What Do We Know About Books, Reading, and Writing; Literacy In Early Christianity?

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The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Before delving into the discussion, we should mention the severe difficulty of defining what literacy was in the ancient Roman Empire of the first three centuries of Christianity and how literate the populace was.

Full Illiteracy: This one has no reading or writing skills, no math skills, and is incapable of signing his name for daily living and employment beyond fundamental manual labor. He would work as fruit and vegetable picking, handling materials or low-level tools, manual digging or building, farming, or working in large workshops that produced items such as dishes or pots, as well as household slaves.

Fragmentary Literacy: (inconsistent or incomplete in some areas) The very basic ability to understand spoken words, a very basic grasp of written words, very basic math skills (buying in the marketplace), and the ability to sign one’s name for daily living and employment. He would work as a manual laborer in the marketplace, not requiring math, a shop assistant that performs manual labor, or a soldier.

Fundamental Literacy: The essential ability to understand spoken words, an elementary grasp of written words, necessary math skills and the ability to sign one’s name, and the ability to read and write simple words for daily living and employment, such as work as a craftsman, works in the marketplace, or soldier.

Functional Literacy: This one has the competent ability to understand spoken words, a beginner-intermediate level grasp of written words, and the ability to prepare necessary documents for daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level. He is a semiliterate writer who is untrained in writing but can read or write simple sentences and take on some basic jobs, such as a copyist or scribe.

Proficient Literacy: This one is a highly skilled person, who can understand spoken words, and has an intermediate-advanced level grasp of written words. He has the proficient ability to prepare short texts for daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills at the intermediate level. He is a literate writer who is trained in writing and can take on jobs, such as a copyist or scribe, tax collector, or clerk.

Full Literacy: This one is a highly skilled expert who can understand spoken words, an advanced level grasp of written words. He has the professional ability to prepare long texts for daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills at the advanced level. He is a fully literate writer who is professionally trained in writing and can take on jobs, such as a copyist or scribe, a tax collector, teacher, lawyer, or a clerk, to high-ranking positions like Senators.


Rome was a complex society. Levels of literacy were fluid because of the conditions of the day being as culturally and ethnically diverse as it was. From the first century to the fourth century, the Roman Empire was as culturally and ethnically diverse as New York City and its five boroughs: the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. A person’s literacy level to carry out different job functions and skills for daily living and employment would not be the same in Nazareth as would have been the case in Rome. The need or desire for literacy would not be as crucial in Nazareth as it would have been in Rome. As we will see, the need or desire for literacy was likely not as critical to the pagan as it would have been to the Jew or the Christian. 

Therefore, when we look at all of the evidence over the next two chapters, we will discover that literacy on all levels was more prominent than historians have long held. They have felt literacy in ancient Rome was no greater than 10-20 percent. It is clear that a far greater proportion of the Roman Empire’s population from the days of Jesus Christ to the time of Constantine the Great could make use of their skills in understanding the spoken word, grasping the written word, math skills, and writing. The Roman world was in this time that we speak of overflowing with documents, a range of literacies as we can see from above, as well as different literary genres: historical, religious, military, commercial, poetry, and so on. These were distinguished by the social location of those who possessed them, by the method in which they were produced, the material used to receive the writing, the publication, circulation, languages, kinds of text, and those who used them.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity

The city of Rome was founded in 753 B.C.E., some 750 years before Jesus was born. The Roman citizens had long believed that reading and writing strengthened them. It gave them confidence that their rulers were not going to take advantage of them. It is a given that as an empire grows, what is expected out of its subjects grows exponentially as well. When a state bureaucracy develops, documents grow right alongside it, and the people have no choice but to become functionally literate.[1]


Based on what you will learn over the next two chapters, consider the accuracy of the following quote from Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, a prominent scholar of early Christianity and the history of the New Testament’s Greek manuscripts.

