The subject of literacy in the ancient Near East touches on all major aspects of civilization, not the least being the recording of history, for the invention of writing some five thousand years ago signaled the emergence of humanity from the darkness of the prehistoric age. Writing radically changed all earlier forms of communication, the transmission of tradition, formal education, accounting, and man's perception of the world.

This epic event then, dated to about 3100 BCE, marks the beginning of the historical period. Writing was preceded by oral and iconographic means of communication—including the arduous process of accounting by using tokens and counters bearing agreed-upon designs that may have evolved into pictographic logograms (Schmandt-Besserat, 1984). Those other means of social intercourse coexisted and interacted with literate forms, as they continue to do.

The earliest form of writing is found in ancient Uruk, in southern Mesopotamia. Probably invented by Sumerian accountants as a mnemonic device, it was a system of pictographic signs depicting concrete objects—that is, logograms, or word signs. [See Sumerian.] (The $, or dollar sign, used to express the idea of “dollar” is a logogram.) Because it is inherently brief, a pure logographic system lacks the flexibility to reproduce visually the subtleties of language—the ultimate object of writing. Ancient scribes realized this limitation and very early on introduced the phoneticization of writing by depicting syllables, which are called syllabograms. For instance, they would take a logogram such as the original pictographic star-shaped AN—meaning “star,” “heaven,” and “god”—and read it as the syllable an, unrelated to the word sign. This is an early application of the rebus principle whereby an object is depicted whose name has the same sound as in the words represented (e.g. two gates and a head=“gateshead”). They could thus reproduce any word phonetically—whether it was a concrete object, a personal name, or a verb. Actually, the conservative Mesopotamian literati chose to write in a combination logosyllabic system, including class determinatives and phonetic complements, comprising a total of about six hundred signs. (Only two hundred or so signs would have been used by any one scribe at any one time, however.) [See Writing and Writing Systems; Scribes and Scribal Techniques.]

The external form of the signs evolved from the initial pictograph into a stylized linear representation. With the widespread use of soft clay as a writing surface in Mesopotamia, the signs were reproduced by a prism-shaped split reed that created the wedged-shaped signs now called cuneiform. [See Writing Materials; Cuneiform.] These signs evolved over a period of three thousand years, becoming the hallmark of Mesopotamian culture and influence.

The idea of writing in both its essence as a logosyllabic system and in its external form as a pictograph and then in cuneiform had a profound effect on all types of writing in the ancient Near East. It stimulated Egyptian hieroglyphic writing (literally “sacred carvings”), which dates to about 3000 BCE, and its adaptation into linear hieratic, as well as Proto-Elamite. [See Hieroglyphs; Egyptian.] The Sumerian system was used to write other languages, such as Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian) and Hittite. [See Akkadian; Hittite.] The prestige and influence of cuneiform script is apparent in its adoption in Ugarit and Canaan between about 1400–1200 BCE for their innovative alphabetic scripts and in its use in representing the syllabic script of Old Persian, devised in about 520 BCE in the time of Darius the Great. [See Ugaritic; Proto-Canaanite; Phoenician-Punic; Persian.]


The evolution of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, and the parallel development of ancient Egyptian scripts and their influence in the contemporary Near East, reflects the growing stature and organization of the scribal class in antiquity. Scribes set the standard and defined literacy in its institutionalized form in the school and at court. By the second millennium BCE, they had created a canon of literature that exemplified the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and established a code of ethics for the professional scribe. The sum total of their studies, station in society, and literary productivity might aptly be called scribal culture (Oppenheim, 1964, chap. 5; Hallo, 1991).

The literature (and iconography) of both Mesopotamia and Egypt describe that form of limited literacy that characterized the specific professional class holding the monopoly on writing. While there were differences in language and scripts, the literati of these two great civilizations shared many traits, among them a position of authority and respect, an education, and a conservative and elitist ideology regarding their literate status and privileged position in society and in the eyes of their patron deities.

