Ostraca

OSTRACA (ŏs'tra-ka). Inscribed fragments of pottery (sing., ostracon). In the ancient world handy writing material was rare, but potsherds, or broken pieces of earthenware, were abundant, hence the habit of writing brief memoranda or communications on such ready material. The surface holds the inscription well and some important ancient documents have come down to us in this form (e.g., the Lachish Letters). In ancient Athens the use of potsherds, or straka, for voting tablets in the peculiar Athenian process of relegation, led to the term “ostracize.” The verb originally meant the writing on an ostracon of the name of the person the voter wished thus to exile. Most of the ostraca from early Ptolemaic Egypt are tax receipts. Later, orders, lists, brief letters, school exercises, magic formulas, and religious texts, both pagan and Christian, appear. A good deal about Egyptian Christianity has been deduced from this source. The material is scattered, most ostraca being recovered casually from rubbish mounds or house ruins.


OSTRACA ŏs’ trə kə. The term “ostraca” is the pl. of the Gr. noun ὄστρακον, which means “fragment of an earthen vessel,” “potsherd” (e.g., LXX Ps. 21:16 [22:15]). In ancient Greece it referred to the potsherds used in voting on the banishment of a public official (whence the Eng. words “ostracism,” “ostracize”). More generally, the term refers to pieces of broken pottery on which people wrote, esp. in ancient Pal., where many have been found in archeological excavations. The abundance of potsherds made them a cheap and readily available form of writing material. Chiefly they were employed for documents requiring only small space, such as letters, brief memoranda, receipts, short lists and notes. Although unsuitable for longer documents, such as Biblical books, ostraca may have been used for recording brief prophetic oracles and proverbs which later were incorporated into books. Because the material is virtually imperishable, some of the oldest written documents in Pal. are ostraca and inscrs. Recently greater care has been exercised in some excavations, e.g., ’Arad and Heshbon, in handling Iron Age potsherds in order not to wash or scrub off possible writing on the sherds.

Two major collections of ostraca relating to OT history are the Samaria ostraca and the Lachish letters. Over seventy ostraca were found in a storehouse in one of the palaces of Samaria. These were receipts for oil and wine paid as taxes to the king. These are dated in the early 8th cent. (reign of Jeroboam II) and throw a great deal of light on the history of Israel in this period. In 1935 and 1938 twenty-one Heb. ostraca were found in the excavations of ancient Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir). Most of these are letters written by a commanding officer at Lachish shortly before the capture of the city by the Babylonians in 589-588 b.c. These ostraca definitely identify the mound as Lachish and illuminate these final years of the State of Judah.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

os’-tra-ka: The word ostracon ("potsherd," Hebrew cheres) occurs in Job 2:8 (Septuagint), kai elaben ostrakon, "and he took him a potsherd." Earthen vessels were in universal use in antiquity (they are twice mentioned in the New Testament: skeue ostrakina (2Co 4:7; 2Ti 2:20)), and the broken fragments of them, which could be picked up almost anywhere, were made to serve various purposes. Upon the smoothest of these pieces of unglazed pottery the poorest might write in ink his memoranda, receipts, letters or texts.

1. Hebrew Ostraca:

A fortunate discovery at Samaria (1910), made among the ruins of Ahab’s palace, has brought to light 75 Hebrew ostraca inscribed with ink, in the Phoenician character, with accounts and memoranda relating to private matters and dating probably from the time of Ahab. Their historical contribution, aside from the mention of many names of persons and places, is slender, but for ancient Hebrew writing and to a less extent for Hebrew words and forms they are of value, while the fact that in them we possess documents actually penned in Israel in the 9th century BC gives them extraordinary interest. The nature of ostraca tends to their preservation under conditions which would quickly destroy parchment, skin or papyrus, and this discovery in Palestine encourages the hope of further and more significant finds.

2. Greek Ostraca:

Greek ostraca in large quantities have been found in Egypt, preserving documents of many kinds, chiefly tax receipts. The texts of some 2,000 of these have been published, principally by Wilcken (Griechische Ostraka, 2 volumes, 1899), and serve to illustrate in unexpected ways the everyday Greek speech of the common people of Egypt through the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine periods. Like the papyri, they help to throw light on New Testament syntax and lexicography, as well as on ancient life in general.

3. New Testament Ostraca:


4. Coptic Ostraca:

Coptic ostraca, too, are numerous, especially from the Byzantine period, and of even more interest for Christian history than the Greek. A Sa`idic ostracon preserves the pericope on the woman taken in adultery (Joh 7:53-8:11), which is otherwise unattested in the Sa`idic New Testament. A Christian hymn to Mary, akin to the canticles of Luke, and some Christian letters have been found. The work of W.E. Crum on the Coptic ostraca is of especial importance. See, further, Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 1910; Lyon, Harvard Theol. Review, January, 1911.

Edgar J. Goodspeed