The best and most influential study of literacy in ancient times, by Columbia University professor William Harris, indicates that at the very best of times and places—for example, Athens at the height of the classical period in the fifth century B.C.E.—literacy rates were rarely higher than 10–15 percent of the population. To reverse the numbers, this means that under the best of conditions, 85–90 percent of the population could not read or write. In the first Christian century, throughout the Roman Empire, the literacy rates may well have been lower.[2]

On this, early Christianity and New Testament Textual scholar Larry Hurtado writes, “A few decades ago, it became fashionable in some scholarly circles, including NT/Christian Origins, to hold the view that in the Roman period there was an extremely low level of literacy, and that only elite levels of society had that skill.  One still sees this view touted today (typically by those echoing what they believe to be authoritative pronouncements on the matter by others).  But a number of studies show that such generalizations are simplistic and that “literacy” was both more diverse and much more widely distributed than some earlier estimates.  The earlier claims of an extremely low level of literacy resurfaced in some comments, so I take the time to draw attention to some previous postings on the subject. Likewise, various studies have rightly corrected the older (early 20th century) notion that early Christian circles were composed of slaves and unlearned nobodies.  The pioneering study by Edwin Judge, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century (1960), was followed by a number of works focused on the social description of early Christian groups.” – Larry Hurtado’s Blog.[3]


Literacy in the First Century

Craig A. Evans writes, “In recent years, a number of scholars have suggested that Jesus could not read and that in all likelihood none of his disciples could read either. They maintain this because of studies that have concluded that rates of literacy in the Roman Empire were quite low, and that Jesus and his earliest followers were probably not exceptions.”[4] We will see this is not the case below. But for now, let it be said that we cannot take aggregate data and apply it to individuals. In other words, we cannot say that the literacy level in the Roman Empire of the first four centuries of our Common Era is less than ten percent; therefore, Jesus, the apostles, and the New Testament authors were illiterate. This is especially true when we can extrapolate insights from the data that we have. This is not the case. This would be like saying the average income for Columbus, Ohio is 52,000 dollars a year, so John Smith, who lives in Columbus, makes 52,000 dollars a year. You cannot apply that aggregate data to individuals unless you have direct information, such as tax records of that specific person.

How can we, modern readers, know so much about letters from the ancient Roman Empire? We have two different sources that provide us some insight into the writer and his letters. Lucius, or Marcus Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Elder (54 B.C.E. – 39 C.E.), was a Roman rhetorician[5] and writer, born of a wealthy equestrian family of Cordoba Hispania. Seneca lived through the reigns of three significant emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. For our purpose here, we are particularly interested in his letters, which were published; i.e., someone paid to have a scribe produce a copy of them. As was the case with many antiquity works, the process was repeated frequently throughout the centuries. Today, we have critical editions of them.

Our other source for insight into the development of the letter-writing process is found in ordinary people’s letters, uncovered by archaeologists. These were never published, as they were simply discarded after they served their purpose. In many cases, in order to save costs, these writers would simply flip a letter over and use the other side for something else. Many such letters ended up in the garbage dumps. However, some recipients of these letters valued them, so they stored them as though they were a treasure. Therefore, when archaeologists uncovered homes, these letters would be found within the ruins of the home.

In some cases, they were even buried with the deceased because they were so valued. Hundreds of thousands of letters have been discovered over the past century by archaeologists. These were the work of ordinary folk, writing about everyday things. On the subjects of an empire learning a language so as not to be exploited by a powerful kingdom, Gregory Wolf writes,

This is wonderfully illustrated by the Roman Empire by the personal archive of the Jewish woman named Babatha, found in the Cave of Letters on the shore of the Dead Sea and dating to the early second century C.E.[6] Babatha’s papers comprised thirty-five documents written in Greek, Nabatean, and Aramaic or a mixture of these languages, with occasional transliterated Latin terms for Roman institutions. The archive included documents relating to the sale of land, dates and probably also wine, various marriage contracts and probably details of a dowry, a bequest, a court summons, various notices of deposits and loans, a court summons and a deposition, petitions, and an extract from the minutes of the council of Petra relating to the guardianship of her son. Much of this was generated by private transactions-both commercial and disputes arising from her complicated family life. But it was the recourse to law, and to civic and provincial administration, that generated this mass of material, which she kept with her until her death in the disturbances arising from the Bar Kokhba war.[7]

