Christianity Today has published an article that comments on a recent study by the Epigraphic Hebrew Project examining the handwriting on some ancient Hebrew documents through digital technology. The headline reads:
Ancient Sticky Notes Shift Secular Scholars Closer to Evangelicals on Bible’s Age.
The study itself demonstrates that the cache of sixteen documents from the remote desert outpost of Arad on the edge of the Kingdom of Judah in c. 600 BC had six distinct authors. The claim of the Christianity Today article is that this seemingly high rate of literacy in Judah’s monarchic period is forcing secular scholars to acknowledge that the biblical documents were probably written early (that is, before the exilic era). This is certainly the direction in which Walter Kaiser Jr., who is cited in the article, takes the evidence.
Unfortunately, the study that this article is commenting on doesn’t actually shift secular scholars closer to Evangelicals on the Bible’s Age. Indeed, some of the other scholars mentioned in the article (Alan Millard and Christopher Rollston) advise serious caution. There is a plethora of problems with the headline of the Christianity Today article.
First of all, there is no real agreement on the age of the ‘The Bible’ amongst anyone, be they ‘Evangelical’ or so-called ‘secular’ scholars (honestly, the division implied by that terminology is just grating!). After all, we’re talking about a stack of different documents that developed over centuries, with very few overt statements about authorship and time of writing. ‘The Bible’ wasn’t written in one go. It eventually coalesced into the collection we know today as ‘The Bible’, but exactly when the documents began their life is almost impossible to pin down.
Second, the study this article is commenting on simply shows that elite professionals in the monarchic era could write—exactly the kinds of people whom we would expect to be able to write. It doesn’t show that literacy was widespread. On the contrary, one of the documents in this collection includes a man protesting that he could read something for himself, which implies that literacy wasn’t widespread. So six individuals wrote sixteen documents! This does not mean that suddenly most people in ancient Judah could write two or three biblical books! Finding some buttons does not necessarily mean you’ve found an entire tailored suit.
But thirdly, even if literacy in the monarchic era was very widespread, this tells us nothing about when the various biblical documents were written. All it tells us is that people could write. And that’s a very different thing to knowing when these specific biblical documents were written. You see, you only need one person who knows the alphabet, owns some ink and parchment, and has some imagination, and you have yourself a document. This could be at just about any time. Why, it could be early, or it could even be late.
The study itself states that the kind of literacy levels that the Arad documents demonstrate only occurs again in c. 200 BC. The implication seems to be that it’s unlikely the biblical documents were written in the intervening period (600–200 BC) when literacy levels were lower. But there are so many problems with this inference. First, the claim relates only to the region of Judah. It says nothing about literacy levels outside of Judah. Second, the claim uses blank evidence (little apparent writing in 600–200 BC) as a warrant for reaching a positive inference (it’s unlikely the biblical documents could have been written in this period). But logically this is unwarranted. To state it another way, a lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. It could be that we just haven’t found all the other document caches like the one from Arad that date to this period. We just don’t know! Third, you don’t need most of the elite, let alone most of the population, to be reading and writing to create conditions conducive to the writing of texts like the ones in the Bible. You just need one competent literate person who can ‘put pen to paper’. And that person could write for themselves, or even for a whole group of people. One person can pen the imagination of hundreds! And fourth, since there evidently were biblical texts that were written in Judah between 600 and 200 BC (e.g. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, Nehemiah), the very low literacy levels actually count for nothing.
So, just because a few army officials in Judah could read and write in 600 BC does not mean biblical authors wrote all the biblical documents very early on. At best, it helps establish a terminus a quo for mundane Hebrew writing in the region of Judah (which in this case is only c. 600 BC), but not an actual date for writing biblical texts. Using the same logic employed in the article’s headline, we could just as easily say that Evangelicals must shift closer to secular scholars who argue for late dates (c. 200 BC), because the evidence this study is based on is about mundane literacy at the very end of the monarchic era, and surely fine literature takes longer to develop than mundane ‘sticky notes’.
In actual fact, the literacy levels do not contribute all that much to the discussion about the dating of biblical text. That depends on numerous complex criteria. Literacy is important—you need it in order to have documents! But there are so many other criteria to consider, such as references to historical persons and events, form and genre, theological development, purpose, possible influences and their direction, redaction, transmission, preservation, manuscripts, etc. The list goes on!
Unfortunately, headlines like this one given by Christianity Today are misleading. They promote a sense of tribalism as well as wishful thinking amongst Christians, which in turn leaves Christians grasping at air but thinking they’ve grabbed something solid. It’s just not constructive. And even the headline is at odds with the comments of the two main experts cited in the article.
Surely we can serve the Christian public better than this!
Remains of the ancient fortified outpost of Arad, Judah, where the cache of documents was found.
My good friend and colleague, Prof. Ian Young (University of Sydney), has also written a brief response to the study on the Arad documents for the Huffington Post. It’s well worth reading and can be found HERE.
Christopher Rollston’s blog article on the study can be read HERE.