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Machine Learning May Help Determine When the Old Testament Was Written

Using computer algorithms to analyze handwriting, researchers discover citizens of ancient Judah were much more literate than previously thought

(Michael Cordonsky/Tel Aviv University/Israel Antiquities Authority)
smithsonian.com

In most ancient cultures, literacy was rare, reserved for specialized scribes or religious officials. But new research shows that in the ancient kingdom of Judah, literacy may have been widespread, a fact that may reshape the timeline of when and where the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament was written.

In a study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers looked at 16 ink inscriptions from a Judean fort in Arad—a remote border post in ancient times—written around 600 BCE. Using computerized imaging and machine learning tools, Tel Aviv University researchers were able to determine that the messages were written by at least six different individuals.

According to a press release, the incriptions were primarily about mundane topics, like troop movements and food expenses. The nature and tone of the inscriptions, the researchers say, indicates the ability to read and write all through the chain of command, from the commander of the small garrison to the deputy quartermaster of the fort. This likely means the citizens of Judah did not depend on professional scribes.

“This is really quite amazing that in a remote place like this, there was more than one person, several people, who could write,” Israel Finkelstein, head of the project, tells Tia Ghose at Live Science. “We're dealing with really low-level soldiers in a remote place who can write. So there must have been some sort of educational system in Judah at that time.”

The finding has broader implications for Judah as a whole. Finkelstein says that extrapolating from that data they can figure out roughly how many people in the kingdom of 100,000 could read and write. It also means there were enough literate people around to compose large sections of the Old Testament, from Deuteronomy to Second Kings.

But not everyone is convinced literacy rates in Judah have much to do with the Bible. Archaeologist Christopher Rollston from George Washington University tells Maddie Stone at Gizmodo that there’s a lot of evidence that work on the Bible began a couple hundred years earlier and was likely written by scribes and religious elites. A literate population was not a prerequisite.

Whether or not the troop movements of soldiers in the desert can determine who wrote the Bible, the study is important for showing how the key to unlock these ancient puzzles lies in a modern algorithm.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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