The collection of religious texts, sacred to Christians, Jews and many others, are said to be the product of divine inspiration and a record of the relationship between God and humanity. The Christian Bible has two sections, the New Testament and the Old Testament, the latter originating from the Hebrew Bible, whereas the New Testament books were written by Christians in the first century AD. But a collection of letters written on clay 2,500 years ago could help to answer the centuries-old question regarding when ancient civilisations first recorded the teachings.
Using image scanning technology, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel examined fragments of the inscribed pottery, known as ostraca.
The contents of the inscriptions were nothing extraordinary, but by comparing the different handwriting, historians were able to deduce that the messages had been written by several different social classes.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), the researchers noted: “In other words, the entire army apparatus, from high-ranking officials to humble vice-quartermasters of small desert outposts, was literate.
“To support this bureaucratic apparatus, an appropriate education system must have existed in Judah at the end of the First Temple period [before 586 BC].”
It has long been agreed that Old Testament books which describe the history of ancient Israel are some of the oldest parts of the Bible.
Most scholars agreed that key biblical texts were written in the sixth century BC.
However, some remained divided as to whether ancient Jews were able to begin writing these sections before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.
The discovery not only suggested that literacy was widespread and not just a luxury of the social elite, but that much of the Bible could have been written decades earlier than previously thought.
After finding evidence of a sophisticated education system, the researchers behind the study postulated that the time period would most likely account for many of the books in the Old Testament.
The writings were discovered in the ruin of an ancient Judahite military fortress near the Negev city in the Sixties and mainly consisted of mundane military orders and shopping lists.
The team of archaeologists, physicists and mathematicians developed specialised imaging tools and algorithms to photograph, digitise and analyse the handwriting of 16 ink inscriptions on ceramic shards.
Researcher Barak Sober, explained: “We designed an algorithm to distinguish between different authors, then composed a statistical mechanism to assess our findings.
“Through probability analysis, we eliminated the likelihood that the texts were written by a single author.”