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Book 5. Persian Propaganda

Who Wrote the Hebrew Scriptures?

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The History of the Bible


People obsessed with their image of the Hebrew god see pre–rabbinic Judaism as a constant religion going back to the time of the Patriarchs. In this view, the Hebrew god, Yehouah, now just called God, had His metaphorical hand in Jewish history throughout and Judaism evolved in a straight line until, for Christians, God dispensed with the Jews as a hopeless choice and turned his attention to the Christians. The bible is proof of it, the outcome of an inevitable growth.

Philip Davies, a professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffied, UK, tells us history is all about “human decisions, about change, about design but also about accident”. He has written an interesting account of Jewish literacy while working on the compilation of the Jewish canon, work for which we are indebted here. And like all human endeavour, the bible is the result of discrete decisions throughout its history.

Believers of the written revelation varieties of religion typically venerate their canons, if not their gods. They prefer to imagine their bible as handed down by God and cannot abide the idea that they really emerged from a process of human decision making. Anyone who takes on the task of tracing the historical development of biblical books invites accusations of sacrilege from these excessively sanctimonious people, who must fear that something might be discovered in the study that will make them look fools. So much for their faith.

Yet, the possession of a set of Holy Writings can be nothing other than good, to them, though a moment’s reflexion will show that a canon is a form of censorship, intended to control the way believers think, and thus preserve the benefits of the few against those of the many. Such canons are also deeply conservative. They present eternal values which supposedly transcend history. Whether freezing forever a glorious culture or encoding the eternally valid words of a transcendent deity, they seek to defy or overcome the processes of history, in which cultures progress, age and decay, values change, and knowledge accumulates and in which the evolution of languages shifts the meanings of words.

Religious canons were not the product of the body of adherents of a religion, but of those, rabbis or bishops, who identified themselves as the leaders and definers of values. Canonizing is elitist in conception and authoritarian in implementation. Canonizing typically ends by dictating a culture through a fixed list of what is and what is not canonical. It is thus an entirely open question whether or not fixed, closed and authoritative canons are a good thing at all. Perhaps it depends on how they are used. But typically they are imposed.


The word “canon” is Greek and means a standard, the metaphorical sense coming from the practical use which was that of a rule or measure. The Greeks developed the idea of canon as a collection of values, principles, books, works of art and so on. Collections of works were made in the Greek and Hellenistic world specifically as canons, and could cover a range of topics, like art, medicine, technology or philosophy. But, these canons were neither exclusive or closed. The scholars of the Alexandrine library used the word “canon” of collections of ancient authors, and it is probably from here that Christians got their use of the word.

Being listed as part of a collection is, however, the final phase of canonisation. Before that a work must have value. Some texts are rewritten and copied more than others. As this process takes place, these texts become more familiar, more ancient and more respected. Such works become quoted, and influence other works. They become what we would call “classic”. Such a work has been canonized by being copied repeatedly until its status as a classic is ensured. Then it might be classified as belonging to a collection of some kind. So, classic works are a canon, even when that canon is not formally listed.

Judaism was always considered to have had its canon from the earliest times with no questions asked about it. Yet in those times, the romance of Moses notwithstanding, nobody living a nomadic pastoral lifestyle could write. Canonising requires literacy and Jewish canonizing began when literacy was a monopoly of the class of scribes.


E W Heaton (The School Tradition of the Old Testament, Oxford: OUP, 1994) invents a tradition of scribal school education in Judah and posits the existence of libraries, including a “Temple Seminary” preserving the literary tradition of monarchic Judah beyond the demise of the state. Speculative reconstructions of these poorly recorded times always favour the bible, despite the fact that no other evidence supports these speculations of early literacy in Israel and Judah, and then these speculations get spouted in pulpits. Such authors have to turn to Egypt and Babylonia to find scribes that could not have been taught in Judah or Samaria. Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations possessed scribal schools. What evidence then is there of literacy, of administrative complexity, and of scribal education in monarchic Israel and Judah?

