High-tech handwriting analysis of First Temple period writings inscribed on pottery shards indicates the Bible may have been written earlier than some scholars believe, Tel Aviv University researchers have found.

Most scholars agree that key biblical texts were written in the 6th century BCE, during the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the First Temple.

But a collection of military orders written in ancient Hebrew dated to the end of the First Temple period uncovered in the Negev Desert is shedding new light on the age of the oldest biblical texts.

With the help of sophisticated imaging tools and complex software, Tel Aviv University researchers determined the series of 2,600-year-old inscriptions were written by at least six different authors, indicating that literacy in the Kingdom of Judah may have been far more widespread than commonly believed.

Inscriptions in ancient Hebrew dating back 2,500 years discovered near Arad. (Tel Aviv University/Michael Kordonsky, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Inscriptions in ancient Hebrew dating back 2,500 years discovered near Arad. (Tel Aviv University/Michael Kordonsky, Israel Antiquities Authority)

This finding, published Monday in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes it possible for the earliest books of the bible to have been written before the exile and during the First Temple period, TAU archaeology professor Israel Finkelstein said.

“There’s a heated discussion regarding the timing of the composition of a critical mass of biblical texts,” said Finkelstein, who led the team of researchers together with physics professor Eliezer Piasetzky. “But to answer this, one must ask a broader question: What were the literacy rates in Judah at the end of the First Temple period? And what were the literacy rates later on, under Persian rule?”

Excavations at Tel Arad in the Negev Desert seen on March 16, 2006. (CC BY-SA Wikimedia commons)

Known as the Arad ostraca, the writings were discovered in the ruin of an ancient Judahite military fortress near the Negev city in the 1960s, and mainly consist of mundane military orders including commands regarding the movement of troops and the provision of supplies for the small garrison stationed there.

The TAU team of archaeologists, physicists and mathematicians developed specialized imaging tools and algorithms to photograph, digitize and analyze the handwriting of the missives — 16 ink inscriptions on ceramic shards. The team used multispectral imaging to reconstruct Hebrew letters that had been partially erased over time, and then used a computer algorithm to analyze the writings to detect differences in handwriting strokes.

Doctoral student Arie Shaus, who helped develop the algorithm, said it was the first time such technology has been used to reconstruct and perform handwriting analysis on ancient Hebrew inscriptions.

“We designed an algorithm to distinguish between different authors, then composed a statistical mechanism to assess our findings,” said researcher Barak Sober. “Through probability analysis, we eliminated the likelihood that the texts were written by a single author.”

Multiple writers indicates that reading and writing abilities existed throughout the military chain of command, from commanders all the way down to petty officers.

“Literacy existed at all levels of the administrative, military and priestly systems of Judah. Reading and writing were not limited to a tiny elite,” said Piasetzky.

While it’s uncertain how many in the 100,000-strong Kingdom of Judah could read and write, the researchers estimates that hundreds were literate.

According to Piasetzky, the existence of an educational infrastructure could have enabled the composition and compilation of biblical texts that constitute the basis of Judahite history and theology.

However, a higher literacy rate does not necessarily mean the Bible was written during a certain period.

“Biblical texts did not have to have been written by many people, or read by many people, to have been written down,” Prof. Edward Greenstein of Bar-Ilan University told The New York Times.

In recent years, many scholars have attributed the composition of a group of biblical texts, from the Book of Joshua to the second Book of Kings, to the period after the siege, according to Finkelstein. That theory holds that the biblical texts were written as a result of the exile to Babylon, when the composers began to think about their past and put their history to parchment.

Finkelstein, however, said he has long believed those texts were written in the late 7th century BC in Jerusalem, before the siege. He said the study offers support for that theory.

“It’s the first time we have something empirical in our hands,” said Finkelstein.

Shmuel Ahituv, an Israeli bible scholar who did not participate in the study, also believes literacy in ancient Judah was widespread before 586 BC and that the biblical texts in question were written before the siege of Jerusalem. He said he believes this is apparent through a literary analysis of the biblical texts alone. “I don’t need algorithms,” Ahituv chuckled.