This is a book review I placed on Amazon (uk) for Christopher Rollston’s fine book. The complete title is in fact Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age but that seemed a little too long for the post title!
The Amazon.co.uk link to this book is:
I was very happy to give this a 5* review, and here follows my comments…
I thoroughly enjoyed this book by Christopher Rollston, and would happily recommend it to anyone interested in the subject of ancient near eastern writing. Anyone who has been following Rollston’s academic publications or blog articles will find few surprises, but a wide range of his ideas on iron age writing are gathered together in a convenient way. It has also provided the opportunity to give up to date (as at c.2010) descriptions of the relevant archaeological finds, many of which include line drawings of the items.
The book has two main sections, followed by a short discussion of the difficult issue of how to (and when not to) make use of pieces acquired from unknown or unidentified locations – an issue Rollston has campaigned on for some time now.
The first main part describes the collection of relevant source materials, from the eleventh century through to the sixth BCE. The geographic range is from Phoenicia through Israel to trans-Jordan. This section includes brief forays into topics which Rollston has investigated in more depth elsewhere. For example, there is a short passage outlining his disagreement with Sass concerning the date of the Phoenician royal inscriptions. Now, this highlights one of the minor weaknesses of the book. If you were interested in this matter (and it affects the reconstruction of the chronology of the ancient near east) you would not find enough in this book to satisfy you. There are plentiful references to help you find out more, but the summary in the book itself is so short that if you had not known about the issue previously, you could easily pass it by without realising its import.
Also in this first main section, there is a great deal of description, with diagrams, of the evolutionary development of particular letter shapes. This is in support of Rollston’s main contention, that Hebrew did not emerge as a distinctive written script until the ninth century. He is careful to separate this from the question of when Hebrew might have emerged as a distinct spoken language, and gives several examples of how one written script may represent several spoken languages (for example, all of the many contemporary languages which use the Latin alphabet). But about written Hebrew, his ideas are very clear. For example, he says that before the middle of the ninth century BC “there is nothing distinctive of Old Hebrew… the Old Hebrew script had not yet been developed“, and again, “Old Hebrew became a distinct national script during the ninth century… [it’s creation was]… a nationalist statement, not merely an evolutionary development.” He argues that the early written items which predate this and have been found within the borders of Israel use the Phoenician script, not Old Hebrew, but without that fact having a necessary connection to the ethnicity of the writer.
This will again come as no surprise to those who have followed his work, and Rollston is careful to point out those scholars who disagree with him, and give the main reasons for both positions. He comes over throughout the book as a fair and generous debater, though methodical and determined as regards his own views.
The second main section looks at the social position and training of the scribe, and the general level of literacy skills in the population at large. Once again his arguments will surprise no-one who has read his previous work. Writing, he holds, was the province of a skilled elite, trained in a variety of necessary talents. He is prepared to accept the existence of a wider group of people with very low levels of skill, perhaps able to read a few key words related to their job, or to roughly scrawl their name. However, he does not accept the older view that literacy was commonplace in an iron age society using an alphabetic script. Drawing on modern insights into the process of how literacy develops in childhood, as well as the ancient record itself, he argues his case persuasively. To be literate in the ancient world, whether using the newer alphabetic or the older syllabic scripts, required mastery of a range of skills, and demanded accuracy and consistency of production. This took time, and training.
This naturally flows into his high view of the office of scribe itself, which is best expressed in his own words: “the Old Hebrew epigraphic record reflects depth, sophistication, and consistency… most consistent with the presence of a mechanism for the formal, standardized education of scribal elites in ancient Israel.”
To sum up, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel is clearly written, and engaging in its range of topics and presentation. It seems to me to be highly accessible to a general audience, and readers who are not interested in the specific details of letter shapes can still readily follow the basic arguments that these support. Some readers may be disappointed that there is not more new material contained in its 171 pages, or more speculative advance into some issues relating to the production of complex and extensive literature in the first half of the first millennium BC. However, it is a very convenient and well-resourced summary of his stance on matters that interest him – and indeed me. I am very happy to have purchased it and have no hesitation in recommending it to others.
On a personal note, readers of my (fictional) work In a Milk and Honeyed Land will recognise that many of the assumptions there about the role of the scribe, and the general level of literacy, owe a great debt to Rollston’s work. I am very happy to see that he has reaffirmed and indeed strengthened his position on these matters in this book!