יום רביעי, 29 במאי 2013

Literacy in Ancient Israel: Abstract


Aaron Demsky, Literacy in Ancient Israel, The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library XXVIII, The Bialik Institute, Jerusalem 2012

Prof. Aaron Demsky
The Introduction deals with the definition of literacy, its terminology and gradation in antiquity, as well as in contemporary scholarship. One's ability to write a word of even two letters constitutes basic literacy and testifies to the fact that an individual adopted the medium of writing to express oneself. This is followed by a critical survey of various approaches to the understanding of literacy in the biblical period, such as literary composition and transmission, educational institutions, epigraphic evidence, archaeological context, political motivations reflected in biblical historiography, sociological models, and the comparison of Greek society in the Archaic and Classical periods. Our basic assumption is that all writing cultures in antiquity fall into one of two patterns: restricted scribal culture as found in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and unrestricted literacy as in Israel and ancient Greece which became literate societies. 
Methodological issues are raised through a review of sources and chronology. 
 It is suggested that the datable epigraphic evidence of the evolving alphabetic script can be applied to understand the historical background of the biblical narrative. Actually, the all-encompassing subject of literacy has to be studied not only synchronically but also diachronically, noting the technical, social and cultural processes that began with the invention of writing at the end of the fourth millennium BCE and culminated at the end of Antiquity.

The Bialik Institute
Chapter 1. Scribal Culture in the Ancient Near East: Scribal culture was limited to a well-defined class of literati who shared similar educational institutions and professional goals. These included a similar structured school faculty and standard curriculum as well as methods of composition, preservation and transmission of school texts. The literary output was composed for the benefit, edification and enjoyment of a restricted audience of professional literati including three Mesopotamian royals. Supplementing their limited readership, the scribes created an imaginary audience of readers and listeners among the gods and conveyed the message that scribes would be the beneficiaries of honor, material wealth and acclaim in pursuing the eternal art of writing, a manifestation of the divine.

Chapter 2. Creating a Literate Society: Three factors go into making a literate society, where literacy is potentially within the grasp of the layman, and not restricted to a professional scribal class: (1) technical facility of the script, which evolved into a standardized twenty-two–letter Canaanite alphabet at the end of the Late Bronze and beginning of the Early Iron Ages; (2) the removal of social barriers as occurred with the breakdown of the feudal kingdoms administered by the scribal class; (3) the social or cultural catalyst that stimulates the spread of literacy in a specific society. In Phoenicia it was the mercantile drive triggered in part by trade in Egyptian papyrus. The benefits inherent in the Canaanite alphabet for communication, storage of data and shaping history and thought, hastened the distribution of papyrus as the common writing surface in the eastern Mediterranean. For the spread of Aramaic and its alphabetic script, the catalyst was the Assyrian Empire's need for an efficient bureaucracy employing a facile medium to act as an instrument of conquest and dominion. As shown in chapter 5, it was Israelite monotheism that infused new meaning for the medium of writing.

Chapter 3. The Israelite Scribe and the Upper Class Literati: While there was no scribal monopoly on writing in ancient Israel, there was a scribal class serving in the government administration. To some extent it was influenced by scribal culture of Egypt and Mesopotamia channeled through Canaanite models adopted by the Israelites. 
This class can be subdivided into Cabinet Ministers, Wise Men (hakhamim) and the minor bureaucracy. Two other upper class groups seem to be literate as well: the Israelite king and his household as reflected mostly in the biblical sources and aristocratic women as noted mostly from epigraphic sources.

Chapter 4. Formal Education: Since there is no direct evidence of formal education in biblical Israel—nor even a term for "school"— evidence has been  sought mainly through comparison with contemporary societies in the Ancient Near East or extrapolation from the Hebrew Wisdom literature, and to a lesser extent, deduction from epigraphic evidence. This chapter identifies both the biblical and the epigraphic data that provide evidence for standardized elementary curriculum teaching the rudiments of reading and writing, and a course of study for the advanced scribe. In addition, there is an examination of education in the Israelite court and the ethics of the Scribes as reflected in the Book of Proverbs. 

Chapter 5. Writing and the Israelite Religion demonstrates the centrality of writing in biblical monotheism as conceived in ancient Israel. It opens with the priesthood and notes the appearance of a national literature written for and about the Israelite people. Especially salient are those particular literary aspects of Israelite monotheism such as the influence of the vassal treaty formulation on the Sinai covenant and the Book of the Covenant. These written texts shaped the theology of revelation and the idea of the Divine presence symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant in the desert sanctuary and in the Jerusalem Temple containing the engraved tablets. 
Writing manifests itself in the official cult, particularly in the inscribed High Priest's vestments - shoulder epaulets, head-band and breast plate with its twelve engraved seals that empowered him in representing the people - and is employed in the trial of the suspected adulterous wife (sotah) and in the haqhel ceremony featuring the public reading of the Torah every seven years. It is fortuitous that the formation of the national institutions and the attributed appearance of Israelite monotheism occurred in the same period when the potentially powerful medium of the twenty-two letter Canaanite alphabet was standardized.
Classical prophets of the 8th–5th centuries BCE were expected to write their prophecies in order to publicize the divine message. Through their writings, they exploited the spread of literacy to imbue the medium of writing with religious, social, and literary import, bringing their message to a larger audience and enhancing the national literature. This literature took both oral and written forms.
The contemporary Book of Lamentations illustrates alphabetic thinking in its acrostic structure as well as in the suggested at-bash–influenced construction of chapters 1 and 2. This section concludes with an aside noting the later influence of Holy Writ on Early Christianity and Islam, the daughter monotheistic faiths that adopted the idea of written revelation evolving into competing canons called the New Testament and the Quran. 

Chapter 6. Measuring the Extent of Literacy: Extrapolating from models taken from traditional or pre-modern societies, scholars tend to declare either that there was very limited popular literacy or that there was widespread literacy. Since there are no universal or objective tools for measuring literacy in pre-modern societies,  the datable biblical sources and increased number of epigraphic texts from the 8th century BCE onwards were examined for evidence of popular literacy. Six criteria for widespread literacy have been discerned: (1) the written word replacing or clarifying a picture or symbol; (2) vulgar script; (3) craftsman's literacy among artisans, tradesmen or farmers; (4) public presentations of written documents by the Writing Prophets; (5) critique of writing or of the scribal class; (6) writing in legal procedures.

Chapter 7. The Formation of the People of the Book during the Early Persian Period: The Persian period saw the flowering of a variety of literary genres, some traditional others novel. Other aspects of popular literacy were an interest in and need for written family genealogies and census lists as well as the ubiquitous distribution of inscribed coinage. The priesthood gained ascendancy not only politically but also in its spiritual capacity as the authorative interpreters of the Torah. Ezra the Scribe, the dominant historical figure of the times, reshaped Israelite monotheism from a Temple-centered sacrificial service to a book-centered one based on communal Torah reading and its interpretation. He was instrumental in shaping the community through a social contract (amanah) rooted in Torah, reformulating the cardinal religious idea of the covenant.

Epilogue: Literary developments which began under the Persian Empire characterized the later Second Temple period: (1) two competing Hebrew alphabet scripts – the Old Hebrew/Samaritan form and the Jewish /square form; (2) the canonization of the Bible; (3) biblical translation - the Septuagint and conflict with the Hellenistic world writing in Greek; (4) the rise of sectarian literature through the reinterpretation of the Bible.

* Professor Aaron Demsky, History of Ancient Israel; Director, Project for the Study of Jewish Names, Department of Jewish History, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel 52900

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