Scribal Culture in the Ancient Near East
James D. Moore
It is primarily through the minds of scribes that we understand the biblical world and the ancient Near East (ANE). This thematic guide is designed to introduce the reader to the topic of scribal culture using the resources available at OBSO. It will present a general overview of scribal activity from the second millennium BCE through the Roman period as it relates to the ancient Levant.
The study of scribal culture centers on two primary issues: ancient literacy and the mechanics of the scribal trade. Studies on ancient literacy ask questions such as: who in the ancient world was literate and to what degree? Studies on the mechanics of the scribal trade discuss the materials writers used and how they used them.
Literacy and the Languages of the Ancient Near East
The issue of literacy, the ability to read and write, is a hotly contested topic in biblical and ANE scholarship. OBSO contains excellent articles discussing literacy. To augment these articles, this section of the Thematic Guide will survey the major languages of the ANE pertaining to the biblical periods in order to show how modern scholars use them in the discussion of ancient literacy.
Some believe that literacy was "relatively widespread" in the ANE while others think that a high level of literacy is "a phenomenon strictly of the modern world." As more ANE archives are coming to light, generalities concerning ancient literacy are starting to dissolve, but not entirely. As in any society that values writing, ANE societies were socially complex, and many sectors of society required individuals to have some facility in reading and/or writing. How many literate persons each sector required, and to what degree the individuals in each sector were literate are questions scholarship is now turning to.
Most of our knowledge of literacy comes from ANE scribes who wrote in cuneiform scripts on clay tablets. The Sumero-Akkadian culture of Mesopotamia and the Hittite/Hurrian culture of Anatolia both wrote documents using cuneiform. These cultures left troves of data that are used in the study of ancient literacy.
Sumero-Akkadian culture is a descriptive term used to describe the complex culture of the Sumerian and Semitic (Akkadian) speaking peoples who cohabited ancient Mesopotamia. The literature found in Mesopotamia reflects the integration of these two cultures. The Sumerian-speaking peoples invented cuneiform writing, a system of writing that uses wedge-shaped symbols, in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE. As the Sumerian culture began to merge with the Akkadian-speaking culture of northern Mesopotamia, Akkadian began to appear in the textual record. Many place the turning point of this transition in the Sargonic period (ca. 2250–2000 BCE). In the Old Babylonian Period (ca. 2000–1600 BCE), Akkadian became the dominant written language used in Mesopotamia though periods of Sumerian literary renaissance reemerge in the textual record.
Akkadian was the lingua franca of the ANE for nearly two thousand years, from the third millennium BCE. Although it was supplanted by Aramaic in the mid- to late first millennium BCE, it continued to be used in local pockets of Babylonia for another six hundred years. Many hundreds of thousands of texts survive, supplying data for waves of literacy from the mid-third to the mid-first millennium BCE. Individuals from slaves to emperors are known to have been literate in Akkadian.
It was once thought the cuneiform script was too complicated to facilitate high levels of literacy, but now it is recognized that only a limited number of cuneiform signs was necessary for understanding certain genres of texts in certain periods. Further advancements in modern-language learning have shown that large portions of a population can be functionally literate in cultures that use complex writing systems such as Japanese or Chinese, thus debunking the older view that only extremely few ANE persons were able to read and write cuneiform. Current scholarship holds that significantly more than the often-claimed 1% of the population achieved a functional level of literacy in Akkadian-speaking populations.
Pre-biblical inhabitants of Canaan are known to have corresponded in international relations using Akkadian. In fact, during the Amarna Period (ca. 1352–1336 BCE) Egypt corresponded with its Canaanite vassals in a dialect of Akkadian influenced by Canaanite; they did not communicate in Egyptian.
The earliest biblical literature comes to us filtered through Israelite and Judahite scribes. These scribes operated in the Neo-Assyrian Period. Throughout this period, Israel and Judah were both vassals of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Neo-Assyrian texts and scribes undoubtedly influenced Israelite and Judahite scribal cultures, and many texts found in the Hebrew Bible are closely related to important Akkadian texts produced in the Neo-Assyrian Period. For instance, Moses' birth narrative (Exod 2:1–10) is comparable to the legend of the Akkadian-speaking Sumerian king Sargon's birth narrative; the Covenant Code (Exod 20:23—23:19) is comparable to the Laws of Hammurabi, which although written earlier were a standardized school text in the Neo-Assyrian Period; the book of Deuteronomy is comparable to the vassal treaties of the seventh-century Assyrian king Esarhaddon; and many psalms are comparable to Akkadian prayers and hymns.
