Literacy in the Ancient World

A friend sent an email earlier today saying:

Blessings my friends i am doing a study on the RCC claims that ppl could not read or write in the early centuries thus is why they only should have the final authority. We know how much the RCC wants to makes itself the final authority over GOD’s word and we know why. The claim that so many ppl were illiterate is not warranted in this case, here are examples. If ppl back then were so illiterate, then why did pilate waste time writing on Jesus cross “This is the king of the Jews” in greek, latin, and aramaic(luke 23:38)? How could the ppl at Berea search the script every day(acts 17:11)? Why would paul have told the Ephesians, “when ye read, ye may understand(eph 3:4) if most couldnt read?? the RCC wants us to believe that ppl couldnt read, yet the bible says that knowledge “increases” not decreases” so their claim that ppl in the midevil days were illiterate is wrong.What better way for the RCC to make against sola script to claim that most ppl couldnt read. . . .

Lord knows that I am no advocate of the Papacy or Magisterium but I am a firm advocate of truth and accuracy and for this reason I sent this brother a few quotes to correct his understanding that I shall reproduce here:


    While I certainly don’t agree that the Magisterium of the RCC is the final authority on anything I can’t argue with the position taken that the majority of people in the ancient world were illiterate.  Sadly, the majority of modern people are illiterate as well but we have great advantages living in the Western world.  It’s easy to take literacy for granted being that we’ve been reading nearly our entire lives.  Below are a few quotes from various books plus one dialogue that I had with a Muslim.  These will show that while the Roman Catholic might be incorrect in many areas of doctrine, they are not lying when claiming that people in the ancient world could not read.  I pray these help in your studies.

God bless!


“In Greco-Roman antiquity generally literacy was narrowly limited and heavily concentrated in the aristocratic classes. Although the levels and extent of literacy may have varied somewhat with period and region, in no ancient society was there mass literacy. Book culture was similarly limited, being contingent not only on literacy but also on the cost and availability of hand-produced books.”

“Literacy in the ancient world is difficult to estimate, owing both to different definitions of literacy and to the incidental nature of available evidence. Literacy can be understood to mean anything from signature literacy (the ability to write one’s name), to the capacity to puzzle out a brief and pointed message, to the functional literacy of craftpersons, to the developed skills of reading and comprehending lengthy literary texts. Granting varied types and gradations of literacy, if literacy is understood as the capacity to read with comprehension a text of average complexity, then it seems to have been possessed by relatively few.”

Harry Y. Gamble. “Literacy and Book Culture” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 644.

In the preceding section our discussion focused on the canonization of scripture. As we saw earlier, however, many kinds of books were being written and read by Christians in the early centuries, not just the books that made it into the New Testament. There were other gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses; there were records of persecution, accounts of martyrdom, apologies for the faith, church orders, attacks on heretics, letters of exhortation and instruction, expositions of scripture–an entire range of literature that helped define Christianity and make it the religion it came to be. It would be helpful at this stage of our discussion to ask a basic question about all this literature. Who, actually, was reading it?

    In the modern world, this would seem to be a rather bizarre question. If authors are writing books for Christians, then the people reading the books would presumably be Christians. When asked about the ancient world, however, this question has special poignancy because, in the ancient world, most people could not read.

    Literacy is a way of life for those of us in the modern West. We real all the time, every day. We read newspapers, and magazines, and books of all kinds–biographies, novels, how-to books, self-help books, diet books, religious books, philosophical books, histories, memoirs, and on and on. But out facility with written language today has little to do with reading practices and realities in antiquity.

    Studies of literacy have shown that what we might think of as mass literacy is a modern phenomenon, one that appeared only with the advent of the industrial revolution. It was only when nations could see an economic benefit in having virtually everyone able to read that they were willing to devote the massive resources–especially time, money, and human resources–needed to ensure that everyone had a basic education in literacy. In nonindustrial societies, the resources were desperately  needed for other things, and literacy would not have helped either the economy or the well-being of society as a whole. As a result, until the modern period, almost all societies contained only a small minority of people who could read and write.

