Inscriptions from Arad fort
Inscriptions from Arad fortCourtesy of Tel Aviv University (Michael Kordonsky) and the Antiquities Authority

Academia has long debated how much of the Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and Writings) was written before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Babylonian exile, with exact dates of the compilation remaining a serious question for academic scholars.

However, a new Tel Aviv University (TAU) study published in PNAS suggests that widespread literacy was required for the compilation of the texts, and provides evidence showing that this literacy already existed in the final days of the Kingdom of Judah before the destruction.

The researchers claim that this large number of literate Jews set the stage for the compilation of biblical works, such as the books of the Tanakh from Deuteronomy to Second Kings.

"There’s a heated discussion regarding the timing of the composition of a critical mass of biblical texts," said Prof. Israel Finkelstein of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, who led the research together with Prof. Eliezer Piasetzky of TAU's School of Physics and Astronomy.

"But to answer this, one must ask a broader question: What were the literacy rates in Judah at the end of the First Temple period? And what were the literacy rates later on, under Persian rule?”

The interdisciplinary study was conducted by Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, Arie Shaus, and Barak Sober, under the supervision of Prof. Eli Turkel and Prof. David Levin, all of TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics. Also collaborating in the research was Prof. Nadav Na'aman of TAU's Department of Jewish History and Prof. Benjamin Sass of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations.

Findings at Arad

Using advanced computerized image processing and machine learning tools, the researchers analyzed 16 inscriptions which were discovered in the remote fort of Arad in the northern Negev. They reasoned that the texts were written by at least six authors.

In the analysis the TAU team showed that the military chain of command, from the highest echelon down to the deputy quartermaster of the fort, all were able to read and write.

"We designed an algorithm to distinguish between different authors, then composed a statistical mechanism to assess our findings," said Sober. "Through probability analysis, we eliminated the likelihood that the texts were written by a single author."

The Arad fortress inscriptions consisted of instructions for troop movements, as well as the registration of food expenses. The researchers were able to rule out the notion that professional scribes wrote the inscriptions based on the tone and nature of the commands.

Given the remoteness of Arad, the small garrison that was stationed there, and the narrow time period of the inscriptions, the researchers argue their findings show a high literacy rate among the administrative apparatus of the Kingdom of Judah, which they say gives a suitable background for the compilation of many biblical texts.

"We found indirect evidence of the existence of an educational infrastructure, which could have enabled the composition of biblical texts," said Prof. Piasetzky.

"Literacy existed at all levels of the administrative, military and priestly systems of Judah. Reading and writing were not limited to a tiny elite." 

"Now our job is to extrapolate from Arad to a broader area," said Prof. Finkelstein. “Adding what we know about Arad to other forts and administrative localities across ancient Judah, 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."

"Following the fall of Judah, there was a large gap in production of Hebrew inscriptions until the second century BCE, the next period with evidence for widespread literacy. This reduces the odds for a compilation of substantial Biblical literature in Jerusalem between ca. 586 and 200 BCE.”

The inscriptions from Arad fort Courtesy of Tel Aviv University (Michael Kordonsky) and the Antiquities Authority

Arad fortress Creative Commons