Ancient Education

19 Jun

Viewing Ancient Writing and Education

I recently read a paper written by Dr. Rollston, titled Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence, and I am not picking on him at all but his article just happened to have some of the best points to use to present a counter opinion.

I disagree with the idea that education in the ancient world was only for the elite and feel that depending on the attitude of the ancient nation education was much broader and more inclusive than some scholars allow. For this presentation, I am going to quote a blurb from Dr. Rollston’s paper and address the issues raised in them. This is not an attack on him at all but questioning his conclusions and providing an alternative position to consider.


  1. “For example, regarding the fact that there is no reference to ‘schools’ in the Hebrew Bible, Golka has stated that ‘the best explanation for the fact that no schools are mentioned is still that there were none.’”

This is an argument that atheists often use when creationists say that evolution wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. They say that planes and trains aren’t mentioned nor computers yet they all exist today.

The same idea can apply to the above point. Just because something is not mentioned doesn’t mean it did not exist at that time. Ecc 1:9 tells us: ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’

What that means is that education and schooling, even in a public system like today’s nations have, is not a modern invention but has been done before and done again and again.  Schools do not have to be mentioned in the Hebrew Bible to have been an educational option for the ancient world, including the Hebrews.

Then, the Bible speaks often on teaching, teachers, learning, training thus it speaks volumes on the subject. The word ‘school’ may not have been used but the important parts of education are. How the ancients educated their children, whether public, private academies or even homeschooling, was up to them but the Bible provided important guidelines on how to carry out that process.

  1. “Some attention as well is given to the rapid pace ay which some scholars have assumed that an ancient alphabetic writing system could be learned…The writing systems developed and employed in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were complex non-alphabetic systems.”

It is easy to assume but if one looks at today’s students, it isn’t difficult for many people to learn a system of writing very quickly. South Korea loves to study English and its kindergarten pupils pick up the English alphabet and can write, according to their abilities, quite easily. The same goes for the learners of the Korean language. It doesn’t take long to master their alphabet and learn to write their characters.

The problem with the latter half of the point above is that the author of that article forgets that when learning one’s native tongue and writing system the information is available all the time and correction is not limited to the classroom. Relatives, friends, and even enemies play a role in helping one learn one’s own language

The bushmen of Africa have a language which is done by the clicking of their tongues, {Khoisan} and its people have no trouble learning how to do it. Dr. Rollston, here, makes the very mistake he claimed those scholars quoted above made. He assumes that native people are incapable of learning their own language without enduring long periods of schooling.

In the modern scholar’s mind it may be difficult but they are coming at the language when the ancient tongue is no longer spoken by natives and there is no one left alive to correct any of the mistakes or point out the nuances.  The people born into those civilizations have innumerable speakers and were taught all the nuances while they were growing up.

There is a big difference in perspectives here and one should not impose their learning situation onto the ancients.

  1. “Lemaire (1981) has argued that there were numerous schools throughout much of Israel and Judah in the Iron Age…Lemaire’s decision to propose such a pervasive system of education was an Achilles heel, because the evidence could not carry the load he saddled with it.”

Dr. Rollston has been around archaeology and scholars enough to know that the lack of evidence does not prove something did not exist. We all know that archaeology only provides the modern world with minute fragments of what took place in the past and much of that is left up to the archaeologist’s speculative powers.

We also have the problem with mis-identification of buildings and their purpose. Too often the archaeologist decides to label a building a temple when in reality, that probably is far from the truth. We do not really know which structures were temples, in most cases, and which were not. Most ancient structures are not accompanied with undamaged, complete manuscripts detailing the buildings use.

K.A. Kitchen, in his book The Bible In its World, details how much is lost at a site, how much is uncovered and how little is printed material. We cannot state with any confidence that a public school system did not exist in some ancient civilizations. We cannot state that a home schooling idea did not exist nor can we say that schooling was only for the elite few.  What undermines that latter idea is that there are just too many employment/governmental positions requiring literacy to be filled by the elite alone.

They just did not have the manpower to do it. Plus, some of those trained in schools were needed to replace aging or dying teachers, reducing the literate workforce even further, creating a need for more citizens to be educated.

  1. “…the morphology of the letters…Finally it should also be noted that some Old Hebrew inscriptions can be dated to the ninth century…”

Everyone knows that most languages change over time. Old English is vastly different from its modern counterpart. But the problem with this idea is that people do not let the older versions die out and use them for special occasions. This fact alone destroys a lot of the dating ideas floating about.  We can guess when an inscription was written and we can be close but we can never be sure because we do not know the intent behind what was written.

Dating an inscription is too subjective because we also do not know who ordered the writing, who wrote it and many other factors that seemed to be ignored in Dr. Rollston’s paper. There are just too many mitigating factors that come into play and assumption plays a large role in the modern scholars’ attempts to decipher the words.