Already in the Ur III (c. 2110–2000 BCE) and Old Babylonian (nineteenth-eighteenth centuries BCE) periods, scribal schools attracted the sons of the aristocracy and high administration, thus maintaining the profession's privileged status. The children studied in the edubba, “the tablet house.” The headmaster was the adda edubba, or “father of the tablet house,” sometimes called the ummia > ummānu, or “master.” In the hierarchy of the school could be found the disciplinarian (ugula), the teacher's helper or aid (sheshgal—i.e., “the big brother”), and the teachers of the various subjects the dumu edubba, “the son of the tablet house,” would learn.

The tens of thousands of documents written in cuneiform and in Egyptian hieroglyphics and in hieratic scripts are the output of the scribal class, a small percentage of their respective societies. John Baines (1983) has estimated that in ancient Egypt the scribal class numbered between 2 and 5 percent of the total population. In addition to the light shed by iconographic and archeological data, most of what is known about these ancient civilizations is derived from and shaped by the work of the scribe.

By the end of the third millennium, a considerable body of literature had come into being in Mesopotamia that was soon incorporated into the curriculum of the Sumerian schools. [See Sumerian.] These texts were studied and re-copied, forming the basis of a canon. Mesopotamian scribal culture was to become bilingual. At the end of the second millennium BCE, when Sumerian ceased to be a spoken language and was replaced by Akkadian, it continued, much like Latin in the Middle Ages, to be taught, spoken, and even written in scribal schools.

In addition to belles lettres, the written scholarly output included lists of legal phraseology and formulae, linguistic material and encyclopedic data, and omnia compendia (collections of unusual natural phenomena). At a later period, mathematics and astronomy texts became more common. Letters and contracts were the scribes' main fare.

The privileged status of the scribes is one of the central themes in the school texts of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The theme was obviously a pedagogic device to support the student through the many required years of tedious study, drill, and discipline. It inculcated the idea of elitism and pride in a profession that claimed immortality in addition to the benefits of this world. One of the best-known texts is the Egyptian composition “In Praise of Learned Scribes”:

As for those learned scribes from the time of those who lived after the gods…their names have become everlasting, (even though) they are gone…they made heirs for themselves in the writings and in the (books of) wisdom which they composed. They gave themselves [the papyrus roll as a lector] priest, the writing board as a son-he-loves, (books of) wisdom (as) their pyramids, the reed pen their child and the back of a stone for a wife. From great to small were made into his children … their names are pronounced because of their books which they made, since they were good and the memory of him who made them (lasts) to the limits of eternity. Be a scribe, put it in your heart, that thy name may fare similarly. More effective is a book than a decorated tombstone or an established tomb wall. … It is better than a (well-) founded castle or a stela in a temple” (ANET, pp. 431–432).

A Babylonian scribe of the mid-second millennium BCE would probably have felt at home in any number of scribal centers throughout Mesopotamia, Syria, Canaan, and even Egypt. For example, the el-Amarna archive, which contains the diplomatic correspondence of the Egyptian court of the early fourteenth century BCE, as well as some literary and scholarly texts, was written in cuneiform, in the Middle Babylonian dialect, in Akkadian. Half of these letters were from the Canaanite vassal states whose local scribes struggled with the lingua franca. [See Amarna Tablets.] Judging from the cuneiform texts found at Canaanite sites, local scribes received a classical, albeit provincial, education.

In ancient Egypt the scribal school, called the ῾t n sb3 > ansebe, composed many texts that made up the curriculum (including wisdom literature and onomastica) that opened with the key word sb3yt, “instructions.” A scriptorium could be found adjoining the temple that bore the significant name pr ῾nḫ “the house of life.”

There is no real proof for widespread literacy in these great civilizations. At different times, there may have been more literati or greater interest in writing and its benefits. In the Old Babylonian period, for example, an increased number of documents is indicated, especially personal ones, such as letters. In addition, in the Old Assyrian period, an attempt was made to reduce the number of signs to a more manageable hundred or so.

