Israel Finkelstein tells the New York Times. This suggests literacy was widespread with perhaps hundreds of literate people in Judah at the time, which “is really quite amazing,” Finkelstein tells Live Science.
Experts have long believed there wasn’t enough literacy for the majority of biblical texts to be inscribed before 586BC when Judah’s capital of Jerusalem was destroyed and elites were exiled to Babylon.
In other words, these texts show parts of the Old Testament — including the Books of Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, and parts of Genesis and Deuteronomy—could have been written earlier than previously thought.
Many scholars have maintained that the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, could not have been written down as early as 600 BC because there were not enough scribes at the time.
Several (biblical) texts refer to events which best fit the reality in the years just before the fall of the Kingdom of Judah,” Finkelstein says, per Discovery News. “There must have been some sort of educational system in Judah at that time.” Because all forms of writing vanish after the destruction of Jerusalem and only re-emerge hundreds of years later around 200BC, he concludes “the first Judahite biblical texts were most probably put in writing in Jerusalem by priests and officials in the entourage of the king, possibly King Josiah.”
Some experts, however, say they may have been written even earlier in the 9th and 8th centuries BC.
Regardless of how this new study influences the debate, it provides an intriguing opening to understandings of how our far-removed ancestors lived and thought.