Early critics of the Bible maintained that the Hebrews did not write earlier than the late period of the kings.1 An extended period of oral transmission was believed to have preceded the writing of the Old Testament. But archaeo­logical discoveries in the nineteenth century re­vised the view of the critics. Vast libraries of clay tablets inscribed with text pro­vided evidence that writing dated from ear­liest times and would therefore have been famil­iar to the early Hebrews.

The alphabet of the Hebrews had twenty-two characters. This was a distinct advantage over the other contemporary scripts used in Egypt and Mesopotamia, which had hundreds of characters or signs. As biblical scholar FF Bruce states: “… it was the alphabet that made it possible for all classes to be literate …”2 Thus there is good reason to accept that reading and writing were widespread in Israel from the earliest times of their history.

The Bible provides many references to reading and writing by all classes in ancient Israel. Writing is distinctly mentioned in Exodus 17:14 and the reference clearly implies that it was not being em­ployed for the first time but was so familiar as to be used for historical records. While writing is not mentioned in the book of Genesis, we may have the text of a legal contract in Genesis 23:17-20, documenting Abraham’s purchase of land to bury his wife Sarah. It is also very unlikely that Joseph was not able to read and write, as administering the resources of Egypt would have involved the keeping of written records. He would have had to master the script and language of Egypt to carry out his duties.

Ordinary Israelites had to write copies of the words of the law (Deut 6:9; 11:20) and the king was required to make himself a copy of the law (Deut 17:18). It is evident from the biblical re­cord that Joshua could both read and write (Josh 1:8; 8:30-35) and the survey of the land of Israel was written in a book or scroll (Josh 18:9). An unnamed young man wrote a list of the elders of Succoth at the request of Gideon (Judg 8:14, RSV) and, in the time of Isaiah, it appears that writing was so common that even children could write (Isa 10:19).

Some, however, have argued that reading and writing were limited to the elites, such as the priests and administrators in Israel.3 Recent research by several mathematicians and archaeolo­gists at Tel Aviv University has challenged this view.4 The researchers are using machine learning tools to determine how many people were literate in ancient times. Their initial analysis suggests that the ability to read and write was far more wide­spread throughout the Kingdom of Judah than is currently accepted.

Using a computer software program they de­veloped to analyse multi-spectral images of sixteen Hebrew inscriptions written in ink on ostraca (broken pottery pieces), the researchers found that literacy was common throughout Judah by 600 BC. The ostraca were discovered at a fortress at Arad in southern Israel. The researchers found that people wrote a wide variety of information down on ostraca, much of it quite ordinary. The texts include military commands and supply orders and also reveal how many people knew how to write.

Their investigation identified at least six dif­ferent authors behind the sixteen ostraca analysed, while the contents of the text itself suggested that these authors spanned the entire military chain of command from the highest to the lowest. This implied that reading and writing were widespread in Israel among all classes at this time. It also means it is extremely likely that literacy was com­mon from the earliest times of Israel’s history, as the Bible records.

One important aspect of the Tel Aviv Uni­versity research group’s work is the introduction of sophisticated image recognition technology to the study of ancient texts. Indeed, the tech­nology behind the study could revolutionize the understanding of literacy and education in biblical times and further confirm the reliability of the Bible record.