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New Archaeological Discoveries and the Bible! Readers Mailbag April 16, 2016

Today I address two interesting questions on the weekly mailbag, one about the new archaeological discovery in Israel and the other on whether in my last book I violated my own advice about requiring only experts to write for popular audiences.  If you have a question you would like me to address, let me know!



Does the latest information on the discovery of written texts from before the removal of the Israelite’s to Babylon indicating a wider level of literacy in 7th century BCE change your mind in any way about the illiteracy of the followers of Jesus?



I’m not sure if everyone saw this intriguing news item in the NY Times (or elsewhere), but here it is:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/12/world/middleeast/new-evidence-onwhen-bible-was-written-ancient-shopping-lists.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0

Let me say emphatically that I have no inside information about the find – I know only what I read in the papers, and it is fascinating indeed.   They have discovered a number of ostraca (pottery sherds) that have written on them, in ink, grocery/supply requests; they originate from Israel about the year 600 BCE (just before the overthrow of Judah and the destruction of the Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians), and a detailed computer analysis of the writing shows that at least six different writers were involved.  This has suggested that even in an outpost in a remote area of Judah there were literate persons, serving in the army.

The authors of the article suggest that this shows that literacy was more widespread than we have previously thought.   And so the question that I’m being asked is this: should this rethink our views of literacy in the days of Jesus?

My first response is that we desperately need more of these kinds of findings!  They are extremely valuable and help our historical understanding immensely.   And any kind of evidence should absolutely make us rethink the views we had before the evidence appeared!

In this case, though, there are two things to consider.  The first is…

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Getting a Literary Agent
Getting a First Book Published



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  April 16, 2016

    Bart, would you consider dealing with the teachings or believes about Hades/Hell among Jews, Gentiles, and Christians in the first century? How does the Christian doctrine of hell differ from that of the early Jewish or Roman one, and how did it develop?

  2. Avatar
    TheCaseGuy  April 16, 2016

    Not having yet read the new “..Before the Gospels” book, I can only say that the question is an interesting one. Bart Ehrman’s explanatory reply seems to answer that matter in a way which wholly justifies using data, from other fields of research (in this case memory), to theorize what may have happened to the tales about Jesus, as they were passed along for decades before being written down in Greek. The conclusions will obviously be speculative, but the psychology behind normal human nature needs to be considered. Thanks for your meaningful answer.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  April 16, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I feel compelled to clear up a couple of misconceptions about literacy rates, across all societies, now and in ancient times. (The inculcation and spread of literacy is one of the things I studied in grad school.) For starters, there’s an erroneous presumption — between both laymen and the experts — that literacy is somehow black or white: either you’re literate or you’re not. It doesn’t work that way. Like most skills literacy falls along a continuum. Some people are more or less literate than others (just aa some people are better tennis players than others, for example). Some people can read Moby Dick without a dictionary. Some need the dictiontary at hand. Some people can’t read Mody Dick at all, because they are totally illiterate (or don’t know english). This is extremely important to keep in mind when calculating literacy rates within a population.

    When the experts conclude that literacy rates were 3% or 5% or whatnot, usually they’re talking about a level of skill that was around an eight or higher on a scale of 1 to 10 in literacy. That is, they mean people who could read and write a letter like we, in our highly literate society today, can read and write a letter. But there remains the rest of the spectrum from seven on down to one — one being abject illiteracy. A person at a five on the literacy scale might be able to write a crude letter with a lot of errors, or read a letter without totally comprehending every word. Is that person literate? Yes, but they’re are not getting any work as a scribe any time soon.

    Like I said, this is something we should keep in mind when talking about literacy rates in the ancient world. Indeed, I would not be surprised of literacy fell along a normal distribution, with the majority of individuals somewhere between 4 and 6 on the scale, with only a small minority (~5%) being at the extremes, where at the bottom end letters are incomprehensible chickenscratch and at the top end the person can compose the Illiad.

    Secondly, something that we, in our modern age of almost universal literacy, take for granted is that when we receive a piece of writing we will simply read it. We don’t need to hire someone to read it to us. That is, literacy is so ubiquitious it doesn’t have a high value, such as, say, the ability to design websites. Literacy is a skill like any other, and the more rare a skill is the more of a market there is for that skill. For example, if everyone could simply program their own websites we would have no need to go to a web designer. But web programming is a skill that requires time to acquire. Reading and writing is no different. There’s a reason we stick children in school for the first eighteen years of their lives, so as to acquire such skills.