It is noteworthy that in Mesopotamia's long history only three kings claimed literacy: Shulgi of Ur (2094–2047 BCE), who was praised as the ideal king; Lipit-Ishtar (1953–1924 BCE) of Isin, known also as a legislator; and Ashurbanipal (668–627 BCE), a king of Assyria. The first two were praised for their patronage of the scribal schools, and the last was renown for his extensive library, discovered at Nineveh. [See Nineveh.] Whatever their real expertise in reading and writing cuneiform, their claim is to have mastered the scribal art and education. Writing never became a prerequisite for kingship or its idealization, as we find in Israel (Dt. 17:18–19). Ashurbanipal declared on a tablet:

"The profession of Adapa I learned, the hidden treasure of all the scribal art. I studied the signs of heaven and earth, I argued matters in the assembly of the wise. I discussed (the series) Šumma Amut Matlat Šame (“if the liver reflects the heavens”) with the scholars. I solved difficult (problems) of division and multiplication that had no solution. I read the artistic script of Sumer and Akkadian writing which is difficult to understand. I collated the sealed, dark, and confused antediluvian inscriptions on stone (D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, Chicago, 1926–1927, vol. 2, pp. 378–379)."

On the other hand, in Egypt the princes seem to have received scribal training. The early Prophesy of Neferti, dated to the Middle Kingdom (c. 1970–1750), narrates how pharaoh “extended his hand to the scribe's case and withdrew for himself a papyrus scroll and a scribal ink board. Then he wrote that which he was told by the lector-priest Neferti” (ANET, p. 444). The kings take a prominent place in wisdom literature. For instance, the tenth-dynasty king Merikare in his “Instructions” to his son said, “Do not kill a man when thou knowest his good qualities, one with whom thou once didst sing the writings …” (ANET, p. 415).

The uses of writing in the civilizations of the ancient Near East, according to A. Leo Oppenheim (1964, pp. 230ff.), fall into three categories: (1) Recording data for future use—administrative records, legal codification, sacred lore (myths, rituals, and local theology), royal annals (historic inscriptions and chronologies), and scholarly data and documentation; (2) communicating data on a synchronic level—letters, royal edicts, public announcements, and school texts and exercises; and (3) ceremonial purposes (documents not meant for human eyes)—Egyptian mortuary texts, cuneiform foundation inscriptions, monumental engravings on mountainsides (e.g., the Bisitun trilingual inscription), letters to the gods, magical writs and incantations on amulets and bowls, and execration texts for sympathetic magic. [See Bisitun.] From this catalog it is possible to conclude that the literary productivity of these great civilizations was turned inward—that is, it was meant for the use, education, and enjoyment of the scribal class exclusively. When indeed they felt they should have a wider audience, the scribes created a divine readership, as some of the above ceremonial inscriptions indicate.

Exacting methods of copying texts, the difficulty in acquiring and mastering the use and preparation of the different writing surfaces and implements, and the storing of texts in libraries and archives did not allow for widespread literacy in those ancient societies. Colophons are an important source for understanding scribal practice. Very often the writer added kima labirshu shaṭirma bari, “according to its original, it was written and checked.” The Ashurbanipal library colophon was shaṭir shaniq bari, “written, collated, and checked.” Sometimes, the amanuensis would emphasize his source by noting ki pi ummani, “dictated by the master,” or ki pi tuppi qabari shaṭir, “copied from an old text.”

On the basis of the literary output and the learned methods of transmission and preservation of these texts, it appears that literacy in these societies was limited to the professional scribes. While there are other examples of limited literacy, as in second-millennium BCE Mycenaean Greece, where Linear B was used for administrative purposes, ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt produced the scribal culture that shaped the entire ancient Near East.


The Canaanite invention of the alphabet in the first half of the second millennium BCE was the most important development in the history of writing since its inception and phonetization, as well as in the spread of literacy in antiquity (for strictures on the use of the term alphabet to describe the Canaanite invention, see Gelb, 1963). For more than five hundred years, it evolved from an almost completely pictographic script to a standardized linear signary, conventionally written from right to left. It became the official medium of writing in the emerging Northwest Semitic societies of the Early Iron Age. By the end of the seventh century BCE, the alphabet had become the dominant script of the ancient Near East and literate Mediterranean. The social and cultural consequences of its spread were manifold, ultimately leading to greater popular literacy and the democratization of higher culture.

