Review: Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age

I said I wasn’t going to review this book because I didn’t feel I had much expertise to bring to a review, but I wrote one for Amazon anyway and figured I would post it here in case anyone might be interested.

Rollston, Christopher A. Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age. Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010. ISBN: 1589831071. Pp. xix + 148. $21.95.

Rollston’s volume provides an excellent introduction to Northwest Semitic epigraphy (with an aim to illuminating ancient Israelite scribalism and literacy) that engages academic concerns without sacrificing accessibility. Readers will be introduced to the history of the alphabet, its development over time, and its bearing on literacy and scribal education in ancient Israel. Numerous illustrations, many competently executed by the author, supplement the author’s discussions of the relevant scripts and their development. Contemporary issues like non-provenanced inscriptions and the presence of “scribal schools” in Israel are also handled with methodological care.

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel is divided into two broad sections. The first introduces the history and nature of the epigraphic record, while the second examines the ancient scribal discipline and its relationship to literacy in ancient Israel. After a brief introduction which outlines important methodological considerations, Rollston’s first chapter briefly surveys the history of the alphabet, followed in the second with an analysis of the Phoenician script and its influence on writing in surrounding locales. The third chapter examines the form and function of the epigraphic record, providing a valuable introduction to the various media used to transmit the Northwest Semitic scripts, as well as representative examples of each. Rollston has written more technical publications on many of the inscriptions he discusses, and so in many cases promotes his own interpretations of the data, but his reputation for methodological caution should assuage any fear of being misled.

Rollston’s second section begins with a very brief (six pages) discussion of the reputation enjoyed by scribes in the ancient Near East. It is followed by an examination of evidence for scribal education in ancient Israel. This section of the book overlaps with recent publications on scribalism in ancient Israel by David Carr, Karel van der Toorn, and Bill Schniedewind. I found it provides a valuable supplement to those publications, treating the question of the existence of scribal schools from a more technical point of view. The next chapter engages the provision of monumental buildings for this formal education, arguing that such education is likely to have taken place in non-monumental contexts. Chapter 7 evaluates the extent to which ancient Israel was literate. Against the “minimalist” school, Rollston finds evidence for literacy among trained elites in Iron IIA. He has argued elsewhere that Israelite scribes were utilizing the Phoenician script as early as the tenth century, and the Qeiyafa inscription, which I do not believe was incorporated into our text, will no doubt be marshaled to support that conclusion in future publications. Rollston’s final chapter responds to a movement in the academy to prohibit the use of non-provenanced artifacts in academic publications. Rollston defends their use as well as the capacity of epigraphers to detect forgeries, for the most part, although he characteristically urges serious caution with all inscriptions of unknown origin.

I heartily recommend this volume to those who are curious about the discipline of epigraphy or the form and function of literacy in early Israel. Rollston is recognized as a methodologically thorough expert in the field of Northwest Semitic epigraphy, but is able to write engagingly despite the potential for dryness and overly technical jargon. While small quibbles might be raised here and there about the author’s confidence in some of his conclusions, such instances hardly undermine the book’s aim. For anyone looking to delve headfirst into Northwest Semitic epigraphy, to fill in gaps in the ongoing discussion of scribal education in ancient Israel, or just to learn about the nature of literacy in ancient Israel, this is the first book you should read.

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