This Christian Journey:


Literacy in the Ancient Near East

Dr. Walter D. Huyck Jr. D.Min.


This essay, one part of a three part written work, was written in partial fulfillment of a doctoral level study in Old Testament History.  It addresses the topic of literacy in the ancient world.  It applies to biblical studies in that it studies the ancient transmission of the Old Testament.  Was the Old Testament tradition passed on orally or in the form of a written text?  This Bible Study answers that question.

Throughout Church history a traditional consensus has pervaded Christianity concerning the authorship and canonization of the Bible.  However, in the seventeenth century a shift occurred in the scholarly opinion of the authorship of the Bible.  Douglas Knight notes,

“A shift in mood and indeed in world-view began to occur which encouraged a number of persons to abandon the traditional perspectives on the nature of Scripture in favor of a more humanistic conception. . . . According to this, the Bible was viewed in much the same light as any other ancient literature, i.e., as essentially a product of human experiences and cultural forces, including the sphere of religion.”[1] 

 Hence, liberal-critical scholars began to question the development of the Old Testament and in their criticism the dates of its authorship. 

In their developing humanistic view of Scripture these liberal-critical scholars were led to seek out the sources of the Biblical text, commonly referred to as source criticism.  In their investigation they came to the predisposition that the biblical tradition was transmitted orally rather than literarily prior to Judea’s king Josiah.  Some dared to venture to an early written word as early as king David, however, this was a huge leep for most of these liberal-critical thinkers, because most of them believed that king David was nothing more than a legend kept alive through an oral tradition.

So, the question arose, when did the early near east become literate?  The answer to this question means everything in the difference between the traditional evangelical position and the liberal-critical position concerning the transmission of the Old Testament text.  The liberal critical position of a late literacy led its scholars to their positions, of which the documentary hypotheses forward by Julius Wellhausen is probably the most prominent; the JEDP theory will be briefly discussed in this document.  The evangelical position of early literacy clearly supports the traditional view that the Pentateuch was written by Moses, and the remaining books of the Hexateuch written by the authors traditionally ascribed to them.

In answering the question of mass literacy in the ancient world Ian Young refers to a study completed by William Harris on literacy in the Greco-Roman world.  In this study Harris notes that certain preconditions appear to lend themselves to the mass literacy of a culture.  He notes that the ability to mass-produce literature is almost certainly necessary for nurturing a literate culture.  He suggests that the ancient world just did not have the ability to produce the written material necessary to foster a desire to read and write, as they did not have the printing press.  Secondly, he notes that a large education system, such as religiously or governmentally supported schools are almost certainly necessary to prepare a literate culture, and notes that there just is not pervasive evidence of these in the ancient world. In his study Young notes that in “Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. Harris estimates a literacy of no more than 10% of the total citizen population.”[2]  However, is this estimate the death blow to early literacy in the ancient near east?

Working off of Harris’ study Young goes on to approach the question about who was able to read and write in ancient Israel.  It is clear that not every male in the ancient near east was literate.  However, literacy was present, the question is then, to what extent was the population of the ancient near east literate?  In his study of the Old Testament text he discovers that God, national leaders, scribes, priests, prophets, government officials, military leaders, skilled craftsman, community leaders and even some lower class citizens are presented as literate.[3]  Young notes passages like Deuteronomy 6.9, 11.20, 14.1-3, and 27.2-8 that appear to command the general populace to write God’s commands in various ways and for varying reasons and notes, “It is better to suppose that qualified community representatives did the writing on the stone and the reading of the Torah.”[4]  Indicating his presupposition that the lower class were probably not capable of fulfilling these commands on their own. 

