I have had several discussions on different internet forums where I’ve been told that the illiteracy rate was very high in the first century CE all over the Roman Empire. The point, of course, is that if the Jews were generally illiterate, how could Jews who were nothing more than fishermen, zealots or tax collectors have written the New Testament. If Peter, Matthew, Luke, John, James, Jude and Paul didn’t write the New Testament, how could it be an eye witness record to what Jesus said and did or what occurred in the early church? Is this possible, and what criteria is used to determine the literacy rate among the Jews during the 1st century CE? Another point to consider is, shouldn’t the Jews be regarded as a counter culture people group? That is, can we judge the Jewish culture of the first century CE by what we think we know about the cultural condition of the rest of the Roman Empire?
It is believed by some that the Jews were generally illiterate like the rest of the Roman Empire until the Romans destroyed their nation and all Jews became dispersed among the Gentiles. This created a need for literacy, if they were to remain a distinct people among the nations. Literacy was needed to study their unique heritage through the Talmudic schools that rose up in the next few centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. To be sure, literacy has always served the Jews well. It is very true after their homeland was destroyed and later when they were not permitted to even live in Jerusalem and Palestine that they had to find a way to survive as Jews without a land of their own. The Talmud and its study certainly helped to preserve their distinct heritage while dispersed among the Gentiles, but it was God who kept them from being swallowed up by the world around them. Where literacy before 70 CE was something that was encouraged, it became a necessity afterwards. The fact is, however, even before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, those people who disliked the Jews found a real need for their own livelihood to make use of this talented race. We need to beware of superimposing general trends we observe in our modern society upon the ancient Jewish race who prided themselves in being different from their neighboring nations.
Consider the fact that proselytizing Jews gained many Gentile converts throughout the world as is shown by Josephus concerning Antioch, the third city of the Roman Empire (Josephus: Wars; III; 4). This practice, though legal before 70 CE, was not viewed well among the élite, as seen from these words of Seneca, advisor to Nero:
“The customs of this most accursed race have prevailed to such an extent that they are everywhere received. The conquered have imposed their laws on the conquerors.”
To which Strabo also agrees and shows a great dissatisfaction:
“Now these Jews are already gotten into all cities, and it is hard to find a place in the habitable earth that has not admitted this tribe of men, and is not possessed by them; and it has come to pass that Egypt and Cyrene, as having the same governor, and a great number of other nations, imitate their way of living, and maintain great bodies of these Jews in a peculiar manner, and grow up to greater prosperity with them, and make use of the same laws with that nation also. Accordingly, the Jews have places assigned them in Egypt, wherein they inhabit, besides what is peculiarly allotted to this nation at Alexandria which is a large part of that city. There is also an ethnarch allowed them, who governs the nation, and distributes justice to them, and takes care of their contracts, and of the laws belonging to them, as if he were the ruler of a free republic.”
One of the factors used against ancient Jewish literacy in the first century CE is the inverse relationship of literacy and an agricultural society. Today and as far back as literacy records go (a few hundred years), it has been observed that the more agrarian a society is, the less literate it will be. By superimposing known rates of literacy in such societies upon the ancient Jews, one comes to the conclusion that the Jewish society of the 1st century would be about 3-5 % in rural areas and 10% in the cities. However, one must remember that this is purely subjective reasoning. There isn’t one ounce of hard evidence from the first century that would validate such a conclusion.
On the other hand, the Bible expected the common people to be able to read and write. For example, when Moses led Israel out of Egypt, they were told to write the laws upon their door posts (Deuteronomy 6:6-9; 11:18-20). Isaiah predicted that Nebuchadnezzar would destroy the land to such a degree that a child could write the number of the trees left standing (Isaiah 10:19). This Scripture would make no sense at all unless children were customarily educated by either their parents (implying family literacy) or through an organized school presumably conducted through the Levitical ministry.
Concerning the 1st century, one of the favorite sayings of Jesus in rebuttal to his accusers was: “Have you not read…” This not only implied literacy to his opponents, but also to himself and to his apostles whom he taught, for why would he use the phrase against his accusers, if they could turn around and cast his own words in his teeth to point out the illiteracy of his followers? Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:6-7) implied literacy in the normal course of business in the Jewish society. This is also borne out in some archeological finds dating to the 12th century BCE where Israelite inscriptions are found on pottery and artifacts showing literacy was not exclusive to the elite. Moreover, just before the Jewish revolt, the high priest Joshua ben Gamala (cir. 64 C.E.) declared that teachers would be appointed in every town of every province throughout Palestine. Their purpose was to provide an education for every male of the age of six or seven and upward. One teacher would serve a community of up to 25 students. A teacher’s assistant would be added for communities having up to 50 students and for communities having more than 50 students two teachers would be provided.
All of our modern opinions, scholarly or otherwise, concerning the low literacy rate of the Jews of the 1st century CE, are based upon subjective guesswork. There is not an ounce of hard evidence to support their conclusions. They completely ignore historical criteria that would contradict the modern vehicles they want to use to determine what the 1st century CE culture in Palestine was like. One has to wonder, if they are so compellingly biased to support their theories, what are they trying to hide?
 Seneca: quoted by Augustine: City of God; vi. 2
 Strabo; quoted by Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews; xiv, 7. 2
 Aaron Demsky and Moshe Kochavi, “An Alphabet from the Days of the Judges,” Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept.-Oct. 1978, 23-25.
 Talmud: B. Bava Batra 21a