Saturday, January 24, 2015

Notes on Israelite Scribal Training II

Christopher Rollston is a good Hebrew epigrapher and because of his epigraphic perspective has some interesting and useful things to say about scribal education in ancient Israel.

It is worth noting that Rollston is not one of those who argues for high rates of literacy in ancient Israel:
The data do not support the contention that a high rate of literacy is a necessary corollary of a society with an alphabetic writing system.
 (Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel [Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010], 128.)
Dramatic conclusions, such as the literacy of the non-elite populace, require dramatic evidence.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 131.)
Rollston cautions that the epigraphic record (such as I analyzed yesterday) can be misread:
It is often noted that there are more Old Hebrew inscriptions from the seventh through sixth centuries than there are from the eight and ninth centuries, which is seen as evidence that literacy was spreading among the populace. I would point our in respoinse that a small coterie of professional scribes during any chronological horizon could produce very large numbers of inscriptions without much difficulty.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 133.)
Nonetheless, Rollston notes that there is a remarkable consistency among the epigraphic material from ancient Israel. It is harder to detect individual hands. This consistency has a number of implications that Rollston draws out.

For example, some have argued for a functional literacy in ancient Israel, that is people who could read and write but were not very good at it (something like Joseph Smith in nineteenth century America). Some scholars have presumed that functional literacy was widespread; others have argued that illiteracy was so widespread that even the scribes were only functionally literate. Rollston addresses this issue:
The lion's share of the Old Hebrew epigraphic record does not reflect "functional literacy" of the script. It reflects the sophisticated knowledge of trained professionals.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 107.)
Rollston also addresses the issue of scribal education:
It is simply not convincing to attempt to account for the Old Hebrew epigraphic data without positing some sort of formal, standardized education. After all, the production of formal, standardized, and sophisticated epigraphs necessitates the presence of formal, standardized scribal education.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 113.)
As a result,
Professional scribes of Old Hebrew were among the most learned practitioners of writing and reading. Scribes were often part of the royal administration. The majority of the extant Old Hebrew inscriptions are administrative in nature.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 128.)
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that scribes were the only literate members of society:
Ultimately, I have argued that nothing else can account for the quality and consistency of these Old Hebrew epigraphs: formal, standardized scribal education is the most rational means of accounting for the quality of the Old Hebrew epigraphic materials. Nevertheless, I do not believe that those functioning as scribes were the only literate elites. Rather, I believe that at least some of the royal and temple officials would also have been literate.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 129, emphasis in original.)
Rollston addresses the implications of the epigraphic material for the production of literary texts which is worth quoting in extenso:
Finally, lest my arguments about literacy in ancient Israel be miscontrued, I should like to emphasize the obvious: the epigraphic evidence demonstrates that elites in ancient Israel were writing during the Iron IIA (900-800 B.C.E.), Iron IIB (800-722 B.C.E.), and Iron IIC (722-586 B.C.E.). Thompson has written that "we cannot seek an origin of literature in Palestine prior to the eighth, or perhaps even better the seventh-century" (1992, 391). With all due respect to Thompson, I must state that his position is in direct conflict with the epigraphic evidence and I do not consider his position to be at all defensible. After all, southern Levantine states are producing monumental inscriptions (e.g., the Mesha Stela, the Amman Citadel Inscription, the Tel Dan Inscription). Moreover, there is a distinct Old Hebrew national script that is already attested during the ninth century. Finally, this script is even used in a foreign region, by a foreign monarch, to inscribe a monumental text in a foreign language (Mesha Stela). It would be most difficult to argue that a culture capable of developing and employing a distinct national script with a developed scribal culture did not have the capacity to write texts of various sorts.

Someone might retort that the Israelites were capable of writing during Iron IIA, but not capable of writing "literature." Naturally, however, this would be a very strained argument. To put it positively, I am absolutely certain that a nation (Israel) that has a scribal apparatus that is capable of developing a national script and employing standardized orthographic conventions is certainly capable of producing literature.
 (Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 134-35.)
As someone who works seriously with the epigraphic record, Rollston's views are worth serious consideration.