    In societies that do not have the luxury of devoting the first eighteen years of their children’s lives to study (for example, because they must instead work the fields or learn the family trade), it’s expected that literacy rates are going to be low. However, reading and writing are still a great benefit to society, making it a valuable skill. And that’s where professional scribes come in. They were men who sold their skill of literacy. More often than not such scribes were attached to an institution, such as the court of an aristocrat or a government bureaucrat (such a bureaucrat likely composed those ostraca found in Arad or the Amarna Letters), and, occasionally, such scribes worked freelance. So, if we take such professional scribes into consideration, most people in the ancient world were “literate” to the extent that they could have someone else read or write a document for them — just as how you might go to someone to program your website for you.

    I wouldn’t expect people two thousand years hence to look back on our millions of websites and think that we were all web designers. No, they would naturally assume there was a small population of people who had the requisite skill to create websites, and the computer illiterates would simply go to them. I call this use of another person’s literacy skills literacy by proxy. Even if you were an ancient Judean who literally grew up in a barn, you could still probably find a literate person who could read and write documents for you.

    So taking these two points into consideration, I believe it’s presumptuous to divide the ancient world into literate and illiterate — black and white. It was far more diverse and fluid then we imagine.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 16, 2016

      I should add that this holds especially for ancient engraved monuments such as stelai that were erected for people who could read it. If we imagine ten people standing before an ancient stele, only one person of which could read it perfectly, the remaining nine would probably fall along that same spectrum. Maybe three of them could kind of, sort of make out what it was saying. Another two maybe could make out a word here or there. And the remaining four couldn’t read a word of the stele to save their lives. What would we expect to happen in that scenario? The same thing we would expect would happen today if ten people were standing before a stele with Greek writing, but only one person could adequately read Greek. The other nine people would ask the Greek literate person what it said, and the literate person would read it aloud (and in the latter case, would translate it as well). This scenario was most likely the norm throughout the ancient world.

      I should also add that this has a tremendous bearing on the purported charges enscribed upon Jesus’ cross. If we were to speculate about who could have possibly been a witness to Jesus on the cross, the main contenders would probably be the female followers of Jesus (Mary of Magdala, Shlomit, Joanna, Shoshana, et al.). Could any of them read? If we conjecture that Mary was a wealthy woman, it’s not unlikely that she could read, and she could have told the others what the sign read. Or, what I believe is probably closer to the facts, the women were of insufficient literacy to adequately read the charges, so they asked someone who could read to read it to them. And that person probably told them, in essence, that Jesus was executed for claiming to be king. When the women returned to the male disciples, and the men asked for details, the women recounted, in summary, that there was a sign atop Jesus’ cross with the charges that Jesus claimed to be king. By the time the purported charges worked their way down to the gospelwriters — sixth- or seventh- or tenth-hand — they were simply: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Did the sign *literally* read, as if sarcastically, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews? It’s very unlikely. But that was probably the gist of what the female followers thought it actually read from what the person who could read it told them it said.

  4. Avatar
    ask21771  April 16, 2016

    off topic question: are you familiar with the noetic effects of sin

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2016

      Not sure what you’re asking.

      • Avatar
        ask21771  April 18, 2016

        I’ll rephrase is eternal punishment biblical

        • Bart
          Bart  April 19, 2016

          Do you mean are there any biblical passages that discuss it? Yes. Are there passages that think otherwise? Yes.

  5. Avatar
    Phrygia  April 16, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, after reading this today, I listened to your discussion with Bauckham on Unbelievable, and at one point he cited Schacter to validate a view of his. I was expecting you to note Schacter’s involvement in your book, kind of like a Mcluhan moment.

    Anyway, I think you were off a bit on how much Bauckham agreed with you. I don’t think he was agreeing that the separate stories and saying can’t be relied upon by themselves. I got the idea he believed each story and saying in the canonical gospels is reliable, but just not in the order they were told.

    I think your closing remarks were unrebuttable though — that since we can see that between the gospels the writers would change even their written sources, then how much more would have the oral sources been changed.

