Archaeologists and mathematicians in Israel have unearthed evidence that could suggest key biblical texts were composed earlier than previously thought.
Using algorithmic handwriting analysis, the experts studied 16 inscriptions on ceramic shards from the remote desert fort of Arad, written around the 6th century B.C. The inscriptions, which were written by six different authors, indicate a higher level of literacy in the ancient kingdom of Judah than many scholars thought.
The study, conducted by a team from Tel Aviv University, was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research continues a long-running debate about when biblical works were composed - did it take place before or after the Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the exile of its inhabitants to Babylon?
The inscriptions are not biblical texts - they detail troop movements and expenses for provisions. The tone of the inscriptions also suggests they were not written by professional scribes.
Therefore, the inscriptions indicate “a high degree of literacy in the Judahite administrative apparatus and provides a possible stage setting for compilation of biblical texts,” the study says. “Proliferation of literacy is considered a precondition for the creation of such texts.”
The experts note that, after the kingdom of Judah’s demise, a similar level of literacy only re-emerges around 200 B.C.
In recent years, many scholars have attributed the composition of a group of biblical texts, from the Book of Joshua to the second Book of Kings, to the period after the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, according to Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who participated in the study. That theory holds that the biblical texts were written as a result of the exile to Babylon, when the composers began to think about their past and put their history to parchment.
Finkelstein, however, said he has long believed those texts were written in the late 7th century B.C. in Jerusalem, before the siege. He said the study offers support for that theory.
"It's the first time we have something empirical in our hands," said Finkelstein.
The Tel Aviv University team was made up of doctoral students in applied mathematics, math professors, archaeologists and a physicist. Their research employed “new methods for image processing and document analysis, as well as machine learning algorithms,” according to the study. “These techniques enable identification of the minimal number of authors in a given group of inscriptions.”
“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 experts add, in the study . “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.”
A high level of literacy would support the idea that some biblical texts had already been authored by this time. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known collection of certain biblical texts, are believed to date several centuries later.
Shmuel Ahituv, an Israeli bible scholar who did not participate in the study, also believes literacy in ancient Judah was widespread before 586 BC and that the biblical texts in question were written before the siege of Jerusalem. He said he believes this is apparent through a literary analysis of the biblical texts alone.
"I don't need algorithms," Ahituv chuckled.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.