The bible depicts the court of David and Solomon as grand and civilised, so the people must have been literate, and there must have been excellent scribal schools to furnish such good historians as the court historian assumed to have written all this. Literate people needed schools, and so they are a reasonable assumption from the “time of David”. If the bible is ignored as a late romance, it is not reasonable. But once the assumption is made that there were schools, the bible provides the biblicists with evidence that the schools multiplied and there must have been primary schools, secondary schools, comprehensive schools, grammar schools, mathematical schools, astronomical schools, high schools, religious schools, government schools, regional schools, and so on, and so on.

It must mean that there is in the ground a lot of old texts waiting for earnest biblical archaeologists to find them. There are actually so few that forging them has become an industry for believers. What few archaeological epigraphic sources have been found are late, many from the end of the lifetime of Israel and Judah in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. Isserlin has to conclude from actual field wotk:

No certain traces of school buildings or classromms have been found…


All that has been found indicative of tuition is a few isolated ostraca with apparently simple writing exercises on them. At best, this suggests individual tuition, not a school. Biblical scholaship is is wild speculation no different from fantasy.

Israel Finkelstein, the prominent Israeli archaeologist, has no doubt that no written sources come from the time of the United Monarchy, and evidence for a scribal culture in monarchic Judah is slight. One of the indices of scribal activity is the complexity of state administration. David Jamieson–Drake, from an anthropological model, concludes that, though Judah was a fully developed monarchic state from the eighth century, literacy did not spread very far. All writing is associated with government and thus with the specialized administrative class. On Jamieson–Drake’s analysis, there is no likelihood of literacy much beyond this small class.

There is no direct evidence of the Israelites having books—any books, biblical or otherwise—before the Persian period. Archaeologists look for written material in Israel or Judah and do not find any until much later. No evidence of actual writing in ink on papyrus or parchment has been found before the “exile” except for a tiny fragment of papyrus found at Murabba’ at by the Dead Sea. Not even any scribblings of the putatively influential prophets or their admirers have ever been found. The closest is the mention of an unknown prophet in the late Lachish ostraca. How were the writings of Moses and the prophets preserved for hundreds of years without leaving a shred of evidence?

Finkelstein is adamant there is no evidence of significant literacy in Israel, in Judah, in Jerusalem, before the eighth century BC, and no appreciable output until the seventh. Therefore, nothing in the Jewish scriptures can be dated before the eighth century. Fragmentary material from the ninth century is possible, but anything as early as the twelfth or eleventh centuries is impossible. Only scholarly caution allows for the vague possibility of some small traces of anything older than the eighth century. B S J Isserlin, in The Israelites, agrees that “hardly any epigraphic evidence pre-dates the eighth century BC” and most of it comes from Judah not Israel. In the imaginery early period of the Israelite nation, up until about 900 BC, no sources are known other than a few isolated ostraca, and the bible!

Biblicists think that parts of the bible are preserved in genuinely ancient form. They then only have to guess which parts! They pick on bits of poetry—the Song of the Sea (Ex 15), the Song of Deborah (Jg 5), the Testament of Jacob (Gen 49), the Oracles of Balaam (Num 23-24), the Blessing of Moses (Dt 33), and the Song of Moses (Dt 32)—and in that order of age. David’s Lament for Jonathan (2 Sam 1:17-27), Psalms 18 (2 Sam 22), and Psalms 113 are other early works, they say.

Different scholars have dated the Song of Moses to anywhere between the twelfth and second century BC. The early date is advocated by only a few “scholars”, like Frank Moore Cross, the Albrightian biblicist. Most prefer a later date, many after the Persian conquest. The Song of Deborah is also dated early by biblicists like Cross and D N Freedman, who always stretch credulity in dating elements of the bible impossibly early. They accept the internal chronology of the bible to work out the evolution of the Hebrew language, presuming the differences they find are evolutionary differences, not dialectal or just idiosyncrasies. Isserlin says a feature of these works is that they use “uncommon or archaic” forms—a semi-honest phrase because it does not assume that the forms are archaic. They might indeed just be uncommon, but the “scholars” assume they are archaic.

A seventh century ostracon from Mesad Hashavyahu is written by a harvest worker pleading for his confiscated garment to be returned. This man’s everyday style of writing is archaic, in scholarly terms. Their excuse is that he is trying to make his letter sound grave—just as a modern labourer would write a letter to a magistrate in biblical English to impress the official, wouldn’t he?. Will the biblical scholars consider that their archaic Hebrew was a dialect of Canaanite? No chance.

