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Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age.

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age. By CHRISTOPHER A. ROLLSTON. SBL Archaeology and Biblical Studies, vol. 11. Atlanta: SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE, 2010. Pp. xix + 171, illus. $21.95.

The purpose of this book is twofold: 1) to analyze the Iron Age Northwest Semitic epigraphic record, and 2) to discuss how this record can shed light on ancient Israelite writing, literacy, and scrib-alism. In his preface, Rollston describes his work as "non-technical" (p. xv). In keeping with this pronouncement, his introduction reviews some basic principles of the epigraphic and paleographic method and provides explanations for the non-specialist of many key terms used in the field of epigraphy.

In the three chapters that comprise part 1, Rollston situates his analysis of ancient Israelite writing and literacy within the larger picture of Early Alphabetic writing during a period that encompassed the origin of alphabetic writing in the early second millennium, down through its development by the Phoenicians in the early first millennium and its use by the various Levantine polities from the ninth through the sixth centuries B.C.E. With one notable exception, these three chapters hardly break new ground; rather, they seem designed to present the novice in Northwest Semitic epigraphy with a well-informed but uncontroversial portrait of Phoenicia's role in developing and promoting the script throughout the wider Levantine world (and beyond) in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. This is followed by an account of the rise of the Levantine national scripts and by a survey of the various types of inscriptions in Northwest Semitic that have been unearthed to date.

Where Rollston for the first time deviates from the general consensus is in his identification of the script as Phoenician of two famous inscriptions dating to the late tenth or early ninth centuries B.C.E., discovered in ancient Israelite territory, and commonly held to have been written in the Old Hebrew script: the Tel Zayit abecedary and the Gezer Calendar. Rollston contends that the Old Hebrew script did not develop until later in the ninth century; until then the Phoenician script remained in use in Israel as well as in the wider Levantine and Mediterranean geographic region, with inscriptions in this script series hailing from Crete, Syria, and Anatolia as well as Phoenicia and Israel. When later in the ninth century the Old Hebrew script finally did become a distinctive national script, this development represented a conscious choice by the emerging Israelite kingdom(s) to break from the Phoenician script, according to Rollston. He argues that the creation of the Old Hebrew script was "a nationalistic statement, not merely an evolutionary development" (p. 44).

Rollston then turns his attention in part 2 to the individuals who were responsible for producing the vast majority of the Old Hebrew epigraphic corpus, namely, the Israelite scribes. Chapter 4, the first of five chapters in this section, is an oddly redundant inclusion in this book, in that it states in six pages what could have been succinctly stated in one or two sentences within the context of the next chapter: to wit, the evidence from the canonical Hebrew corpus, as well as from Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts lauding the scribal profession, shows that the ancient Israelite scribes, like their counterparts in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, were "esteemed member[s] of elite society" (p. 88).

For the reader already well versed in the repertoire of Northwest Semitic inscriptions and already familiar with most of the issues their discovery has raised, Rollston's monograph finally gets a bit more interesting in chapter 5 by plunging into the debate over whether or not a formal, standardized scribal education existed in ancient Israel. In another somewhat unnecessary section, however, Rollston sets up something of a straw man by arguing stridently against a position that has long been discredited (that a system of education was pervasive in many levels of Israelite society) and in favor of a position that he presents as cutting edge but that would surely raise few eyebrows in current scholarship (i.e., the generally accepted notion that such a system existed for the education of scribal elites). As far as this reviewer is aware, there are no scholars who would argue against the existence of some kind of formal system of standardized education for the scribal class in ancient Israel. Where Rollston contributes most effectively to this discussion is in his expert and comprehensive analysis of how the Old Hebrew epigraphic evidence, particularly the paleography, orthography, and hieratic numerals, attests to the "depth, sophistication, and consistency in the production of written materials," and hence to "the presence of a mechanism for the formal, standardized education of scribal elites in ancient Israel" (p. 92).

