Protective Strategies Here and There: A Review Article of Stephen L. Young, “Protective Strategies…” and “Maximizing Literacy as a Protective Strategy”

04.27.15 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Stephen L. Young

Protective Strategies Here and There:  A Review Article of Stephen L. Young, “Protective Strategies…” and “Maximizing Literacy as a Protective Strategy”

    A Denver Journal Review Article by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Richard S. Hess

    Young, Stephen L.  “Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the ‘Academic’: A Religious Studies and Practice Theory Redescription of Inerrantist Scholarship,” Biblical Interpretation 23 (2015):1-35; idem, “Maximizing Literacy as a Protective Strategy: Redescribing Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship on Israelite Literacy,” Biblical Interpretation 23 (2015): 145-73.

    In recent essays, Stephen L. Young (2015a; 2015b) attempts an analysis of “Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship” in which he names a variety of scholars but features myself and Alan Millard in great detail as representative examples of what he describes as a protective strategy. The editors of Biblical Interpretation have deemed this work of such significance as to devote two articles and 54 pages to its examination (Young 2015a; 2015b). It is the purpose of the present review article to examine (1) the validity of the application of such a method in this particular instance, and (2) the manner in which the elements of this protective strategy come into play in Young’s own discussion and analysis.

    The Executive Editor and the editorial board of Biblical Interpretation refused publication of this response on the grounds that (1) it could not be vetted through their double blind review process without revealing my identity as the author; and (2) the possibility of a forum in which both Young and I contributed responses was declined by Young (email communication from Tat-Siong Benny Liew, Executive Editor of Biblical Interpretation, April 22, 2015). If my brief observations accomplish anything here, I hope they will encourage the interested reader to examine the original publications, along with their evidence and arguments, in order to discern these important issues and exactly what points and rationales are presented. The contribution of additional considered voices to this discussion can only enhance the field.

    While much could be addressed in this essay, I will limit my concerns to Young’s analysis made regarding my work and the manner in which it is pursued for the purposes of identifying a “protective strategy.” A characteristic of Young’s writing style is to lump together a larger group of scholars and to claim that what is true with one writer or another must be true of the entire group. While Alan Millard and I are separated out for special treatment (Young 2015b: 147-49), we are connected with the views of other “Evangelical Inerrantist Scholars” who are “more explicit” than us but “illustrate,” “provide further evidence,” and make recurrent claims with whom we can be identified (Young 2015b: 152-53, 161). One may respect many of the scholars whom Young mentions but not identify one’s views or methods with them. Their work should be evaluated on its own merits. The same is true of Alan Millard, from whom I have learned much. The concern here will be with the extensive treatment Young gives my published writings.

    Points of Misrepresentation as a Means to Support Theories of Protective Strategies

    On the first and second pages of Young’s “Analysis of Inerrantist Scholarship on Israelite Literacy” (2015b: 150-51), he claims that I trace Israelite literacy “back to the thirteenth century (e.g. Hess 2002: 83-88, 95).” This is not true. I explicitly and only discuss the thirteenth century B.C. (and earlier) evidence for writing in Southern Canaan on p. 85 under the section entitled “I. Pre-Israelite Canaan” (note Pre-Israelite, not Israelite). This misrepresentation with identical references is repeated on the same page of Young’s essay (2015b: 151). Repeating a false statement does not make it true. However, a repetitive style characterizes Young’s work. His use of terms such as “rhetoric” and “misrepresents,” that he applies to myself, can be applied to his own “strategy” to “protect” a particular understanding of my writings on literacy and what that understanding supposedly reveals about my intentions.

    I will take time here to consider only the main points of Young’s specific discussion of what I have written on literacy. First, it is essential to Young’s strategy to establish that I hold to widespread, sophisticated literacy in ancient Israel, a “literary literacy” across the entire population. He argues that I assert, “any Israelite of any social or geographic location” would have “the ability to read, and sometimes write, complex literary texts” (Young 2015b: 153-54). However, I never make this claim. When Young attempts to assign this definition to my work he is not successful in establishing any place where I so define my use of literacy in this manner. The only evidence he musters is in a section on seals and bullae where, according to Young, “Hess himself even distinguishes between the ability to scribble one’s name and recognize it on a seal versus ‘the ability to read or write’ (Hess 2002: 92).” However, Young misrepresents my work. This quote is taken from the statement, “Although possession of a seal with one’s name on it does not prove the ability to read or write…”  I stand by that remark. Possession of a seal with writing says nothing about the individual owner being able to read or write. I go on to state that the quantity of seals with writing on them does suggest a culture where more people could read and write their names than a culture without seals with names written on them. I say nothing about “literacy” as involving more than reading and writing one’s name.    

