Articles for the Month of August 2010

Literacy rates and culture

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Chris Rollston has a fascinating post “The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet: Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus.” On the whole it is clear and convincing. But I want to take issue with a side issue. In section II. “Literacy in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean” he is concerned to show that the inventors of the alphabet were most likely to have been members of the elite. Among his arguments he seeks to show that literacy was never a mass phenomenon in the Ancient world. In doing so he poo poos notions that the introduction of the alphabet expanded the availability of literacy so widely as to be able to be seen as a social revolution.

Some have suggested that with the invention of the alphabet, literacy rates rapidly became quite high, with both elites and non-elites writing and reading (note: these two skills are related, but quite different). For example, during the middle of the twentieth century, W.F. Albright stated that “since the forms of the letters are very simple, the 22-letter alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student and in a week or two by the dullest.” And he proceeded to affirm that he did “not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in various parts of Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges” (Albright 1960, 123). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, R. Hess made similar statements. For example, regarding ancient Israel, he states that there is “continually increasing evidence for a wide variety of people from all walks of life who could read and write.” In addition, he states that he believes “the whole picture is consistent with a variety of [literate] classes and groups, not merely a few elites” (Hess 2006, passim 342-345).

Now, the Albright quote is wildly exaggerated, and Hess’ claims are probably also over-optimistic. But the literacy estimates quotes show that:

for Egypt, literacy rates are often estimated to be at ca. one-percent or lower, and confined to elites (see Baines and Eyre,1983, 65-96; note that even at Deir el-Medina it is elites that are writing). For Mesopotamia, Larsen believes that one-percent is also a reasonable figure (see Larsen, 1989, 121-148, esp. 134).

While the rates he quotes for societies using alphabetic scripts his estimates are between five and fifteen percent:

Rather, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the population was not literate. Note, for example, that W. Harris (1989, 114, 267, 22) has argued that literacy rates in Attica were probably ca. five percent to ten percent and those in Italy were probably below fifteen percent (note: within this volume [passim], Harris has cogently critiqued those that have proposed high(er) rates of literacy).

If, as an approximation, we took the middle of this range, the result is that the move from Cuneiform or Hieroglyphic may have merely increased literacy by a factor of ten, or by one thousand percent! My guess is that an increase in literacy levels this dramatic, or even at the lowest level Rollston’s figures suggest (a factor of five or five hundred percent), is quite high enough to produce exciting social consequences.

A pig and a sheep to celebrate

One of my really neat children1 has given me a cool present to celebrate our new “farm” – our new home outside Tauranga with 3 hectares of which several paddocks as well as some bush. He’s given me a pig and a sheep :)

They won’t live on our farm though, rather a guy in Cambodia is looking after the pig, while a woman in Afganistan cares for the sheep. And all thanks to Oxfam unwrapped (if Oxfam and global poverty is not your charity there are all sorts of other possibilities to make your next present something “different” and meaningful).


  1. I use the word in its relational not chronological sense, since he is a mature man, not a child. []

Abandoning Universitas

The Bodleian library is for many a symbol of Universitas (photo Wikimedia)

Inside Higher Education writes that Rice University is closing its all-digital university press (for a brief summary and reflection on the article see AKMA’a post):

Rice University Press is being shut down next month, ending an experiment in an all-digital model of scholarly publishing. While university officials said that they needed to make a difficult economic decision to end the operation, they acted against the recommendations of an outside review team that had urged Rice to bolster its support for the publishing operations

What this means is not that we can all smile wisely and pontificate that the codex has been given a new lease of life, but that the Academy is apparently not a place where experiment and trial of new things can flourish, a project needs to be economically sound to live in the 21st century University.

Universitas in the 21st century? (Photo Wikimedia)

Yet the idea of Universitas is fundamentally concerned with the creation, preservation and transmition of knowledge. This description (from John Etchemendy, Provost of Stanford University on Philosophy Talk) is unimaginative, ancient, and leaves out the possibility that Universitas may aspire to something more than “knowledge”, but it does describe some sort of highest common factor (or for the non-mathematically literate “lowest common denominator” ;) aspiration of Universitas.

Meanwhile, print academic presses are struggling. Digital dissemination is apparently seen as not economically viable. But how sad that a University (and especially the one that had had the courage to try something new)  has to abandon its role as crucible of innovation.  It makes the publishing innovations of SBL all the more important, if the Education Industry is failling in its calling to assist the dissemination of complex ideas maybe associations of scholars can help to fulfil the mission of Universitas?

The gentle art of the abstract

Taking notes by @boetter Jacob Bøtter

I have abstracts on my mind, we are collecting the hoard submitted for the Spiritual | Complaint colloquium, and arranging them into possible sections for the book, while hoping for more for the Isaiah and Empire colloquium which otherwise looks like requiring each participant to write two chapters ;)

In the meanwhile I was writing to a nervous postgraduate researcher who has to produce an abstract for a presentation to our research seminar. I had commented that the function of an abstract was to “sell” your paper as interesting and something the reader might want to hear. She suggested mentioning chocolate, so I replied:

“I think outright bribery is frowned upon, but massaging the abstract, or filling it with wishful thinking is normal.