The Hittites wrote in a syllabic cuneiform script adopted from Akkadian. Hittite is an Indo-European language, which means that the language is related to Greek but not Akkadian or Hebrew. Thousands of Hittite texts dating from the mid- to late second millennium BCE survive from Anatolia (modern Turkey), and the Hittites, who wrote these texts, had a vast network of state employees who wrote in Hittite within the boundaries of the Hittite Empire. (International correspondence outside the empire was conducted in Akkadian.) Religious professionals, emissaries, medical personnel, military personnel, and administrators meticulously documented the workings of the state system. They had the ability to read and write to the degree that the state required the activity of their jobs to be documented. This means, for example, that cooks are not known to have been able to read and write epic literature, but at least the chief cook is known to have written correspondences and documents that aid in the maintenance of his kitchen's storerooms. The Hittite colophons, which are the final sections of documents that contain information about the texts or their scribes, show that many people were able to communicate in writing. What percentage of the population had this ability is still unknown, but as far as the vast network of government sectors is concerned, many individuals whose primary expertise was not reading and writing were themselves able to read and write.
If there was a relationship between Hittite and biblical writers it is difficult to assess. Historically, the Hittite empire in Anatolia succumbed to internal collapse at the advance of the elusive "Sea Peoples" in the early twelfth century BCE, making a connection to the biblical writers untenable. After the fall of the empire, however, the Hittites retained a stronghold at Carchemish (on the border of modern Turkey and Syria), where the Neo-Hittite kingdom survived until approximately 800 BCE. It is through contact with Neo-Hittites that connections between Hittite and Israelite scribal cultures may exist.
Some biblical scholars see Hittite literary influence in the structure or content of Deuteronomy. Although the Hittites are profiled as political enemies in the Deuteronomistic History (e.g., Jos 3:10), various biblical writers portray Hittite individuals favorably as they work with patriarchal figures. For instance, Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite (Gen 23; 25:9). Individuals like Ahimelech are portrayed as David's military comrades (1 Sam 26:6). The biblical writers even portrayed Uriah the Hittite as a victim of David's adulterous escapade with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:14). Although Akkadian-speaking cultures used writing in military correspondence, peoples from Akkadian-speaking cultures are not portrayed positively in Israelite literature, so it is possible that the Hittites, some of whom became David's military personnel––and not the Mesopotamians––introduced the practice of writing military correspondence to the Israelites. If such speculation is accurate, then Hittites may have encouraged levels of literacy among the Israelites in the Israelite's own Canaanite language.
Significant cultural exchange between Egypt and the Levant dates to as early as the Hyksos period (ca. eighteenth century BCE) when Semitic-speaking immigrants rose to power in Egypt. Elements of scribal cultural exchange in this period are difficult to assess.
Conversely, in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 BCE), Egypt had a strong presence in the Levant. Throughout this period, which roughly corresponds with the Egyptian New Kingdom, many elements of Egyptian culture influenced Levantine towns, and today Late Bronze Age Levantine sites yield many Egyptian artifacts. Scribal influences in this period, however, appear minimal. The only substantial literary, and thus scribal, connections between Egypt and Canaan in this period are the Amarna Letters, which are written in Akkadian cuneiform not Egyptian Hieratic.
Israelite literature acknowledges that cultural exchange with Egypt occurred throughout Israel's history (e.g. the Exodus, Joseph, Solomon, etc.), but to what degree these cultural exchanges affected Israelite scribal circles are disputed. During the biblical periods, particularly during the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms, Egyptian is scantly present in the archeological record in the Levant. Scholars seeking a strong connection between the two scribal traditions point to the use of Hieratic numerals in Judahite textual finds, but as is the case in the modern world, foreign numerical systems may be used by literate cultures without significantly affecting a culture's native writing system or writing traditions. Other arguments for the contact between the two scribal cultures include the literary parallels between the so-called Late Egyptian "Tale of Two Brothers" and plot elements in Genesis, particularly the episode between Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Because these connections are only thematic, it is difficult to determine if the themes were transferred through scribal contact or through oral tradition. Likewise, a direct connection between Egyptian pessimistic literature and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), Egyptian and Israelite wisdom literatures, and Egyptian love poetry and the Song of Songs has yet to be established as having occurred through scribal contact as opposed to oral tradition.