    Because Young incorrectly claims that I endorse the model of a vast and widespread ability to read and write complex texts throughout ancient Israel, he can then go on to suggest that this is the understanding I use to object to Christopher Rollston’s arguments and it is the view that I ascribe to William Schniedewind and William Dever. However, in reality I do not define literacy in this manner, as “literary literacy.” For this reason, none of Young’s statements reflect what I have written. In fact, they compound the misrepresentation of my research.   

    Thus Young asserts that I declare Rollston’s definition of literacy, in a chapter he wrote on the Tel Zayit abecedary (Rollston 2008), as “illegitimately just made up” (2015b: 154). I do nothing of the kind. It is not illegitimate nor is my own definition. Clearly, Rollston’s definition of those who wrote and read their names as “non-literate” would not be the same as my own (Rollston 2010: 127; cf. Hess 2011). It runs counter to my sense of literacy as being able to read and write, even in a basic fashion. Nevertheless, I can live with either definition, so long as one recognizes that they differ in what they signify. What I do distinguish, then, is how I use the term, literacy, and how Rollston does. He uses it to refer to what Young describes as literary literacy. I use it to refer to basic abilities, including reading and writing one’s name. 

    Thus I have no issue with Rollston’s definition used in the way that he does. Young misrepresents me when he says I do. My objections are rather (1) that Rollston (when analyzing my work) attempts to apply his understanding of literacy (as requiring the ability to read and compose much more sophisticated texts) to my use of the term, and (2) that he maintains I argue that the Tel Zayit abecedary by itself establishes proof of many readers and writers of various socio-economic backgrounds (Rollston 2008: 62-63; Hess 2009b: 596). Because that is not my definition of literacy in any of my writings, and because I have never suggested that the Tel Zayit abecedary by itself is proof of literary literacy, I reject this definition.  Young states that I borrow my definition and use of terms for literacy, but that this practice is “something he denies to Rollston’s” approach (Young 2015b: 155). But again, he cannot show where I deny this to Rollston because I never do.

    Young needs to demonstrate that I use “functional literacy” in the sense of literary literacy (2015b: 156) in order to prove that my underlying “protective strategy” is to “block analysis of a text that may not uphold the text’s own claims about itself” (2015b: 146). Thus it is very important for his strategy to demonstrate how I “self-represent” my view of literary literacy as mainstream.  But I have no view of widespread literary literacy. This is a fiction created by misreading my published work. Young devotes pages of his work to demonstrate how I misrepresent William Schniedewind and William Dever, who use the terms, “broader literacy” and “functional literacy,” but limit them to practices such as writing one’s name on a seal. They clearly distinguish these terms from writing anything complex (such as biblical books). 

    A basic problem with Young’s argument is that I never disagree with these observations. I accept these terms “as propounded by other scholars, rather than inventing my own” (Hess 2009b: 596). I used these terms in an article I published on the Tel Zayit abecedary where I found them convenient in order to make my point: “Whether as Schniedewind’s ‘broader literacy’ or Dever’s ‘functional literacy,’ the epigraphic evidence continues to grow” (Hess 2006: 345). In the context of mentioning thousands of Hebrew seals and bullae with writing alongside other brief inscriptions, the picture of writing suggests broad and “rudimentary” reading and writing concerning which I agree with these scholars whom Young mentions. Thus I fully endorse Dever’s point that, “We may assume that writing and even what we may call ‘functional’ literacy, was reasonably widespread by the 10th century, and certainly by the 9th century” (Dever 2001: 203; cited in Hess 2007: 234).

    Therefore, when Young argues, “Hess’ invoking of Dever’s ‘functional literacy’ and Schniedewind’s ‘broader literacy’ as support for widespread Israelite literary literacy thus appears to be an attempt to bolster the scholarly credentials of his position, but in a way that demonstrably falls short of accurate interaction” (2015b: 157), he misrepresents my position and makes claims that he cannot support. Nevertheless, such “redescribing” is consistent with Young’s own protective strategy to block accurate understanding of what I actually have written in order to create a false dichotomy between my position and that of others. Accusations that I “misuse” others’ work is a dubious “bonus” that comes from misuse of my own writing.