One such factor is that the inscription may have been found amongst, let’s say, 8th century BC artifacts but that doesn’t mean the inscription was written in the 8th century. It is a possibility but it is also possible that the inscription was a family heirloom written much earlier than the supposed dating or it was moved to that location for preservation sake. There are many reasons why an inscription is found where it is and very few have to do with the actual time period.

  1. “For the Old Hebrew script there is basic uniformity…The script of Old Hebrew seals is normally a formal cursive script (rather than a semi-formal cursive script)…The fact of the matter is that no trained palaeogapher would suggest that there was some sort of uniformity without development or variation during the course of some two centuries”

The problem with this so-called uniformity is that it ignores use of scripts for ceremonial or special occasions. I have multiple from schools on 3 different continents and each diploma uses Old English. Two are completely in Old English though that style was never used other official or unofficial paperwork throughout my tenure at those institutions and one is in partial Old English.

Another degree is in modern English but both printed and cursive style of printing. I have also looked at other degrees from other institutions and they do the exact same thing. What this means is that uniformity does not indicate general usage of a particular script. It does mean that a certain style is reserved for commemorating achievement or other honors; while other styles of writing are used for other purposes.

Of course those ancient seals would use a formal script as most likely their purpose was for official work and not for everyday communication. The same idea goes for the supposed development of a language. One thing I noticed in this paper was that the fact that different people write differently was completely omitted.

To say that different letter lengths indicate a change in a language is naïve as people do not write exactly the same way in the same time period. Everyone has their style of handwriting. Some women put hearts over their ‘I’s’, while others put flowers or dots, yet they are writing in the same time period and even attended the same school and had the same teachers teaching them how to write.

The evidence really does not support a developmental theory, simply because we know so little about the origin of languages or writing. In the article Who began writing? Many Theories Few Answers, John Noble Wilford wrote: “In exchanging interpretations and new information, the scholars acknowledged that they still had no fully satisfying answers to the most important questions of exactly how and why writing was developed”

So we really do not know which style was the original and which were affected by the personality of the inscriber. Many scholars throw out the word, ‘proto’ but that is a mis-used term as we do not really know what the original language looked like and how they developed to their ancient forms.

We are simply getting fragmentary samples written by different people with different personalities who wrote as they wanted. The artifacts do not come with labels describing the needed information to draw a development conclusion. We can assume and speculate but what if the scholars have the inscriptions backwards and put them in the wrong order?

How would we spot the error?  How can we verify beyond a shadow of a doubt so that we can use that conclusion to categorize subsequent finds? How can we be sure? We can’t because too many factors play a role in the written language.

  1. “ For Old Hebrew, there is no evidence for the use of internal matres lectionis during the lion share of the eighth century…”

Possible but what about spelling errors, fads or other ideas that influence writing. In todays English world many people shorten a word down to one syllable. Do we call that a development or just bad English?

How can we know that the samples we dig up are infallible and no mistakes are contained within? Or that no fad or special creativity influenced the written style for a period of time? In studying the past, I have noticed that too many ideal assumptions are placed upon the written word and the concept of mistakes or creativity are ignored or not grasped. Remember, nothing is new under the sun and the changes to modern language for whatever reason probably took place in the ancient world as well.

We cannot assume that everyone wrote exactly the same like little mindless robots. The changes I mentioned are they development of a language or just creativity trying to gain attention for some business or entertainment? It is difficult to say with the ancient world because we lack so much information and researchers are left to their own devices and bias.

  1. “My own suspicion is that scribal education in Israel could have occurred…(but always with trained scribal personnel at the helm)…”

This reminds me of the arguments of some scholars who state that literacy was only among the scribes and elite but that is like saying that today’s literate people were taught only in Bible Schools and only Christians could read and write.

Of course, I do not argue that scribal schools did not exist but their existence does not mean that other schools for non-elite people did not exist. Those who oppose that idea ignore the wishes of parents (especially mothers) who want their children to have more than they did; it ignores the fact that an illiterate nation cannot survive or be dominant in the world. Even the world’s worst dictators sent their people’s children to school, even if it were for nefarious reasons. We cannot assume that every nation had a public school system but we cannot assume, either, that they did not.

Finally, in regards to this elite scribal education system one must ask the question: If the elite only were educated why would they write on cheap pottery?  They were the elite and the elite had money thus they had access to the finest writing materials of the time and would have no use for writing on common clay items.

It would seem that pottery would be the domain of the commoner who did not have access or the money to better writing materials. They would be more inclined to write as they pleased changing the language as they saw fit whereas the elite’s handwriting would be very sophisticated and neat using proper letters with proper grammar because they would have been educated by the best teachers who exacted perfection.

It just doesn’t make sense to eliminate education and literacy from the common folk and limit it to a small group of people, the evidence just isn’t there to support that thinking.


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