The most likely point of scribal contact between the two scribal traditions would have been in the exilic and post-exilic periods when some Judahites took refuge in Egypt. Elephantine legal documents found in Egypt and written by Jews contain structural features similar to contemporary Demotic texts, thus showing a direct connection between the two scribal cultures. Amherst 63, an Aramaic text written in Demotic script and dating to the fourth century BCE, has affinities with Ps 20, furthering the claim of scribal contact between Egyptian scribal circles and biblical writers in the Persian period. Further, contact could have occurred in the Greco-Roman period under the Ptolemys, which is precisely when Egyptian-like biblical writings were produced, such as Qohelet and the Song of Songs. Any contact among New Testament writers likely would have occurred in Greek rather than Egyptian. Ultimately, there remains a serious question as to what degree scribes of the Egyptian language were in contact with biblical writers.
Regardless, modern scholars hold that anywhere from 1–7% of the Egyptian inhabitants maintained a degree of literacy in the Egyptian language in Late-Period Egypt; scholars also acknowledge that written Demotic and even more so, Hieratic were cultural staples of Egyptian natives, not immigrants (Ray, in Bowman and Woolf, Literacy and Power, 64-65). If one were to factor in the number of literate individuals of non-Egyptian languages, the number would be higher.
Northwest Semitic Cultures
The city of Ugarit contains the largest native Northwest Semitic archive. Although it is pre-biblical, it shows a unique adaptation of writing styles and has many affinities to biblical literature. Native Ugaritic scribes, who were trained in Akkadian and/or Hittite, used one of two known cuneiform alphabetic scripts to record their native language. The origins of the Ugaritic alphabetic script are opaque, but apart from a few Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions from Canaan, Ugaritic literature marks the earliest traceable rise in native Northwest Semitic literature (14th–12th centuries BCE). It appears that at this early stage, only the few Ugaritic scribes trained in Akkadian were literate, while the rest of the culture was likely not. There are serious questions as to whether or not Ugaritic texts have a direct relationship to biblical texts. The evidence is clear, however, that similar genres of literature, which have similar motifs and similar cultural idioms, appear in both Ugaritic and Hebrew scribal circles.
Phoenician is a Northwest Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew. Phoenician appears in the historical record shortly after the demise of Ugarit. It is written in an alphabetic script, which became the predecessor to the Hebrew and Greek alphabets. The entire Phoenician corpus survives only in inscriptions, for the most part on stone. The inscriptions presuppose a well-established scribal culture that recorded the bulk of its texts on biodegradable materials. Because the majority of the Phoenician written record is lost, no estimate can be made about the levels of Phoenician literacy. In the mid-twentieth century CE, modern scholars, particularly William Foxwell Albright, claimed that the simplicity of the Phoenician and derivative scripts resulted in high levels of literacy, but his argument has been vehemently contested. Connections between Phoenician inscriptions and biblical literature are rare, but Phoenician inscriptions are the earliest examples of royal monumental inscriptions in a Northwest Semitic Language (apart from one questionable tablet at Ugarit). This genre plays a significant role in the scribal cultures of the Levant in the biblical period.
Aramaic is a language that had many dialects in antiquity. Many examples appear in the textual record, written in scripts similar to Phoenician. The emergence of so many different Aramaic texts from the 10th century BCE onward leads scholars to debate whether or not this sudden dispersing of alphabetic writing is a sign of jumps in literacy or the result of political destabilization in the area. It is precisely in this period in the Levant that sections of biblical texts were first composed.
Of the languages emerging in the Levant in this period, Aramaic became the only to achieve international importance. Scholars refer to high levels of literacy in the Persian period when Aramaic was used from Persia to Egypt, and beyond, particularly for state purposes such as the royal documents in the book of Ezra. It is difficult to determine, however, if literacy levels rose in this period or if the levels appear higher due to the luck of archaeological findings. Archives from Persepolis in southwest Iran to Elephantine in southern Egypt, demonstrate that Aramaic played a pivotal role in military and urban settings throughout the ANE––a role previously occupied by Akkadian. In the Hellenistic period, Aramaic continued to be written in multilingual environments despite losing its political prominence to Greek. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Aramaic, in the dialect of Syriac, once again became the dominant language of the ANE until the rise of Arabic, and versions of Aramaic are still spoken in a few villages today.
Hebrew emerged as a Northwest Semitic dialect in the Levant in the first half of the first millennium BCE. The inception of the writing of native languages in a regional dialect cannot be correlated to any particular literacy level; however, archives of more quotidian documentation can support an idea of graded levels of literacy among more people. Two Hebrew archives dating mainly to the time of the Judahite kingdom have been discovered to-date, at the fortified sites of Arad and Lachish. Both archives consist of many texts, primarily administrative and military in nature. No literature has been found at these sites. These archives demonstrate that in the context of a military setting, literacy played an active role for some, even in small outposts like Arad.
