Boosting literacy by 1000%

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

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

Five years ago I linked to a post by Chris Rollston The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet:Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus the URL has changed,but the post is really interesting. I still have no desire to differ from Chris’ expert view his “story” is fascinating and largely convincing. Yet I still think he misrepresents the impact of his evidence on the rise of literacy due to the invention of the alphabet. One quote highlights the issue, and in it Rollston highlights some earlier silly claims:

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).

But the literacy estimates Rollston quotes show that for prealphabetic societies literacy rates were about 1%:

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).

Yet for societies using alphabetic scripts the estimates he quotes 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).

Taking, as an approximation, the middle of this range, the move from Cuneiform or Hieroglyphic may have merely increased literacy by a factor of ten, from 1% to 10%. This is an increase in literacy of 1000%, an imporessive achievement.  An increase in literacy levels this dramatic, or even at the lowest level Rollston’s figures suggest (half this increase or a factor of five or 500%), is quite high enough to produce exciting social consequences.

At 1% literacy few rural people would have easy access to someone who was literate, at 10% it is likely that within a few hours walk most would. Thus his own figures suggest that the alphabet would produce a true social revolution. Clearly not producing a modern writing based culture, but nevertheless bringing text and textuality into the realm of experience of ordinary people as well as elites.

Ahab, Megiddo and Jezreel


For my latest video in the Land of the Bible series we visit the Jezreel Valley. The focus of the video is on Megiddo (as the site that has more Iron Age remains for the visitor to see).

Tel Megiddo with its massive gate complex, large palace and associated military complex as well as the extensive storage buildings is a fine picture of a major military and administrative centre. The size of king Jeroboam’s grain silo also suggests the hard taxation required to pay for and operate such a centre. Megiddo is located to control the exit southward from the Jezreel Valley.

Jezreel has less to impress visitors today, but was also a significant base defending the entrance to the rich Jezreel Valley from the east. Jezreel has beautiful views, fertile surrounds and plentiful water, no wonder Ahab chose it as his alternate capital.

The biblical accounts of his reign do not focus so much on the magnificent “public works”, or the power of his army, but rather on the injustice and oppression that were associated with the rise of such magnificent kingship, and even more on the religious underpinnings of such kingship in the myths of the gods, in particular Ba’al the “lord” (ba’al) by right of conquest of the pantheon.

As you read 1 Kings 18 and 21 keep in mind these impressive and beautiful cities.

Mourning Ba’al and 1 Kings 18

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons
Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

A post at Carpe Scriptura 1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls”  highlights a problem for online biblical studies, there are no easily available translations of the Ugaritic narrative texts. The texts themselves can be downloaded in PDF Ugaritic Data Bank. The Text1 is available on, but as far as I can see no English translations are.(If you know of a source please let me know!)

So as background to my podcast comments on Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Ba’al in Humour in the Bible 11: 1 Kings: In an idol moment I offer this extract from Smith’s translation of the section KTU 1.5 l.8 to KTU 1.6 l.10a 2

Messengers announce the death of Ba’al

“We [c]ame upon Baal fallen to earth;
Dead is Mightiest Baal,
Perished the Prince. Lord of the Earth.”
Then Beneficent El the Benign
Descends from his seat. sits on the footstool,
[And] from the footstool. sits on the earth.
He pours dirt on his head for mourning,
Dust on his crown for lamenting;
For clothing he puts on sack-cloth.
With a stone he scrapes his skin,
Double-slits with a blade.
He cuts cheeks and chin,
Furrows the length of his am
He plows his chest like a garden,
Like a valley he furrows the back.
He raises his voice and cries;
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Dagan! What of the multitudes?
After Baal I will descend to Hell.”
Then Anat goes about hunting,
In every mountain in the heart of the earth,
In every hill [in the he]art of the fields.
She comes to the pleas[ant land of] the outback.
To the beautiful field of [the Realm] of Death;
She com[es] upon Baal
[For clothing] she puts on sack[cloth,]

The text continues on Sixth Tablet after the superscription in Column 1

With a stone she scrapes her skin.
Double-[sl]its [with a blade]
She cuts cheeks and chin,
[Furrows] the length of her arm.
She plows her chest like a garden.
Like a valley she furrows her back:
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Daganl What of the multitudes?
After Baal we will descend to Hell.”
To her descends the Divine Lamp, Shapsh,
As she weeps her fill,
Drinks her tears like wine.

  1.  Cunchillos, Jesús-Luis, José-Angel Zamora, and Juan-Pablo Vita. Ugaritic Data Bank The Texts. Madrid: Instituto de Filologia, CSIC, 2003. []
  2. Smith, Mark S., and Simon B. Parker. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. [Atlanta, Ga.]: Scholars Press, 1997, 149-151. []

Jacob Wright’s course, week two

Last week I offered some first impressions of Jacob Wright’s excellent MOOC The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future.

