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.

Bibliophilia: the pastors’ besetting sin?

Too many books?

This networked socially-mediated world is fascinating. Despite all the shallowness (e.g. people “liking” a post that speaks of mass deaths of Rohingya refugees while knowing little of the horrific facts of their tragedy), I also get to see deeper inside friends and colleagues.

Some (of my friends at least) are grammar nazis, determined to keep us all on the linguistic straight and narrow. Many are incensed or delighted (or more often both in opposing turns) at the latest issue. But I discern a worrying trend among pastors and Bible teachers. Bibliophilia gone mad.

Pastors have always been bibliophiles, or at least have been since the adoption of moveable type (in the Guttenberg revolution) reduced the price of books. When I was a trainee pastor (back in the 1970s) we compared libraries, and eagerly debated which were the essential commentaries to buy on this or that Bible book.

The advent of e-texts and computer Bible software has, in some ways, had little overt impact as yet. Many pastors are innately conservative, and prefer the pleasures of a print book to the cheaper but less conspicuous e-texts. Many still brag about the physical endowment of their libraries. Size sometimes is everything!

Yet waiting on the margins is a slowly growing colossus. Top of the range deluxe Bible software (like Logos or Accordance) the array of reference works and secondary literature one can acquire for Logos is mind-blowing. Everything from the Patristic writers in original languages or translation to the latest “Christian classic”, alongside lexicons “for Africa” (as they say).

And there’s the rub, these goodies are NOT for Africa, or any other place that is poor but still perhaps (despite this fact) in need of the gospel and of good preaching. They resource only the rich and comfortable of the world. Still, forget the poor for a moment, there are base packages for everyone, for Baptists they range all the way up to the magnificent “Baptist diamond” package at just US$3,449.95 (don’t be put off by the price, it includes more than 2,500 “resources” and you can pay on the never never, just 24 payments of US$148.75 per month). Perhaps you are not a “platinum pastor”, you can always settle for three steps down and the measly “Silver” (at just US$999.95 it still has 700 resources to enliven and enrich your preaching, and it to can be acquired on tick, 18 payments of US$60.55 per month).

Pity about all the good those dollars could have done to support Christians were life is less good than here! Still they are used to hardship, they’ll cope. There is no choice, my congregation demands top notch preaching, and so I NEED those “resources”…

Well no, you don’t! Unless you are doing academic research for publication in esoteric journals the free Bible software STEP Bible has all the Bible texts and links to original languages (that probably you have not actually learned) that you need. It’s easy to use, and what’s more will not demand that you “upgrade” your hardware every couple of years like the “top notch” software does.

Commentaries? True STEP has no built in scholarly commentaries. But there are plenty available on Google books (as long as you can stand not having the “very best” in every case, but can settle for mere “jolly good scholarship”). Just think the $100 (or more?) you save on this not quite so essential Bible software might train a pastor, provide clean water for a village…

Why not explore STEP, it has more Bible study goodies than Calvin, Augustine, Paul or your favourite theologian or evangelist could begin to dream. Search Google Books for “commentary BIBLE BOOKNAME” with “preview available” under search tools/any books.

Wash your hairy feet! OR Sometimes a foot is just a foot

[Back when I was new to Facebook, I did not know how to bring blog posts into this (then) new (to me) medium. So I began posting some posts on Facebook. This was the very first, and I still rather like it :) ]
Sean the Baptist has a post ‘And with two they covered their feet’ in which he repeats the conventional wisdom that “feet” is (sometimes) a euphemism in the Hebrew Bible. Basically the idea is: 

That is that the word for feet רַגְלָיו sometimes refers to what we might politely call ‘other parts of the (male) anatomy’. 

I have never really been convinced by the claim. Sean cites the following passages as the best evidence for this supposed usage (the order is mine, as are the comments in straight type):

Exodus 4.25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”
Now why on earth would one suppose that “feet” here is a euphemism – after all no euphemism was used for “foreskin” עָרְלַת seems explicit enough.

Deuteronomy 11.10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.
In Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing? No wonder they brewed so much beer! Or maybe the small earth dams on irrigation ditches are quite easily broken by foot?

Ruth 3.7: When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down.
If this one is a euphemism, does it not remove all the tension from the chapter where the most significant “gap” the hearer must fill is: “Did they or didn’t they?” there is plenty of other innuendo in the chapter to build up the tension, without this (possible, maybe) one.
Isaiah 6.2: Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
Really? Now why should face and feet not simply mean face and feet? Please explain!

