Military Literacy 


Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar, Lionel Royer


The Roman army from earliest times was a citizen army, as had generally been true also of the Greeks. In antiquity, slaves were recruited only in the direst emergencies; the best soldier was understood to be someone with a stake in what he was defending: "For in the case of worldly soldiers, those who are about to enlist them for the army seek for stature of body and healthy condition, and it is not only necessary that he who is about to become a soldier should have these alone, but he must also be free. For if anybody be a slave, he is rejected." (John Chrysostom, Instructions to Catechumens, Second Instruction, Paragraph 3). This is true at any rate of the legions:

"The legions formed the proper core of the troops, and consisted only of Roman citizens, for those provincials who served in the legions had obtained citizen rights. . .The auxiliary troops consisted of provincials who, at least in the early days of the empire, did not as a rule possess the right of citizenship." (Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Kindle location 3597).

As time went on, though, more and more people within the bounds of the Roman empire, 'provincials,' became citizens. So the circumstances of the military should be a good test case for the premise of citizen literacy. Prior to Marius' professionalization of the military, the Roman soldier was a yeoman farmer who tilled his own fields; afterwards, he was often a member of the urban proletariat who aspired to that condition. The world was conquered, by men who hoped to get out of that conquest, a little farm. As time went on and the legions were increasingly filled with Goths and Germans, people whose native languages did not even have a written alphabet, literacy rates must have fallen. But were the soldiers who filled the ranks in the ancient world almost entirely illiterate, as the 'Jesus' Seminar assures us they must have been?



Dog Tags Tokyo Rose
Sparta Sicyon
Last Will and Testament Letter Writing Campaign
Pamphlets Record Keeping
The Watch Word School Chums
Dioxippus Citizen Soldiers
Romances Mild Discipline
Placards Banners Flying


  • “A roll of receipts for hay paid to 86 auxiliary cavalry soldiers stationed in Egypt in AD 179 appears to display the individual handwritings of almost one third of them. . .The readiness to write for all manner of reasons in a military garrison is illustrated by the hundreds of messages written on wooden slats found at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall. The range of people there who could write is astonishing.”
  • (Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, p. 172).


Thriceholy Radio



Dog Tags

If you faced the problem of identifying the fallen, how would you handle it? What about the use of 'dog-tags'? Amongst the Greeks, the Spartan army of old employed this device, to help the deceased soldier's friends identify him on the field of battle:



  • “When the Spartans were about the engage the Messenians, and, having resolved to conquer or die, had inscribed each man's name on a letter-stick attached to the left hand [επι τας σκυταλιδας τουνομα γραψαντων και περι τη λαια χειρι φεροντων] so that his friends could recognize him when the dead were taken up for burial, Tyrtaeus, desiring to strike terror into the Messenians by letting them know what the Spartans had done, gave orders that no great heed should be taken of deserting Helots, and the watch being relaxed these deserted as they chose, and told the Messenians of the desperate valor of their enemies.”
  • (Polyaenus, Stratagems i.17, quoted in Elegy and Iambus, Volume I, J. M. Edmonds, Ed.).




Diodorus also mentions these little sticks,

"The Lacedaemonians, under the inspiration of Tyrtaeus, became so eager for battle that, when about to enter the conflict, they wrote their names on little sticks which they fastened to their arms, in order that, if they died, they would not be unidentified by their kinsmen." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Fragments of Book VIII, 27.2, Kindle location 8493).

Would not an illiterate army have done better to try to recognize a fallen friend by his mauled face, or armor? The Romans inscribed the soldier's name on his shield: "The name of each soldier was also written on his shield, together with the number of the cohort and century to which he belonged." (Flavius Vegetus Renatus, The Military Institutions of the Romans, Kindle location 666). What was the use of this, if almost all these people were illiterate?

Tokyo Rose

When Persian ships threatened Greece, the sailors rowing at their oars included Ionian settlers in Asia Minor, who spoke Greek. The Greeks appealed to these sailors:

"Meanwhile, Themistocles sailed along the coast, and wherever he saw useful harbors and places of refuge for enemy ships, he cut conspicuous inscriptions on such stones as he happened to find, or had stones set up near these possible anchorages and watering places, calling on the Ionians, to come over if possible to the Athenians, who were their ancestors, and who were risking everything for their liberty; and if they could not do that, to impede the barbarian army in battle and throw it into confusion." (Plutarch, Life of Themistocles, 9, Plutarch's Lives).

