TEL AVIV, Israel – A team of Israeli researchers has found evidence that literacy was widespread among ancient Israelites, thus challenging critics of the Bible who claim most people in Old Testament times were illiterate.
Critics of the Bible have long alleged that Israelites prior to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. were largely illiterate. Therefore, they argue, many of the Old Testament books were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, which is much later than the Bible suggests.
“The epigraphic evidence simply does not support the contention that the average pastoralist or agriculturalist in Israelite society was literate,” wrote Chris Rollston in his book “Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age.” “This is a marvelous romantic notion, but I simply do not find credible evidence of widespread literacy of the non-elite masses.”
However, a recently-published study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests that literacy levels among Israelites around 600 B.C. were indeed higher than Rollston and others claim. The study’s authors, all researchers affiliated with Tel Aviv University, analyzed 16 inscriptions written prior to the 586 B.C. Babylonian destruction. They were discovered in an ancient fortress in Arad, which is in southern Israel.
“The inscriptions contain military commands regarding movement of troops and provision of supplies (wine, oil, and flour) set against the background of the stormy events of the final years before the fall of Judah,” the researchers wrote. “They include orders that came to the fortress of Arad from higher echelons in the Judahite military system, as well as correspondence with neighboring forts. … They are addressed to a person named Eliashib, the quartermaster in the fortress.”
Upon close analysis, the Tel Aviv University researchers found that at least six authors contributed to the inscriptions, leading the researchers to conclude that “a significant number of literate individuals can be assumed to have lived in Judah [around 600 B.C.].”
“The results indicate that in this remote fort literacy had spread throughout the military hierarchy, down to the quartermaster and probably even below that rank,” the researchers wrote. “This implies that an educational infrastructure that could support the composition of literary texts in Judah already existed before the destruction of the first Temple.”
It is therefore likely, the study’s authors reasoned, that Old Testament books like Deuteronomy, Joshua, and the Books of Kings were in fact written prior to Jerusalem’s destruction.
“[T]he written evidence suggests a high degree of literacy in the entire Judahite chain of command,” they said.
In an article published last week on the Answers in Genesis, Avery Foley explained why these findings are important.
“This new study supports the accuracy of God’s Word,” Foley wrote. “It demonstrates that Israel was more literate than many scholars believe. This means that prophets—even prophets who were common folk such as Amos, a shepherd (Amos 1:1)—could have been literate and able to pen their writings.”
These findings published in PNAS are yet another example of rigorous scientific research supporting the credibility of Scripture, Foley said.
“We have an imperfect and incomplete understanding of history and science, but God’s Word was ultimately written by the God who was there and who never lies (Titus 1:2),” she stated. “Beginning with God’s Word, we have an accurate starting point for studying the world around us. When science or popular thought seems to contradict God’s Word, it is not God’s Word that needs modification, but rather our interpretations of the evidence.”
“The more we study the remains of lost civilizations, the more evidence will be found that, when properly understood, confirms God’s Word,” Foley concluded. “As Christians, we can have full and utter confidence in the Word of our Lord.”