New Evidence Suggests Old Testament Is Older Than Skeptics Think

A new study revealed that literacy in the ancient kingdom of Judah was more widespread than previously thought, undermining skeptics' arguments for the unreliability of many Old Testament books. Israeli mathematicians and archaeologists teamed up to investigate evidence that suggests key Bible texts were composed earlier than many scholars think.

A Tel Aviv University team used handwriting analysis technology like that used by intelligence agencies and banks to analyze signatures, the Associated Press reported. This analysis determined that a group of ancient Hebrew inscriptions, dated back to 600 B.C., were written by six different authors, suggesting widespread literacy in the ancient kingdom.

"We're dealing with really low-level soldiers in a remote place who can write," co-author Israel Finkelstein told Live Science. "So there must have been some sort of educational system in Judah at that time."

Scholars have long believed that the Bible was written at the time of the events catalogued in its pages. Skeptics have doubted these claims, however, arguing that the scribes and literate officials mentioned in the texts are a literary fiction. This group of scholars has claimed that the Old Testament was written after the kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. Some have even argued that the Old Testament works were compiled even later, under Persian or Greek rule.

But this new evidence points toward an earlier date, Finkelstein argued. His study found a new way to address the question. Decades ago, archaeologists uncovered archaic ink writings on ostraca (pottery shards) from a frontier fort called Arad, a garrison located far away from the Judean kingdom's capitol, Jerusalem. Finkelstein said he wondered if these inscriptions, which have been dated to 600 B.C., and were written over the course of a few months, could reveal the level of literacy in the kingdom.

Finkelstein teamed up with Arie Shaus, a mathematics and archeology doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University, and Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, an applied mathematics doctoral candidate at that university. These two led a team using computer programs to scan digital images of the text, fill in missing lines of text, and analyze each stroke of ink. Using handwriting technology, the computer algorithms determined that the 18 inscriptions were written by at least six different people.

Those six authors represented a wide range in military rank. Malkiyahu, commander of the fort, authored some, as did the lowly deputy quartermaster. More impressive, these messages were written with proper spelling and syntax.

"This is really quite amazing," Finkelstein told LiveScience. He emphasized the remoteness of the fort, and marveled that at least six people there could write -- and write properly. Since other border forts have similar ostraca, it seems reasonable to conclude that writing in the late period of the kingdom of Judah was widespread, at least within the army.

It is important to note that these inscriptions are not themselves biblical texts, but rather accounts of troop movements and expenses for provisions. Their existence does have important implications for the writing of the Bible, however, as it indicates that people throughout the military chain of command were able to read and write. The tone of immediacy in the inscriptions also suggests that they were not written by professional scribes, making it that much more impressive that they had proper grammar and syntax.

Finkelstein argued that this evidence suggests a substantial fraction of the estimated 100,000 people in the kingdom could read, perhaps several hundreds of people. This would imply an astounding level of literacy for ancient times.

Furthermore, for this many people to be able to read and write, and to do so with proper syntax, implies that there must have been some kind of educational system in ancient Judah, the author said. If so, that means there would have been enough literate people to compile large portions of the Old Testament.

Next Page: What does this mean for the Old Testament? Which books would have been written that early?