If these military men were illiterate, why waste the expense of carving the inscriptions? Herodotus tells the story:

"Themistocles however selected those ships of the Athenians which sailed best, and went round to the springs of drinking-water, cutting inscriptions on the stones there, which the Ionians read when they came to Artemision on the following day. These inscriptions ran thus: 'Ionians, ye act not rightly in making expedition against the fathers of your race and endeavoring to enslave Hellas. Best of all were it that ye should come and be on our side; but if that may not be done by you, stand aside even now from the combat against us and ask the Carians to do the same as ye. If however neither of these two things is possible to be done, and ye are bound down by too strong compulsion to be able to make revolt, then in the action, when we engage battle, be purposely slack, remember that ye are descended from us and that our quarrel with the Barbarian took its rise at the first from you.'" (Herodotus, the Histories, Book VIII, Chapter 22).

It seems unlikely they would have asked their Persian high commanders to read these inscriptions for them.

Sparta

Sparta was a militaristic communist state in southern Greece that vied with Athens for dominance. Even the Spartan boys learned to read and write, though likely just barely:

"The boys learned reading and writing, as much as they needed, but the rest of their training was to make them take orders well, endure pain, and be victors in battle." (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 16, Plutarch's Lives).

The Spartan institutions were in part copied from those of Crete, which also involved mandatory literacy instruction:

"The following are the principal of the laws of Crete, which Ephorus has given in detail. . .The children are taught to read, to chant songs taken from the laws, and some kinds of music." (Strabo, Geography, Book X, Chapter IV, Section 20, p. 204).

Sicyon

The fighting men of Sicyon sallied out to battle with an 'S' emblazoned on their shields:

“But Pasimachus, the Lacedaemonian commander of horse, at the head of a few horsemen, when he saw the Sicyonians hard pressed, tied his horses to trees, took from the Sicyonians their shields, and advanced with a volunteer force against the Argives. The Argives, however, seeing the Sigmas upon the shields, did not fear these opponents at all, thinking that they were Sicyonians. Then, as the story goes, Pasimachus said: 'By the twin gods, Argives, these Sigmas will deceive you,' and came to close quarters with them; and fighting thus with a few against many he was slain, and likewise others of his party.”
(Xenophon (2013-10-31). Hellenica, Book IV, Chapter 4, Complete Works of Xenophon (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 10863-10867). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.)

It might seem like an obvious, unimaginative thing for the men from Sicyon to put an 'S' on their shield. Who is surprised to see a 'B' for 'Boston Red Sox' on a sweat-shirt? However those in the Jesus Publishing Industry insist this was a meaningless squiggle to the vast majority of them.

During the civil war in which the Roman republic expired, the soldiers in Spain took sides and indicated their loyalty by scrawling Pompey's name on their shields. Their commander, however, who was for. . .whoever won, erased it, preferring to straddle the fence: "And when the soldiers inscribed the name of Pompey on their shields he [Marcus Marcellus Aeserninus] erased it so that he might by this act offer to the one man the deeds done by the arms and to the other their reputed ownership, and by laying claim to one thing or the other as done in behalf of he victor and by referring the opposite to necessity or to different persons he might continue safe." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 42, Chapter 15).

Another instance of shields bearing the commander's name: "Titius underwent no punishment, being preserved for his father's sake and because his soldiers carried the name of Sextus on their shields: he did not, however, recompense his benefactor fairly, but fought him to the last ditch and finally slew him, so that his name is remembered among the most prominent of his kind." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 48, Chapter 30).

Cassius Dio thought it was an excellent idea for the soldiers to inscribe their own names on their shields: "Julianus, assigned by the emperor [Domitian] to take charge of the war, made many excellent regulations, one being his command that the soldiers should inscribe their own names and those of the centurions upon their shields, in order that those of them who committed any particular good or bad action might be more readily observed by him." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 67, Chapter 10). Would this really have been such a great idea if the soldiery were illiterate?

Roman soldiers rallied around standards that presented the unit number and the commander's name: "But one of the large standards, that resemble sheets, with purple letters upon them to distinguish the division and its commander, turned about and fell from the bridge into the river." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 40, Chapter 18). Realizing that, to illiterate people, letters and numbers do not have the distinct and familiar appearance they do to the literate, why use such a cumbersome and unavailing way of marking the divisions? Wouldn't a sunburst or lightning-stroke have worked better? Or maybe a stick figure. Funny thing, though, not only were these people literate, they were beyond the stick figure phase.

