Many of the earliest texts of the Bible were written by at least 600 B.C. in the ancient Kingdom of Judah, located in what is now the Southern Levant, new high tech research on correspondence from the period suggests.
The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, help resolve a longstanding debate over whether the first major phase of biblical text compilation took place before or after the destruction of Judah's capital city, Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.
The new research concludes that early sacred texts of the Torah, known in part to Christians as the Old Testament, were written shortly before that fateful event, when Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and forcibly exiled the people of Judah.
"Several (biblical) texts refer to events which best fit the reality in the years just before the fall of the Kingdom of Judah," senior author Israel Finkelstein, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, told Discovery News.
For the study, Finkelstein, lead author Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin and their team used novel image processing and computer analysis to investigate 16 inscriptions from the desert fortress of Arad, located west of the Dead Sea. The inscriptions, which are correspondence concerning military matters, date to 600 B.C. and were made by putting ink script on ceramic shards.
"This was a common practice at the time," Finkelstein explained. "We know this from other Judahite forts, both in the Negev (the south) and the Shephelah (the west). Most of the inscriptions deal with mundane issues, such as orders to send commodities to or with army units."
In this case, the inscribed shards - known as ostraca - contain military commands regarding the movement of troops and provision of wine, oil and flour among the men. One mentions "the king of Judah" and another "the house of YHWH," in reference to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Faigenbaum-Golovin and colleagues Arie Shaus and Barak Sober focused their analysis on who wrote the correspondence. They determined that six individuals of varying military ranks created the ostraca.
The discovery provides evidence that literacy was widespread at the time, at least in religious and military circles. Evidence for a similar level of literary reemerges only in 200 B.C., narrowing the window of time that the earliest writings of the Bible likely happened. The writings include parts of Genesis and Deuteronomy, as well as the Books of Isaiah, Amos and Hosea.
In terms of who wrote these earliest biblical works, Finkelstein said, "The first Judahite biblical texts were most probably put in writing in Jerusalem by priests and officials in the entourage of the king, possibly King Josiah. The ideology and theology of Judah in his days was supported by two platforms of written texts: the law (Deuteronomy) and the history (the Book of Joshua to 2 Kings)."
Since the earliest biblical texts represent the political and theological ideologies of their authors, he said "it makes sense that at least the literati could read them. If a large number of people could read the text, it could have been easier to distribute the ideas of the authors among the Judahite population of the time."
Christopher Rollston, an associate professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures at George Washington University, agrees that the period around 600 B.C. was a time "of prolific literary activity, with large portions of books such as Joshua, Judges, and 1–2 Kings written during this period. This is also the same time frame as that of the Prophet Jeremiah (included in the Torah/Old Testament) and his famous scribe Baruch."
Rollston, however, believes other inscriptional evidence from the region dates to the late 9th and 8th centuries B.C., and therefore thinks "that some portions of the Bible could have been written even earlier than the Tel Aviv study suggests."
Even with this still existing debate, the new research at least helps to settle an important matter about the timing of the Bible's first compilation phase.
As Thomas Römer, a professor at the University of Lausanne and the Collège de France, Paris, told Discovery News, the study "shows that there was an important degree of literacy already in the 7th century B.C., and that we should not postulate a first edition of the biblical text in the exilic or postexilic periods."
The earliest writings of the Bible - the world's best-selling and most widely distributed book - therefore appear to reflect the voice of a vibrant, educated populous before the devastation of the Babylonian exile largely silenced it. The exile formally ended in 538 B.C., but its impact lasted for centuries.