This paper will explore...” means “I really hope that this line of approach, that I have not tried yet, sounds really interesting to me, and I hope that maybe it will allow me to have something worthwhile to say by the time the event comes round.
Previous research has shown...” either means “I think I read somewhere, but can’t for the life of me be sure, that…” or possibly “This current paper is a rehash of work I did last year which I am tarting up in the hopes of another publication, because I am too busy to think of new ideas.”

Do you have suggested “translations” for similar stock phrases from abstracts? (Not phrases you have used, of course, but ones that others might use that have a similar split between surface and deep meanings ;)

Spammed by Biblical Archaeology Review

I won’t link to their site, but if you are interested you know the URL. Love it or hate it BAR is a significant commercial enterprise interested in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East, and in the days before Flickr I benefited from their photo sets for teaching. But when someone identified as:

Author : Sara Murphy (IP: ,
E-mail :

posts a lengthy advertising piece with two links to their site on my “About” page (Do I even have an about page? Let alone one that mentions “Biblical” archaeology?) I see red! This is spam, and I’ve labeled it as such. If you use WordPress and they spam you please mark it as Spam, that way the innocent may be protected by Akismet from giving nearly free advertising to BAR.

PS: I have also written to Ms Murphy suggesting that her employer may not appreciate being labeled as a spammer. I will post any reply here.

Isaiah and Empire: Colloquium: Call for Papers

Colloquium and Book

Call for papers:

Aoraki Mt Cook across Lake Pukaki, NZ

This colloquium (sponsored by Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School in Auckland, New Zealand) will explore cultural and theological implications of aspects of the book of Isaiah in the context of empire. Potential papers might include, but are by no means limited to:

  • readings of particular texts in the light of ancient imperial contexts
  • studies of the redaction history of Isaiah
  • Isaiah (or a particular text) in contemporary “imperial” or post-colonial contexts
  • theological reflections
  • cross cultural perspectives on Isaiah in imperial contexts
  • contemporary political reflections

The colloquium will take place in Auckland, NZ, on 14th-15th February 2011 (this is summertime in NZ but after schools have begun for the year). Since we intend to publish a book with the same title in 2011, draft papers will be circulated among participants in 2010 and final form submitted by April 15th 2011.

Please send enquiries and abstracts before 30th September 2010 to:

Dr Tim Bulkeley or
Dr Tim Meadowcroft

For some reason SBL do not seem to have added this colloquium to their online listing, despite emailing them, though SOTS and some other professional societies have circulated the Call for Papers. In order to make it better known please either repost this, or email the link to any scholar you know with an interest in Isaiah.

Email pastoring

Langugaes are wonderful, so when I rearched for a CC licensed image with the term "email" this photo by 23dingenvoormusea appeared. The caption reads "kruis van koper en email"

Over the years, and I began being Internet active with the Amos commentary material in 1995 (so it is 15 years), I have had several contacts by email in which I have “pastored” for a while people I have never met or seen. They are only words on a screen.  Yet I call these fragile and somewhat tenuous relationships pastoring. Why?

Usually these correspondences start with an email that asks a question. Often the question may seem factual, but usually suggests some possibility that it is “really” about something deeper. Then gradually, or sometimes swiftly, the person I am “talking” with comes to trust me, and the talk goes deeper. Obviously the anonymity of the medium, the fact that we do not meet face to face, share friends, and live in different countries is part of what enables these conversations to take place.

Perhaps therefore, it is because of the severe limitations of the medium that these conversations can take place at all. Maybe email pastoring reaches places physical pastors cannot reach…

I wonder though how many such relationships I have refused, without knowing it, by a swift hard response to a “trivial” question from a unknown reader of my websites and blogs…

Divine kings in “Israel”?

Shapur II investiture at Taq-e Bustan: the "God Mithra emerges from a Lotus flower, crowned by a lightning sun, holding the Barsum (wood bundle symbol of divine power). At the right side, god Ahuramazda wearing his classical crenellated crown gives the king the Farshiang ( ribboned ring symbol of royal power). ... their heads are on the same level suggesting the king is equal to gods.

It’s all Steve’s fault, though all he seems to have intended (by his post at Sects and Violence in the Ancient World) was to start a fine old argument about ancient space aliens and pyramids ;) But then Duane took it up and threw an interesting (Naturally and abnormally interesting one ;) )) spanner, into the works, asking how Christian talk of Jesus as divine impacts our reading of talk of divine kingship in the ANE.

But it is Jim Getz’ Musings on Divine Kingship that really got me thinking.1 After an all-too brief tour of the ANE, and some highly pertinent remarks on the small and insignificant nature of whatever “Israel” actually was at the time, he wrote:

There are hints of divine kingship in the Bible. Psalm 2 is the premiere example, but others could be cited as well. However, these data are always somewhat cryptic. Surely the Deuteronomists saw the king’s role in the cult highly conscribed. Both P and H pass over the king in silence. The writer of Ezekiel 40-48 envisions an extremely limited role for rulers in his eschatological temple. Does this indicate a reevaluation of the king’s divine status in light of the realities of foreign hegemony, or does it hearken back to ideas found in Ugaritic texts?

