Uncommon Sense

May 27, 2020

Evidence and Interpretation

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:42 am
Tags: , , ,

In the ongoing dialogue between young theists and atheists on sites like Quora, hordes of young theists seem to being educated by atheists about atheism. (Trust me, you don’t want them to be ask church officials such questions, as there is no upside, nor any good information to be had.)

Regarding the existence of god(s) questions, atheists are often asking for “evidence” for their existence and then having to explain what evidence is. I guess I only hope that the questioners are young, otherwise our education system has done a lousy job of establishing what objective evidence is.

In any case, I am reading a book by a respected archeologist of early Palestine and he is trying to make an argument for wider spread literacy than is usually assumed, for early in the first millennium BCE.

At one point he uses as evidence of widespread literacy, the labeling of storage jars with the name of the owner, and possibly use of the contents. So, labels like “Property of XYZ” in the form of “Belonging to Zadoc” were found. One such showing name and use comes from the 8th century and is “Belonging to Matanyāhū; wine for libation; one fourth.” Since archeological finds are more trustworthy than written stories, one is inclined to follow the clay shards, rather than follow the texts, but all archeological finds have to be interpreted.

Consider some far off future archeologist who is excavating places in Texas and finds a buried but well preserved mansion. In it he finds a room that looks much like a library with piles and piles of decayed books in it. From this the archeologist interprets the find as representing a mansion of a “learned, well-read man.” Apparently the archeologist hadn’t heard of rich assholes who build mansions with libraries, full of expensive and rare books as a sign of their wealth, yet hadn’t read a book in their life.

So, if a man had his name inscribed upon his wine jars (a process which turned out to be by using a chisel after the jar was fired, so a very delicate process), what can we hypothesize?
• the owner was worried about local theft
• the owner was vain and wanted everyone to know how much wine he owned
• it was a thing he heard other wealthy people did and he was a wannabe.
I am sure you can come up with more. But can we assume that the owner of said jug was literate? How about the carver of the jugs? I don’t think you can assume either was literate. The wealthy jug owner may have been shown what his name looked like when written, maybe he could even write his name. The carver may have been given the text on an ostracon for him to duplicate, much as he might carve a hand into a relief carving.

Can we assume all of the traders and merchants who might receive or buy these containers are literate? I can imagine many scenarios in which a merchant receiving a shipment of such wines, making a chalk mark on them identifying them in his mind without being able to read any labels.

The libation wine container . . . , well libations are performed by religious officials or people empowered to make them. Technically one could pour some wine on a home altar all by oneself, but this is a rather larger jug. So, would rural religious officials be readers and writers? Their training may have included this, so it is more likely. It is likely that a village prelate could be called upon to read and write for the people in his village. But that doesn’t equate to widespread literacy.

In this country, you were considered literate at one point of you could “make your mark.” So, if you were asked to sign a contract or sign a voters roll and you scrawl an “X” on the dotted line, you were considered literate. (And this is one of the reasons why we then and now have witnesses of such signings.) So, people who could not even write their own name were considered literate at one point. The definition of who was literate changed as the populace became better and better educated. The definition in the context of the book was roughly “could people read and/or write a simple letter.” There are enough of these letters that have been found to indicate a rather wider spread literacy than is often assumed, but still all of the evidence needs to be interpreted. A letter written by a soldier, is that evidence of widespread literacy, or was the writer the “company clerk” for his military unit? What about the elites? Were they literate or did they hire scribes to read and write for them.

We have enough stories from the business computer revolution in the 1980’s and 1990’s of company executives who were functionally illiterate. They couldn’t type. They couldn’t spell. They certainly couldn’t use computers. And some couldn’t read.. One exec who could barely read but who showed well-developed coping skills always asked a subordinate at meetings to “summarize” the issue for all of the people at the table. That memos and summaries had been circulated prior to the meeting were irrelevant and the boss was lauded for having a human touch. (Nice summary, Bill. Does everyone agree? Okay, what do we do now . . .”)

This doesn’t mean that there weren’t people who could read and write in many, many places but it also doesn’t establish that there was widespread literacy.

