Were people literate in the time of Jesus?


This is a good question. As I understand it, the answer will depend on
who you are talking about; whether the Jews themselves, or their Roman,
Greek and other cultural neighbors. By the time of Christ, the chief
institution among the Jews was the Synagogue. This institution encouraged
the learning of at least a rudimentary level of Hebrew literacy, at least
for the more well off male Jews. I have done some research since
receiving your inquiry. Let me give you what seems to me a fairly careful
scholarly study. It is at

Let me give an extended quote here, with acknowledgement to the author
Meir Bar-Ilan:

Assessing the literacy rate in modern society is very easily accomplished
but the answer to this question in antiquity is the other way around.
Nonetheless, this percentage is reflected in one of the rules in Soferim
11:2 (ed. Higger, p. 218):
A town in which there is only one who reads; he stands up, reads (the
Torah), and sits down, he stands up, reads and sits down, even seven

In other words, in some towns there was only one person who could read the
Torah, which is a highly (Hebrew) religious reading.25 This rule appears
also in t. Megila though with a slight difference: instead of ‘town’ it
says there: ‘a synagogue of which there is only’, etc.26 However, this
minor difference in the text has no significance since in the small towns
in the Land of Israel there usually was one synagogue only, such as in
Korazim, Beit-Shearim, and so forth. That is to say that the meaning of
that rule was the same even though there was a textual difference.
Calculating the balance between males and females, taking into
consideration that female literacy rate is always lower than the male rate
leads to the idea of there being one reader only in various places. If the
fact is not overlooked that in all the synagogues that have been unearthed
there was place for more than 50 people, the conclusion must be reached
that while issuing that rule the Tanna was speaking of a town where the
literacy rate was approximately 1 percent (if not lower).

It may be argued that the Tanna ruled in a unique case, but it seems that
usually the Tannaim did not speak of rare cases. On the contrary, most if
not all, of the cases studied show that the rules of the Tannaim played
their role in people’s lives.27 Of course, it does not mean that in all
rural places there was such literacy, but, on the other hand, if there
were towns with 1% literacy, then the literacy of all the towns was not
higher than 5% (at most). Therefore, taking into consideration the above
rule, together with the fact that there are rules that reflect a zero
literacy rate in the rural areas lead to the assumption of a low rate of
literacy in the whole population. Even if we assume that in cities (as
happens all over the world in urban areas in comparison to rural areas),
such as Tiberias, for example, the literacy rate was double and even
triple in comparison with the towns, still the figures of literacy are
around 2-15%. With the assumption that the rural population was around 70%
(with 0% literacy), 20% of urban population (with 1-5% literacy), and 10%
of highly urban population (with 2-15% literacy), the total population
literacy is still very low. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the
total literacy rate in the Land of Israel at that time (of Jews only, of
course), was probably less than 3%.

At first glance this figure looks quite low, and maybe too low. However,
in a traditional society, knowing how to read was not a necessity: neither
for economic reasons, nor for intellectual ones. On the contrary. Why
should a farmer send his son to learn how to read when it entails a waste
of working time (=money)? Why should he himself learn how to read if his
culture is based on oral tradition (though with a written Torah)?
According to the Torah, there is no need to read or write, except for
writing the Mezuza, Tefilin, and the Torah itself. However, for these
purposes there was always a scribe, so a Jew in antiquity could fulfill
the commandments of the Torah while being illiterate. Not only that, but
3% of the total population seems to be high in comparison with other
cultures. In ancient Egypt, a land with a lot of scribes, only half a
percent were literate.28 Now, even if it is taken into consideration that
training in hieroglyphs takes much more time than script with some 22
symbols, still the conclusion of the extent of literacy in a neighboring
country some millennia later with literacy rates that are some six times
larger than its predecessor, seems quite plausible.

According to the growth processes in population and urbanization as
mentioned above, it may be surmised that before the beginning of these
processes, in the days of the Maccabees and at the end of the ‘biblical’
period, the literacy rate of the Jewish people was 1.5% if not lower.
Nevertheless, if the conclusion seems farfetched, it can be rejected only
by cogent arguments.29

This author states that we have no reliable data from the first century on
literacy. This is one statistic that, as far as we know, none of the
ancients saw worth gathering. To show how poor our data is, the author
referenced above is reduced to using data from Egypt around AD 1900. The
bottom line is that we do not know the literacy rate you ask about, but we
can say with fair certainty that it was low. One way to judge literacy is
to look at records of how many copies of books are published. For
example, in the time of the Renaissance, when the great universities had
been open at Paris, Florence and others for two or three hundred years,
important new books such as Galileo’s “Dialogues of the Two Chief World
Systems” had an initial run of only a couple of thousand books. Trying to
extend this data to times pre-printing press (introduced to Western Europe
by Gutenberg in 1455) is problematic, as one can assume that pre-printing
press, copies were passed around more due to the astronomical cost of
copying books by hand.

My personal speculation is that with the emphasis of the rabbis on Hebrew
study, the literacy rate among the Jews may have been slightly higher than
the 1.5% estimate by the author above. For well-to-do Jewish males, it
may have been quite high, but certainly the overall rate was very low by
modern standards.

John Oakes

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