I wonder, is this all? There are admittedly few ascriptions of divinity, or even permanent sacral status, to kings in the Hebrew Scriptures (though Psalm 110, especially in the light of its use in Hebrews, is an interesting addition to his list), but there are more passages that directly or indirectly protest against or undermine such claims. Ezek 28 is the most obvious example, though of course one might claim that the wrongness of the prince of Tyre’s aretalogy2 consists (in part) in the fact that he had no “real” claim to be an emperor. And yet, since I am teaching Gen 2-3 currently, I have to admit that I wonder how far the burlesque elements of that narrative are crafted to subvert such claims. And if it was then surely the claims being subverted must have been nearer to the writer than the prince of Tyre?

The lady [or at least Scripture] doth protest too much, methinks.”

  1. As opposed to merely listening with interest. []
  2. First person text, usually a poem, in which a deity lists their attributes and titles, the Isis aretalogies have been compared to the self-presentations of Lady Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures. []

WordPress to codex :)

TaDa a codex! (Photo by Friar's Balsam)

The Center for History and New Media, George Mason University the people who brought us Zotero, the neat simple free “just does what it should” bibliography manager have held a One Week | One Tool project funded by the (US) National Endowment for the Humanities. The tool they produced (only 0.3 alpha as yet to be fair) they call Anthologize.

Anthologize is a free, open-source, plugin that transforms WordPress 3.0 into a platform for publishing electronic texts. Grab posts from your WordPress blog, import feeds from external sites, or create new content directly within Anthologize. Then outline, order, and edit your work, crafting it into a single volume for export in several formats, including—in this release—PDF, ePUB, TEI.

I wonder if we could use it with some other WordPress plugins to make making FOSOTT easier? And what about collaborating on and publishing the output of a colloquium? Like the Isaiah and Empire one?

The only trouble is, to get full brownie points in the academic system we may need to use a conventional respected print publisher, and I doubt any of them will be happy with opting into such a system :( How come systems (like the NZ “Performance Based Research Funding” exercise or US tenure committees) end up stifling innovative ways of undertaking basic scholarly tasks like publishing the results of research? Still FOSOTT wouldn’t count for such purposes anyway – it is merely teaching!

HT: Digital Campus

Plagiarism as toilet training

By didbygraham

Plagiarism has been a hot topic in staff rooms over recent years, and there has been a flurry of interest in the social media over the last day or two. Charles Halton has a nicely provocative piece Authors or Criminals? as well as attempting to set felines among columbida:

What’s all the fuss about?

We live in a very odd culture that extends ownership rights to non-tangible things like ideas and words.  However, these are relatively modern inventions.  Within the ancient world there was no such thing as “intellectual property” or even “authorship” as we understand it.  Literature was composed not by individuals but by communities–whether these communities were sitting around campfires recounting stories real or fiction or in between or whether the communities were scholars writing for other scholars.  Within the ancient world literature developed over time and subsequent generations of composers used previous work in order to fashion their own accounts.  Hardly any scholar put their name on their work (there are a couple exceptions of acrostic poems which spell out a scribe’s name).

All this fuss about plagiarism has me thinking–are students merely reverting to an ancient view of authorship?

This post has generated a fascinating discussion of “ancient” authorship and its conventions, the comment thread is well worth a look! But I want to address that final question: “All this fuss about plagiarism has me thinking–are students merely reverting to an ancient view of authorship?”

Firstly: I am thinking of students operating in a Western academic context, I am aware that different considerations apply to students of other cultures operating within those cultural settings. “You cannot step into the same river twice.”1 Culture has moved on and so has technology, in a world of Zotero the habits of Baruch are no longer applicable.

Secondly: Plagiarism is a matter of respect. If I present another’s words or ideas as if they were mine I fail to respect them treating their work as of no value to me. I also fail to respect myself, for by failing to distinguish my own contribution to the conversation, or indeed situate it within a conversation, I suggest it is of no value.

Thirdly: Plagiarism is a matter of socialisation. There ain’t no such animal as a “digital native” we all, including your twelve-year-old, learned to speak video and audio we have been socialised into these modes of discourse just as we were once toilet trained. We can all no matter how young or old (within limits, but these are limits to all aspects of academic life) be socialised into citing our sources, just as we can all (again with only fairly extreme limits) be socialised into not depositing our excreta here and there as the urge takes us!

There are no digital natives. Indeed on the issues of plagiarism and citation, our classes commonly have students between late teens and seventies, with the majority between twenties and fifties, I have most problems with those in the middle of this range. The young are eager and willing to learn, the old also (or at that stage of life they would not have undertaken a course of formal education). It’s some of the the middle aged, fat and forty, fat in mind not necessarily body, who won’t learn! But, if you won’t learn, then you fail. End of story :(

  1. Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragment 41; Quoted by Plato in Cratylus []