Fairly consistent differences are found between poetry and prose in the bible, but there is nothing surprising in that. Poets are always more inclined to use archaic vocabulary to give their verse gravitas, but that does not mean their language is genuinely archaic, and otherwise the composition is not. One could argue that Hebrew poetic forms were intended to be memorable, and therefore would be written in the dialect of those meant to remember their message—the ordinary people.

There was a tendency to linguistic conservatism.

Few biblical texts can be dated at all accurately.
B S J Isserlin, The Israelites


Despite these caveats, the Hebrew scholars have discovered to their own satisfaction how Hebrew evolved. Isserlin himself is not free of assuming the “uncommon” forms are archaic:

They [supposed early texts] tend to make rather restricted use of items absent or exceptional in Canaanite speech, but regularly used in later biblical Hebrew.


Suddenly, he too knows which of the biblical Hebrew is early and which is late. The tentative list above has been confirmed as early. What the scholars find inevitably confirms their assumptions. If it is possible to use certain criteria to judge an evolution of a language, it still does not give an absolute date, but only grades the texts relatively. If Ezekiel is judged a late text, the question is, “How Late?” For biblicists it is sixth century when it might be third century. The false and mythical chronology of the bible is believed when it is like believing Plato’s myth of Atlantis.

Literary Output

What literature did the monarchic scribal class produce?

No complete or even fragmentary examples either of biblical texts or of works quoted in the bible and dating from the Israelite period have so far been found.
B S J Isserlin, The Israelites


Priestly Blessing on silver leaf from Ketef Hinnom

God does not seem to be helping His faithful to establish their case. Rather He seems intent on making forgers or a laughing stock out of them. The only example found, supposed to be a biblical extract, is part of the priestly blessing (Num 6:24-26) scratched on a tiny thin piece of silver in an amulet container found in a rich tomb at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem. What is found is not a passage from the bible, but a general blessing, albeit identifiably the same one. It is therefore not evidence of the bible at this date but evidence that the bible incorporated popular sayings or prayers when it was written.

Moses wrote five books of adventures, commandments and laws, all brought about under the personal direction of God, who dwelt with His people for much of this time in his own tent. People today are still amazed and impressed by this, but more amazing is that the extensive literary efforts of the founder of the Israelite nation and the bearer of God’s covenant and Law did not impress his own followers enough to make them want to keep copies of his words.

The Torah was supposedly written about 1400 BC, yet the Israelites and Jews in the next millennium never left a trace of it anywhere. I said a trace of it anywhere! Barmy US judges today will write the commandments on the walls of their courtroom, and Inquisitors in the sixteenth century would inscribe them in their torture chambers, but the people whom God chose never wrote them down. Apologists argue they were too sacred! Why then are they written down today in millions of copies, and why, if they were too sacred, did God tell Moses to instruct the people to write the Law on plastered walls in public view? Moses and the elders commanded the people:

Keep all the commandments which I command you this day. And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over Jordan unto the land which the Yehouah thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law…
Deuteronomy 27:1-3


Is it not surprising then that these plastered stelae are not common all over Israel and Judah from an early time as a sure sign of Jewish monotheism and the story of Moses itself? No Israelite ever did it, even pious kings like Hezekiah and Josiah—who is supposed to have rediscovered this important law. The only case of an inscription on plaster is the one found by H J Franken at Deir Alla, east of the Jordan near the lower Zerqa river. It is written in red and black ink on plaster but is not in Hebrew, and not in the Palestinian hills which were the centers of these supposed statelets. It mimics a book in presentation, provng that people had books in the eighth century, but apparently not the bible. Only in the third century BC did God’s holy words emerge. It strongly suggests that is when they were written.

Except for eighth century Samaria ostraca—brief and stereotyped administrative dockets—the northern kingdom has so far supplied little epigraphic material so that we are left badly informed about the important question of to what extent northern Israelite standard Hebrew diverged from Jerusalemite Hebrew after the political split.
B S J Isserlin, The Israelites


These are administrative texts recording deliveries of wine and oil. They were found in the foundations of a building, and will have been an archive of accounts. The transactions are all local, and do not suggest any extensive literacy.