    I also have a question about your book, after just reading it. I am still unsure just how much we can trust any of the gospel stories. Can you give a brief sketch of exactly which narrative details and which sayings of Jesus you believe are the most historically reliable? And do you hold to a more uncertain picture of Jesus now because of your recent memory research? Maybe you did go over this in the book, but then I can admit to a fallible memory.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2016

      I give a full sketch of what we can know about Jesus in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. And yes, I’ve changed my views of the historicity of several things over the years (Swords in the Garden; Barabbas; etc.)

  6. Avatar
    Omar6741  April 16, 2016

    Doesn’t the use of pottery fragments suggest that writing materials were not readily available? Just a thought…

  7. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  April 16, 2016

    The youth leader used a bottle of hotel shampoo to “anoint” his father, and tried to persuade his father to confess specific sins, Ehrman says. Ehrman says he was angry at the minister for acting “self-righteous” and “hypocritical. ” That would make me very angry as well and does make me very angry !!! If I was there I would have said something. Please take with the upmost Respect Bart, you know I love you brother, just wanted to get this off my shoulders that it made me angry here as well… Just want to say if you ever came back with us, believers in God, those who love God with all their heart and soul, you would be powerful Bart, very powerful. You would change millions for the better, give them strength help them return to them.. I know you have given me strength and helped me return to me….

  8. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  April 16, 2016

    Were there any nonbiblical Aramaic texts written during Jesus’ lifetime? A few or many?

  9. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  April 16, 2016

    Speaking of recent discoveries, I’m reminded of the debate you did with Daniel Wallace back in 2012, a debate in which Wallace blindsided you with the claim that he had knowledge that a first century copy of Mark’s Gospel had been discovered. What’s the latest on this fragment? Have you seen it yet? Do you know how much of the text is allegedly contained in the fragment? And why in the world is it taking so long to publish? And why all the secrecy? Seems kind of fishy.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2016

      No, it hasn’t appeared yet. But it will!! Probalby in a year or so, they’re saying now.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  April 18, 2016

        Who is saying it will appear in a year or so? By the way, was that only 1 fragment or several from Mark?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 19, 2016

          The people publishing it. One fragment.

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  April 20, 2016

            The Brill Company right? 1 fragment of Mark and 5 other NT fragments from the 2nd century is what I read. When I look at Dan Wallace, and I don’t know him on a personal level, I can’t see that he would purposefully keep the contents of those fragments from the public for selfish reasons. I get that. At the same time, it seems that when a significant biblical discovery is made, it takes forever for us common people to learn any information about it. The Dead Sea Scrolls are an example of that. It’s like there’s an elitist mentality about these things. Only certain people are allowed access. Only if you’re in *the club*. Meanwhile, there’s millions of people, like me, who are left in their ignorance. But not the elite! They have gained knowledge.
            Those fragments are important to the public at large whether it confirms what we already know or some new knowledge to be gained. We don’t know, because yet again, we are sitting here waiting it out. Do you know that there’s a Facebook post floating around about how the NIV publishers are omitting certain scriptures? My Christian friends think it’s a conspiracy. They think the publishers are evil and trying to twist the scriptures to lead people astray. They don’t understand that earlier manuscripts of Mark were found that didn’t have the ending that’s in their KJV of the bible. I try my best to explain it all to them, but it goes over their heads a lot of times or they believe I’m deceived.
            But my point is, it’s yet another year of waiting on valuable information that belongs to humanity not just for a certain group. Do they want the public educated or not? It’s just so frustrating.
            I have a couple of questions: Do you know anything about the contents of those fragments? Have you gained any knowledge about those fragments that we, the general public, do not have?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 20, 2016

            No, I don’t know what’s in them. They’re keeping all that a tight secret….

          • Avatar
            Rosekeister  April 20, 2016

            How would someone determine if one fragment is actually from the gospel of Mark rather than something Mark later included in his text? Luke and Matthew included sections from Q almost word for word.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 21, 2016

            It would have to have verses worded as in Mark rather than as in Matthew or Luke.

