Literacy in the Ancient World by James Crenshaw

According to the Bible, in order to cover up a tawdry affair with Bathsheba, David wrote his commander in chief at the battlefront ordering him to orchestrate the death of her husband (2Sam 11:14-17). A similar use of literacy is attributed to Queen Jezebel, who sent letters to civic leaders demanding that they concoct testimony against the owner of a vineyard coveted by her husband, King Ahab (1Kgs 21:8-14). Reading and writing led to the deaths of two men. But are these stories fact or fiction?

The epigraphic evidence suggests that certain elements in them are likely fictional. Although writing was practiced in Mesopotamia and Egypt from the third millennium B.C.E., literacy in these cultures was practiced solely by trained scribes. Both cuneiform and hieroglyphics employed hundreds of signs requiring years of study to master. Few people were willing to endure the harsh discipline wielded by teachers of schools for writing. 

The emergence of the alphabet in Phoenicia at the end of the second millennium B.C.E. greatly simplified writing. Did literacy become widespread with this new system, which used fewer symbols? The Hebrew alphabet has only 22 characters, but this does not mean that literacy increased—we have ample evidence of societies that have easy writing systems but low literacy rates. So what was to prevent David and Jezebel from becoming literate? For one thing, they lived in an agrarian economy with few incentives for an educated populace. For another, schools in ancient Israel, if any existed, served only the sons of royalty and scribes. Furthermore, the demand for skilled writers was limited and papyrus and parchment were expensive.

Now, David was a chieftain and Jezebel the daughter of one. Could they have been literate? Possibly, but not likely. And the recipients of their letters were commoners. True, a soldier at Lachish boasted that he read every letter dispatched to him. When was that? Over four hundred years after David—roughly the date of most of the literary evidence that has been excavated from ancient Judean sites. What is the nature of this evidence? Mostly brief notes in ink on potsherds; labels on wine jars; stone seals bearing the owner's name, often the father's, and sometimes a title; clay seals for documents; stone weights; an amulet containing a version of Num 6:24-27; a few inscribed tombs and monuments; and graffiti at remote sites like Kuntillet Ajrud. If papyrus or parchment was used, as at fifth-century Elephantine and in Egypt generally, it would have perished in the Judean climate.

Although most literary remains come from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., not everything is that late. Ostraca from Samaria and the Siloam Inscription date from the eighth century, the latter inscribed on a wall of a tunnel to commemorate a feat of engineering. From neighboring lands came the Mesha Stela (Moab, ninth century), the Gezer agricultural calendar (southern Canaan, 10th century), and plaster tablets about the visions of a prophet named Balaam (Moab/Deir Alla, eighth century).

The crowning achievement of literacy in Israel, the Hebrew Bible, aims to ennoble, not to destroy lives. In it, scribes explore the complex relationship between humans and God. From the second century B.C.E. into the Common Era, the Dead Sea Scrolls and works originating in Alexandria and elsewhere (the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) continued this endeavor. Still, those who could read and write at this time—mostly men—made up a small percentage of the population.

James Crenshaw, "Literacy in the Ancient World", n.p. [cited 27 Nov 2022]. Online:


James Crenshaw

James Crenshaw
Emeritus Professor, Duke University

James Crenshaw is the Robert L. Flowers Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at Duke University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Old Testament Wisdom (Westminster John Knox 2010), Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil (Oxford University Press, 2005), Qoheleth (University of South Carolina Press, 2013), and Reading Job (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).

Relating to agriculture, or (of a society) dependent on agriculture for food.

A charm or ornament worn for magical or spiritual protection.

A neutral term for the "A.D." period of years, i.e. the past two thousand years.

The writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, consisting of wedges pressed into clay.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

An island in the Nile River that housed a Judean military garrison in the Persian period.

Relating to ancient inscriptions

Dug up, often from an archaeological site.

Unauthorized writings or pictures drawn onto a wall or other public place.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The system of pictographic writing used in ancient Egyptian.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

An Israelite oasis in the Negev Desert, probably used as a way-station on Arabian trade routes during the period of the divided monarchy. The site is significant for an inscription found there dedicated to "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" and depicting a bull-like figure and a tree that many take to be representations of Yahweh and Asherah, respectively.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A stone inscribed in the Moabite language, commissioned by the Moabit king Mesha to celebrate his accomplishments, including a successful revolt against the kingdom of Israel (see 2 Kings 3).

Small fragments of clay pots, often bearing written inscriptions.

Works that claim to be written by authors that scholars have determined did not write them.

An upright stone slab usually inscribed or carved for commemorative purposes.

2Sam 11:14-17

David Has Uriah Killed
14In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah.15In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of ... View more

1Kgs 21:8-14

8So she wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city.9She wro ... View more

Num 6:24-27

24The Lord bless you and keep you;25the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;26the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you p ... View more

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