The NY Times has an interesting article about a study which purports to show that literacy may have been far more prevalent in pre-Babylonian exile Judah than many had thought. The implication, it’s believed, is that Biblical minimalist scholars who thought that no part of the Bible was composed until after the exile, are wrong.
But most of the stuff I’ve read actually pegs the earliest writings of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible as happening between 900 BC and 586 BC. Why these date ranges?
Well, to start, here’s a quick mapping of relevant Israeli Biblical history.
Abraham and the other patriarchs are usually thought to have lived in the early second millennium BC. The exodus, with Moses, is usually thought to have happened in the 1500-1300 BC time period. This was followed by Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, the period of Judges such as Samson, and then the united monarchy including Saul, David, and Solomon, all in the 1050-930 BC period.
After Solomon, the northern parts of Israel, according to Biblical history, rebelled and seceded from the overall kingdom. What followed was a period of two kingdoms: a larger northern more prosperous kingdom named Israel, and a smaller kingdom named Judah. In 722, the northern kingdom ran afoul of the Assyrian Empire and was destroyed, with large numbers of its citizens fleeing south into Judah as refugees. Judah itself was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians and its ruling class taken into exile in Babylonia. Several decades later, Babylon was conquered by the Persian Empire, who allowed the exiled Jews to return to their home country, which was now part of the Persian Empire.
Anyone who has read the Bible notices that the earliest books include a lot of duplication, often telling the same story twice. Many scholars think the reason for this is that what came down to us was someone’s attempt at integrating different versions of the stories from the northern and southern kingdoms, an editing probably done in the period 722 BC – 586 BC, that is, after Israel’s fall with many of its refugees in Judah but before the Babylonian exile. (This view is part of what’s known as the Documentary Hypothesis.) This is one reason why the period of the divided kingdom is often focused on for the writing of these earliest tales. It implies that the earliest compositions may have been between 930 and 722 BC.
Another is that the history of this period as relayed in the Bible is the first time period where the described events become somewhat verifiable by other historical sources or archaeology, or at least aren’t outright contradicted by them. For earlier periods, the further back we go, the results of archaeology diverge increasingly from the Biblical narratives.
For instance, archaeological evidence tells us there may have been a kingdom of David, but there is substantial question on its extent. David may have been more of a southern chieftain whose kingdom grew in later legends, a narrative largely driven by the ambitions of later kings of Judah who wanted to “reclaim” the lands of the northern kingdom for a greater Israel. In other words, there may never have been a united Israel before the divided kingdoms. I’ve already written about the problems with the historicity of the exodus, but the evidence of the Joshua conquests also aren’t born out by archaeology. And the patriarchal stories, even if they happened as described, are far beyond the reach of any historical verification.
In addition, Israel Finkelstein (an Israeli archaeologist quoted in the NY Times article) has written that the Biblical tales of the second millennium show a preoccupation with the middle eastern world as it existed in the 8th century BC, bearing little resemblance to the political and social realities of the second millennium revealed by archaeology. (For example, nations that didn’t exist until the 8th century are described in much earlier contexts.)
But as we get into the divided kingdoms period, the events start to match up with other sources, such as Assyrian and Babylonian records, and archaeological evidence.
As the Times article alludes to, some Biblical minimalists take the view that nothing of the Bible was written until after the exile in 586 BC. Some even push it back to Hellenistic times after Alexander the Great. I’m not sure how large a share of the Biblical studies and archaeological community this view has. Most of the consensus I’ve read has the earliest writings happening as described above, while admitting that the final compilation into a form we would recognize today didn’t happen until after the exile. (The other end of the extreme are Biblical maximalists who insist that the Bible is historically reliable going all the way back to Abraham and that the earliest writings go back to Moses.)
It’s also worth remembering something that most who read the Old Testament notice. The earlier stories have a strikingly different tone and outlook than the later ones, with a notably different theology. The earlier stories imply a society more monolatristic (belief in many gods but worship of just one) or even often outright polytheistic (in some of the Psalm verses) rather than monotheistic. But the later stories firmly establish Israel’s monotheistic character.
The earlier stories also seem far more comfortable with barbarism than the later ones. Isaac Asimov speculated in his book on the Bible that the Judeans went into exile as barbarians, but returned as people civilized by exposure to the Babylonian and Persian cultures.
However it happened, the disparities in style imply two different cultures: a pre-exilic one, and a post-exilic one. If that impression is correct, then it makes sense that the earlier stories were produced by the earlier culture.
I don’t know that widespread literacy was necessary in that earlier culture for us to accept this theory. From what I’ve read, most ancient literate cultures remained predominantly oral in nature, with writing only serving as a memory aid for saving stories that were still being orally transmitted. Although evidence of literacy certainly doesn’t hurt.
And if the earliest tales didn’t get written until after the exile, it seems like they would have evolved more over the centuries. From what I’ve read, the events of the divided kingdoms described in the Bible line up with archaeology and other historical sources too well to have survived unaltered by centuries of oral transmission.
Another reason scholars may be skeptical of pre-exilic composition, is that it would predate Herodotus and many other Greek compositions, that its sophistication seems too far out of the historical pattern. But it would not necessarily predate Homer or Hesiod, and it doesn’t seem unfathomable that cultures in the region of Phoenicia, the inventors of the alphabet, would have had writing to some extent.
And we should remember that the lion share of what was written in the ancient world is lost to history. A lot of other cultures in that region besides the Greeks and Hebrews may have had similarly extensive writings during these periods, but they just didn’t get preserved over the ages.
Even if the earliest compositions of the stories come from pre-exilic times, that doesn’t mean later post-exilic scribes didn’t apply their own theological filters when they were editing and compiling them into the form we know today. I’ve often wondered what those earliest stories might look like if we could see them in their original form. Unfortunately, unless someone finds a cache of ancient pre-exile manuscripts or clay tablets, we’ll probably never know. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, but sometimes it’s just written by the survivors.
Much of the information I relayed here came from reading the following books: ‘Who Wrote the Bible‘ by Richard Friedman, ‘The Bible Unearthed‘ by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, ‘Asimov’s Guide to the Bible‘ by Isaac Asimov, numerous Wikipedia and news articles, and of course, the Bible itself.