Ancient Sticky Notes Shift Secular Scholars Closer to Evangelicals on Bible’s Age
Image: Michael Cordonsky (Tel Aviv University / Israel Antiquities Authority)

To-do lists written on pottery shards 2,600 years ago are causing some secular scholars to think the Bible was written years earlier than previously thought.

These ostraca, as inscriptions on pottery are called, were excavated half a century ago at the ancient fortress of Tel Arad in the Negev Desert near the Dead Sea. Sixteen of the ostraca were subjected to a high-tech analysis by Tel Aviv University researchers, who determined the ancient sticky notes were written at roughly the same time by six different individuals. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Based on that sample, the researchers concluded that literacy in the seventh century B.C. kingdom of Judah was more widespread than secular scholars have thought. And they are re-examining the widely held belief that the Hebrew Bible was compiled after the Israelites were exiled to Babylon in 586 B.C.

“What this research shows is that there were several people able to read and write in the fortress at Arad about the year 600 [B.C.],” said Alan Millard, an evangelical scholar and emeritus professor of Hebrew and ancient Semitic languages at the University of Liverpool. “That means they had learned from others, and their number suggests there were equal or greater numbers with those skills in larger towns like Jerusalem, Lachish, or Hebron.

“I have argued for years that there were a number of people able to read and write throughout the period of the kings of Israel and Judah,” he said, “and there is some evidence to support the contention that they could have been writing literary works like some of the biblical books.”

However, Millard was also cautious.

“The deduction that this research shows a ‘spread of literacy in late-monarchic Judah’ which ‘provides a possible stage setting for the compilation of literary works’ and therefore gives the background for the composition of Deuteronomy and Joshua-Kings depends, of course, on literary critical assumptions,” he said. “There are no comparable collections of ostraca from the ninth or eighth centuries B.C. which could be examined in the same way.”

Evangelical scholars such as Walter Kaiser Jr., president emeritus and Old Testament professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, point to numerous texts within the Bible itself that suggest writing was more widespread in biblical times than archaeology has been able to confirm so far.

One example is the story of Gideon, who had a score to settle with the leaders of Sukkoth. In Judges 8:14, he asks a youth of Sukkoth to write the names of the town’s elders. The young man wrote 77 names.

“The fact that a youth could be expected to do this says a lot about literacy 700 or more years prior to 600 B.C.,” said Kaiser.

Another example: treaty records of the Hittites from the 15th century B.C. are structurally similar to the book of Deuteronomy, while treaties from the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. are significantly different, he said.

“That supports the claim that Moses wrote these books,” said Kaiser.

Christopher Rollston, professor of Northwest Semitic languages at George Washington University, called the Tel Aviv University project “among the most innovative and important in the world.”

“The methodology is stunningly important,” wrote Rollston on his blog. “But I would wish to see more caution regarding their conclusions.”

Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Read These Next
Current IssueA Shoplifter’s Search for God
A Shoplifter’s Search for God Subscriber Access Only
I equated material possessions with happiness, until a high-school mission trip changed my thinking.
Is Suicide Unforgivable?Subscriber Access Only
Question: What is the biblical hope and comfort we can offer a suicide victim's family and friends? —name withheld
Read in English
TrendingForgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
Amid ISIS attacks, faithful response inspires Egyptian society.
Editor's PickWho’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?
Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?
The age of the Internet has birthed a crisis of authority, especially for women.
View this article in Reader Mode
Christianity Today
Ancient Sticky Notes Shift Secular Scholars Closer to Evangelicals on ...
hide thisBeautiful Orthodoxy

Beautiful Orthodoxy

What the world—and the church—needs now

Donate to Christianity Today