    Moving through my later responses to some publications on literacy, Young builds on his misunderstanding of my work and my definitions in order to further misrepresent what I write on the Tel Zayit abecedary. Young states, “According to Hess, Rollston at most ‘concede[s] its possible use for ‘curricular activities’’ (Hess 2009b: 596). This demonstrably misrepresents Rollston’s points and illustrates Hess’ non-engagement with Rollston’s actual argument. Rollston does not ‘concede’ anything” (Young 2015b: 164). Compare what I actually wrote concerning abecedaries: “Indeed, Rollston appears to concede its possible use for ‘curricular activities’ later” (Hess 2009b: 596). I then cite p. 72 of Rollston’s 2008 study where he writes, “My own position is that one can hardly suggest that none of the extant abecedaries is to be associated with curricular activities (Rollston 2006: 67).” The only misrepresentation here is Young’s discussion of my description of what Rollston has written. This furthers Young’s strategy to block understanding of my writing and to replace it with redescriptions that supports his self-represented analysis.

    A final example of the manner in which Young incorrectly describes what I write about literacy has to do with my analysis of Rollston’s evidence and arguments that review a variety of pedagogical studies concerning how children learn to read and write English in a modern, literate English culture. I refer to an essay by M. C. A. Macdonald, “Literacy in an Oral Environment” (2005). Among other matters, I cite evidence that covers cultures in pre-modern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, where writing and reading on a rudimentary level occurs for a variety of reasons among both children and adults. I refer to the many thousands of Safaitic graffiti from the Roman period and how these suggest peoples from a variety of classes in this culture could read and write. I also discuss one of the key authors that Rollston cites, Linnea C. Ehri (1998). Ehri’s observations concern how children in modern Western cultures learn how to read and write English. The observations make clear that in English the number of letters (small and large case), the variations of pronunciation for these letters both singly and in combination, and the grapheme-vowel correspondences all go beyond the education that ancient Israelites needed to learn to read and write their own names and perhaps a few other words in Hebrew (Hess 2009a: 8). Young dismisses all of this evidence and argument as “an anecdote” (2015b: 163). 

    My conclusions remain reserved with questions and general remarks such as: “Whether these points are sufficient to explain the differences between the studies that Rollston cites and the experiences of African and Middle Easterners is not certain” (Hess 2009a: 8). Young states that I make “un-theorized claims,” that I “generalize from an anecdote,” and that I “do not engage in critical historical investigation” (2015b: 163). These misrepresentations drive one toward the same conclusion about Young that he attempts to argue about me: that one can only find agreement among those who already agree with him and are not competent to examine the evidence.  Cf. Young 2015b:163 (Young repeats this charge on p. 168 and again on p. 169, where apathy is added to his list of reasons for failure to identify the putative errors and misrepresentation).

    Hittite Vassal Treaties and Mischaracterizations of Motives

    A sub-theme that runs through Young’s description is his repeated dismissal of my argument that Hittite vassal treaties more closely resemble the overall structure of a work such as Deuteronomy than later vassal treaties of the Neo-Assyrian period (2015b: 151-52, 168). This is not original with me, but has been a voice in scholarship for more than half a century in one form or another. Cf. e.g., Mendenhall 1954, whose own work relies upon the structural analysis of Hittite treaties produced by Korošec 1931. 

    In Young’s view I “repeatedly stress parallels between Hittite treaties and Deuteronomy” and am one who “consistently emphasizes potential evidence” but who “does not urge caution about the proposed Hittite treaty parallels.” I do indeed support the Hittite parallels as most closely related to the general structure of Deuteronomy. However, that is not Young’s point. He asserts that I do this, in a method consistent with all my work to which he refers, in order to “privilege the biblical text” and to “block analysis” that does not support the biblical text. 

    If this is true, why then did I co-edit a book on Israelite history that appeared a few months ago wherein the single chapter devoted to “Covenant and Treaty in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East” does not advocate the Hittite vassal treaty parallel (Greengus 2014)? Does this not contradict my “protective strategy?” Since Young references this recent history book (2015b: 148 n; Hess 2014), he would have had access to it and the chapter that opposes my position. Yet he chooses not to mention it. I may have a viewpoint but it is simply without foundation to state that I “block” alternative views as part of a strategy to privilege the biblical text.  To the contrary, I publish them.  Young’s own selectivity in discussing only what supports his “protective strategy” argument, all the while ignoring what contradicts it in works that appear with my name on them, suggests that Young has a protective strategy of his own that is in operation here. 