In considering literacy in the ancient near east Young goes on to consider the Lachish letters written at the end of the divided monarchy and comes to the following conclusion, “Thus, here we suggest we have evidence that the picture emerging from the biblical sources about the extent of literacy corresponded to some sort of reality in the biblical period.”[5]  In his article Young does not indicate how early Israel’s culture might have had literate segments, however, does suggest that indications point to a pre-exilic literacy.  He does write, “Israel was therefore a literate society in that the use of writing was widespread, and was for many a day-today part of life.”[6]

So, just what does an understanding of a pre-exilic literacy permeating the culture of ancient Israel afford for the Bible in source criticism.  Young’s study brings literacy in Israel to the same level of that permeating the culture of the ancient near east as a whole.  The initial pretense of his article was that Israel could be expected to be as literate as the nations surrounding her.  Therefore, to the degree that the nations around Israel were literate it is safe to understand that Israel was literate. 

In the seventeenth century A.D. liberal-critical scholars began to develop their positions based on the presupposition that the ancient near east, especially Israel, was illiterate prior to Joshia’s time period.  As a result of this presupposition the documentary hypothesis developed. One of the leading scholars in the liberal-critical debate concerning the documentary hypothesis is Julius Wellhausen.  In the documentary hypothesis scholars note that they have discovered four different sources for the Hexateuch.  Of these sources Knight writes,

“The prevailing opinion, however, was that we know the Priestly source came first, having been drafted in the early monarchy, well before the other three.  It was therefore a crucial step when Reuss, George, Vatke, and Graf argued that the Priestly law should be placed after, not before, J/E, and D/l/.  This hypothesis became absolutely fundamental for Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel.”[7] 

 The achilles’ heel of the documentary hypothesis for Wellhausen was the source of the ancient tradition.  Was the tradition conveyed orally or in written form?  Knight comments on Wellhausen’s position, when he writes, “Historians should restrict themselves only to the periods from which there remained adequate literary evidence.  This principle lay behind his [Wellhausen’s] refusal to investigate the prehistory of the literature at the stage when it was circulating among people only in the form of oral tradition.”[8]  Therefore, the question arises when did Israel’s tradition, the Old Testament, take on its written form?  It has been assumed by liberal-critical scholars that the biblical tradition in Israel was conveyed from one generation to the next in oral form at least to Solomon’s time. 

Standing in stark contrast to the position of an oral transmission of the biblical tradition are at least two ancient libraries.  Archaeologist discovered the Mari library in 1923.  This Library contains 20,000 texts that include names like those found in Genesis.  These names include Canaan, Nahor, Serug, and Terra.  Twenty-three of these texts have been classified as prophetic in nature.  Many of the traditions recorded in the Bible are also found recorded in these ancient texts.  The Mari texts have been dated to as early as B.C. 1813 which would date them to an era immediately following the Patriarchal age.  Long before the proponents of the documentary hypothesis suggest that literacy was a part of the ancient near east.[9]

The Nuzi library was discovered in 1925 and contains several thousand texts that were written in the 15th century B.C..  Many of the customs described in the Bible are substantiated by these Acchadian texts.  For instance: Abraham’s reference to Eliezer in Genesis 15.2 was appropriate at the time as adopted sons’ claims were put aside if a natural son was born to the family; the Nuzi texts proved that it was legally possible to sell one’s birthright as described in Genesis 25.33; these texts demonstrate the binding powers of a deathbed will such as that Issac had made for Jacob and Esau. Keith Schoville notes,  “The texts do, however, illuminate and substantiate the patriarchal customs, in particular, and establish them authentically within the general time-frame of the patriarchal era.”[10]  Therefore, these texts substantiate the customs recorded in the Bible as customs that existed in the culture of the Patriarchs.

These ancient libraries, though recently discovered, provide evidence of a general literacy permeating the culture of the ancient near east prior to the time period of the united monarchy, and as some scholars note, to a time period immediately following the Patriarchal age.  If this is so, then, as Young argued in his article, it should be assumed that Israel was as literate as the near eastern cultures that surrounded her.

It should be noted that the Bible itself provides indications of literature that pre-existed its authorship and may have contributed to its context.  This evidence is important because it challenges the traditional view that before the Pentateuch the biblical tradition was transmitted orally.  The evidence for literature includes:

  1. In Genesis 5.1 the Bible records, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.”   This suggests that the descendents of Adam were written down just as the king lists of Egypt and Mesopotamia were written down in the earliest times.

