Algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judah’s military correspondence sheds light on composition of biblical texts

Edited by Klara Kedem, Ben-Gurion University, Be’er Sheva, Israel, and accepted by the Editorial Board March 3, 2016 (received for review November 17, 2015)
April 11, 2016
113 (17) 4664-4669

Significance

Scholars debate whether the first major phase of compilation of biblical texts took place before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Proliferation of literacy is considered a precondition for the creation of such texts. Ancient inscriptions provide important evidence of the proliferation of literacy. This paper focuses on 16 ink inscriptions found in the desert fortress of Arad, written ca. 600 BCE. By using novel image processing and machine learning algorithms we deduce the presence of at least six authors in this corpus. This indicates a high degree of literacy in the Judahite administrative apparatus and provides a possible stage setting for compilation of biblical texts. After the kingdom’s demise, a similar literacy level reemerges only ca. 200 BCE.

Abstract

The relationship between the expansion of literacy in Judah and composition of biblical texts has attracted scholarly attention for over a century. Information on this issue can be deduced from Hebrew inscriptions from the final phase of the first Temple period. We report our investigation of 16 inscriptions from the Judahite desert fortress of Arad, dated ca. 600 BCE—the eve of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. The inquiry is based on new methods for image processing and document analysis, as well as machine learning algorithms. These techniques enable identification of the minimal number of authors in a given group of inscriptions. Our algorithmic analysis, complemented by the textual information, reveals a minimum of six authors within the examined 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. 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 similar level of literacy in this area is attested again only 400 y later, ca. 200 BCE.

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Data Availability

Data deposition: Two datasets are provided on our institutional website, with free and open access: www-nuclear.tau.ac.il/∼eip/ostraca/DataSets/Modern_Hebrew.zip and www-nuclear.tau.ac.il/∼eip/ostraca/DataSets/Arad_Ancient_Hebrew.zip.

Acknowledgments

This research was made possible by the dedicated work of Ms. Ma’ayan Mor. The kind assistance of Dr. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, Ms. Sivan Einhorn, Ms. Noa Evron, Dr. Anat Mendel, Ms. Myrna Pollak, Mr. Michael Cordonsky, and Mr. Assaf Kleiman is greatly appreciated. We also thank the PNAS editor and the reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. A.S. thanks the Azrieli Foundation for the award of an Azrieli Fellowship. Ostracon images are courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, and of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The research reported here received initial funding from the Israel Science Foundation – F.I.R.S.T. (Bikura) Individual Grant 644/08, as well as Israel Science Foundation Grant 1457/13. The research was also funded by the European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement 229418, and by an Early Israel grant (New Horizons project), Tel Aviv University. This study was also supported by a generous donation from Mr. Jacques Chahine, made through the French Friends of Tel Aviv University.

Supporting Information

Supporting Information (PDF)
Supporting Information

References

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Information & Authors

Information

Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 113 | No. 17
April 26, 2016
PubMed: 27071103

Classifications

Data Availability

Data deposition: Two datasets are provided on our institutional website, with free and open access: www-nuclear.tau.ac.il/∼eip/ostraca/DataSets/Modern_Hebrew.zip and www-nuclear.tau.ac.il/∼eip/ostraca/DataSets/Arad_Ancient_Hebrew.zip.

Submission history

Published online: April 11, 2016
Published in issue: April 26, 2016

Keywords

  1. biblical exegesis
  2. literacy level
  3. Arad ostraca
  4. document analysis
  5. machine learning

Acknowledgments

This research was made possible by the dedicated work of Ms. Ma’ayan Mor. The kind assistance of Dr. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, Ms. Sivan Einhorn, Ms. Noa Evron, Dr. Anat Mendel, Ms. Myrna Pollak, Mr. Michael Cordonsky, and Mr. Assaf Kleiman is greatly appreciated. We also thank the PNAS editor and the reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. A.S. thanks the Azrieli Foundation for the award of an Azrieli Fellowship. Ostracon images are courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, and of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The research reported here received initial funding from the Israel Science Foundation – F.I.R.S.T. (Bikura) Individual Grant 644/08, as well as Israel Science Foundation Grant 1457/13. The research was also funded by the European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement 229418, and by an Early Israel grant (New Horizons project), Tel Aviv University. This study was also supported by a generous donation from Mr. Jacques Chahine, made through the French Friends of Tel Aviv University.

