David M. Carr in his book Writing on the Tablet of the Heart shows that there is much evidence for primary level scribal education in Israel going all the way back to the twelfth century B.C.E. This evidence comes from archeological finds of copybooks and primers. There was widespread teaching of writing to young children .
He has a fascinating discussion of Isaiah 28:9-13. This passage appears to say that Isaiah’s opponents accused him teaching on a toddler’s level (the reference to falling on their backsides in v. 13). The first part of v. 13 contains what seems like baby talk or a nonsense phrase. It is translated as “precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, [and] there a little” in the KJV.
Carr thinks this is not nonsense but a kind of sing song still used in Muslim education where children learn the alphabet by echoing the master. Whereas we have pictures of educational settings from the Greeks and Egyptians, we have this literary picture of the same thing from Israel. We have no pictures because the Israelites were averse to images.
The problem in Israel is that, although we know small children received instruction in how to write, we haven’t found similar evidence of more advanced scribal education.
Sometimes we know scribal activity existed by its results. For instance, way back in the 14th century many of the Amarna letters originated in small Palestinian city states. This shows that there were people with a scribal education all over Palestine at that time.
Carr bases much of his argument for advanced scribal education in Israel on the very existence of Israelite Wisdom Literature. He cites several passages within Proverbs and Ecclesiastes that he interprets as being about scribal education. There is much talk about teachers and instruction. The passages seem to point to education in a family setting as sons learn from their fathers and even their mothers (Proverbs 6:20).
Most of this education was steeped in the oral culture. There was much talk of listening and heeding the voice of the teacher. The existence of Wisdom texts shows that written text aided memory and oral recitation. But it is hard to tell when writing was first used for this purpose.
Proverbs 25:1 speaks of the “men of Hezekiah” who copied the proverbs of Solomon. In 1 Kings chapters 4 and 5 there is evidence that written lists relating to government and commerce from the time of Solomon were available to the authors.
But modern scholars have tended to ignore some evidence due to assumptions about writing as academic and literary as opposed to being a help to oral presentation. Thus they may ignore what we read about a written song for teaching in connection with David :
He gave instructions that the people of Judah should be taught “The Bow.” Indeed, it is written down in the Book of Yashar (2 Samuel 1:18 NET Bible)
And apparently in reference to the Song of Moses in chapter 32, Deuteronomy 31:19 says:
Now write down for yourselves the following song and teach it to the Israelites. Put it into their very mouths so that this song may serve as my witness against the Israelites! (NET Bible).
Critics will say that these kinds of passages could be a reading back of scribal activity into earlier times. Since these texts speak of Moses and David, that would be easy. But presumably the lost Book of Yashar existed at some early time. Also many scholars think the Song of Moses is early even if it isn’t from Moses.
The arguments about when scribal writing began in Israel will be inconclusive. But it seems to me the burden of proof should be on those who think there was little early scribal activity. There was much writing and many scribes in other cultures around Israel at even earlier dates.
Carr’s contribution, so far as I have now read, is to show that writing most likely existed as part of the oral culture and often as an aid to reciting, singing, or dramatically performing a text. It also promoted the spiritual and cultural formation of the scribes themselves.