The second week’s lecture material has been interesting for two strikingly different reasons. Jacob presents a mediating view between “Minimalists” and “Maximalists”, sensibly taking the best ideas and arguments from both “sides”. Though many conservative viewers will feel in this week’s that he is too ready to ditch the Bible’s account in favour of alternative ways to explain the archaeological data. And therein lies the rub, for although usually careful to present the evidence and arguments that underlie his presentation [my impression was that] here and there at key points the viewer is asked to accept a scholarly consensus or the views of a few named scholars without the evidence being presented. [ Inaccurate example deleted, see comments below.]

The interviews with three scholars about their work on Assyrian imperial intentions, the lemelek seals and the Judean Pillar Figures were excellent at presenting data and reasoning.

I understand that in such a brief course one cannot argue and present evidence for every point, but I suspect that the lectures would carry more people with them if there had been time to lay the foundations more solidly.

For me the formal issue raises questions about my own teaching.

The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future: First Impressions

Since this session concerns the background to the emergence of “Israel” in Canaan the Mereneptah Stele is mentioned and shown several times, photo from Wikipedia

When Jacob Wright’s MOOC “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” was announced and promoted I posted about it on Facebook.

I’ve enrolled and have begun the first week (the course started on Monday, but my first criticism is that I did not get an email reminder until I visited the course site again today – one of the biggest problems with MOOCs in my experience is lack of feedback for the student1 ).

Jacob is a fine teacher he keeps his material lively, and has an engaging presence and voice. The video “lectures” are broken into convenient chunks (of varied size from a couple of minutes to nearly a quarter of an hour2 which for me works well (as someone who as a teen would have been diagnosed ADHD, if the designation existed in those far off days, I have a short attention span and lectures bore me). Each is closed by one or two simple multichoice questions. This is brilliant, it gives the student instant feedback, and if we get them right instant reward and the sense that we are learning something. (Or if we are ourselves Hebrew Bible teachers at least the sense that we listened closely enough ;)

The videos make very skillful use of animated still shots of artifacts and places with the occasional video clip thrown in to create the sense of a video production. The technical values are as one would expect from an official university production.

That’s the good news, and if you are thinking of enrolling, do! The list is not yet closed, and if I have not yet learned much that is (to me) new, I have gained some interesting perspectives and ideas on how to put the material together. This is a MOOC for beginners that specialists can learn from! A fine achievement.

The bad news is that the videos are not optimised for viewing on tablets or phones. On my Phablet the screen resolution is small enough that the video (if played in the browser) overlaps the screen. I have tried the two different formats, and turning my screen around etc. but so far have not found a comfortable way to use the mobile device. (On a PC, even a netbook, all is fine, I guess university testers unlike poor adjunct faculty and students use phones with hi-res screens!)

At this stage I’ll also add a comment that perhaps reflects my context. Jacob uses a lot of Latin expressions, more than my usual audience of Kiwis, Pacific and Asian people would be comfortable with. I am not sure why, as usually the Latin expression is less familiar to me than kit’s English equivalent (like “divide and rule”) perhaps US audiences need “long words” to demonstrate academic credentials? It’s odd because in most ways the presentation is very simple and accessible with the few technical terms explained…

  1. see below. []
  2. so far. []

Disbelieving the same god

“Unfortunately I was not able to gain access to the actual site.”

Deane Galbraith was kind enough to link to my podcast Was God married? Part two: the death of the goddess, as you might expect we do not see eye to eye. Deane prefers Stavrakopoulou’s version of things, pointing to a more recent TV show  in the BBC series, Bible’s Buried Secrets, in particular in episode 2.

In the programme Francesca rehearses much the same arguments more fully and in doing so the BBC provide stunning imagery and Stavrakopoulou presents the evidence well. The trouble is, she here also confounds history and theology, what happened in the past with what was written about it in the (more recent) past.

Her agenda is clear, and well-signposted. Near the beginning of the video she says:1

But there’s something about this ancient world that the Bible is not telling us… Hidden in its pages is a secret.

And according to her this “secret”:

Rocks the foundation of monotheism to its core.

Somewhat confusingly as the programme continues She changes her mind and says:

I think there’s evidence that the ancient Israelites also worshiped any gods… yet if you examine the biblical texts you find references to more than one god here in Jerusalem itself.

So, this is a “secret” when that suits her rhetorical needs “to undermine monotheism” but is clearly acknowledged in Scripture when admitting that suits her needs. This sort of fudging the evidence is not worthy of a scholar of her standing, though it does make “good television”.

In short (laying aside the places where Stavrokopoulou misrepresents the Bible, because she herself corrects those!) the facts are not at issue. Except at one point. She claims that biblical monotheism worships a male god, and she does not believe in such a god. I do not believe that the Bible presents Yahweh as a male god, and like her I do not believe in such a god.