Isaiah 7.20: On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well.
Hairy feet or hairy [euphemism]? Which is more plausible? Though I suppose if the euphemism is for the whole genital area, this one might make sense.

Judges 3.24: After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself (literally ‘covering his feet’) in the cool chamber.” cf. 1 Sam. 24.3
At first sight, this one is good! In this sample I am almost convinced, there is a good case to answer, though why “covering his feet” should be a euphemism for peeing, and not merely another example of the rather gross schoolboy humour of the passage I am unclear.

2 Samuel 11.8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king.
Could be a euphemism, but then it could be that the sentence is euphemistic even if the “feet” are literal. “Wash your feet” = “make yourself at home”…

So, in the end, what evidence is there for this conventionally supposed common euphemism? Two cases where you might argue with some strength that reading euphemistically is the “best” reading, a couple more where it might just be possible but overall I’d say: No case to answer. In the Bible feet are just that. And Eglon as well as excessively fat, and greedy, also was known to his servants as having a poor aim. As the sign in our downstairs loo read for a while (we had teenage boys in the house) “We aim to please. You aim too, please!”

[Back in those heady days bloggers used to respond to one another, instead of, as we do today, merely writing to ourselves – which is perhaps the second sign of madness.]

Following my post Wash your hairy feet! Sean-the-Baptist updated his post ‘And with two they covered their feet‘ to respond (briefly within the limits of time available) to my critique of the commonplace notion that “feet” in the Hebrew Bible can often serve as a euphemism for “male organ”.

On Deut. 11.10: the point is exactly that the Promised Land will be naturally fertile and thus will not require irrigation by other means (of course the language is symbolic, irrigation is as necessary there as in Egypt in reality). Tim asks ‘in Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing?’ – well no, but neither is there literal milk and honey flowing in Israel-Palestine, and perhaps good deal more irrigation took place by this means than by carrying water on your foot (images of hopping with a bucket attached anyone?)

But why interpret the language as “symbolic” whatever that means here, I had assumed that even read as a euphemism the use was intended literally.

Irrigating with the feet would then refer to the habit of opening and closing irrigation ditches using the feet. While I cannot really see how the euphemistic reading works, in the promised land water falls from the sky, while in Egypt humans had to pee to water the ground – presumably entailing frequent trips to the irrigation ditch to drink…

On Ruth we basically agree – except whether Boaz’ “feet” are literal or euphemistic (I still wonder at the plural euphemism here?).

On Is 6:2 Sean brings up the topic of ANE iconography, as Jim Getz said in a comment on a post: Another “Feet” Euphemism in the Hebrew Bible? on this topic on Shibboleth I think I was convinced by Keel’s identification of the Seraphim here with Egyptian uraus snakes, my copy of Keel is at college, so i can’t check, but I do not remember these snakes as having prominent phalluses which might need covering to preserve Hebrew modesty! On Is 7:20 I am quite willing to agree thsat ritual humiliation is in view, and that a euphemistic reading is possible. But when the “head to foot” shaving seems to cover that pretty comprehensively I do not see the need to invent a new “euphemistic” reading. (And that is really my point, I believe that those who repeat conventional wisdom and claim a common euphemism in Biblical Hebrew “feet” = “phallus” need to provide some evidence to support this view. And where simply reading “feet” as “those two things we walk on that stop our legs fraying at the ends” works fine then they have NOT provided such evidence EVEN IF “phallus” works just as well.

Uraeus. Col. Tutkhamón from 

On 2 Sam 11:8, again we agree in our interpretation of the passage, and IF the feet-euphemism were already (on the basis of evidence) established it would make a good reading here. However, it is not it is merely “traditional” in biblical scholarship. AND reading feet literally works fine.

Result, I am still unconvinced that this particular item of “popular wisdom” has a leg to stand upon! Sometimes in the Bible, when you read “feet” they do simply mean “feet”, now on the basis of Ugaritic evidence one might I think (someone could ask Duane about the abnormally interesting uses of “finger” in those texts, and perhaps also look at Hebrew Bible texts like 1 Kings 12:10).

Deportation and return as stimulus for textualisation

One of the highlights for me of this week’s episodes of Jacob Wright’s excellent The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future was the interview with doctoral student Aubrey Buster. Her paper, by comparing the treatment of contested belonging within communities in Athens and Jerusalem (at approximately the same time), offers an exciting empirical support for theories that the experience of the dislocation of the Judean elite (deportation and return) led to the greater textualisation of Judaism.