Most of us have heard of Marcus Tullius Cicero, or simply Cicero (106 B.C.E. – 43 B.C.E.), a Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul, and constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family in Rome. In his everyday affairs, he penned letters to correspond with others. However, while Cicero was writing letters to one person, he knew that others would also be reading them. Therefore, he took advantage of these opportunities to use writing to communicate points persuasively, using logic and reason, philosophical arguments, and the like. His letters grew from concise messages to far longer, intricate rhetorical notes.

We find yet another famous Roman named Seneca in the days of the apostle Paul. He was the second son of Seneca the Elder. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or simply Seneca the Younger (c. 4 B.C.E. – 65 C.E.), was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist, i.e., a very famous, skilled, and compelling, and competent speaker. As for written works, Seneca is known for twelve philosophical essays, 124 letters to Lucilius Junior, nine tragedies,  and an uncertain satire. Seneca was a representative of the Silver Age of Latin literature. In his letters to his friend Lucilius, dealing with moral issues, he delved into philosophical ideas, setting aside the straightforward and bare letters of the day for something far more complex.

As we have seen, the apostle Paul used personal letters and letter carriers as a substitute until he could visit churches and key people. He produced through his scribe Tertius 433 verses, 7,111 words in the book of Romans, which would have taken two days to copy. Like the skilled rhetoricians before him, Paul knew that many others would be reading his letters. In fact, he urged them to do so. – Colossians 4:16.

We should note that the level of literacy in the first century is a somewhat subjective measurement because of the limited available evidence and one’s interpretation of that evidence. Consider as an analogy the historian today compared to the historian during the first few centuries of Christianity. Today, we can cover almost anything that goes on in life, from the most insignificant to the most noteworthy. In the United States, we may watch live on television or a laptop as some firefighters in New Zealand rescue a puppy trapped in a storm drain. Then again, we can observe a 9.0 earthquake as it hits Japan, causing the deaths of over 15,000 people.

What about the first few centuries of Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest Christians? The coverage of people, places, and events is not even remotely comparable. The range of coverage at that time was of the most prominent people, like Seneca the Elder, Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Mark Antony, and Augustus, i.e., the emperor of Rome, senators, generals, the wealthy, with very little press being given to the lower officials, let alone the lower class. We do not have much information on Pontius Pilate at all, but what we do have is an exception to the rule.

History from antiquity, then, is recoverable but incomplete due to the limited extent and frequently tendentious nature of the sources. Ancient historiography, more than its modern counterpart, is to a greater degree approximate or provisional. A new discovery may alter previous perceptions. Until the discovery of Claudius’s Letter to the Alexandrians, written on his accession in 41 but lost until modern times, that emperor’s steely resolve could not have been guessed. In short, evidence from Greco-Roman antiquity is fragmentary, generally devoted to “important” people and events and its texts overtly “interpreted.”[8]

According to E. Randolf Richards, literacy in the first century was determined by reading, not writing.[9] The need for writing today is far greater than antiquity. Richards offers an excellent analogy when he says, “I am right handed, so to pen a long paper with my left hand would be quite difficult and not very legible. The man of antiquity would write with the same difficulty because the need to write was so seldom.”[10] This author finds this to be true of himself now that we have entered an era of texting and typing. I have not written a paper by hand in many years. When I fill out a form or even sign my name, I struggle to write because it is seldom required. Many have argued that the lower class of antiquity was almost entirely illiterate. However, recent research shows that this was not the case,[11] as literacy was more of an everyday need than they had thought.[12]

Richard’s definition of literacy is too simplistic because defining literacy among historians has been plagued by many different definitions. It is also relative to the person determining how the word should be defined. For some historians of the first three centuries of Christianity under the Roman Empire, literacy could refer to any ancient person who merely could write one’s name. For another, as Richard’s suggested, it might be one who can read but cannot write. Then, again, it could be a semiliterate writer who is untrained in writing but could prepare short documents, to a literate writer who has had experience in making lengthy documents and understands what he is writing, to the professional who is paid to write for others. The literacy levels that were laid out at the beginning of this chapter cover the different levels of literacy in early Christianity.