One such clue as to there being widespread literacy would be the discovery of schools that children or adults attended to learn how to read and write. Ostracons and tablets with what appear to be lessons performed upon them have been discovered but in most cases they were thought to represent the work of students in scribal schools, not widespread evidence of homework being done by the bulk of the population. (Would scribes be needed in places with widespread literacy? Probably as scribes did more than just “take dictation.”)

This is not the only evidence of wider spread literacy at that time and in that place, so I am not talking about his conclusion, but the mere fact that evidence has to be interpreted and that is a dicey thing. I think of some future archeologist excavating our “landfills,” aka dumps, to learn more about the people who lived in Chicago. He is puzzled to find millions upon millions of plastic bags with dog poop in them and speculated as to what sort of bizarre religion those Chicagoans must have had. Were they dog worshipers, preserving even the feces of their gods? Hmmm . . . is great puzzlement!



  1. Or consider some far off future archeologist who is excavating Trump Tower…

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by James Cross — May 27, 2020 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

    • LOL! All that gold … he/she will think that the building was from the Baroque period.

      On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 12:06 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 27, 2020 @ 7:22 pm | Reply

  2. I did a post on this very subject. Literacy was indeed widespread. One example:

    before the Jewish revolt the high priest Yehoshua ben Gamla (cir. 64 C.E.) appointed teachers in every town and village of every province throughout Palestine to provide an education for boys aged six and up. Regarded as the founder of formal Jewish education for children Gamla’s sweeping policy directive assumes a vast stock of professionally literate laypeople ready to fill classrooms in every miniscule, deadbeat, backend, go-nowhere village across Palestine which, in-turn, presupposes that major regional centers already had well established education systems dating back decades, if not well into the 1st Century BCE. A single classroom without a qualified teacher is, after all, about as useful as a car without petrol. Hundreds of classrooms without qualified teachers is simple madness.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — May 27, 2020 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

    • And if that was the state of “universal” education at that point, imagine 800 to a thousand years earlier.

      On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 12:58 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 27, 2020 @ 7:24 pm | Reply

    • Great point John.

      I remember reading—for the 6th or 7th time—the enormous 1996 Reader’s Digest “The Bible Through the Ages” book and it opening up my more objective eyes to how and why our current Bibles came to be. It is still one of my most treasured sources on the much maligned and severely amputated historical origins of Judaism and Christianity. It should be said less so Judaism’s murky origins compared to Christianity’s heavy murkiness.

      Anyway, one of the fascinating finds this large panel of history and biblical scholars concluded was that any nobility that could read or write in those Ancient Eras was considered by the illiterate masses to possess Divine gifts and those literal words, phrases, and theological concepts came down from the Heavens specifically for these highly affluent minorities. And naturally, kings and queens utilized them (Holy men) for their own agendas and population control throughout their kingdoms. This form of social-management under the (false) guise of “Divine Intervention” thru literate nobility runs throughout almost ALL civilizations in human history. Those few men and women possessed UNBELIEVABLE power, influence, and control over their servants/citizens!

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Professor Taboo — May 27, 2020 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

  3. Excellent post Steve! You raise some very intriguing questions, context, and theories within archaeology. You state:

    This is not the only evidence of wider spread literacy at that time and in that place, so I am not talking about his conclusion, but the mere fact that evidence has to be interpreted and that is a dicey thing.

    I agree, ESPECIALLY if the scientist, archaeologist, scholar of one or two disciplines in science OR theology or whatever—they’re all cognitive human processes—do not use the newer process of interdisciplinary scholarship, i.e. shared discoveries, theories, studies, supporting evidence, etc, etc, ALL THROUGHOUT every single discipline/fields of scientific study relevantly possible to share and engage. Prior to the 1950’s and 60’s this openness did not exist so much or at all for several reasons, sometimes sheer arrogance of one or two scholars. This of course can be found within religious-biblical scholars from a specific Abrahamic religious persuasion! Those biases only end up contaminating what results are promoted or propagandized. Duh, right?

    Therefore, I personally am a HUGE FAN of scholars and scientists who wisely utilize all possible fields of study and scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines forming the most widest CONTEXT of their narrow, tiny find/study. I am thrilled that more of this wider vista/spectrum of fuller context is being increasingly practiced by the Secular scientists and scholars!!! 🙂


    Comment by Professor Taboo — May 27, 2020 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

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