Potsherds, Computers, and the Composition of the Bible

by Dr. David Schreiner

The National Academy of Sciences published this week an article entitled, Algorithmic Handwriting Analysis of Judah’s Military Correspondence Sheds Light on Composition of Biblical Texts. You can find the abstract here.

Now I know that you want to roll your eyes and mumble something like, “Come on Schreiner…are you kidding me with that title?!” But hang on….this is really neat stuff.

Potsherds Picture 1 We live in a literate culture. So, naturally, we rarely give a second thought on our ability to read and write. We are taught to read and write at a young age, and we are shocked when we hear of someone who does not possess those faculties. Also, the production of literature is fairly inexpensive. For instance, I could find enough change in the cushions of my car to pay for a pencil and some paper. Then, all I need is some time and something about which to write.

The reality is that in biblical times, none of this was the case. The production of literature was laborious and expensive, and it was a controlled skill. This means that certain social and political criteria needed to be met for any systematic and sustained production of literature. There needed to be certain classes devoted to carrying out this laborious process, and there needed to be a certain level of resources devoted to purchasing the necessary materials and supporting individuals skilled enough to write.

Applied to the history of the Old Testament, this means that the literary preservation of the Old Testament is intimately connected to the socio-political development of Israel. To put it bluntly, the composition of the Old Testament did not begin in earnest until Israel developed socially to the point where they could allocate resources for the materials and personnel. That time was the Iron Age, specifically Iron Age II–the time of the united and divided monarchy.

The study highlighted in this National Academy of Science article employed a sophisticated system of imagine processing and machine learning algorithms to analyze the wPotsherds Picture 2riting on a selected number of ostraca (potsherds with writing on them) from the ancient military outpost of Arad. These texts are dated to 600 BCE, the latter portion of Iron Age II. The results state that at least 6 different authors can be identified. What’s more, the researchers further conclude that literacy was likely more widespread among certain social circles than initially thought. In turn, Iron Age II provides a context suitable for the composition of the Old Testament.

On the one hand, contextualizing a large portion of the Old Testament’s composition during the period of monarchy is not a novel idea. People like William Schniedewind and Christopher Rollston have laid groundwork and argued for such ideas. What is interesting about this study are the methods used and the trends that it ultimately affects. First, these methods are completely scientific, not to mention fascinating (I am not going to pretend that I understand machine learning algorithms, but, man, it sounds neat!). Furthermore, judging the initial comments by the giants in the field, this type of analysis offers some important roads forward.

Most importantly, we have another pool of data in support of the idea that the Old Testament may not be the product of the Persian period. I remember sitting at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meetings listening to wild theories of how Deuteronomy was a Persian era document, etc. As my professor said to me over dinner as we reflected upon those presentations, “It is a good thing we have the Dead Sea Scrolls, otherwise scholars will eventually try to date the composition of the Old Testament to 1st century Palestine.”

There has been a tendency in scholarship to date the composition of the Old Testament later and later…farther and farther away from the era of the monarchy. Some may not give a second thought to this tendency, but Evangelical scholars traditionally see significant value in the idea that the biblical text was written soon after the events recounted or in the immediate context of those events. Therefore, the importance of this study is that it provides another form of verification for the probability that this could have been happening. Put another way, it is becoming more and more difficult not to put the composition of the majority of the Old Testament in the era of the monarchy, united or divided.

Yet let’s not let this specific study trivialize the larger debate. Despite the results of this study, what it means to be an Potsherds Picture 3author in ancient Israel was still very different than what it means to us today, and studies like this only address the robust and complicated debate of the Old Testament’s composition to a certain
point. Nevertheless, I hope that this study anticipates a trend–a movement back toward the era of the monarchy…and not further away from it.

David B. Schreiner (Ph. D; Asbury Theological Seminary, 2012) is a professor of Biblical Studies, with a specialty in the Old Testament. His research interests include all things biblical history, biblical archaeology, biblical languages, the historical books, and biblical prophecy. He is married to Ginny and a father to his two daughters Maddie and Bailey. He and his family currently reside in central Kentucky. 

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