In passing, I will mention something that few Christian historians or textual scholars will address, the gift of languages. An extraordinary gift conveyed through the Holy Spirit to a number of disciples starting at Pentecost 33 C.E. that made it possible for them to speak or otherwise glorify God in a tongue in addition to their own that they had never known prior to being given this gift. Therefore, Christians would have been greatly appreciative of the ability to be miraculously able to speak a foreign language in the Roman Empire. In conjunction with this, we must also remember that Christianity grew out of a melting pot of languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac (an Aramaic dialect). Thus, when we think about it, the first and second century Jewish Christians in Palestine may be quite familiar with Hebrew, Greek, and even Aramaic but be illiterate when it comes to Latin. On the other hand, the Gentile Christian may be very familiar with Greek, somewhat familiar with Hebrew, and a little familiar with Aramaic but possess the fundamental ability to understand spoken words and have an elementary grasp of written words when it comes to Latin. Then, in Rome, the Gentile and Jewish Christians might be literate when it comes to Latin and be quite familiar with Greek, yet be wholly illiterate when it comes to Hebrew and Aramaic.

Even though Greek was very much used in Egypt, the need to have a translation in the native language of the growing Egyptian Christian population would come. Coptic was a later form of the ancient Egyptian language. In the late first or early second century C.E., a Coptic alphabet was developed using somewhat modified Greek letters (majuscules and seven characters from the demotic,[13] representing Egyptian sounds the Greek language did not have). At least by the end of the second or the beginning of the third century (c. 200 C.E.), translators produced the first translation of parts of the New Testament, which was published for Egypt’s Coptic natives. Various Coptic dialects were used in Egypt, and in time, the Egyptian Christians had different Coptic versions made. Therefore, In the Egyptian part of the Roman Empire, the Christian may be literate in Coptic but struggles with Greek. And whether the Egyptian Christian is Gentile or Jew, he may or may not have any working knowledge when it comes to Hebrew or Aramaic.

Syria was a region with Mesopotamia to its East, with the Lebanon Mountains on the West, the Taurus Mountains to its North, Palestine and the Arabian Desert to its south. Syria played a very prominent role in the early growth of Christianity. The city of Antioch in Syria was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire. Luke tells us of “those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen [shortly after Pentecost, yet just before the conversion of Paul in 34 or 35 C.E.] made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch [of Syria] and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.” (Ac 11:19-20, bold mine) Because of the thriving interest of the Gospel manifested in Antioch, where many Greek-speaking people were becoming believers, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas. He then called Paul in from Tarsus to help. (Ac 11:21-26) Both Barnabas and Paul remained there for a year, teaching the people. Antioch became the center for the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.

Also, “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Ac 11:26) While the New Testament letters were written in Koine Greek, the universal language of the Roman Empire, Latin being the official language, it was thought best to translate the New Testament books into Syriac in mid-second century C.E. as Christianity spread throughout the rest of Syria. 

However, for the sake of discussion, let us assume that literacy was very low among the lower class and even relatively low among the upper class, who had the ability to pay for the service. What does this say about individual Christians throughout the Roman Empire? It is believed that more than 30–40 million people lived in the combined eastern and western Roman Empire (50–200 C.E.). Now, assume that the literacy rate is statistically low in a specific area or a particular city, like Rome (slave population). Does this mean that everyone is illiterate in that region or city? Do we equate the two? If we accept the belief that the lower class were likely to be illiterate, meaning that they could not write or struggled to write, what does this really mean for individuals or Christianity? Very little, because if 40-100 million people live throughout the Roman Empire and one million were Christians by 125-150 C.E., we are only referring to one or two percent of the population. There is no way to arrive at a specific statistical level of literacy for this small selection in a time when history focused on the prominent. If a person from that period said anything about the lower class, this was only based on the sphere of whom he knew or what he had seen in his life. This would be very limited when compared to the whole. The last 20 years or so have seen many new directions in the field of literacy in the ancient world. Johnson and Parker offer the following.