  2. Genesis 41.42 notes that Joseph received Pharaoh’s signet ring with which to seal written documents, which indicates that literature was in common use in his day.

  3. Deut. 24.1-3 notes that a written bill of divorcement was to be given to a woman divorced by her husband. 

  4. Numbers 21.14 records the book of the Wars of the Lord indicating that books were available in the community. 

  5. Deut. 6.8-9 and Deut. 11.18-20 required that the men wear the commands of God on their clothes indicating that literacy was wide spread throughout Israel.

There are numerous other references to written materials indicating the wide spread use of literacy in Moses’ day.  The written law and history of Israel came to be called the testimony.  The testimony was placed beside the Ark of Covenant in the tabernacle.  This testimony is referred to in numerous places throughout the Bible.

The importance of this evidence involves the form of the transmission of the biblical tradition of Israel.  The argument has been that the traditions of Israel were oral until they were first written down during King David’s reign.  This argument suggests that because the biblical traditions were transmitted orally they could not possibly be accurate to their original content.  Clearly the written record confirms that Moses was thoroughly literate and the evidence of recent archaeological discoveries indicates that the culture of the ancient near east was literate as well.  Perhaps, there was only a segment of Israel’s population that was literate, but they were literate nonetheless.  Hence, a written record in Israel, even before Moses, is not only possible but is probable.



Therefore, In briefly surveying the documentary hypothesis and the vast debate that surrounds this form of source criticism, and in considering the recent discoveries of early literacy in the ancient near east, dating to the tie period of the patriarch’s.  It appears that the whole JEPD debate has become as unnecessary as it is uncertain.  In considering the documentary hypotheses David Carr writes,

“No matter what eventually emerges from this debate, one outcome of the ferment has been to highlight the fragility of hypotheses that in the past were all too often treated as dogma.  The truth is that we do not have copies of early sources of the Pentateuch or editions of it.  Therefore, text immanent explorations of the formation of the Pentateuch such as those surveyed here are somewhat speculative.”[11]

Perhaps the best position to maintain on such a controversial issue is the position taken by our Lord when He stated, “Did not Moses give you the law, . . .” (John 7.19), indicating the literacy of Moses in writing the law for Israel, by God’s command.  To understand that the Word of God was authored by Almighty God through inspiration rather than authored by the human mind is far more trustworthy than all of the speculation surrounding the documentary hypotheses, its doubt, and its presuppositions.

The Conclusion of this whole matter is:

  • That there is an abundance of evidence that supports a written Word of God from Moses until our current day. 

  • The Word of God was not transmitted orally as some have suggested, gendering doubt. 

  • Our Lord Jesus Christ recognized the divine authority of the Scriptures of His day, thus providing further substantiation of the written Word of God. 

  • There is historic, archaeological, and supernatural (Jesus Christ) support for the written Word of God. 




[1] Douglas Knight, “Wellhausen and the Interpretation of Israel’s Literature,” Semeia 25.1 (Issue 25 (1982)), 21.


[2] Ian M. Young, “Israelite Literacy: Interpreting the Evidence – Part 1,” Vetus Testamentum 48.2 (Apr 1998), 243.


[3] Young, 245.


[4] Young, 249.


[5] Ian M. Young, “Israelite Literacy: Interpreting the Evidence – Part 2,” Vetus Testamentum 48.3 (July 1998), 411.


[6] Young, Part 2, 420.


[7] Knight, 22.


[8] Knight, 25.


[9] Keith N. Schoville, “Biblical Archaeology In Focus” (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1991) 234-35.


[10] Schoville, 194-5.


[11] David M. Carr, “Controversy and Convergence in Recent Studies ao the Formation of the Pentateuch,” Religious Studies Review, Vol 23, No. 1 (Jan 1997), 22.



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