Here we have a soldier writing on one of the standards, promoting his commander as the emperor, as they used to do in this military dictatorship:

"His soldiers tore down and shattered the image of Nero and called their general Caesar and Augustus. When he [Rufus] would not heed them, one of the soldiers thereupon quickly inscribed these words on one of his standards. He erased the terms, however, and after a great deal of trouble brought the men to order and persuaded them to subject the question to the senate and the people." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 63, Chapter 25).

Last Will and Testament

Caesar's army was swept by a 'The Germans are Coming' scare, and the men spent what they feared would be their last days on this earth putting their documents in order:

"Throughout the camp all the men were signing and sealing their wills." (Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.39).

To be sure it was as possible in that day as in this for an illiterate to make a legal signature. However it is difficult to envision the totally illiterate Roman army of the modern Bible scholars' imagination embarking upon such a project. Military wills were a no-frills project, lacking the detailed property inventories of peace-time wills; as Cicero mentions in passing, ". . .as if he was making his will in the ranks before a battle, without balance or writing tables. . ." (Cicero, On Oratory, Book 1, Chapter LIII). But these 'signed and sealed' wills were not casual oral instructions either.

Letter Writing Campaign

Plutarch describes a letter-writing campaign that the soldiers undertook:



  • "Marius soon filled Libya and Rome with his fame and his glory, for the soldiers wrote to their friends at home and told them there would be no end to the war with the barbarian, no deliverance from it, if they did not elect Marius consul."
  • (Plutarch, Life of Caius Marius, Chapter VII, Plutarch's Lives, Volume II, Kindle location 3614).



Bart Ehrman


Pamphlets

During the series of civil wars that brought about the expiry of the Roman Republic, it was often genuinely unclear what the various sides represented or were fighting for. The commanders sought to clarify the matter, or obscure it, and presented their case to the troops by issuing propaganda pamphlets:

"While this was going on Caesar tried in every way to draw Scipio into close quarters. Baffled in this, he made friendly overtures to the latter's soldiers, and distributed among them brief pamphlets, in which he promised to the native that he would preserve his possessions unharmed, and to the Roman that he would grant immunity and the honors which he owed to his own followers. Scipio in like manner undertook to circulate both offers and pamphlets among the opposite party, with a view to making some of them his own: however, he was unable to induce any of them to change sides." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 43, Section 5).

According to historian Cassius Dio, Scipio aimed too high in appealing to their patriotism rather than their desire for loot. Julius Caesar was an idealist after his own fashion, albeit pink-tinged. It's a wonder no one noticed it is a waste of good money to produce pamphlets for an illiterate readership. Later, after Caesar's murder, Octavian and Antony, running short of food and money after the first indecisive engagement at Philippi, resorted to pamphlets again:

"As Brutus evinced an unwillingness to meet them in open fight, they somehow cast pamphlets over his palisade, challenging his soldiers either to embrace their cause (promises being attached) or to come into conflict if they had the least particle of strength." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 47, Chapter 48).

If money was tight as the historian believes, why waste it copying pamphlets for the illiterate? Another instance of pamphlet propaganda recorded by this historian involved troops which had followed Brutus and Cassius, who had shifted loyalty to the victorious Antony and been assigned to garrison Syria. Probably dizzy from shifting sides, they were open to overtures from rogue Roman adventurer Labienus, who had obtained backing from the Parthians, whose advent had frightened their leader into flight:

"His flight was due to his fear that his associates might take up with the cause of Labienus, who labored to prevail upon them by shooting various pamphlets [βιβλιων] into the camp." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 48, Chapter 25).

We are familiar in our day with this type of propaganda campaign, which if nothing else seeks to sap the will to resist. It's nothing new, and the form it took in antiquity implies widespread literacy. While it's easy enough to see the line Brutus and Cassius would have taken: 'We are free men! Choose death before slavery!'— it's not that easy to see what the appeal of slavery would have been. Actually it's fairly simple and straight-forward:

"At the news about Pelusium Antony returned from Paraetonium and in front of Alexandria met [Augustus] Caesar, who was exhausted from travel; he joined battle with him, therefore, with his cavalry and was victorious. From this success Antony gained courage, as also from his being able to shoot arrows into his rival's camp carrying pamphlets which promised the men fifteen hundred denarii; so he attacked also with his infantry and was defeated." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 51, Chapter 10).

