A Shopping List from 600 BC: Wine, Oil, and a Biblical Enigma

“To Eliashib: And now, give the Kittiyim 3 baths of wine, and write the name of the day.” Researchers at Tel Aviv University have pieced together a trove of letters written on pottery pieces known as ostracons, unearthed decades ago at an excavation site of the Arad fort, near the Dead Sea. The quote above apparently instructs the delivery to a unit of Greek mercenaries stationed in the area. The letters were written in ancient Hebrew using the Aramaic alphabet around 600 BC, shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The letters, with very few errors, suggest a high literacy rate at the time. Biblical experts had previously suggested that the Bible, including the Pentateuch, had been written at a later date, in its more cohesive form like the one that has reached our days. According to them, the reason was the lack of enough literacy in earlier times. Yet based on this evidence, researchers now believe there must have been hundreds of people in the Holy Land who knew how to read and write. Some other experts are contesting the finding’s implications. The last word has not been said yet. These letter writers had other urgencies at the time: “And a full homer of wine, bring tomorrow; don’t be late,” commanded one, wisely.

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