The moment seems right, therefore, to try to formulate more interesting, productive ways of talking about the conception and construction of ‘literacies’ in the ancient world―literacy not in the sense of whether 10 percent or 30 percent of people in the ancient world could read or write, but in the sense of text-oriented events embedded in particular sociocultural contexts. The volume in your hands [ANCIENT LITERACIES] was constructed as a forum in which selected leading scholars were challenged to rethink from the ground up how students of classical antiquity might best approach the question of literacy, and how that investigation might materially intersect with changes in the way that literacy is now viewed in other disciplines. The result is intentionally pluralistic: theoretical reflections, practical demonstrations, and combinations of the two share equal space in the effort to chart a new course. Readers will come away, with food for thought of many types: new ways of thinking about specific elements of literacy in antiquity, such as the nature of personal libraries, or the place and function of bookshops in antiquity; new constructivist questions, such as what constitutes reading communities and how they fashion themselves; new takes on the public sphere, such how literacy intersects with commercialism, or with the use of public spaces, or with the construction of civic identity; new essentialist questions, such as what “book” and “reading” signify in antiquity, why literate cultures develop, or why literate cultures matter.[14]

Books, Reading, and Writing; Literacy and Early Jewish Education

The priests of Israel (Num. 5:23) and leading persons, such as Moses (Ex. 24:4), Joshua (Josh. 24:26), Samuel (1 Sam 10:25), David (2 Sam. 11:14-15), and Jehu (2 Ki 10:1, 6), were capable of reading and writing. The Israelite people themselves generally could read and write, with few exceptions. (Judges 8:14; Isa. 10:19; 29:12) Even though Deuteronomy 6:8-9 is used figuratively, the command to write the words of the Law on the doorposts of their house and their gates implied that they were literate. Yes, it is true that even though Hebrew written material was fairly common, few Israelite inscriptions have been discovered. One reason for this is that the Israelites did not set up many monuments to admire their accomplishments. Thus, most of the writing, including the thirty-nine Hebrew Old Testament books of the Bible, was primarily done with ink on papyrus or parchment. Most did not survive the damp soil of Palestine. Nevertheless, the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures were preserved by careful, meticulous copying and recopying throughout the centuries.

During the first seven years of Christianity (29 – 36 C.E.), three and a half with Jesus’ ministry and three and a half after his ascension, only Jewish people became disciples of Christ and formed the newly founded Christian congregation. In 36 C.E., the first gentile was baptized: Cornelius.[15] From that time forward, Gentiles came into the Christian congregations. However, the church still mainly consisted of Jewish converts. What do we know of the Jewish family as far as their education? Within the nation of Israel, everyone was strongly encouraged to be literate. Again, the texts of Deuteronomy 6:8-9 and 11:20 were figurative (not to be taken literally). However, we are to ascertain what was meant by the figurative language, and that meaning is what we take literally.

Deuteronomy 6:8-9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

You shall bind them [God’s Word] as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontlets bands between your eyes.[16] You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 11:20 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,

The command to bind God’s Word “as a sign on your hand” denoted constant remembrance and attention. The command that the Word of God was “to be as frontlet bands between your eyes” meant that the Law should be kept before their eyes constantly, so that wherever they looked, whatever was before them, they would see the law before them. They would be biblically minded, that is, having a biblical worldview. Therefore, while figurative, these texts implied that Jewish children grew up being taught how to read and write. The Gezer Calendar (ancient Hebrew writing), dated to the 10th-century B.C.E., is believed by some scholars to be a schoolboy’s memory exercise.

