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It was this spread of Hebrew writing in ancient Palestine that democratized the written word and allowed it to gain religious authority in the book we now call "the Bible." When the Bible became a book, the written word supplanted the living voice of the teacher. This textualization marked one of the great turning points in human history, namely the movement from an oral culture towards a written culture.

We tend to read the Bible from our own viewpoint—that is, we tend to think of the Bible as if it came from a world of texts, books, and authors. As the great French scholar Henri-Jean Martin has observed, the role of writing in society has changed dramatically through history, yet modern analyses of biblical literature often depend on the perspective of the text in modern society.

In the modern era, we take for granted that the Hebrew Bible is a text—written words, displayed in chapters and verse.

Yet biblical scholar William Schniedewind, the Kershaw Chair of Ancient Eastern Mediterranean Studies at UCLA, has a different view.

Enlarge To be sure, this shift in the role of writing encroached on groups with a vested interest in the authority of the oral tradition or the prophetic word.

The exile resulted in a massive depopulation of the land of Israel.

Recent discoveries at Wadi el-Hol in Egypt date the invention of the alphabet back to 2000 B.

C., and for centuries after, writing likely remained the province of the elite.

The composition of biblical literature continued into the period of the Babylonian exile (586-539 B.

C.), after the Babylonians overthrew the Assyrians in the north and invaded the Kingdom of Judah.