Ancient Shopping Lists: Part of Bible's Genesis?

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Could the mundane drudgery of writing shopping lists in 600 B.C. be the key to an important discovery about the Bible?

That’s exactly what experts from Tel Aviv University are hoping to prove, the New York Times has reported.

The findings concern Eliashib, who was the quartermaster of a distant fortress — and who received his military direction through writings on pieces of pottery.

“To Eliashib: And now, give the Kittiyim 3 baths of wine, and write the name of the day,” one of the inscriptions read. The words are scrawled in ancient Hebrew in the Aramaic alphabet.

“And a full homer of wine, bring tomorrow; don’t be late. And if there is vinegar, give it to them,” another one of the texts read.

While the inscriptions don’t seem like much of anything, an analysis of the writings has scholars proposing that literacy in 600 B.C. in the Holy Land might have been more common than originally acknowledged. This discovery could contribute fresh understanding of when the Bible was actually written.

The study, "based on a trove of about 100 letters inscribed in ink on pieces of pottery, known as ostracons, that were unearthed near the Dead Sea," as the Times noted, was released this week from the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers essentially used an algorithm to distinguish between the various authors of the texts.

After the analysis, the scholars came to the conclusion that of the 18 different inscriptions, at least six people contributed to writing them during the same period of time. But here's the twist: It seems the analysis could prove that lower ranking soldiers in the Judahite army were literate.

When Eliashib commanded the fort, there were roughly 30 soldiers stationed there. Given the wealth of writings with all sorts of recordings from many different individuals during this short amount of time, the lower ranking soldiers could have been contributing — and therefore, were literate.

If the same ratio of those who could read and write at Eliashib's fort was applied to the entire population — which was about 100,000 at the time — hundreds of people would have been literate.

"There is something psychological beyond the statistics," Prof. Israel Finkelstein, who heads the project and is from the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations at Tel Aviv University, told the New York Times. "There is an understanding of the power of literacy. And they wrote well, with hardly any mistakes."

"There is no such thing as consensus in biblical studies these days," Prof. Edward Greenstein from Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, also told the Times. "The process of transmission was much more complicated than scholars used to think."

This study could be the key to what researchers have discussed for years — whether the Bible was written in real time, or years later in retrospect.

The argument that it was not written in real time due to a lack of widespread literacy might be dead in the water.

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