The Jewish author Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.–50 C. E.), a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher whose first language was Greek, had this to say about Jewish parents and how they taught their Children the Law and how to read it. Philo stated, “All men guard their own customs, but this is especially true of the Jewish nation. Holding that the laws are oracles vouchsafed by God and having been trained [paideuthentes] in this doctrine from their earliest years, they carry the likenesses of the commandments enshrined in their souls.”[17] This certainly involved the ability to read and write at a competent level. Philo also wrote, “for parents, thinking but little of their own advantage, think the virtue and excellence of their children the perfection of their own happiness, for which reason it is that they are anxious that they should obey the injunctions which are laid upon them, and that they should be obedient to all just and beneficial commands; for a father will never teach his child anything which is inconsistent with virtue or with truth.”[18] Again, it needs to be repeated that in the nation of Israel, some 1,550 years before Philo, everyone was strongly encouraged to be literate. (Deut. 4:9; 6:7, 20, 21; 11:19-21; Ps 78:1-4) The father to the children and prophets, Levites, especially the priests, and other wise men served as teachers. Fathers taught their sons a trade, while mothers taught their daughters domestic skills. Fathers also taught their children the geography of their land, as well as the rich history. Philo informs us of the Jewish people of his day, saying that it is the father, who is responsible for educating the children academically, philosophically, physically, as well as moral instruction and discipline.

Josephus (37 – 100 C.E.), the first-century Jewish historian, writes,  “Our principle care of all is this, to educate our children well; and we think it to be the most necessary business of our whole life to observe the laws that have been given us, and to keep those rules of piety that have been delivered down to us.”[19] Even allowing for an overemphasis for apologetic purposes; clearly, Jesus was carefully grounded in the Word of God (Hebrew Old Testament), as was true of other Jews of the time. Josephus also says, “but for our people, if anybody do but ask any one of them about our laws, he will more readily tell them all than he will tell his own name, and this in consequence of our having learned them immediately as soon as ever we became sensible of anything, and of our having them, as it were engraven on our souls. Our transgressors of them are but few; and it is impossible, when any do offend, to escape punishment.”[20] He also says: “[the Law] also commands us to bring those children up in learning [grammata paideuein] and to exercise them in the laws, and make them acquainted with the acts of their predecessors, in order to their imitation of them, and that they may be nourished up in the laws from their infancy, and might neither transgress them, nor yet have any pretense for their ignorance of them.”[21] Again, this clearly involves, at a minimum, the ability to read and write at a competent level.

From the above, we find that the Jewish family education revolved around studying the Mosaic Law. If their children were going to live by the Law, they needed to know what it says, as well as understand it. If they were going to know and understand the Law, this would require reading it and hopefully applying it. Emil Schurer writes: “All zeal for education in the family, the school and the synagogue aimed at making the whole people a people of the law. The common man too was to know what the law commanded, and not only to know but to do it. His whole life was to be ruled according to the norm of the law; obedience thereto was to become a fixed custom, and departure therefrom an inward impossibility. On the whole, this object was to a great degree attained.”[22] Scott writes that “from at least the time of Ezra’s reading of the law (Neh. 8), education was a public process; study of the law was the focus of Jewish society as a whole. It was a lifelong commitment to all men. It began with the very young. The Mishnah[23] requires that children be taught ‘therein one year or two years before [they are of age], that they may become versed in the commandments.’ Other sources set different ages for beginning formal studies, some as early as five years.”[24]

It may be that both Philo and Josephus are presenting their readers with an idyllic picture, and what they have to say could possibly refer primarily to wealthy Jewish families who could afford formal education. However, this would be shortsighted, for the Israelites had long been a people who valued the ability to read and write competently. In the apocryphal account of 4 Maccabees 18:10-19, a mother addresses her seven sons, who would be martyred, reminding them of their father’s teaching. There is nothing in the account to suggest that they were from a wealthy family. Herein the mother referred to numerous historical characters throughout the Old Testament and quoted from multiple books – Isaiah 43.2; Psalm 34:19; Proverbs 3:18; Ezekiel 37:3; Deuteronomy 32:39.

Jesus would have received his education from three sources. As was made clear from the above, Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, would have played a major role in his education. Paul said that young Timothy was trained in “the sacred writings” by his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother Lois. (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15) Certainly, if Timothy received education in the law from his mother because his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1), no doubt Jesus did as well after Joseph died.