      • Avatar
        JoshuaJ  April 18, 2016

        I’ll be interested in seeing how much of the text is contained in the manuscript and the extent of variants, if any. By the way, the “lost” ending and the later additions of the various conclusions to Mark have always bothered me. Seems as though either Mark knew nothing about any post-mortem appearances of Jesus, or God is not very good at preserving (arguably the most important part of) His word. What’s your view on Mark’s conclusion? Do you think the author intended to stop at 16:8, or has the ending truly been lost? Of course we can’t know for sure, just curious to hear your opinion.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 19, 2016

          Mark appears to know that Jesus will appear in Galilee. But his point is that hte disciples never do figure it out…. He absolutely meant to end at 16:8. It’s a brilliant ending!

          • Avatar
            JoshuaJ  April 19, 2016

            I should’ve said “Mark knew nothing about any *details* of the post-mortem appearances…” Given that Mark doesn’t provide any actual details of the alleged post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, I can empathize with the early Christians who found Mark’s ending unsatisfying (I’m assuming some found it unsatisfying, which is why they later added various endings). As you say, it was the details of the alleged appearances that were the convincing “proofs” of the story.

            At any rate, it is rather interesting to consider the impact of Mark’s cliffhanger. Craig Evans writes in his commentary on Matthew: “Both Matthew and Luke know of Judas’ suicide, though the versions of the story they provide differ at many points… Another major difference is that whereas Judas’ death in Matthew is by suicide, in Acts it is by accident (or so it seems) (p. 447)… Matthew then reports Judas’ suicide: “and he went and hanged himself”… We have a different account of Judas’ death in Acts 1:18… There have been attempts to harmonize the Matthean and Lukan accounts… but it is more likely that the early church had heard two separate accounts. Because Matthew and Luke wrote independently of one another and because Mark’s Gospel contains no account of the fate of Judas, Matthew and Luke had no opportunity to harmonize their respective versions (p. 449).”

            Dr. Evans’ interpretation of the different Judas stories is interesting in that it seems the same reasoning could be applied to the very different and (in my opinion) irreconcilable endings to Matthew and Luke. There are no post-resurrection stories in Mark to copy from; therefore, Matthew and Luke were forced to create their own very different Gospel endings. But which version of the story is correct? They can’t both be true, especially if one writer takes us to Galilee and the other keeps us in Jerusalem. This is where everything seems to unravel. The synoptics follow somewhat closely all the way up through the crucifixion, and then the wheels really start to fall off. The writers seem to go their separate ways here. As if the resurrection of a dead person wasn’t already difficult enough to believe on its own, the various (seemingly irreconcilable) traditions of Jesus’ post-mortem activities puts the credibility of the story completely out of reach for me. And who knows what’s going on with John’s rather clumsily placed 21st chapter. I’m not convinced any of these writers really knew what allegedly happened.

            By the way, do you think John 21 was written by the same author who wrote the rest of the gospel?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 20, 2016

            No, I think it was added on later by a different hand. Well, I’m pretty *sure* it was added later and I *think* it was a different hand.

          • Avatar
            JoshuaJ  April 19, 2016

            And yes, John 20 is wacky too!!!

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  April 22, 2016

      I should have figured this out sooner, but it takes me a long time to put 2 and 2 together. I try my best, what can I say? Anywho, I emailed Brill back in December about this fragment. The response I got was a link to the Series Editor, Michael Holmes, who is the executive director of the Green Scholars Initiative (GSI). Michael Holmes has a post called “How Soon Will It Be Published?” and attempts to explain why it’s taking so long for publication. GSI was formulated by the Green Family, founders of Hobby Lobby. They have the largest private collection (The Green Collection) of biblical artifacts and texts. Guess who participates in the GSI? Dan Wallace!
      I’m guessing the publication has something to do with the timing of the Museum of the Bible that’s set to open in November of 2017? That’s just a guess.
      So there’s first century Mark, but there are claims to other fragments as well: the oldest pieces of the Letter to the Romans, the oldest piece of Exodus 24, and the oldest piece of 1 Samuel.
      It’s also been stated that the GSI requires (why???) its editors to sign a non-disclosure agreement. That could explain why everyone is so tight-lipped.
      Now, where did I get all this info? Lots of places!


      This *mystery* has been driving me bananas! I think what’s so confusing is that the Green Family hasn’t formally come out (unless I missed it!) and said that they own the fragments, but what other conclusion is there? It seems like unnecessary drama with all the secrecy.