Inscription in the Siloam Tunnel. The best the kings of Israel and Judah could manage

Moreover, official inscriptions, seals and bullae, ostraca and so on, that attest to literacy, state formation and evolution of society in Judah and in Jerusalem—that there is a state in Judah—do not begin to appear until the late eighth century BC, only about a century before the end of the state’s life—and none unequivocally denoting a specified king of Judah or Samaria. Monumental inscriptions are extremely unusual. Few royal inscriptions come from Israel, and none from Judah. Prominent monuments, like the Moabite stone and the Tel Dan inscription, if it is genuine, were not Israelite. The Mesha stele is not in Hebrew, though it is Canaanite, but another dialect of it, considered as Moabite. The Siloam tunnel inscription is not carved in a manumental script but a cursive one (like writing) casting doubt on its status. If Israelite and Judahite monarchs had scribes who could write inscriptions, the lack of inscriptions in the field is a puzzle.

Shema Seal

The famous seal of Shema, servant of Jeroboam is normally attributed to king Jeroboam of the eighth century, although some want it to mean Jeroboam I in the tenth! Amazing! Shema and particularly Shemaiah occur peculiarly often in Chronicles, a late work by everyone’s criteria. Officials are usually signified, and some seem to tie in with biblical figures, most usually in the late parts of the biblical history. Nearly all are dated in relation to the main destruction layer in Lachish, assumed to be Sennacherib’s seige. If it were a later destruction associated with the Egyptian rebellion and that of Megabyxos in Persian times, then the dates are seriously out.

The Persian period is not sexy enough for biblicists and so they pretend it never happened. Isserlin admits the scripts on the seals vary little, suggesting they were common in a particular, fairly narrow, time period. Logically, that would be the Persian period. For biblicists, whatever is found is pre-“exilic” or “exilic” at the latest. The “return” is a non-event, archaeologically. The Persians actually ruled these bare hills for 200 years—as long as the actual lifetimes of the individual statelets—but Persian influence seems to have been invisible. There is a dark age at this point in Palestinian history, to judge by the biblicists. From about 520 till 300 BC, all that happened was that Alexander acknowledged the Jewish god. The reason for this fakery is that Jewish history only began in this time. The biblicists have been determined to hide it. Until the Persians set up Yehud, the history of these hills was Canaanite history.

Some official correspondence has been preserved—the Arad ostraca—if Arad ever belonged to Judah—and the “Lachish letters” are probably written down by officials, both cities being large enough to have royal scribes. 17 ostraca found at Lachish are the Lachish letters dated precisely to 588 BC, but more probably from about 450 BC. A military mission to Egypt is mentioned, and the likely occasion is the rebellion of Egypt against Persia around the middle of the fifth century. In any event, nothing favours a scribal class comparable to those of Mesopotamia or Egypt, nor even to cities the size of Ebla, Ugarit or even Bronze Age Hazor. There were no cities of anything like this size in monarchic Israel or Judah.

Excavations in both residential and government towns have revealed a striking paucity of cult buildings.
B S J Isserlin, The Israelites


This might seem remarkable, but really it probably confirms one thing that the bible suggests strongly—the custom in these parts was to worship al fresco. The bible repeatedly speaks of the apostates worshipping in “bamahs” or “high places”. High places will have been normally a bare hill top, with an unhewn or roughly hewn altar on it, and covered shrines will have been unusual. Rooftops could have served as high places, but worship was generally beneath an open sky to judge from the biblical Ahaz who erected altars at every street corner (2 Chr 28:24), and Ezekiel 16:24-25:

Woe to you that you have also built yourself a mound, and you have made yourself a high place in every open place! At the head of every highway you have built your high place…
Ezek 16:24-25 Literal


The first Persian colonists seem to have continued the tradition, it being Persian practice too, but the Later Persians had been Babylonized, and had taken to temple worship. That is when the Jerusalem temple was set up, and the earlier practice desparaged.

