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Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel.

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, by Christopher Rollston. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2010. 171 pp. $21.95.

The author of this book, Christopher Rollston, has emerged as one of the most insightful, prodigious, and authoritative of a younger generation of epigraphic scholars. This work, intended as a"handbook," represents an accessible synthesis of his views on the state of the art in Northwest Semitic epigraphy, particularly Hebrew epigraphy. As such it draws on the author's 1999 disser tation on "The Script of Hebrew Ostraca of the Iron Age: 8th-6th Centuries BCE" (Johns Hopkins; P. Kyle McCarter supervisor) along with a number of significant articles written in the decade since then, e.g. "Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence" BASOR 344 (2006); 47-74 (which appears to have formed the basis for Chapter 5, "Scribal Education in Ancient Israel," pp. 91-113).

Though the first and introductory chapter is subtitled "The importance of archaeological context for analysis of inscriptions," it actually goes beyond that topic to introduce some basic points regarding the distinction between script and language, lapidary and cursive script, differentiations between various media, and essential features of palaeographic method. Its blend of very basic definitions (e.g., between script and language) with technical vocabulary (e.g.,"lexeme,""prosopography,""script series") indicates a fairly particular target audience for this chapter and the volume as a whole: other scholars of Hebrew Bible needing to get up to date in epigraphy as well as advanced masters level and/or doctoral students seeking entry into the elementary study of Northwest Semitic, particularly Hebrew, epigraphs, The author does define some difficult terms in a glossary at the end of the book (pp. 145--148), but this volume is particularly well suited to advanced students and scholars already familiar with (or currently studying) Hebrew inscriptions in the original language.

The rest of the book is divided into two major parts. In Part One "The Epigraphic Record: the Broad Tableau," Rollston gives a succinct and compelling summary of evidence regarding the origins of the alphabet in the early second millenium (Chapter One), discussion of the emergence and spread of Phoenician and daughter (Hebrew, Moabite and Aramaic) scripts (Chapter Two), and overview by media of Northwest semitic inscriptions (Chapter Three). One highlight of these chapters is the author's argument (expanding on an earlier article on "The Phoenician Script of the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Putative Evidence for Israelite Literacy," pp. 61-96 of Ron E. Tappy and R Kyle McCarter, Literature, Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008]) for widespread use of the Phoenician script in Judah-Israel and other parts of the Northwest Semitic world into the ninth century (BCE), a phenomenon which he believes testifies to"continued cultural contact" and a"trans-regional Phoenician scribal apparatus," The third chapter provides a judicious survey of types of material in the Northwest Semitic epigraphic record, including some tantalizing indicators of a tradition of monumental inscriptions in ancient Israel (p. 55).

Part Two of the book, "The Scribe and Literacy," expands on the abovecited BASOR article ("Scribal Education in Ancient Israel") to provide the author's detailed refutation both of those who would assert that ancient Israel had virtually universal literacy and those who would deny that Israel had formal education of any recognizable kind. In addition to giving helpful cautions to those who would apply anachronistic ideas of contemporary schools to ancient Israel (e.g., buildings, large classes, a professional teaching class; see pp. 94-95,115-16), Rollston offers a useful synthesis of some studies by others, a few yet unpublished, on the often underestimated difficulty of learning alphabetic scripts (pp, 92-94). Moreover, he goes on to suggest, again based on research about literacy acquisition, that the learning of alphabetic literacy might have been aided and yet functionally delimited by the children of scribal families growing up around writing (pp, 122-26). Other particularly interesting points of these chapters include the author's argument that the City of David Inscription may have been a scribal exercise (pp. 116-22) and his incisive critique of each component of the epigraphic case that others have made for widespread literacy in ancient Israel (pp. 128-32). Overall, this portion of the book provides the most thorough, epigraphically-oriented case available so far for the existence of elite literacy and formal schooling in ancient Israel. It also includes, almost as an appendix, a synthesis of the authot's prior work on the problematic use of non-provenanced inscriptions in study of ancient Israelite epigraphy (Chapter 8, pp. 137-44).

Though this book can only be used in combination with older handbooks to introduce students to Northwest Semitic epigraphy, it is an excellent companion for such works, updating them in important respects and giving students (and fellow scholars) a taste of the sorts of considerations that lead Rollston and others to identify and date their scripts in particular ways, Moreover, it serves the important purpose of giving expanded consideration of the historical, generic and social contexts of such inscriptions. Together with its rich trove of photographs and drawings of inscriptions (many of them done by Rollston himself), this volume is an indispensable resource for any student or scholar interested in the current state of Iron Age Northwest Semitic epigraphy.

Shofar * An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies

Vol. 30, No. 2 * 2012

David M. Carr

Union Theological Seminary in New York
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Author:Carr, David M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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