Jesus would have also received education in the Scriptures from the attendant at the synagogue. In the first-century C.E., the synagogue was a place of instruction, not a place of sacrifices. The people carried out their sacrifices to God at the temple. The exercises within the synagogue covered such areas as praise, prayer, and recitation, and reading of the Scriptures, in addition to expository preaching. – Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47

Before any instruction in the holy laws and unwritten customs are taught… from their swaddling clothes by parents and teachers and educators to believe in God, the one Father, and Creator of the world. (Philo Legatio ad Gaium 115.)

The Mishnah tells us the age that this formal instruction would have begun, “At five years old one is fit for the scripture… at thirteen for the commandments.” (Mishnah Abot 5.21.) Luke 4:20 tells of the time Jesus stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, and once finished, “he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant.” An attendant such as this one would have educated Jesus, starting at the age of five. As Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” (Lu 2:52) Jesus and his half-brothers and sisters would have been known to the people of the city of Nazareth, which was nothing more than a village in Jesus’ day. “As was his custom, [Jesus] went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day,” each week. (Matt. 13:55, 56; Lu. 4:16) While Jesus would have been an exceptional student, unlike anything that the Nazareth synagogue would have ever seen, we must keep in mind that the disciples would have been going through similar experiences as they grew up in Galilee. Great emphasis was laid on the need for every Jew to have an accurate knowledge of the Law. Josephus wrote,

for he [God] did not suffer the guilt of ignorance to go on without punishment, but demonstrated the law to be the best and the most necessary instruction of all others, permitting the people to leave off their other employments, and to assemble together for the hearing of the law, and learning it exactly, and this not once or twice, or oftener, but every week; which thing all the other legislators seem to have neglected.”[25]

The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.” (John 18:19-20) We know that another source of knowledge and wisdom of Jesus came from the Father. Jesus said, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me,” i.e., the Father. – John 7:16

Mark 1:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

22 And they were astounded[26] at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

Mark 1:27 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

27 And they were all astonished,[27] so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! …”

At first, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the priests served as scribes. (Ezra 7:1-6) The scribes referred to here in the Gospel of Mark are more than copyists of Scripture. They were professionally trained scholars who were experts in the Mosaic Law. As was said above, a great emphasis was laid on the need for every Jew to have an accurate knowledge of the Law. Therefore, those who gave a great deal of their life and time to acquire an immense amount of knowledge were admired, becoming scholars, forming a group separate from the priests, creating a systematic study of the law, as well as its exposition, which became a professional occupation. By the time of Jesus, these scribes were experts in more than the Mosaic Law (entire Old Testament actually) as they became experts on the previous experts from centuries past, quoting them in addition to quoting Scripture. This is like an attorney in the United States citing the United States Supreme Court case law before a judge.  In other words, if there was any Scriptural decision to be made, these scribes quoted previous experts in the law, i.e., their comments on the law, as opposed to quoting applicable Scripture itself. The scribes were among the “teachers of the law,” also referred to as “lawyers.” (Lu 5:17; 11:45) The people were astonished and amazed at Jesus’ teaching and authority because he did not quote previous teachers of the law but rather referred to Scripture alone as his authority, along with his exposition.

Jesus’ Childhood Visits to Jerusalem

Only one event from Jesus’ childhood is given to us, and it is found in the Gospel of Luke. It certainly adds weighty circumstantial evidence to the fact that Jesus could read and, therefore, was literate.

Luke 2:41-47 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

41 Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up according to the custom of the feast. 43 And after the days were completed, while they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. And his parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day’s journey; and they began looking for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. 46 Then, it occurred, after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers and listening to them and questioning them47 And all those listening to him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

This was no 12-year-old boy’s questions of curiosity. The Greek indicates that Jesus, at the age of twelve, did not ask childlike questions, looking for answers, but was likely challenging the thinking of these Jewish religious leaders.