  10. Avatar
    JonathanMcAlroy  April 16, 2016

    On the second Q/A; My approach when discussing anything I’m not an expert in (which is obviously almost everything) is to find out what the consensus of opinion is amongst the experts. This is usually easy for things like Evolution/Creationism, Physics/Creationism, Cosmology/Creationism. But was actually very difficult in your case Prof Ehrman.

    When I discovered your writing I so wanted it to be true but finding one random book is a sample size of 1. For all I knew you could have been a fringe crackpot, shunned by the consensus. What I’ve subsequently learned is to look at mainstream Western Universities and see what their professors are teaching. Then assuming you don’t want to get too deep, find a good populariser of that opinion and voilà! Good, safe knowledge!

    Whenever someone wants to challenge my opinion (in broad terms) I tell them to go and change the minds of the consensus of the experts, then I’ll follow right along! Works very well with Mythicists by the way 🙂

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 16, 2016

    As usual for the Friday mailbag, good questions and good answers. The mailbag has become my favorite part of this blog.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 17, 2016

    You have mentioned that you have a contract for two new trade books. I assume the first one is the one on the rise of Christianity. Are you free to tell us the topic of the second one? Do you have to worry about using a title that some other author has already used? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  April 18, 2016

      Yup, I’ll get to that. Short answer: book 2 is a book to be named later.

  13. John4
    John4  April 17, 2016

    I wonder, Bart, if Ms Hezser would be interested in writing a guest column for us on the significance of this discovery on literacy in Palestine in Jesus’ day.

    Many thanks! 🙂

  14. Avatar
    paul c  April 17, 2016

    Some time ago an experienced colleague who possesses her PhD in archaeology from a well-known U.S. university asked me a question dealing with my focus in the field. I responded but added the proviso, “But that’s very speculative.” Her response was “All of archaeology is speculation.”

    To be sure, her statement exhibits a large dose of hyperbole, but there is a degree of truth.

    Second, as a rule, I think that literacy rates of military officer crops around the world since the development of writing would be higher than that of the general population. As such, I’m not certain that one can determine much about the nature of the general population from certain characteristics of the elite officers.

  15. Avatar
    Rogers  April 17, 2016

    IMO, one of the most significant problems of the modern era is that expertise in the professional scholarly arena (especially scientific) is very focused (a softer way to say “too narrow”). It’s entirely understandable that it is so. To gain expertise in a field and go deep with it takes very significant human effort and time. As the overall breadth of human knowledge expands the problem becomes more acute.

    Yet sometimes it seems the most interesting enhancements to our knowledge base happen when different fields of expertise intersect and cross polinate. We circumscribe and compartamentalize and yet the cosmos out there just is and would appear to be rather indifferent.

    This is just to say that I view it as a positive to bridge the expertise gaps that wall and silo the human knowledge base.

  16. Avatar
    Steefen  April 18, 2016

    the illiteracy of the followers of Jesus

    Steefen: What is your position on Jesus’ literacy? I vaguely recall you implying Jesus was not rich enough to be schooled.

    The Bible says Jesus read from the scripture. I do not have a problem with Jesus teaching his disciples how to read. Do you?

    The Bible also says Pharisees addressed him as Teacher. Would you question the literacy level of Pharisees?

  17. Rick
    Rick  April 20, 2016

    Perhaps I am missing the point but why is it surprising a detached military unit would have a quartermaster who could read and write – even at a time of low literacy? The first time a commander sent a courier with an memorized oral request for spears and got pears in return he’d want to do it in writing. As an arm of the state, the Army would have been able to draft literate people.

  18. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  April 22, 2016

    Weren’t these pottery sherds discovered in the 1960’s?

  19. Avatar
    Benevolent  December 1, 2017

    Why don’t we have the tomb of Jesus today? As in, the way we have protected and lauded other monuments? Would it have been destroyed? Wouldn’t the surrounding communities have tried to preserve it? Wouldn’t they be charging admission? And not just pretend tombs like pretend shards or shrouds….but the actual thing.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      In Jerusalem today there are in fact two locations widely acclaimed as the place of Jesus’ tomb. But I agree, these are based on legendary claims, and if the tomb *had* been known by the early Christians, it almost certainly would not have been forgotten!

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