Notes

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission. K.K. is a guest editor invited by the Editorial Board.
*Contrary to the excavator’s association of ostraca 31 and 39 with Stratum VII (ref. 6, also ref. 15) rather than VI where most of the examined ostraca were found, we agree with critics (16, 17) that these strata are in fact one and the same. Note that ostracon 31 was found in locus 779, alongside three seals of Eliashib (the addressee of ostraca 1–16 and 18, from Strata VI).
Ostraca 5, 7, 17a, 18, and 24 were most probably written in other locations (6). Ostracon 40 may have been written by troop commanders Gemaryahu and Nehemyahu (see the following note) with some ties to Arad fortress; their names also appear at ostracon 31. This renders the common authorship of ostraca 31 and 40 unlikely. Furthermore, from Table 1, ostraca 40 and 39a have different authors.
We conjecture that the status of the officers who commanded the supplies to the Kittiyim (the Greek or Cypriot mercenary unit), who wrote ostraca 1–8 and 17a, was similar to that of Malkiyahu (the commander of the fortress at Arad), and in any case they were Eliashib’s superiors. Also note that Gemaryahu and Nehemyahu (ostracon 40) are Malkiyahu’s subordinates, whereas Hananyahu (author of ostracon 16, also mentioned in ostracon 3) is probably Eliashib’s counterpart in Beer Sheba. The textual content of the ostraca also suggests differentiation between combatant and logistics-oriented officials (Fig. 4).
§
Contrary to the excavator’s dating of ostracon 40 to Stratum VIII of the late 8th century (ref. 6, also ref. 17), it should probably be placed a century later, along with ostracon 24 (see ref. 18 for details). Note that a conflict between the vassal kingdoms of Judah and Edom, seemingly hinted at in this inscription, is unlikely under the strong rule of the Assyrian empire in the region (ca. 730–630 BCE), especially along the vitally important Arabian trade routes.
In fact, Lachish ostracon 3, also containing military correspondence, represents the most unambiguous evidence of a writing officer. The author seems offended by a suggestion that he is assisted by a scribe. See detail, including discussion regarding the literacy of army personnel, in ref. 2.
#
A few coins with Hebrew characters do appear between ca. 350 and 200 BCE.
||
The Latin transliteration of the letter names differs slightly between Modern and Ancient Hebrew. For Ancient Hebrew, several spellings can be found in the literature: alep/aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, he, waw, zayin, het/ḥet, tet/ṭet, yod, kap/kaf, lamed, mem, nun, samek/samekh, ayin/ʿayin, pe, sade/ṣade, qop/qof, resh, shin, taw. For Modern Hebrew, the Unicode standard names are alef, bet, gimel, dalet, he, vav, zayin, het, tet, yod, kaf, lamed, mem, nun, samekh, ayin, pe, tsadi, qof, resh, shin, tav. For simplicity’s sake, in what follows, we use the first orthography (without the diacritics) for each letter.

Authors

Affiliations

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin2,1 [email protected]
Department of Applied Mathematics, Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;
Department of Applied Mathematics, Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;
Department of Applied Mathematics, Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;
David Levin
Department of Applied Mathematics, Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;
Nadav Na’aman
Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;
Benjamin Sass
Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;
Eli Turkel
Department of Applied Mathematics, Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;
Eli Piasetzky
School of Physics and Astronomy, Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel
Israel Finkelstein
Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;

Notes

2
To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected].
Author contributions: S.F.-G., A.S., and B. Sober designed research; S.F.-G., A.S., and B. Sober performed research; S.F.-G., A.S., and B. Sober contributed new reagents/analytic tools; D.L. and E.T. supervised the development of the algorithms; N.N., B. Sass, and I.F. provided archaeological and epigraphical analysis and historical reconstruction; E.P. supervised the development of the algorithms; S.F.-G., A.S., and B. Sober analyzed data; S.F.-G., A.S., B. Sober, D.L., N.N., B. Sass, E.T., E.P., and I.F. wrote the paper; and E.P. and I.F. headed the research team.
1
S.F.-G., A.S., and B. Sober contributed equally to this work.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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    Algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judah’s military correspondence sheds light on composition of biblical texts
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
    • Vol. 113
    • No. 17
    • pp. 4543-E2471

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