Rollston's detailed paleographic analysis of the developments in Old Hebrew script (pp. 97-104) and in its orthography during the eighth through sixth centuries (pp. 107-9), as well as the diagnostic differences between Old Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic scripts, will very likely be passed over by the "non-technical" audience to whom he devotes this book. This is a shame, because the results of his analyses offer some of the most compelling data for the existence of "a mechanism for the development, use, and retentions of a distinct Old Hebrew national script" (p. 106). For example, Rollston ably demonstrates that the Old Hebrew epigraphic record shows evidence of more than merely the passing down of a "functional knowledge" of a simple script from one scribe to another; rather, it reveals a sophisticated script series whose different chronological horizons are characterized by a consistent production of letter morphology and stance. Far from reflecting an informal transmission of simplistic script conventions from one person to another in a relatively brief amount of time, the synchronic consistency and diachronic development of the morphology, stance, and orthography of Old Hebrew reveal, indeed necessitate, a mechanism for ensuring consistency in these complicated scribal conventions: namely, the existence of a formal, standardized education for the scribal elite, which was most likely offered under the aegis of the state.

In chapter 6 Rollston addresses the assumption that scribal education would have had to take place in monumental school buildings, and the conclusion drawn by older scholarship that the absence of evidence for such monumental structures indicates the absence of formal, standardized scribal education. As a number of scholars have pointed out before him, this assumption is clearly anachronistic, given the comparative evidence from Mesopotamia and Egypt showing that scribal education frequently occurred at the homes of older, more experienced scribes. The scribal profession tended to be passed down from generation to generation, ensuring its character as a "family business" in the ancient world. Again, Rollston's observations in this chapter regarding scribal training and the context for scribal education are neither new nor ground-breaking.

Chapter 7 at last addresses the topic that is clearly unavoidable in any discussion of writing and literacy in ancient Israel: the extent of literacy. Here again Rollston offers an opinion that will cause scarcely a ripple of controversy in current scholarship: that literacy was confined to the ranks of scribes and royal as well as temple officials, including military officers. Indeed, such a point was ably made over two decades ago by I. Young in two essays published in 1988 ("Israelite Literacy: Interpreting the Evidence, Part 1," Vetus Testamentum 48: 239-53 and "Part 2," Vetus Testamentum 48: 408-22). Rollston concludes that the increase in Old Hebrew inscriptions in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., rather than being attributable to an increase in literacy among the general populace, instead should be taken as an indication of the growth of the administrative apparatus (and concomitant coterie of scribes) during these centuries. In the final sentence of an extremely underdeveloped section regarding the extent of literacy and the production of literature, Rollston asserts 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" (p. 135). If this is indeed the case, it cannot account for the large gap between the types of inscriptions thus far unearthed in Israel (letters, economic texts, fragments of royal inscriptions, etc.) and the category of literature preserved for us in the biblical text. If Rollston wished to make his case for such a connection, then he needed to have devoted more than two paragraphs to such a controversial and complicated issue.

The inclusion of an eighth chapter on the precariousness of using inscriptions from the market to make judgments about the nature of writing and literacy allows Rollston to present his proposed list of modem forgeries and to describe how forgeries can be produced and detected. Given the relative ease with which inscriptions can be forged these days, it is methodologically irresponsible to make assumptions about the epigraphic record based on Northwest Semitic inscriptions from the market. Rollston's stress on the importance of the archaeological context for the analysis of inscriptions may strike many as too basic to merit as much ink as Rollston spends on it here and earlier in his introduction (pp. 1-2, 6), but readers should keep in mind the frequent and at times irresponsible incorporation of unprovenanced data (such as inscribed seals appearing on the black market) in many epigraphic studies over the past several decades.

Two additional features of this monograph merit praise: the first is the numerous and excellent illustrations. Most of these consist of drawings done of inscriptions by the author himself, and demonstrate his intimacy with the texts that he analyzes. The second feature is the inclusion at the end of the book (pp. 145-48) of a glossary of commonly used terms in Northwest Semitic epigraphy which will be very helpful for the intended audience of this monograph.


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Author:Whisenant, Jessica
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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