21/04/2016 2:28 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST

Trying To Discover When The Good Book Was Written Is A Bad Idea

For many of the familiar texts of the Bible, the answer to the question about whether they were written in 600 B.C., or earlier than that, or at a later date, may simply be "yes".

Letters inscribed on pottery, known as ostracons, which were unearthed in an excavation of a fort in Arad, Israel, and dated to about 600 B.C. shortly before Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem, are seen in Israel Museum in Jerusalem Tuesday, April 12, 2016. A Tel Aviv University team determined that this famous hoard of ancient Hebrew inscriptions was written by at least six different authors. Although the inscriptions are not from the Bible, their discovery suggests there was widespread literacy in ancient Judah at the time that would support the composition of biblical works. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

This week it emerged new research provides evidence on when the Bible was written. However, the research adds very little to what we already knew on that topic.

According to a report in the New York Times, research on short documents from the military base at Arad, written in ink on pieces of broken pottery, reveals that there were many more people who could read and write around 600 B.C. in the ancient kingdom of Judah, and that that means the Bible was written earlier than scholars had previously thought. Apparently (this is news to me at least), scholars commonly thought that there weren't enough people able to write at that time, so they couldn't have written the Bible that early.

Beneath the hype, however, is a solid research project that used innovative mathematical and imaging techniques to distinguish the handwriting of different people on the Arad inscriptions. The evidence, while significant and interesting to specialists, does not go much beyond showing that there were a few more people, probably army scribes or officers, who could write. We are far from documenting high rates of literacy.

In my own study on literacy, published in 1998, I already showed that the Bible itself restricts the literate to a range of elite groups -- scribes, priests and government officials (which would include army officers). There is no evidence that ordinary people in ancient Judah (or elsewhere in the ancient world, for that matter) were able to read and write, the situation we are used to in the modern world.

What does identifying a few more writers have to do with the writing of (parts of) the Bible? Not much. It doesn't take mass literacy for traditions to be written down, it really just takes one good writer with a reason to do so, and there were almost certainly literate people throughout Biblical history. We can already document quite a few of them from inscriptions dating to the centuries before 600 B.C. Nor is it the case that there is a sort of critical mass of writers that, when reached, inevitably leads to the composition of documents that profoundly shaped western culture.

In fact, the whole discussion misses the really interesting breakthroughs scholars have made about the composition of the Bible since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Scholars have become aware that Old Testament books were not ever just written in one go. "When was the Bible written?" is the wrong question. Ancient books were fluid entities that were written and rewritten, each manuscript a different rendition of the community tradition that lay behind it.

We are used, in the modern world, to a book, once it is written, staying written. Also, modern books usually have an identifiable author or authors. The Bible is, on the contrary, community literature, reflecting community traditions that appear in different ways in different renditions of the same book or passage. Even within the Bible that we know, we find multiple versions of the same stories and traditions. Outside the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts, like the earliest translations into Greek, show us yet further variant versions, all of which were likely considered to be valid representations of the tradition about great Biblical themes like God's relationship with the peoples of the earth.

So, for many of the familiar texts of the Bible, the answer to the question about whether they were written in 600 B.C., or earlier than that, or at a later date, may simply be "yes".

The first step to understanding the Bible is to understand that it is unlike a modern book, both in the way it was composed and in the literary techniques it uses to convey meaning.