Finkelstein is certain that the bible was compiled in Judah, because the text reflects only the ideology of Judah. Judah is in the ideological center of the whole thing. Judah is the place where the history is compiled. The lack of evidence of literacy in Judah until the seventh century BC, suggests the bible was compiled in Jerusalem in the Persian period, or, Finkelstein thinks, possibly in the late Judahite monarchy. The Persian period is overwhelmingly the more likely, but, in either case, the question is whether the authors had written sources, and where they came from if it was not Judah.

Scribes in the Second Temple Period

J Schaper, in a paper called The Jerusalem Temple as an Instrument of the Achaemenid Fiscal Administration in 1995 says that, in the Second Temple period, the Persians employed the Temple personnel to collect imperial taxes and deliver them to the imperial representative. Substantial scribal activity, combining imperial and cultic business, therefore grew. The lists of officials the Chronicler assigns to David may be fictitious but it suggests that the Chronicler regarded an extensive scribal–administrative class as plausible. Judah in the Persian period was a cultural backwater and economically poor but the growth of literacy and scribal activity set a base for development. The Jewish state did not exist as an autonomous political entity but Jerusalem benefited from being a provincial capital of a mighty empire with an extensive bureaucracy.

The scribes were largely insulated from most of the people, who were illiterate for many centuries more. Scribes were a privileged class because of their skills, and lived in cities when most people worked on the land, were paid by the state and attended its courts. Nevertheless society was unsophisticated and there were points of contact between the higher classes and the peasantry, in the market places, for example. The emergence of an artisan and merchant class during the Second Temple period provided additional stepping stones for an upwardly mobile peasant, but there were, of course, few of them.

To call these men scribes is to underestimate their real position. We take reading and writing for granted, but then it was a highly prized skill. Like most skills, the scribes will initially have taught their own children and a scribe will have taken his father’s profession. These people were not just secretaries or scribblers, they were intellectuals, who studied accountancy, economics, mathematics and astronomy, as well as sacred texts. They were wise men or sages, the literate Jewish equivalent of the Magi and Druids.

Such accomplishments eventually would require an extensive educational system or scribal schools in which not just the writing of Hebrew, but the reading of other languages, mastery of diplomatic forms, principles of archiving and so on would be passed on. Undoubtedly there were scribal schools later, in the Hellenistic age.

In the Ptolemaic and Seleucid periods Judah’s wealth increased considerably, and the later we move in date the easier it is to conclude that the temple could sustain a number of scribal schools with a vigorous literary activity. The later in time, the better evidence we have for scribal activity. Even if holy scribbling began before the Second Temple period, it continued and increased during this period. Since scribblers were rare before then, but common afterwards, what is the objection to postulating that the scriptures were actually written when scribbling was popular? The onus of proof of the antiquity of the scriptures lies on those who want to argue that they were written earlier. If less likely, it remains possible, but must be shown, not assumed.

The education of the scribe broadened in the Hellenistic period, and they spread their values to non–scribes. In the second century BC literacy had become more widespread in Judah because of Greek influence, the growth of international trade under Persia, the emergence of a middle class of merchants and artisans, and the growth of the administrative class, especially under the Ptolemies. Ben Sira invites his readers to attend his school, possibly even without payment, but the range of topics in his book shows he is not training scribes, but offering an education to anyone who wanted to study.

Literacy spread and the scribes themselves found a wider demand for their services. Concomitantly, they expanded their own intellectual interests to accommodate those of the widened circle. According to 2 Maccabees 4:9–14 (cf. 1 Macc 1:14), a “gymnasium” and an “ephebeion” were introduced into Jerusalem, in 175 BC. No doubt the many Greek cities already established and those still to be built especially on the Palestinian coast, in the Decapolis and Samaria also had them. 2 Maccabees says the priests eagerly frequented them. If the Hasmoneans officially disapproved of these institutions, they were unable or unwilling to halt the spread of Greek education. But they were in a position to foster the Hebrew language, create a Hebrew library, and, perhaps, encourage the development of a Jewish version of the Greek style of education.

Between the scribal school and the later rabbinic school, whose aim was religious—to turn out good Jews—are developments we know little about. An emphasis on teaching Judaism (in its various forms) emerged, while some of the basic elements of Greek education (music, gymnastics) were discouraged. Given the indispensability of the Greek language, and the presence of so many Greek–speaking Jews both resident in and visiting Jerusalem, education for the priestly, administrative and ruling classes in Judah must have included many Greek aspects.