They sold themselves into slavery. Fourth century pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus reports on a pamphlet recording the soldiers' complaints, thrown down at the standard,

"When this was known, some one privily threw down a bitter libel [libellum] near the standard of the Petulantes legion, which, among other things, contained these words,— “We are being driven to the farthest parts of the earth [ad orbis terrarum extrema] like condemned criminals, and our relations will become slaves to the Allemanni after we have delivered them from that first captivity by desperate battles.”
"When this writing was taken to head-quarters and read, Julian, considering the reasonableness of the complaint, ordered that their families should go to the East with them, and allowed them the use of the public wagons for the purpose of moving them."

(Marcellinus, Ammianus (2016-01-30). History of Rome, Book XX, Chapter IV, Section 10 Delphi Complete Works of Ammianus Marcellinus (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 60) (Kindle Locations 4070-4075).)

These people had been recruited into the Roman army with the promise that they could remain in their own area, which they did, before they were moved. They were, according to the dictionaries, Germanic; at any rate I hope there never was a population group called the Petulant People; of if there is, may God keep me clear of their encampment. The Caesar respected their sentiments so far as to allow them to keep their dependents with them. If almost everyone was illiterate, why would a pamphlet thrown down by an anonymous writer cause alarm?

Record Keeping

 

There was a surprising amount of record-keeping in the Roman army, for an 'oral culture:' "For the whole detail of the legion, including the lists of the soldiers exempted from duty on private accounts, the rosters for their tour of military duties and their pay lists, is daily entered in the legionary books and kept we may almost say, with greater exactness than the regulations of provisions or other civil matters in the registers of the police. The daily guards in time of peace, the advanced guards and outposts in time of war, which are mounted regularly by the centuries and messes in their turns, are likewise punctually kept in rolls for that purpose, with the name of each soldier whose tour is past, that no one may have injustice done him or be excused from his duty by favor." (Flavius Vegetus Renatus, The Military Institutions of the Romans, Kindle location 687).


Is Prophecy Possible?


The Watch Word

The watchword was inscribed on a wooden tablet and passed around:



  • "To secure the passing round of the watchword for the night the following course is followed. One man is selected from the tenth maniple, which, in the case both of cavalry and infantry, is quartered at the ends of the road between the tents; this man is relieved from guard-duty and appears each day about sunset at the tent of the Tribune on duty, takes the tessera or wooden tablet on which the watchword is inscribed, and returns to his own maniple and delivers the wooden tablet and watchword in the presence of witnesses to the chief officer of the maniple next his own; he in the same way to the officer of the next, and so on, until it arrives at the first maniple stationed next the Tribunes. These men are obliged to deliver the tablet (tessera) to the Tribunes before dark."
  • (Polybius, The Histories, Book VI, Chapter 34, Kindle location 8481).



A maniple contained 120 men. Why write it down at all? Why not use 'oral transmission' in an entirely 'oral culture'?

Up

School Chums

The Roman defeat at Cannae left the victorious Carthaginian Hannibal poised to take Rome. Two close friends who fell together in the disaster were, as it happens, old school chums: "Then Marius fell, while striving to rescue his friend, Caper, and fearing to survive his fall. They were born on the same day, and poverty was the lot of both their families; they were natives of the sacred city, Praeneste; they had been school-fellows, and the fields they tilled lay close together. In liking and disliking they never differed; it was a lifelong marriage of two minds; and brotherly love made them rich in poverty. In death they were not divided; and of all their prayers Fortune granted them one only — to die in battle side by side." (Silius Italicus, Punica, Book IX, Kindle edition location 2757).

There is nothing remarkable about two old school buddies dying in battle side by side, two poor men at that; except this is not the world the 'Jesus' Seminar gives us.