She spoke of comparing Athenian citizenship trials, which depended on personal testimony to support someone’s claim to be a member in good standing of the community (by ancestral descent) with the claims of Ezra-Nehemiah that such issues in (post-exilic) Judah were established primarily on the basis of documents. It is often claimed that the experience of dislocation of the Judean elite led to the writing, editing and/or authorising of many of the biblical texts. I have not previously seen contemporary evidence used to support the claim in this sort of way.

Such research is excellent in itself, but also within such a course presenting current research not only gives students the sense of an open discipline, but also shows how evidence and argument can be used to better understand the biblical texts.

It also helps to firm op our understanding of the social and technological history of writing in relation to Scripture – an ongoing interest of mine :)

How English-speakers misunderstand the gender of God

English uses natural gender, inanimate objects are neuter “it” while animals and humans are gendered along the lines of the individual’s sex (except for some dialects)1 where the sex of the individual is unknown a guess is made (with e.g. cats being often assumed female and dogs male) rather than the neuter used. This usage means that many English-speakers have difficulty understanding languages that use grammatical gender. Since Hebrew is such a language, with only two genders “masculine” and “feminine”, this creates problems for discussions of the gender of God.

English-speakers, based on how their language treats sexual identity, and surprised by the novel idea of this being attributed to inanimate objects,2 assume that, where language refers to people, “gender” in some way correlates with identity. And, of course, if we are talking correlations, it does. Men are usually “he” and women “she”. Except, not always. In French3 if one speaks of a woman (f)4 who is a government minister (m)5 then the grammatical gender one uses, and hence the pronouns used to refer to her, will depend on whether the reference is to her name:Marie would be referred to later as elle (she), or her function: le ministre will be referred to later as il (he).

In Hebrew the word for God ‘elohim is masculine, as is God’s name yhwh. But what does this imply about God’s sexual identity (or indeed gender in whatever non-grammatical sense)?

Tony Reinke in an article Our Mother Who Art In Heaven? on John Piper’s Desiring God website argues that this data implies that God is in some sense masculine.

His argument is based on work by John Cooper whose book Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, [amtap book:isbn=080102188X] whom he quotes:

Linguistically, all the clear and plausible instances of feminine reference to God are imagery or figures of speech: similes, analogies, metaphors, and personification. . . . there are no cases in which feminine terms are used as names, titles, or invocations of God, and thus there are no feminine pronouns for God. There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term, even a metaphorical predicate noun. In other words, God is never directly said to be a mother, mistress, or female bird in the way he is said to be a father, king, judge, or shepherd.6

Notice that Cooper’s argument is not merely the crude misunderstanding I have outlined above. Though he seems to give weight to this misunderstanding :( “There are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term,” his more significant claim is that: “God is never directly said to be a mother, mistress, or female bird in the way he is said to be a father, king, judge, or shepherd.”

I challenged this argument in chapter 5 section 4 of my book Not Only a Father. There I engaged with Elizabeth Achtemeier as a strong representative of the claim that masculine and feminine imagery for God works in different ways. She had used more traditional language to express the argument, father language about God is metaphorical while mother language is merely comparison (simile).

Basically I have two problems with Achtemeier’s and Cooper’s argument:

  1. I am not convinced that the neat distinction of how metaphor and simile (direct identification and comparison)  operate in Biblical Hebrew can be sustained. When God is described as “being” a father or the rock (m) of our salvation (Ps 95:1) always only some aspects of rocks and of fathers are in view in any place. Just as is the case also when God is described as like a mother, or indeed as “being” the rock (f) of Israel (Gen 49:24).7
  2. I am however convinced that to call God father in ways which are significantly different from the ways one refers to “him” as mother is idolatry. Such talk (whether indulged in by Achtemeier, a biblical scholar, or Cooper, a philosophical theologian) makes God a member of one class of beings (male or masculine) and not a member of another (female or feminine). Such a partial8 god, one who is precisely a god and not a goddess, is not the God of Scripture.

For more on this see my book Not Only a Father.

  1. In some dialects of English, especially in the westcountry, inanimate objects have gender, a wardrobe is “he”, a fork “she” and so on. []
  2. With only two grammatical genders every noun must be “gendered” []
  3. Another language with two grammatical genders. []
  4. I’ll identify feminine words as (f) and masculine ones as (m). Since she is a woman this ascription of feminine gender to her does seem natural. []
  5. The word ministre is masculine. []
  6. John Cooper, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Baker, 1998), 89. []
  7. Incidentally, I must sometime check Cooper’s book to see how he deals with that last case… []
  8. Pun intended []

Are Hebrew Bible scholars cooler?