In essence, the “alphabetic revolution” was the radical reduction of writing from a system of hundreds of logographic and syllabic signs to that of between twenty-two and thirty consonants, according to the phonetic inventory of the language being written. The conception of the alphabet was based on a sophisticated analysis of the phonemic system of Canaanite. Each phoneme received an appropriate sign that was originally a pictograph, for which it was named. In other words, as Alan H. Gardiner assumes, the letter names originally represented a word beginning with that particular phoneme, which he calls the acrophonic principle. For example, the bucranium, or ox head, is called 'alf, “ox” in Canaanite, and represents the initial phoneme 'a. Similarly, bet, “house,” represents the sound b. Gardiner demonstrates this principle in his decipherment of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions found in and around the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem in southern Sinai. He interprets four recurrent signs as b῾lt, “lady,” a plausible Canaanite epithet for the Egyptian goddess Hathor, “the lady (of turquoise),” worshipped at that site. The acrophonic principle suggests that not only the letter forms, but their names, are intrinsic aspects of the invention of the alphabet. In fact, an abecedary found at Ugarit from the fourteenth century BCE, interpreted by Frank M. Cross and Thomas O. Lambdin (1960) as listing Babylonian syllabic equivalents, supports the contention that the alphabetic letter names are at least that old.

From the epigraphic evidence, it must be assumed that the alphabet was conceived in Canaanite scribal circles in the first half of the second millennium BCE. The earliest alphabetic texts seem to have been found at Gezer, Lachish, and Shechem (seventeenth century BCE). [See Gezer; Lachish; Shechem.] Even the above-mentioned Proto-Sinaitic script (which some date to the fifteenth century BCE) was probably written by Canaanite merchants (not slaves) or their secretaries, who had set up camp at the mines. The Canaanite genius who invented the alphabet was probably familiar with several systems of writing—the Egyptian having the greatest influence on his choice of the consonantal values of the signs and some of the hieroglyphic forms he adopted.

The invention of the alphabet seems to be the result of deliberate reflective thought on how to improve upon an existing technique. As Alan R. Millard suggests, the discovery “required thorough analysis of the phonemic stock of his language, an analysis perhaps facilitated by the common practice of listing words as part of school training” (Millard, 1986, p. 394).

Very early on, a set order of the letters was established accompanied by a mnemonic song facilitating the learning process and easy dissemination of the alphabet. Actually, there were two basic orders of the alphabetic letters. The first is the abecedarium in all its variations. The earliest examples are the thirty-letter Ugaritic alphabet written in cuneiform; then the reduced twenty-two linear Canaanite alphabet that became the source through Greek and Latin for all the European alphabets and via Aramaic to the scripts of the East—not the least important being the alphabet of classical Arabic. The latter, while rearranged according to external form and supplemented with diacritically differentiated identical signs, is still taught as the abjedhawa, recalling the first six letters of the Old Canaanite abecedary.

The second system for ordering the letters is generally called the South Semitic alphabet of twenty-eight letters: h l ḥ m q w š r ġ /b t s k n kh ś f' ῾ḍ g d b/ġ ṭ z ḏ y ṯ ṣ/ ẓ. This order is known from Ge῾ez and seems to have come originally to Ethiopia by way of South Arabia, where it was used as a means of writing local dialects. A. G. Lunden (1987) discovered this order in a Canaanite cuneiform tablet dated to the thirteenth century BCE from the excavations at Beth-Shemesh in the 1930s. [See Beth-Shemesh.] It now becomes apparent that there were at least two basic patterns of ordering the letters of the alphabet in ancient Canaan. For whatever reason, the ABC order was preferred over the HLḤM order that moved to the periphery of the Semitic world. These innovations in education and communication were introduced by and meant for a very conservative body of professionals, heirs to a tradition of writing fifteen hundred years old. [See Alphabet.]

Two Patterns of Literacy.

Two basic patterns of literacy existed in the ancient Near East. The predominant form was the limited literacy of the highly trained professional scribes in the main cultural and political centers of Mesopotamia and Egypt and their satellites. Redefining a term introduced by Henri I. Marrou (1956), this form of literacy can be called scribal culture. The second form is the one found in the emerging literate societies—Iron Age Syria, Phoenicia, ancient Israel, and classical Greece—where simple reading and writing skills were learned by laymen employing the local alphabetic scripts. No doubt there was contact and influence between the bearers of both types of culture. It is the former pattern that has left most of the written evidence, indicating greater influence in areas of formal education and defining the categories of “wisdom.” Belonging to the restricted “scribal culture” meant not only mastering the techniques of writing, but also learning the rudiments of such subjects as mathematics, astronomy, and engineering, as well as inbibing an esprit de corps of the literati. However, it was the second pattern that ultimately triumphed, inheriting its cultural legacy and becoming the medium that shaped classical antiquity.

