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 [
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 b.c. These ostraca definitely identify the mound as Lachish and illuminate these final years of the State of Judah.) 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
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
os’-tra-ka: The word ostracon ("potsherd," Hebrew cheres) occurs in
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 (
Edgar J. Goodspeed