The invention of the alphabet in the Levant in the second millennium BCE and its subsequent adoption as the preferred writing system in various regions by the beginning of the first millennium led to significant changes in education and literature. The use of a limited acrophonic system of graphemic representation led to relatively widespread literacy in ancient Israel, and everywhere where the originally Canaanite alphabet, spread by the Phoenicians, was adopted. Nevertheless, the boundary between oral and literate cultures is not sharp, and there is no doubt that orality continued to be important even after literacy became widespread; in Hebrew as in other languages the verb meaning “to read” (qārāʾ) literally means “to say aloud.”

The evidence for writing in ancient Israel is fragmentary, largely because of the use of perishable writing materials. Papyrus, leather, and occasionally wood and plaster were the surfaces most frequently used, but these materials were usually destroyed in conflagrations or by natural decomposition over the centuries. Dramatic evidence for this is found in a number of seal impressions from archaeological strata in Jerusalem dated to the time of the Babylonian destruction of the city in 587/586 BCE. The small globs of clay with their seal impressions have survived, aided by the fire that hardened them, but the documents to which they were attached were burnt; these bullae sometimes still have the impression of the strings used to tie the papyrus and occasionally impressions of the papyrus itself. Only in relatively isolated and dry locales do leather and papyrus documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls survive. Most of the inscriptions that have been uncovered, therefore, are on stone or pottery, and they represent only a small proportion of written materials produced at any given time.

On the basis of the surviving epigraphic evidence the democratization of literacy can be dated to about the eighth century BCE. Rapid changes in the forms of letters and a statistically significant increase in the number of extant inscriptions suggest frequent and diffuse use of the alphabet beginning in this period. Certainly by the sixth century literacy is so much a reality that, for example, a soldier can boast in a letter to his superior that he has never needed a scribe to read for him (Lachish Letter 3). Datable references to reading and writing in the Bible also become more frequent in this period (see, e.g., Isa. 8:1; 28:10, 13; 29:11–12; Deuteronomy and Jeremiah passim).

These developments had profound effects on the formation, transmission, and reception of biblical traditions. From the mid‐eighth century BCE onward, there are more and more frequent references to reading and writing in both biblical and epigraphic sources; these provide further evidence of the spread of literacy beyond a scribal and socioeconomic elite. In earlier traditions, for example, God is the writer of his commandments (Exod. 24.12; 32.16; 34.1), or Moses is his scribe (Exod. 34.27). But by the time of the composition of the book of Deuteronomy, the tôrâ (“teaching,” or “law”; see Torah), while read aloud in the universal ancient mode (Deut. 31.11), was accessible in written form to the larger population. They are prohibited from adding to or removing any of its stipulations (Deut. 12.32) and are thus themselves capable of writing. Noteworthy in this connection is the command in Deuteronomy 6.9 (see Shema): “You [pl.] shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (cf. 11.19–20).

It is in addition more than coincidental that the rise of “classical” prophecy in the mid‐eighth century BCE is simultaneous with the spread of writing; in other words, the rise of new forms of, literally, literature is due to the availability of writing in the process of composition. The spread of literacy may also mean that the written traditions of which the Bible preserves a sample may have been accessible not only to elite scribal and priestly groups but more and more to ordinary citizens as well; as an example there is the seventh‐century letter from Yavneh Yam in which a field hand shows familiarity with the legal traditions found in Exodus 22:26, Deuteronomy 24:12–13, and Amos 2:8.

Scribal schools continued to function and to flourish, especially in the palace and Temple, but individuals also employed scribes, the most famous of whom is Baruch. It is presumably to such professional writers that we should attribute the acrostic poems in the Bible. But the teaching and learning of reading and writing would have taken place in domestic and village contexts as well. It is significant that one word meaning both “to learn” and in the causal form “to teach” is derived from the name of the first letter of the alphabet (ʾālep); it is attested from the eighth century BCE onward in both Aramaic and Hebrew (Job 15.5; 33.33; 35.11; Prov. 22.25).

See also Books and Bookmaking in Antiquity; Wisdom Literature


Michael D. Coogan