Another Look at Ancient Literacy Rates

18 Apr
Literacy Rates

from Google Images

Many modern scholars will not admit that ancient folks generally knew how to read and write. They assume illiteracy for the ancients, because they have conducted tests over several hundred years of our modern times and have discovered that the more agricultural a society is, the more illiterate it can be expected to be. However, is this a fair test to superimpose upon ancient nations, particularly the Jews? Today, we have grown to be specialized in almost everything. The medical industry has become so complex that many doctors have zeroed in upon a very specialized field, but if one takes them out of their field of expertise, they need to depend upon the information of a much less educated person. A plumber, for example, may be educated and literate, but he doesn’t need a masters degree or a doctorate to practice his trade, yet a medical doctor is usually completely dependent upon his advice, as it pertains to the pipes in his own home.

Years ago, we weren’t so specialized and more people had a general knowledge about many things. If someone needed help, usually a friend could be found whose general knowledge included knowing something about what his friend lacked, and they worked together. Does this imply illiteracy? I don’t believe it does, and I don’t think we have a right to look at our modern society in all its educational complexity and make judgments upon the ancient Jews based upon what we see today in our world.

For example, some modern scholars would admit that business people had a functional literacy. Yet, they would balk when speaking of the fishing business. Why would that be true? What makes the fisherman so unlikely a candidate for understanding how to read or write? Is this merely a subjective analysis or do they actually have some evidence that fisherman stand out in the business community as educationally deficient? It is difficult not to presume bias. I know of nothing that they could present as objective evidence in the 1st century AD that would support their subjective opinions.

Let’s take, for example, children memorizing. There was a strong oral culture in the 1st century AD, but does this mean people didn’t know how to read or write? It seems to me that memorization would go much better if one could actually read what one was expected to memorize. I believe the proverb: “Give a beggar a fish and he will always be a beggar, but teach him to fish and he’ll be self sufficient;” fits here. If a child is completely dependent upon his teacher’s voice, he could practice perfect memorization only in the teacher’s presence. But, teach the child to read, and he could memorize perfectly well at home and away from his teacher. It is difficult to believe that no one ever thought it would be much more efficient for the teacher to first teach reading and then memorization. If the goal was for the teacher to equip his students for posterity, how could he deny his student the tool of the ability to read? That would condemn the student to complete dependence upon his teacher for the rest of his life. Why would a teacher do that?

I have no doubt that that modern scholars who oppose the idea of ancient literacy are brilliant men and women, well respected in their circles of expertise. Nevertheless, there are equally well credentialed men and women who would oppose their position. The problem is that there really is no objective proof one could point to in the 1st century AD that would support today’s negative opinions concerning the literacy state of the 1st century. There is nothing to be found from antiquity that shows what the literacy rate was during the first century. We have such studies today, because these records seem to be important to us, but we find no such records in ancient times. Thus, the opinions expressed by scholars are purely subjective. Take for example, this excerpt from one of Bart Ehrman’s works:

 Throughout most of antiquity, since most people could not write, there were local “readers” and “writers” who hired out their services to people who needed to conduct business that required written text: tax receipts, legal contracts, licenses, personal letters, and the like. [Bart D. Ehrman; Misquoting Jesus; chapter one, p. 38—quotes his, but bold and underline mine].

If Mr. Ehrman didn’t prepare us for what he was about to say by writing “since most people could not write” one might mistake what he continued to say for something similar to our own culture in the 21st century. For example, I often purchase a professional work to say what I would like to say to my wife on our anniversary, her birthday or Valentine’s Day etc. We call them greeting cards. I even search for just the right words and rhyme that fits my heart. Call me a romantic, if you wish, but I don’t believe I am illiterate. Moreover, CEO’s customarily employ lawyers for tax and other legal purposes dealing with contracts etc., yet who would presume to say these men, who are paid millions of dollars a year for their leadership, are illiterate? I can turn on the radio from time to time and have a book read to me. I can even purchase CDs or DVDs for that purpose, and I really enjoy being read to, but does this mean that I’m unable to read? Mr. Ehrman’s opinion concerning ancient literacy rates is purely subjective in nature. Like I said, if he didn’t prepare me for what he was about to write, I might have not seen his point of view at all.


Posted by on April 18, 2011 in Textual Criticism


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2 responses to “Another Look at Ancient Literacy Rates

  1. Ed Bromfield

    April 21, 2011 at 22:40

    Hello again, and thank you for your comment and question.

    I agree that in many ways today’s general education is no match for that which was offered years ago.

    I have also read of many scientific technical advances enjoyed by the ancients. The problem is I read it or hear of it on programs dedicated to the idea that we have been visited by extraterrestrials. I don’t believe that. However, I have seen photos of some artifacts that is difficult to explain away. Something is not being considered or interpreted correctly with regard to those who have lived thousands of years ago. The question is was it before or after the flood? So little is known about the antediluvian age and why they had to be destroyed. If an ancient society was as advanced as ours or slightly more so, and I had to choose what age in which this society lived, I would have to choose the antediluvian age, but this is pure speculation.

    Lord bless, and have a blessed and joyous Easter season.

  2. meetingintheclouds

    April 20, 2011 at 17:15

    Lots of good points. When I read “classics” I can’t help but think we are less literate than people of years gone by.

    Is it true (I have read it) that among the artifacts dug up at Ur were found instruments presumably used for brain surgery and other things far advanced for what was believed to be the state of learning at that time?

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