Class Warfare Blog

May 27, 2020

Evidence and Interpretation

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


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