Much of the discussion regarding popular literacy and its diffusion and measurement has centered around ancient Israel. This is because of the variety and quality of the literary and epigraphic sources. The Bible, in particular, reflecting a period of some thousand years of Israelite history, remains a basic source for the study of alphabetic literacy. Even so, because of the objective problem of defining literacy in antiquity, there is a wide difference of scholarly opinion on the matter. For instance, is literacy the ability to read and write—or just one of them? What level of expertise constitutes “literacy”: writing or reading one's name, a simple sentence, or a complex document? Is there a means to determine a gradation in the ability to write that would distinguish between a professional scribal hand, a layman's script, a craftsman's markings, and graffiti in a vulgar style? How can widespread literacy as a social phenomenon be measured? The nature of the problem is that there are variables in the level and extent of literacy in every society. In other words, the problem is methodological because there are no direct, absolute, or objective criteria for defining and measuring broad-based literacy prior to the Industrial Revolution, let alone for antiquity.

Furthermore, regarding ancient Israel, subjective issues have been raised by different disciplines of research regarding the historicity of the Bible and its transmission and the value of epigraphic evidence and paleography to answer social and cultural historical questions. For instance, Swedish scholars identified with the Uppsala school of biblical research claim that the Bible, for the most part, was composed orally and only later, in reaction to the national tragedy of the Exile, was put into writing: thus, in the First Commonwealth period, except for a limited number of scribal administrators, the population would have been illiterate (Engnell, 1969). However, some paleographers claim hard evidence for widespread literacy during the period of the monarchy (Millard, 1985). It has become increasingly clear that research on the topic must synthesize literary and epigraphic evidence. Issues of composition, transmission, and publication of ancient texts and the typology of formal and occasional inscriptions must be placed in a social context that fits the historical developments of that period of antiquity (Demsky, 1985, 1988).

An attempt in that direction is visible in studies of school and education systems in ancient Israel. There is literary and epigraphic evidence of some formal education for scribes, priests, royalty, women, artisans, and laity (Demsky, 1971). However, it is not clear whether there were actual educational institutions like the Mesopotamian edubba or more informal settings like the home or workshop. There is no biblical word for school. The term bēt-hassēfer/hassōfēr, “the house of the book or of the teacher (scribe),” is Late Hebrew. For that matter, terms like bēt-midrash and yeshivah are found first in Ben Sira 51:23, 29, while bēt migra and bēt talmud for elementary and higher education are rabbinic.

Following Mesopotamian models, scholars have described the ancient Israelite school by reconstructing the supposed curriculum taught there on the basis of literary and epigraphic evidence. André Lemaire (1981) has gone to one extreme in finding schools throughout the country, while Menahem Haran (1988) has gone to the other extreme of denying their existence. There is no doubt that certain subjects made up a program of formal education—that the simpler the subject the more widespread its adaption. For instance, learning the letters of the alphabet by repetition of the abecedary and accompanying exercises was basic for a general urbanite's education. It would have been of particular use for artisans, who introduced writing into their craft—for which there is evidence from potters, ivory joiners, and builders.

It is of interest that the biblical term yôdē῾ a sēfer and its opposite, 'ašer lō' yǒdē῾ a sēfer, within the prophetic context of Isaiah 29:11–12, are the only direct references to the ability to read in the Bible. The former has been translated “one who can read,” or “a knower of a book,” indicating a reasonable ability to read. This interpretation is seemingly confirmed by Lachish letter 3:8–10, in which a garrison commander is asked: lō' yāda῾ tâ qĕrō' sēfer, “Don't you know how to read?” [See Lachish Inscriptions.] Actually, yôdē῾ a sēfer means “to know writ” (Bib. Heb., sēfer=Late Heb. and Aram., ktāb), implying that with some knowledge of writing it is also possible to read. This Hebrew term for minimal literacy should be compared to the internationally well-known terms for professional scribes: sōfēr (Ugar./Phoe., spr; Aram., sāfar), šoṭer (Akk., šaṭaru), or ṭifsar (Assyr., ṭupsarru; Sum., dup.šar). Not only a basic knowledge of writing seems to have been common in Israelite urban centers from the eighth century BCE onward, but also some understanding of elementary arithmetic and the ability to inscribe numbers (Is. 10:19).

