London: Throwing new light on the dating of old Testament texts, researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) have found clinching evidence that many of the earliest texts of the Bible were written by at least 600 BC in the ancient Kingdom of Judah.
Scholars have long debated how much of the Hebrew bible was composed before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.
While scholars agree that key biblical texts were written starting in the seventh century BC, the exact date of the compilation of these books remains in question.
The new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that widespread literacy was required for this massive undertaking and provides empirical evidence of that literacy in the final days of the Kingdom of Judah.
“Literacy existed at all levels of the administrative, military and priestly systems of Judah. Reading and writing were not limited to a tiny elite,” said professor Eliezer Piasetzky of TAU’s school of physics and astronomy.
There’s a heated discussion regarding the timing of the composition of a critical mass of biblical texts.
Using cutting-edge computerised image processing and machine learning tools, the TAU team analysed 16 inscriptions unearthed at an excavation in the remote fort of Arad and found that the texts had been written by at least six authors.
The content of the inscriptions disclosed that reading and writing abilities existed throughout the military chain of command – from the highest echelon all the way down to the deputy quartermaster of the fort.
They designed an algorithm to distinguish between different authors then composed a statistical mechanism to assess the findings.
“We can estimate that many people could read and write during the last phase of the First Temple period. We assume that in a kingdom of some 100,000 people, at least several hundred were literate,” noted lead researcher professor Israel Finkelstein.
Following the fall of Judah, there was a large gap in production of Hebrew inscriptions until the second century BC, the next period with evidence for widespread literacy.
This reduces the odds for a compilation of substantial Biblical literature in Jerusalem between 586 and 200 BCE.