Up

Dioxippus

Dioxippus was a Greek soldier serving with Alexander of Macedon. He is described as an Athenian, an "athlete who had won a crown in the foremost games." He won a challenge fight with a fully armed Macedonian, but then his troubles started, and he ended in suicide:

"The king continued more and more hostile to him, and Alexander’s friends and all the other Macedonians about the court, jealous of the accomplishment, persuaded one of the butlers to secrete a golden cup under his pillow; then in the course of the next symposium they accused him of theft, and pretending to find the cup, placed Dioxippus in a shameful and embarrassing position. He saw that the Macedonians were in league against him and left the banquet. After a little he came to his own quarters, wrote Alexander a letter about the trick that had been played on him, gave this to his servants to take to the king, and then took his own life. He had been ill-advised to undertake the single combat, but he was much more foolish to make an end of himself in this way. Hence many of those who reviled him, mocking his folly, said that it was a hard fate to have great strength of body but little sense. The king read the letter and was very angry at the man's death. He often mourned his good qualities, and the man whom he had neglected when he was alive, he regretted when he was dead."

(Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History. Book XVII. Chapter 101.4-5. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Classics) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 20622-20629).)

DIoxippus was literate; he left a suicide note. There is no mention he was of any affluent background or illustrious descent.

As Alexander's army progressed through the east, the problem came up of children born to the Macedonian soldiers and captive women. Alexander's solution was generous and progressive:

"Since there were by now sons of the Macedonians born of captive women, he determined the exact number of these. There were about ten thousand, and he set aside for them revenues sufficient to provide them with an upbringing proper for freeborn children, and set over them teachers to give them their proper training."

(Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History, Book XVII. Chapter 110.3. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Classics) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 20781-20783).)
Up

Citizen Soldiers

The accusation faced by a cowardly general who allowed discipline to go downhill ran as follows: "But Cneius Fulvius had infected with the vices peculiar to slaves, an army of Roman citizens, of honorable parentage and liberal education; and had thus made them insolent and turbulent among their allies, inefficient and dastardly among their enemies, unable to sustain, not only the charge, but the shout of the Carthaginians." (Livy, History of Rome, Book XXVI, Chapter 2). The Roman army that came to master the world was a citizen-army comprised of sturdy farmers: "In those days the same man was both soldier and farmer, but a farmer who, when occasion arose, laid aside his tools and put on the sword." (Flavius Vegetus Renatus, The Military Institutions of the Romans, Book I, Kindle location 220). They already owned the land they farmed, and in fact were not obligated for military service otherwise. This changed. Italy's farmers came under pressure from the growing landed estates worked by slave labor. Slavery impoverishes more than the luckless slave; free men who have to compete with workers who work for a bare subsistence end up destitute and bankrupt.

Gaius Marius professionalized the army, inverting the process: instead of family farmers going in to the machine, at a time when family farmers had become an endangered species, that is the way they came out. He inducted the landless proletariat, with the promise that at the end of their service they would receive their land, which the army had accumulated plenty of because they were plundering right and left. This had the unfortunate, unlooked for consequence of turning the soldier's loyalty to his general rather than to the state, because it was his general who dispensed the rewards; but the character of the force did not change overnight. At the start, the soldiers were citizens and the citizens soldiers; in time, once the Republic had fallen, the soldiers were the king-makers, the only people whose opinion counted: "Before he [Severus] closed his eyes he is reputed to have spoken these words to his children (I shall use the exact phraseology without embellishment): 'Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, scorn everybody else.'" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 77, Chapter 15, Kindle location 22592 Delphi). People who assume the soldiers were illiterate are anticipating the day when they were Goths. Marius' reconstruction, combined with a growing tendency to recruit Celts and Germans, always personally loyal to their chieftain rather than to an abstract political concept, unfortunately doomed the empire to centuries of military dictatorship, its future course.

Up



Romances

Was Crassus' army defeated by Parthia because they were reading romances?: "The Parthian vizier was not far wrong, when he pointed out to the citizens of Seleucia the romances found in the camp of Crassus and asked them whether they still regarded the readers of such books as formidable opponents." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book V, Chapter XII). At least they were not reading comic books. Or silliness about 'Mediterranean peasants;' they weren't fools. But the Persians, it seems, were not much impressed with men who occupied their idle hours reading bodice-rippers.

The Nervous Nellies in the Roman military who disliked profitless military adventures might express their disaffection by quoting poetry, "While he [Severus] was at war, he also put to death two distinguished men. The first was Julius Crispus, a tribune of the Pretorians. The cause of his execution was that indignant at the damage done by the war he had causally uttered a verse of the poet Maro, in which one of the soldiers fighting on the side of Turnus against Aeneas bewails his lot and says: 'To enable Turnus to marry Lavinia we are meanwhile perishing, without heed being paid to us.' Severus made Valerius, the soldier who had accused him, tribune in his place." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 76, Chapter 10).