Stories in the Hebrew Bible envisage writing as a normative practice in early periods in religious and government institutions (e.g., Num 5:23 and 2 Sam 11:14). Writing could play a theatric role in prophetic performance (Isa 8:1–4), suggesting that an audience of more than a few could read Hebrew.
Some argue that documents such as the Aramaic Levi Document (4Q213), which dates to the late second century BCE and prizes the Levites as scribes, reflects the role of Levites in an earlier period as the porters of literacy in ancient Judah and Israel. While basic levels of literacy existed outside of the instruction of these temple personnel, the most advanced training in reading and writing might have been conducted in the Temple. On the other hand, other scholars argue that the state would have been responsible for schooling. Since the majority of extant Hebrew texts dating to the Israelite and Judahite periods are administrative or military in nature it seems probable that the state played a role in promoting literacy along with the Temple. This, however, remains speculative since, despite many scholarly works on the matter, very little is known about ancient Israelite or Judahite schooling.
Greek and the Greco-Roman Period
In the Hellenistic period, the inhabitants of the Levant added Greek to their multilingual societies. Literacy in Greco-Roman times in Greece and Italy has been estimated to be as high as 10–15% of the population depending on region and language (Greek or Latin). Among certain groups, such as cavalry troops in the second century CE, literacy rates can be calculated to at least 34%, according to William V. Harris (Ancient Literacy, 254). The large trove of documents found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt helps support the idea that literacy was high in the ANE in this period because the findings attest to various textual genres among a variety of socio-economic standings. Furthermore, if the book of 1 Maccabees is historically reliable, "Books of the Law" were found distributed among the Jewish communities of Judea (1 Mac 1:54–57).
The Dead Sea Scrolls comprise one of the largest collections of documents found in the Levant. Various documents written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek survive from multiple locations near the Dead Sea and date to the Greco-Roman period. Perhaps the most important of these documents for a discussion of literacy are those that were found at sites other than Qumran, the site near which most of the scrolls were found. They demonstrate a range of individuals engaging in writing in various languages.
In the New Testament Paul, who was an educated man but not a "scribe," writes to congregants who presumably were not "scribes." To be sure he used amanuenses (e.g., Rom 16:22), but he signed letters with his own hand (e.g., Rom 16:21) and presumably could read. Moreover, Jesus, who was thought to be a manual laborer, was able to read (and apparently understand) a biblical scroll (Luke 4:16). Controversy arose not around his ability to read, but his credentials to interpret scripture (John 7:15).
Final Words on Literacy
Many times, locations, and languages contribute to the current debate on literacy. It was uncommon prior to the Greco-Roman period for writers in the ANE to sign their works (see "Authors"). Even letters, as is clear even in the time of Paul, may not indicate their writers.
Colophons and signatory formulas on cuneiform tablets that mention the tablet's writer have markers (determinatives) that show whether the writer was male or female. The vast majority of cuneiform writers are male, though some exceptions are known; a few references to women who studied reading and writing can also be found. In Northwest Semitic texts, it is more difficult to deduce information about the writers because colophons were not as readily used and the grammatical gender of a name does not always indicate the sex of its bearer.
Scribes (Heb. sofrîm; Gk. grammateis) in the Bible occupy some the most prestigious roles in society. The most famous scribe was Ezra (Ezra 7:6) who was both a priest and dignitary. From the point of view of both the writer of Ezra-Nehemiah (Neh 8) and some apocryphal writers he was the archetypal scribe. It is dangerous, however, to equate the notion of "scribe" with a literate person. As such, discussions of literacy in the biblical period focus on "the scribe" as the most extreme end of the social spectrum of literate persons. But discussions recognize that many others, who did not have the social prestige of the "scribe," were literate.
As this survey has shown, ethnic and socio-economic distinctions in ancient literacy are difficult to ascertain. A common argument is that the alphabetic scripts democratized language in the Levant. The Bible, which in some texts gives voice to both a "people" and non-elitist figures, has a more plebian presentation than many other ancient literary texts, which focus heavily on maintaining an aristocratic status quo. But it also contains very sophisticated and elitist, normally priestly, works. Comparative evidence shows that a variety of individuals were literate to some degree in the ANE, from slaves who maintained their masters' account books to the most powerful political figures. It is now becoming clear that the official role of the "scribe"—a position idealized by elites such as Jeremiah's Baruch, the legendary Assyrian scribe and sage Ahiqar, or the legendary Egyptian scribe and prophet Neferti, (if these were historical figures)—was a powerful position. The position of the "scribe" yielded the most advanced levels of literacy and social leverage as even the New Testament "scribes" exemplify (e.g. Matt 2:4). It is clear though that some people in lower socio-economic levels also had the ability to read and/or write.