  1. All quotations are my own transcriptions of the sound track, if there are any errors in the citations are problems of my hearing and I regret them.  []

Carnival time

The October Biblical Studies Carnival is up a blt Biblical Studies Carnival, blame the lateness on the storms of various genres that have struck the USA in recent weeks, or perhaps it was waiting for the added bacon to be ready ;) It is a fine collection with a wider than usual catchment, so everyone will find something new (to them) and potentially interesting :)

For even more added bacon I have used a photo from a post Poutine – It’s Canadian for heart attack  from Richard’s latest foray into blogging (or at least using WordPress as a public diary).  Is the carnival more poutine than BLT? Go see for yourself!

“Marriage Equality”?

The discussion/debate/fight about proposals that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry continues to provoke heat, rhetorical flourishes, opinion polls and petitions, but little light. Many people seem to have made up their minds, or at least to know where they stand on the issue,1 but for those of us who would like to think things through there is little food for our thought. Two articles provoked my thinking (from different directions) today.

First, David Instone-Brewer’s visual sermon “Jesus likes Children” with its visual from the Warren Cup2 was a harsh reminder of the brutal sexual cruelty Graeco-Roman culture took for granted. David wrote (only exaggerating a little?):

Here is a picture of a boy Jesus may have played with. I mean that quite literally.
– it comes from a silver goblet which was made near Bethlehem in about 10 AD
– so the model for this artist was born about the same time as Jesus
– he is dressed in the rags of a slave, but perhaps the model wasn’t a slave
– it is a cute picture, but you can’t see here what he is looking so worried about

It comes from the Warren Cup, which is on exhibit in the British Museum
– other museums had refused to buy it and the USA even refused it entry
– the USA customs considered it too pornographic to allow into the country
– but by the 1960’s when the British Museum bought it, attitudes had changed
– it shows two graphic scenes of adult male homosexual acts in progress
– and in the middle, is this door and the little boy worried by what he sees
– he is worried, probably, because he has been sent to service one of the men

Multitudes of children like him were victimised throughout the Roman empire
– Roman morality didn’t think that this was wrong, especially for slaves
– but Jesus thought this was wrong, and was incensed by it.

Detail from the Warren Cup, from Wikimedia

Whatever our “modern” liberal culture believes sexuality is dangerous and left without social and legal controls will cause untold harm. (This recognition could be used to argue either side of the “debate”, but for me it instantly disposes of the trite claim that the decision is a small one.)

The second food for thought came from an article with the off-putting title “Those kinky Hebrews: marriage in the Judeo-Christian scriptures“. I expected the usual simplistic Abraham, Isaaand Jacob (not to mention the Hebrew kings) had decidedly dodgy family structures, so anything goes. However, though Alan Austin does descend to such depths often he works at a more sophisticated level. Not least he points out clearly how the laws of the Pentateuch attempt to legislate (and mitigate?) some decidedly odd sexual and family practices.

The better parts of his article are a sharp reminder that simplistic arguments from Scripture do not work. All in all I thoroughly recommend to those in or near Auckland the forthcoming Carey Conversation on Same Sex Marriage.

  1. Which is not always the same things at all, for many seem to simply accept their community’s understanding as “obvious” without thought. []
  2. David and the British Museum assume it to be genuine, I’m more sceptical of such dubiously provenanced “antiquities” of great value, but actually  it does not matter for my point here, since the genuineness of the artifact is not germane. []

West and Southern Baptists

Dr Southern Baptist Convention the famous blogger, biblical minimalist, pastor and insomniac

The Southern Baptist Convention is apparently considering a name change. Jim West is upset (about this, as he is about so many other things). He’s thinking himself  that he’d “like to follow suit and consider a name-change for myself “.

I have a great suggestion:

How about changing your name to “Southern Baptist Convention” the first name echoes your existing surname, the second reflects your adherence, and Convention reminds us that names are merely convenient conventions :)

And besides, that way we’ll still have a Southern Baptist Convention to moan about even after the existing one is gone West ;)

Encyclopedia of Hebrew terms for tools

What a great resource, and free online instead of expensive dead trees from Brill :)

The כלי Database: Utensils in the Hebrew Bible from Het Oudtestamentisch Werkgezelschap (the Dutch and Flemish society of Old Testament scholars) looks really excellent a great source of information on all those awkward terms that refer to various sorts of tool or implement. Unfortunately the first term I looked up מִזְרָק from Am 6:6 does not appear to have been entered yet :( but the list is already impressively long.

The format is a series of PDF files, which allows the appearance to be controlled, but makes usage somewhat less easy and reuse much less easy compared to XML and CSS, but it will have made production easier :) It is sad that there are few or no illustrations. At a time when images are getting easier to find and permission to use more likely to be freely given. However, entries have a section pointing readers to illustrations in reference works in their library.

In short this seems a really useful tool, and one we can be grateful they are publishing in such an open fashion. It also offers an interesting set of compromises between traditional forms and the new medium. It will be fascinating to see over coming decades how many and which such compromises continue to be made, representing what is culturally important about print. For example in this case the physical layout of print with page and line breaks was deemed significant.

HT: Jim West