OT scholars are way cooler than NT scholars. Maybe funnier, too.
(David Ker in a comment on my podcast Humour in the Bible: 21B: Ecclesiastes (again))

Photo by Otto Phokus

All I should say is: you might possibly think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

But I will offer a challenge to those Old Testament scholars (and would-be scholars) applying for my job to see if they can help instantiate his claim. And to those New Testament people applying for George’s job, you have a hard act to follow!

Incidentally I think we OT people have a head start, after all the NT was written in Greek, and it is a well-known fact that the Greek language causes people to claim to think logically and rationally, whereas Hebrew is the language of relationship, and relationships are always funny.1

PS: I also challenge all you NT scholars out there to start producing podcasts or blog posts that show examples of humour from every book of the NT to match my series covering humour in the Hebrew Bible :)

  1. PPS yesterday was our 36th wedding anniversary, and we still make each other smile, so it must be so ;) []

Liminality? Well transgressing boundaries…

I do not like boundaries. (Well except the ones I erect to keep the animals in ;) It is fun to cross borders, things are different on the other side. Travel broadens the mind.

So, for my latest Librivox reading I’ve tried two of La Lontaine’s Fables both from book 9. Both were fun, and both, for an anglophone, mind-twisting. I read:

05 – L’Écolier, le Pédant, et le Maître d’un jardin – 00:02:48
[mp3@64kbps – 1.3MB]


08 – Le Fou qui vend la Sagesse – 00:02:23
[mp3@64kbps – 1.1MB]

But what a shame that so few people try to experience the “otherness” of Scripture by learning to read in Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic, but all that effort for just a few chapters may be more understandable laziness).

PS for my English readings of other really good literature (one example which involves transgressing borders is Kipling’s American Notes) here’s the list so far.

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.

Articulated texts

Articulated trucks are easier to turn ;) photo by crabchick)

In this post I am NOT thinking of the clear or muffled ar-tic-u-lation that my speech teacher prized, but the other sort. And, teaching “Understanding and Interpreting the Bible” this week the topic of textual articulation came to the fore. First in trying to explain the nature and function of a “conjunction”  to students who have no understanding of grammar (not even those who attended secondary schools with “Grammar” proudly flaunted in their historic names).

Conjunctions, I said are the (often little) words that join and articulate text. They tell us how the parts work together. As such they are very important clues to what a text is doing.

They are. And all1 languages have them. But2 not all languages have them, or use them, equally. And3 they certainly do not use them in the same places. Different languages and different speakers articulate their texts differently.

For this week on spotting the workings of text at a local level, we studied 1 Tim 6:17-19. Most of our students do not learn Greek or Hebrew :(4 so we were working on an English text and with English grammar. 1 Timothy 6:19 provides a nice example:

thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
ἀποθησαυρίζοντας ἑαυτοῖς θεμέλιον καλὸν εἰς τὸ μέλλον, ἵνα ἐπιλάβωνται τῆς ὄντως ζωῆς.

Eduard von Grützner's Falstaff from Wikipedia

Actually the NIV makes the point more dramatically opening the verse “In this way” where the Greek just has a participle. Hebrew texts offer even more of these challenges, since the paratactic constructions favoured by the language use fewer written markers of syntax.

At which point I’ll call back my speech teacher, a grandiloquent old act-tor, for it is only by articulating a written text clearly that we can begin to understand it. For where written grammatical markers of syntax are lacking only clear articulation can “make sense” of the text.

  1. Or at least, all that I have studied so far. []
  2. Yes, I know this is the second time I have started a sentence with a conjunction :) I do hope all prescriptive grammarians are spinning like tops in their graves, or soon will be, since prescriptive grammar is unnecessary and unwanted. Well actually it is not, I need to know that starting sentences with conjunctions is “wrong” for my use of this construction to be chosen for effect, and not mere carelessness. So prescripts you may cease your rotations forthwith :) []
  3. Yes, a third! When you are on a roll it is hard to stop ;) []
  4. No, I don’t know how someone can be a serious Bible student without the languages, either. Though I note that only Greek was compulsory at Oxford, and that I failed to take Hebrew, to my shame. To Oxford’s shame I believe that even Greek is now not required for the Honours School of Theology :( []