Writing has been discovered on various objects in the ancient Levant. This short survey will guide the reader through the most used mediums.
The vast majority of extant cuneiform texts are preserved in clay. Using a stylus, wedges were impressed on mildly wet clay tablets, which were then dried and sometimes fired dried. The styli were made usually of reed. There is a debate as to whether the tips of the styli were triangularly shaped or square. The clay documents were impervious to biodegradation; some also held up to tumultuous destruction by fire.
Alphabetic scripts (other than Ugaritic, which is an alphabetic cuneiform script) were often written with ink on pottery fragments, known as ostraca; less frequently letters were incised on ostraca. Styli used for incising alphabetic scripts on ostraca would have been wood, bone, or metal, and pointed at the end.
Stone and Plaster
Because they survive in the archaeological record, stone and plaster are known to have been used for monumental texts. Stone monuments were often incised, though some Phoenician texts were embossed carvings. It is often thought that the carver would not have been the scribe who wrote the text and that a text was drafted in ink on stone before it was carved.
Ink was also used on plaster and stone.
Parchment, a writing material made from animal hide, was an expensive material. It was written on with ink and could be reused a limited number of times. A parchment could be reused after a scribe scraped or sanded the original writing off of the parchment. Reused parchment (or papyrus) with traces of the former text still visible on it is known as a palimpsest.
Because parchment biodegrades it rarely survives in the archaeological record. Fortunately, most of the Dead Sea Scroll texts were written on parchment, so they have advanced our understanding of parchment and its production in the Levant. Preparing parchment was a labor intensive and lengthy task, and the hide of an animal would yield only a small amount of parchment. From the findings at Qumran, it appears that great care was used when preparing and writing on parchment to avoid wasting it.
Parchment can be written on both sides, but if a document were intended to be a long scroll, it would only have been written on one side.
Papyrus is made from a reed plant that grows in marshlands. Egypt was the major supplier of papyrus to the Levant in antiquity, though Lake Huleh in northern Israel and Wadi -Zerqa in Transjordan may have produced small amounts of papyrus. All papyrus would have been imported into the Judahite kingdom, making it valuable, particularly during times of war when trade routes might be compromised.
Papyrus was manufactured in rolls with sheets glued together. A scribe would cut off the length of papyrus needed for a given document. Like parchment, shorter documents may have been written on both sides. Also, like parchment, it could be scraped clean and turned into a palimpsest.
Wooden writing mediums have not been discovered in the Levant, but all neighboring cultures used them. Furthermore, a Bronze Age merchant ship (Uluburun) has been found containing waxed writing boards, which were discovered in a pithos, a large clay jar, containing other Levantine artifacts.
In Egypt, writers often wrote Egyptian in ink on wooden boards covered in gesso (a type of stucco). These, however, are not known outside of Egypt.
Wooden boards covered in wax were used prolifically from the second millennium BCE onward in Mesopotamia and Anatolia. They are also known in Egypt in the Hellenistic period. Only a few wax boards (also known as wax tablets) survive from the ANE because of their biodegradable nature. They were durable, light, and reusable. They were used for a variety of purposes and often for drafting documents. A single wax board may be called a pinax (Luke 1:63). Two leaves could be hinged or tied together, which is known as a diptych, and three or more leaves is called a polyptych. The writing surface consisted of a thin layer of beeswax melted into a countersunk recess on the face of the board.
Two colors of ink were used since the earliest times, black and red. Black ink was typically made of soot, water, and gum arabic. Red ink was made of an iron-based mineral, water, and gum arabic. Erasing ink was difficult. It could be blotted off before it dried or scraped or sanded off after it had dried. Many documents written in ink become defaced over time because ancient ink was not very permanent.
Many seals have been found throughout the Levant. Seals are made of either stone or clay. They were used to impress in clay or wax to seal a document; many of these seal impressions, known as bullae, survive in the archaeological record. Although most Hebrew seals have names on them, a craftsman, not a scribe, would have manufactured seals.
Many scholars have been interested in scribal mechanics in recent years. Understanding how a writer wrote texts, particularly biblical texts, helps scholars appreciate the complexity of the task, and the relation of the scribal trade to other trades that produced the raw materials for writing. Studying scribal mechanics also furthers our understanding of ancient literacy since the costliness of some writing materials such as parchment and papyri appear to be beyond the means of those financially struggling. Finally, understanding the mechanics of scribal practice provides useful information into the enigmatic question of how scribal education was conducted. Thus, scribal mechanics are essential to the study of the origins of biblical texts.
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