The distinction between a professional education and a non–professional education entails a distinction between kinds of writing too, which is visible in the canonized literature. We can identify literary activity undertaken by the scribes in furtherance of their professional interests, writings that display the scribal ethos—historiographic, didactic, liturgical, and legal. Such writings, since they belong in spirit as well as in letter to the scribal class, lend themselves naturally to being canonized by copying, studying and teaching in the schools. Given the likelihood of specialization among the scribes, where different branches dealt with the temple cult, the temple liturgy, fiscal administration, diplomatic correspondence with Persian officials, and perhaps much else, we may be able to identify particular schools as the main agents of canonizing.

Non—Cultic Scriptural Books

But not all the canonized books or stories come from a scribal milieu. Many stories—Joseph, Jonah, Ruth, Esther, Daniel—deal with questions of ethnicity, sometimes to the suppression of piety. For Jonah and Ruth, non–Jews are not to be shunned; for Esther and Daniel Jewish identity is something to be preserved from threatening foreigners, even though foreign rulers are not always bad. The question of “identity,” a matter of national importance, in the torah and prophetic books, becomes a more “personal” matter. What does it mean for an individual to be a Judean rather than a Yehudim?

These stories ascribe little importance to the temple or cult. Jonah mocks it in his psalm: it has nothing to do with Esther or Ruth, and Solomon’s Song is unconnected with his temple building. These writings show an interest in individual identity. In the wider cultural world they inhabit, their own social identity is important. Jonah, Esther, Ruth and Daniel all deal with the image of a Jew (or “Hebrew”) among non–Jews, relecting not just a diaspora world but also a cosmopolitan Judah. Their travels, too, force them to face the question of their ethnic identity. Jonah, asked who he is: he answers:

I am a Hebrew and worship Yehouah the god of heaven.


Ethnically he regarded himself as a Hebrew and religiously as a Jew—a worshipper of Yehouah. After the Maccabees, what that meant was what Judean schools would teach—the Hebrews were Jews, a people with a land as well as a god.

How do writings like these get into the canon of holy scripture? The likely answer is that these works were used in the scribal school curriculum. Even today, Jonah, Ruth and Esther are used as college texts for classical Hebrew because they are short and grammatically simple. These works were easy to learn yet were edifying to a young Jew in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. They were put on to scrolls in the school libraries purely for teaching literacy. Now they are the word of God!

Signs in the Texts

Canonizing involves composition, editing, archiving, combining on a scroll, and collecting scrolls into larger units. There is no single canonical mechanism. Psalms and Proverbs once comprised separate collections brought together in a single scroll. Writing them on one scroll had implications for archiving. The scroll had to be given a convenient name. When it was next copied, it would be as a single composition. Hence the Psalms scroll is Davidic and the Proverbs scroll Solomonic.

Traces of the canonical process remain within the Jewish canon. Several collections within Psalms are headed “of David” and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament agree in assigning all the psalms to David. Yet besides psalms of David, there are psalms of ascent and psalms of the Korahites present in sequences that show they were collected together before they were collected into the Book of Psalms. Psalms is composed of five books, and the Q11 psalms scroll shows that all but the last book had been fixed into a canonical shape by the end of the 1st century BC.

What we now call chapters 1–39 of Isaiah, at first written on a scroll, as a complete work but then a shorter work was added giving us now what we call chapters 40–66. The scroll was archived under “Isaiah”. The scroll became a “book” of “Isaiah.” A canon of “Daniel” stories may also be mooted: in this case supplemented by a series of later additions, this scroll became the Book of Daniel in different Aramaic/Hebrew and Greek forms. Much the same process accounts for the canon of Enoch, now known as 1 Enoch, but once composed of four or five separate compositions.

At the other end of the scale, we also have multi–scroll canons such as the Mosaic books, while scrolls that contain accounts of a period of history will, under the guidance of a process seeking to create a single comprehensive history, become moulded into a sequential narrative. Once a single more or less coherent narrative is achieved, it can become canonical.


Continue: The Prophets: The Persian Propagandists




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