Spread of Literacy.

The factors that influence such a complex aspect of life as written communication and the storage of data affect all levels of society to different degrees. This was true in antiquity as well. There factors probably act in concert: the technical innovation of an alphabetic script; changes in the power structure in society; and the degree of motivation in some societies to attempt to change their world.

An alphabet of no more than thirty signs that can be learned in a matter of days—as opposed to a writing system of hundreds of logosyllabic signs, each of which may have multiple values—would, seemingly, allow for wider literacy. However, there were periods of illiteracy or semiliteracy in societies in which the alphabet was used: in Medieval Europe and, as H. C. Youttie (1973) has shown, in Hellenistic-Roman Egypt. On the other hand, when there is high motivation or centralized government control, the masses can learn an even more complex system, as the modern Chinese have proven.

The second factor is social: if there are interest groups that find it necessary, for self-preservation, to prevent or forestall innovations in the field of literacy or communication, there will be limited literacy. For example, from the dual system of administration at the beginning of the Assyrian Empire (end of the eighth century BCE), the iconographic motif found on royal stelae and in wall paintings is of two scribes—the Assyrian ša zigni, representing the conservative establishment and writing in cuneiform, and the Aramaic eunuch, the ša reši, standing behind him writing his innovative alphabetic script on a leather scroll. This dual system is further corroborated by contemporary Aramaic notations on cuneiform tablets. Of course, the opposite can also occur. The retreat of the great empires from Syria and Canaan in the thirteenth century BCE left a void in administrative methods and staff. The new peoples, like the Arameans and Israelites, had no comparable scribal tradition or organization. As a result, their leaders readily adopted and encouraged the rapid development of the local Canaanite alphabet. This brought about the standardization of the script, of the direction of writing, and of letter stance and order. It did not take long before they recognized the advantages of this medium to store and recall information (see Jgs. 8:14).

The third factor in the spread of literacy is motivation—a drive to control or influence people politically, economically, or religiously through the written word, even within the same ethnic, religious, or national community. The Assyrians realized that in order to succeed in asserting administrative control over their newly established empire (745–611 BCE) and in integrating its many conquered peoples it was wise to adopt the Aramaic language and its written medium, the utilitarian alphabet. Aramaic dialects were spoken widely throughout Syria, parts of Anatolia, and as far as south Chaldean Babylon. After the destruction of Aram Damascus in 732 BCE, the last and strongest independent Aramean kingdom, the Aramaic language was free of national ties and local culture. It became the Reichsprach, a most unusual example of a conquered people's language becoming an instrument of the conqueror in empire building. Besides its obvious advantages—many speakers, grammatical simplicity, and no national and geographic ties—Imperial Aramaic had its own facile and utilitarian script that was quickly adopted along with an unemployed professional scribal class. It was under the Neo-Babylonians (609–539 BCE) and Persians (539–333 BCE) that Aramaic became the lingua franca of the ancient Near East and its script the medium of government and civilian life. [See Aramaic Language and Literature.]

An example of what may be the economic motivation in the spread of writing might be found in the history of the Phoenicians, those great entrepreneurs who traded off the products of one land for those of another (cf. Ez. 27). Egypt, a major client, supplied them with sundry raw materials and goods, among which was papyrus. [See Papyrus.] It was probably through Byblos (Phoen., Gebal; Egyp., Keben), which had the longest-standing business relationship with Egypt, that the potential of exporting papyrus throughout the Mediterranean lands was realized (recounted in the early eleventh-century BCE “Journey of Wenamun to Phoenicia,” ANET, pp. 25–29). However, the market for papyrus as a writing surface had to be created. Perhaps it was this economic need that motivated the Phoenicians to introduce and teach their own Canaanite alphabet as well. It certainly was not for political or religious reasons that it was spread throughout the Mediterranean lands. Herodotus (5.58) in the fifth century BCE, defined the boundaries between the civilized world and the barbarians by who wrote on papyrus (the former) and who on animal skin (the latter). It is worth noting that the Greek word for book, biblion, and its cognates in the European languages are derived from the place name Byblos. [See Byblos.]