    An important point that has not been noted is that no one among those mentioned argues that there is a major issue with the degree of literacy in ancient Israel and with the biblical traditions. Neither Rollston, Schniedewind, Dever, nor I are concerned that evidence for an increase or decrease in literacy will affect some sort of long and dearly held religious or other view. The biblical witness is sufficiently general about the matter, as are the other relevant materials (e.g., Lachish letter 3), so that a variety of literacy views are compatible with what may be different analyses of these texts. 

    I do not attempt to argue for a specific level of literacy, much less for widespread literary literacy. My agnosticism toward this endeavor is stated at the beginning of my first study on the subject (Hess 2002:83): “The question of the degree to which literacy can be assumed or dismissed in ancient Israel is one that has no direct answer.” I repeated this in the conclusion of that essay (2002:95) and have never altered my position.

    Nor do I “greatly value the prestige and legitimacy of the academy” (Young 2015b: 169). My original essay (Hess 2002) on this subject was written in order to collect the published evidence of extra biblical written material before and during the period of ancient Israel; something I had not seen done in an up-to-date manner at the time. The portrayal of myself (and anyone else) as so driven by Young’s theory of a “protective strategy” that whatever I write betrays this purpose, is a reductionist ideology that reveals more about the person so describing it then it actually identifies those participating in the discussion. I do not believe that those working in this field, including myself, can be so easily and simply labeled and objectified. 

    The study of the characteristics of scholars’ arguments and what may lie behind them may prove useful. However, it requires accurate and full representation of what authors write on a subject. Selective quotation and misrepresentation of one’s published work, masquerading under the guise of ideological and socio-historical criticism, are not helpful and cannot replace careful research of the evidence and arguments themselves.


    The “Agade Mailing List” reports a newspaper article in the April 22, 2015 edition of Haaretz written by Ariel David, “A High-Tech Quest to Unlock the Secrets of Ancient Israelite Letters.” The article concerns research on the Arad ostraca, letters on potsherds written in the period before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, reports on a forthcoming study of which he is a part. Ariel David notes that Finkelstein suggests that the new evidence demonstrates “strong literary activity before the exile,” where in Judah “There must have been a large education system to support that.”  We await the scholarly publication in order to evaluate this new evidence of additional writing found on the ostraca. Increasing evidence for ancient Israelite reading and writing should not be interpreted as a protective strategy. 


    Dever, W.

    2001  What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?  What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

    Greengus, S. 

    2014  “Covenant and Treaty in the Hebrew Bible and in the Ancient Near East,” in B. Arnold and R. Hess (eds.), Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to the Issues and Sources  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic): 91-126.

    Hess, R. S. 

    2002  “Literacy in Iron Age Israel,” in V.P. Long, D.W. Baker, and G.J. Wenham (eds.), Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of “Biblical Israel.”  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans):82-102.

    2006  “Writing About Writing: Abecedaries and Evidence for Literacy in Ancient Israel,” VT 56: 342-46.

    2007  Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).

    2009a  “Questions of Reading and Writing in Ancient Israel,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19: 1-9.

    2009b  Review of Ron Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter (eds.), Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context, Bulletin for Biblical Research 19: 595-97.

    2011  Review of Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age, Bulletin for Biblical Research 21: 394-96.

    2014   “Introduction: Foundations for a History of Israel, “ in B. Arnold and R. Hess (eds.), Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to the Issues and Sources  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic): 1-22.

    Korošec, V.

    1931   Hethitische Staatsverträge: Ein Beitrag zu Ihrer Juristischen Wertung  (Leipzig: T. Weicher).

    Macdonald, M. C. 

    2005  “Literacy in an Oral Environment,” in P. Bienkowski et al. (eds.), Writing and Ancient Near Eastern Society: Papers in Honour of Alan R. Millard  (New York: T&T Clark): 49-118.

    Mendenhall, G. E.

    1954  “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition,” Biblical Archaeologist 17: 20-46, 50-76.

    Rollston, C. 

    2008  “The Phoenician Script of the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Putative Evidence for Israelite Literacy,” in Ron Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter (eds.), Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns): 61-96.

    2010.  Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age  (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature).

    Schniedewind, W. M. 

    2000.  “Orality and Literacy in Ancient Israel,” Religious Studies Review 26: 327-32.

    Young, S. L. 

    2015a  “Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the ‘Academic’: A Religious Studies and Practice Theory Redescription of Inerrantist Scholarship,” Biblical Interpretation 23:1-35.

    2015b  “Maximizing Literacy as a Protective Strategy: Redescribing Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship on Israelite Literacy,” Biblical Interpretation 23: 145-73.


    Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
    Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
    Denver Seminary
    April 2015

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