Up

Mild Discipline

The "mildest" mode of disciplining a Roman knight was to write the reprimand on a tablet: "The mildest mode of reproof was by delivering them tablets, the contents of which, confined to themselves, they were to read on the spot." (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, D. Octavius Caesar Augustus, Chapter XXXIX). Why this punishment would be either mild or effectual for the illiterate is unstated. Entry into the equestrian classification was by property qualification; a 'new man' like Cicero could be a knight, though his pedigree was undistinguished. These men were evidently expected to be literate.

Up

Placards

If you wanted to communicate with military veterans, say to encourage them to re-enlist, how would you do it? How about putting up public notices:

"Public notices summoned the discharged veterans of the legions of Fimbria to return to the standards as volunteers, and by great promises and the name of Pompeius a considerable portion of them were induced in reality to obey the call." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book V, Chapter IV, Kindle location 27569).

Nah. They were illiterate!

Up

Followers of the 'Jesus' Seminar are familiar with 'Bible Contradictions.' Do they amount to much?


I Thirst Timothy the Gentile
Faith vs. Works Love Your Enemies
Paul the Maverick Seeing God
Realized Eschatology He Hanged Himself
Uncorroborated False Witness
Atonement Head Covering
Men and Angels From Everlasting
Preach the Faith Bishops and Deacons
Cock Crow Wrong Day
Two Genealogies Editor's Choice
Sermon on the Mount. . .or Plain



In addition to 'Bible Contradictions,' the atheists offer other Bible head-scratchers, like who was Cain's wife:


Bible Difficulties


Banners Flying

One of the texts found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls was an account of the final cataclysmic battle between Israel and the Romans. If we were as foolish, or as timid, as the 'Jesus Seminar' types, we would have to date this text after 70. A.D., because the author very clearly expects a final showdown between these two diametrically opposed forces, the one monotheist, the other pagan. How could he possibly have known there would be a war, until 66 A.D. rolled around, and surprise, surprise, there it was? Maybe it was a lucky guess. But so there was,— a war, that is,— and it was cataclysmic indeed. Our author was no prophet, however; he expected Israel to emerge victorious. His description of the conditions of military service for this end-times force is highly idealized; there never was an army where the soldiers of the line went out with precious stones embedded in their shields. If a latter-day reader could tell this author one thing, it would be, 'brevity is the soul of wit,' because some of the slogans he wants inscribed on the trumpets are a bit wordy and verbose.

People who are non-literate might see value in the written word; sick people, for example, might attach an amulet to their person, containing 'spells' to drive away illness, without themselves being able to read the information. On this principle, the banners might have been flying to impress God, not the troops. However, it seems unlikely that a military force with a literacy rate as low as one percent, which is what Bart Ehrman sometimes tries to get away with claiming, would have had any reasonable expectation of putting so many slogans on so many things; that poor one guy in a hundred who was literate would have suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome before the war was all over:



  • "And on the banner of the hundred they shall write, 'Hundred of God, the power of war against all sinful flesh,' and the name of the chief of the hundred and the names of the chiefs of his tens. And on the banner of the fifty they shall write, 'Ended is the stand of the wicked by the might of God,' and the name of the chief of the fifty and the names of the chiefs of his tens. And on the banner of the ten they shall write, 'Songs of joy for God on the ten-stringed harp,' and the name of the chief of the ten and the names of the nine men in his command.
  • "When they go to battle they shall write on their banners, 'The truth of God,' 'The righteousness of God,' 'The glory of God,' 'The justice of God,' and after these the list of their names in full. . .When they return from battle they shall write on their banners, 'The exaltation of God,' 'The greatness of God,' 'The praise of God,' 'The glory of God,' with their names in full."
  • (The Dead Sea Scrolls, The War Scroll, Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook,  pp. 154-155).



A banner with a slogan inscribed on it is most useful to people who can read what it says. Otherwise, a pictograph might be more helpful; if the troops are to rally round their banners, a banner which needs decoding is less than ideal. But, if they could read, then banners can be downright inspiring: "Forward into battle see His banners go!" (Onward Christian Soldiers, Sabine Baring-Gould). What is the function of their names if the banners are just talismans? That people in antiquity preferred to march under broadly incomprehensible banners might require some explanation, if it were believed to have been the case.