Please tell me about Christianity when it comes to literacy: what about people who can’t read and write, do they have only to rely on what they hear? Is there any other way for those people to learn about Christianity without relying on other people’s interpretations? How can they know, verify or understand the Bible?


This is an interesting question.  I have done a good amount research into literacy levels in the first century and beyond.  Opinions of scholars vary greatly.  Ancient peoples did not collect data on literacy rates.  I have heard estimates from scholars that the Jews in Jesus’ days had a literacy rate as low as 2-3 percent, but others estimate as high as 20%.  Very likely, Jewish literacy rates were higher than Greek and Roman societies because of training in their synagogues.  In Western Europe during the Middle ages literacy decreased, probably to under 1%.

Now, let me get to your question.  Here is the fact: the majority of early Christians were not literate.  They depended on literate people to read the New and Old Testament.  This remained true throughout the Middle Ages, and even up to the nineteenth century.  The majority of believers until the last two centuries could not read themselves.  They relied on those who did read to read the scriptures to them.  This may have been somewhat mitigated by the greater ability of people in the past to memorize and to learn from oral history.  In pre-literate societies, people had a much-increased ability to memorize using oral histories.

For us in modern times, this fact that most Christians in the primitive church had to rely on the minority of literate Christians to some extent will seem odd or possibly even disturbing.  However, we should look at ancient times through the eyes of ancient peoples.  We learn in Acts 17:10-12 that the Bereans “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”  Probably, the majority of Bereans who “examined the Scriptures” were not literate.  Therefore, they relied on the literate to help them to examine the Scriptures.  But, the point is that they were able to examine the Scriptures.  Apparently, as long as a significant minority in a given church are literate, the disciples in that church are able to compare what they are hearing to the Scriptures.  Highly individualistic moderns find it hard to understand that a group could rely on a minority who were literate, but I believe this was not a particularly large obstacle to early Christians having access to the Scripture in order to understand what they taught.  In the early church, many Christians could not have what we would call a “quiet time” by reading the Bible daily, but we can assume that they memorized large portions of scriptures and did meditate on the scriptures they knew.  This would be different from those of us who can read and can study any scripture we choose on any given day, but it was sufficient to sustain a vigorous Christianity in the first centuries.  It is possible to hear the scripture rather than to read it and to consider the meaning that way.

John Oakes

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