There is no need to prove the Greeks' indebtedness to the Phoenicians for their alpha-beta, attributed by some to Cadmus (i.e., qedem, “the easterner”), who took up residence in mainland Thebes. Opinions differ widely about when this borrowing of the Canaanite alphabet occurred. Joseph Naveh (1987) has proposed an early, eleventh-century BCE date on the basis of comparative paleography. Rhys Carpenter and L. H. Jeffery (1961) argue for an early seventh-century BCE date, with the earliest datable Greek epigraphy. Indeed, there may have been several channels of influence, spread over a long period. However, it seems that the best contact was within the historical framework of the early tenth century BCE and the beginning of Phoenician colonization of the western Mediterranean. [See Phoenicians.]

An established religion, especially one using an alphabetic script, can be a catalyst in the spread of literacy. This becomes more obvious with the advent of Israelite monotheism, where, to rephrase Jack R. Goody (1986), there is an intrinsic connection between its features and the literate modes in which its beliefs and behavior are formulated, communicated, and transmitted. Biblical monotheism is characterized by the cardinal belief in the deity who reveals his will through an inscription on stone and in a scroll using the literary form of a vassal covenant to express his special relationship to his chosen people, Israel. This covenant is to be read publically every seven years before all men, women, and children (Dt. 31:10–31) in what seems to be the first recorded case of religious education for the masses. It is no wonder that Ezra, in the mid-fifth century BCE, used this commandment as his model for the public Torah reading that would become the centerpiece of synagogue worship (Neh. 8:1ff.). The Torah even became the symbol of the divine and the direct object of veneration (cf. Ps. 119, esp. verse 48). [See Hebrew Language and Literature.]

By the mid-eighth century BCE, apostolic prophets were commanded to write down their message for the sake of communicating it to the masses (e.g., Is. 8:1; Jer. 29:1, 36:2; Ez. 37:16) or as a means to safeguard it for future generations (e.g., Is. 30:8; Jer. 30:2–3, 32:10ff.). These are the “writing prophets”—beginning with Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah—and they continue down to the mid-fifth century BCE, with the last of the classical prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. These prophets use various literate means to enhance and publicize their message, a sure sign that their urban audience appreciated and understood this method of instruction. For example, in order to hold his listeners' attention, Jeremiah (25:26, 51:1, 41) introduces the atbash exercise familiar to all beginners (in which, after having learned the order of the letters, the student matches letters from opposite ends of the alphabet, e.g., the first ['aleph] with the last [taw], the second [beth] with the next to last [shin], etc.). Nahum resorts to an alphabetic acrostic (1:2ff.) familiar from late biblical poetry, and Zechariah (6:10, 14) plays on an alphabetic mnemonic for storing information. Thus, in ancient Israel it seems that writing was an integral part of the religious experience.

This is not to say that writing was absent from pagan religions. The ancient scribes regarded writing like the other arts, as the invention of the gods. The Sumerian Nisaba, the Babylonian Nabu, and the Egyptian Thoth were the patron deities of the scribal profession and assigned similar roles in the divine assembly. Books of wisdom and esoteric divination were attributed to various deities. The idea of the heavenly Tablet of Destiny, the ṭup šimati, where all creation's fate was recorded, is a recurrent motif in Mesopotamian mythology. In the second-millennium BCE Enuma elish, the Babylonian story of creation, Tiamat empowers her second consort, Kingu, by presenting him with the Tablet of Destiny. For the Mesopotamian literati, this motif reflects belief in the primordial existence and the efficacy of the written word. In fact, the Sitz im Leben of the creation epic is in its being read by the high priest in the inner sanctum before the statue of Marduk on the fourth day of the Akitu new year festival. This literate aspect of cult no doubt superceded an oral dramatic presentation of the myth and reflects the growing influence of the scribal community even in matters of religion.