Bart D. Ehrman. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 36-37. [See entire section — p. 36-43]

    We have argued that the apostles and other eyewitnesses would surely have told the story of Jesus repeatedly by the time the Gospels were written. This repetition by multiple witnesses would provide quality control over the tradition that was passed on. But four other things should be noted. First, as Gerhardsson observes:

In the tradition of western culture it is only in our own day that the memory has been effectively unloaded into books. Not until our own day have we learned to accept a form of education which to a great extent consists of being able to find the material which is required in the right books, without needing to carry it all in the memory. Not until our day has the pedagogical revolution taken place which has been called “the dethronement of memory.”

    This is such an important point–though largely ignored by those who assume that the disciples forgot Jesus–that it needs to be stated differently (lest you forget!). Dunn puts it this way:

One of the most striking flaws in the quest of the historical Jesus results from the fact that it was undertaken in the age of the printed word. Guttenberg and Caxton had instituted a revolution in human perspective in sixteenth-century Europe much more significant in its outworkings than the revolution associated with the names of Copernicus and Galileo. . . . Consequently, we in the West simply take it for granted that the basis of a sound education is the ability to read and write. . . . In a word, we are all children of Guttenberg.

J. Ed. Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006), 36-37.

This is taken from my Dialogue with a Muslim 


    I don’t really understand the reference to the dark ages either.  And so what if the Bible was expensive so only the wealthy could afford it, this was the way it has always been.  Read through the Old Testament some time and see how expensive and extensive an undertaking it was to produce a copy of the Torah.  A flock of sheep needed to be slaughtered for their hide, barrels of ink needed to be produced, and someone had to be paid to sit for a year and copy the entire thing by hand.  This was an undertaking that only a king could afford (Deut. 17:18).  And you seem to forget that the vast majority of the world was illiterate at the time (like Muhammad was in his day).   


    Your recounting of history leaves something to be desired, but I’d point out that even during the dark ages, people had access to the Bible as it was read in Catholic Mass (the reformation had not yet happened).  If you know anything about Judeo-Christianity then you would know that scripture reading has been a part of worship services since at least the time of Ezra the scribe (see Nehemiah 8). 


    We see Jesus practicing the same custom in Luke 4:16-20 when he reads from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  This is called the ‘miqra’ which is practiced by Jews and Christians to this day.  Likewise in Acts 13:15 we see that the Law and the Prophets were read (cf. 2Cor. 3:14).  Paul told Timothy to give attendance to ‘the reading’ (Gk: tēi anagnōsei) which is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew ‘miqra’ — Paul also says that his epistle would be read among the Church in Colossians 4:16 (see also Revelation 1:3).  


    You have to also take into account that the gospel was transmitted orally since its inception.  Remember, Paul received the gospel from others, yet Paul wrote his epistles before John or Peter wrote their writings.  He heard it preached.  This same preaching occurred in the dark ages. 


    I’d also point out something that is very obvious which you even mention but this seems to have gone right over your head, and that is the fact that it would have been impossible for all people to have Bible’s even if they could read.  There was NO printing press yet!  Would you honestly think that there would have been enough hand copied Bibles for every man woman and child who professed Christ to own one at that time?  Don’t abandon all intellectual honesty and integrity in order to defend some vendetta you have against the Judeo-Christian scriptures.



6 thoughts on “Literacy in the Ancient World

  1. To estimate the degree of literacy in the ancient world seems an interesting exercise, but what is its relevance? It is obvious from the New Testament that writing was an important means (though certainly secondary to preaching) of transmitting the message of Christ. In the synagogues of the Jewish diaspora there were enough literate people to read the scriptures to those who could not read.

    I have recently heard it argued that the relative illiteracy of the ancient world, especially in the poorer classes, is proof that Jesus’ apostles could not have written the documents that bear their names – thus rendering the New Testament untrustworthy. I think your argument here, which is otherwise a good one, needs to be fortified to prevent that unwarranted conclusion.

  2. Mike: I don’t think that anyone could draw that conclusion from the above quotations. They simply point out that illiteracy was widespread in the ancient world (it still is today as well), but from that you can’t conclude that nobody could read or write. Obviously disciples of Jesus produced the NT which is evidenced by the existence of the NT.

  3. Nick, I agree with you. The argument was being made by someone who believed that, if Jesus existed at all, He was illiterate and that the gospels were not written by His disciples but rather by relatively educated men with no direct knowledge of Christ some 35-65 years after His death. That is, the writers of the gospels were writing based on hearsay. I feared that such a person, reading your sight, might feel encouraged in his views, even though you say nothing that directly supports them.

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