Literacy in the Ancient World

A while back a friend and I were discussing literacy in the ancient world. We were entertaining questions such as, two thousand years ago, how many people could read? Could write? Owned books? I never was able to find an answer online, or even a guess. Well, last weekend while on the TGV to Paris I had the time to crack open the latest edition of JETS, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and to my delight I discovered an article that treated this very subject while addressing a broader theme.

Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer, “Oral Texts? A Reassessment of the Oral and Rhetorical Nature of Paul’s Letters in Light of Recent Studies,” JETS 55.2, pp. 323-341.

In this article, Porter and Dyer critique Ben Witherington’s rhetorical critical approach to NT interpretation, taking exception with his emphasis on the NT culture as primarily an oral one. They write, for example, “it is too simplistic to describe the NT era as an oral culture as opposed to a written one–the truth is that it is much more complex than this” (p. 329). What follows is the ushering in of statistics and estimates of literacy in the ancient world. This is what I want to highlight in this blog post in bullet point form.

Porter and Dyer (P&D) note the following concerning literacy in the NT era (pp. 329-332):

  • A “book culture” existed (e.g., Roman philosopher Galen reportedly saw books in the market attributed to him that he had in fact not written. He then countered these forgeries by authoring On His Own Books. Thus, according to P&D the fact that forgeries existed signal a “book culture.”)
  • Well known libraries existed, both public and private in the NT area (e.g., Alexandria and Ephesus)
  • The cost of producing written documents in the NT era was not “exorbitant” (e.g., “the cost of copying a book ranged between two to four drachmas–the equivalent of from one to six days pay.”)
  • 20-30% of men and 10-15% of women in the Roman Empire were literate, though these numbers are contested as you can imagine. (See the full article for the source of these percentages.)
  • Even the illiterate must have constantly come in contact with the literate world thereby giving them a degree of literacy
  • One must define what is meant by literacy and recognize degrees of literacy
  • While Jesus did say, “Whoever has ears, let them hear,” he also said, “Have you not read…?” (Matt 12:3, et alibi)

Here’s a pic of a very cool wall I stumbled upon in Paris that has “I love you” in a myriad of languages. For the life of me I couldn’t get make the sun streaks coming through the trees to go away for the photo. Dommage !