Some Views on Literacy

By Richard S. Hess
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
October 2010

The discovery of more Iron Age texts from sites west of Jerusalem has re-energized the discussion of the questions of how well and how many ancient Israelites (or “proto-Israelites”) could read and write in the period. The 9th century Tel Zayit abecedary and the early 10th century (or earlier) Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription of five lines of writing attest to the continuing discovery of written texts as more and more excavations probe ancient sites. These, along with the new inscription from Tell es-Safi / Gath, near the other two in time and place, suggest that future excavations may expect to find more and more written materials by ancient Israelites and their neighbors. It has long been noted that the most abundant form of written evidence, seals and seal impressions, witness to forms of various quality and skill that may well represent different socio-economic levels in ancient Israel who possessed such seals and had the ability, albeit a rudimentary one, to read their names with patronyms and so to read other similar names.

So what does this have to say about how many people could read and write and how well they could do it? The answer remains unclear. Part of the discussion must address the question of what literacy is. This issue cannot be answered here, and in some respects cannot be answered anywhere. That is because there are a variety of definitions of literacy. Some would speak of a more basic literacy that involves the ability to write and read one’s name, and perhaps the names of others and also brief and simple letters. Others insist that literacy requires a much more comprehensive ability to compose literary works of some length and sophistication. All such definitions are legitimate in terms of past usage of the term.

It is not my purpose to argue one definition over others. However, I would maintain that it is important to familiarize oneself with the definition of literacy used by any writer and to understand their statements in light of this. For example, when I refer to “many” people being able to read and write across the Israelite horizon, I do not suggest that this means multiple Shakespearean composers of ancient Hebrew sonnets, as has been implied by some writers. Rather, I state clearly that my understanding of “literacy” in this instance conforms closely with those of others who would use the term “functional literacy” or “broader literacy,” as is true of William Dever and William Schniedewind, respectively. (“Writing about Writing: Abecedaries and Evidence for Literacy in Ancient Israel,” Vetus Testamentum 56 [2006]: 345.) The evidence would seem to suggest that more and more people were learning to read and write and that this ability was not limited to traditional elites in the capital or in other administrative centers. The extent of their skill in reading and writing was not sophisticated nor can the number of those with this ability be quantified in any precise manner. However, the existing inscriptions give evidence that reading and writing did exist in ancient Israel in many places and times.

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