A closer comparison of the differences between how Mesopotamian paganism used cuneiform writing and how Israelite monotheism applied the alphabet demonstrates the nature of religion as a catalyst for the spread of literacy. In Babylon, the creation story is about the deeds of Marduk. Its private reading is intended to remind the deity of his duties toward the world in subduing the forces of chaos. Although there is no evidence for how widely the text was known, it certainly was not meant for mass consumption. Cuneiform writing in general is a closed and secret art turned inward upon the scribal class. Similarly, the Tablet of Destiny remains a figment of mythic imagination.

In Israel, conversely, the Torah, or a portion thereof, was to be read publicly before the entire populace every seven years. The text is meant for the edification of all the people and not for initiates alone. It is turned outward. Biblical monotheism is a national religion. The Sinai theophany is described as a public experience and the text is meant to preserve its memory in the literary form of a covenant (Dt. 29:13–14). Not only the public reading of the text, but also its private and communal study (Ps. 1:2, 19:8ff., 119; Neh. 8:13ff.) became religious values for the laity, stimulating the further desemination of the written word and the spread of literacy. Private schools (Eccl. 12:9f.; Ben Sira 51:23ff.; Avot 1:4) and, later, public schools established by Shim'on ben Shetah (c. 100 BCE) and by the high priest Joshua ben Gamla (B.T., B.B. 21a) are not secular; they are, rather, institutions for religious instruction (cf. B.T. Shab. 104a).

Furthermore, for comparison's sake, the description of the Tablets of the Covenant, written by the finger of God, avoids the introduction of divine mythic writing implements (Ex. 32:15f.; 34:1). Moses even shapes the stone writing surface of the second set of tablets. While preserved beyond the view of the populace, they did have a direct obvious influence on the architecture of the desert sanctuary and the Jerusalem Temples, and that influence is felt to this day in the layout of the traditional synagogue and the place of the holy ark. [See Synagogues.]

The idea of a revealed written document is so closely associated with the essence of historical monotheism and its mission that Christianity and Islam were able to compete with the authority of the Mosaic Torah only by replacing it with the belief in another superior divinely revealed work. The “holy” is found in Scripture and in the technique of writing and not in nature, as paganism would have it. Literate terms are central to the self-identification of the monotheistic faiths. Early Christianity (as well as the Dead Sea covenanters) borrowed Jeremiah's prophesy of the “new covenant/testament” to be written upon the heart (Jer. 31:30ff.) and concretized it into a corpus of naratives, missives, and apocalyptic revelations recorded in the Greek koine. Breaking with tradition, not only in regard to the languages of revelation (Hebrew and Aramaic), but also in abandoning the cumbersome scroll for the compact and portable codex, Christianity's message could now reach out to a wider audience of Greek-speaking Jews and gentiles, heirs to the Hellenistic education that set the standard for literacy in antiquity (Marrou, 1956; Innes, 1950).

Islam's al-Qur'an, “the reading/recitation,” revealed by the archangel Gabriel (cf. Dn. 9:21ff.), was in a language that had almost no written tradition prior to that time. Subsequently, the Arabic of the holy writ would become the model for literate expression. Marking this turning point, the Qur'an proclaims Muhammad “the seal of the prophets” (38.40)—the capstone of all earlier written revelation. Especially noteworthy is the coining of the generic term for members of the monotheistic religions, in particular Judaism, as 'Ahl al-Kitab, “the people of the book.” [See Arabic.]

This survey of the history of literacy in the ancient Near East from the end of the fourth millennium BCE until the advent of Islam in the first half of the seventh century CE has touched on great cultural achievements not only in the realm of communication, education, and the storage of information, but also in the areas of politics, government administration, and economics—not to mention established religion. The study of literacy during the first half of this period is primarily the attempt to understand the art of writing as learned and practiced by a limited professional scribal class and how it spread throughout the ancient Near East. For the latter half of this period—beginning in the first millennium BCE—momentous social and religious developments are documented that indicate the gradual democratization of higher literary culture and the formation of literate societies in which laymen and artisans could read and write. It is a period when Mosaic monotheism is integrally associated with a holy book leaving its indelible impression on the formative stages of Christianity and Islam. One of the consequences of these literary developments was the creation of an institutionalized religious service around the public reading and exposition of that holy text. Commentary and translation of the revealed book further encouraged the dissemination of literature culture to the masses in antiquity.


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Aaron Demsky