This incident is far more magnificent than one might first realize. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament helps the reader to appreciate that the Greek word eperotao (to ask, to question, to demand of), for “questioning” was far more than the Greek word erotao (to ask, to request, to entreat), for a boy’s curiosity. Eperotao can refer to questioning, which one might hear in a judicial hearing, such as a scrutiny, inquiry, counter questioning, even the “probing and cunning questions of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” for instance, those we find at Mark 10:2 and 12:18-23.

The same dictionary continues: “In [the] face of this usage it may be asked whether . . . [Luke] 2:46 denotes, not so much the questioning curiosity of the boy, but rather His successful disputing. [Verse] 47 would fit in well with the latter view.” Rotherham’s translation of verse 47 presents it as a dramatic confrontation: “Now all who heard him were beside themselves, because of his understanding and his answers.” Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament says that their constant amazement means, “they stood out of themselves as if their eyes were bulging out.”

After returning to Jerusalem, and after three days of searching, Joseph and Mary found young Jesus in the temple, questioning the Jewish religious leaders, at which “they were astounded.” (Luke 2:48) Robertson said of this, “second aorist passive indicative of an old Greek word [ekplesso]), to strike out, drive out by a blow. Joseph and Mary ‘were struck out’ by what they saw and heard. Even they had not fully realized the power in this wonderful boy.”[28] Thus, at twelve years old, Jesus, only a boy, is already evidencing that he is a great teacher and defender of truth. BDAG says, “to cause to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed, amaze, astound, overwhelm (literally, Strike out of one’s senses).[29]

Some 18 years later, Jesus again confronted the Pharisees with these types of interrogative questions, so much so that not “anyone [of them] dare from that day on to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:41-46) The Sadducees fared no better when Jesus responded to them on the subject of the resurrection: “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.” (Luke 20:27-40) The scribes were silenced just the same after they got into an exchange with Jesus: “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.” (Mark 12:28-34) Clearly, this insight into Jesus’ life and ministry provides us with evidence that he could read very well and likely write. There is the fact that Jesus was also divine. However, he was also fully human, and he grew, progressing in wisdom, because of his studies in the Scriptures.

Luke 2:40, 51-52 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

40 And the child continued growing and became strong, being filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and he continued in subjection to them; and his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

Jesus was often called “Rabbi,” which was used in a real or genuine sense as “teacher.” (Mark 9:5; 11:21; 14:45; John 1:38, 49 etc.) We find “Rabbo(u)ni” (Mark 10:51; John 20:16) as well as its Greek equivalents, “schoolmaster” or “instructor” (epistata; Luke 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13) or “teacher” (didaskalos; Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mark 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Luke 19:39; John 1:38; 3:2). Jesus used these same terms for himself, as did his disciples, even his adversaries, and those with no affiliation.

Another inference that Jesus was literate comes from his constant reference to reading Scripture when confronted by the Jewish religious leaders: law students, Pharisees, Scribes, and the Sadducees. Jesus said, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him … Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Matt. 12:3, 5; reference to 1 Sam 21:6 and Num 28:9) Again, Jesus responded, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female.” (Matt. 19:3; a paraphrase of Gen 1:27) Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matt. 21:16; quoting Psa. 8:2) Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? (Matt. 21:42; Reference to Isaiah 28:16) Jesus said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Lu. 10:26) Many of Jesus’ references or Scripture quotations were asked in such a way to his opponents; there is little doubt Jesus himself had read them. When Jesus asked in an interrogative way, “have you not read,” it was taken for granted that he had read them. Jesus referred to or quoted over 120 Scriptures in the dialogue that we have in the Gospels.

The data that have been surveyed are more easily explained in reference to a literate Jesus, a Jesus who could read the Hebrew Scriptures, could paraphrase and interpret them in Aramaic and could do so in a manner that indicated his familiarity with current interpretive tendencies in both popular circles (as in the synagogues) and in professional, even elite circles (as seen in debates with scribes, ruling priests and elders). Of course, to conclude that Jesus was literate is not necessarily to conclude that Jesus had received formal scribal training. The data do not suggest this. Jesus’ innovative, experiential approach to Scripture and to Jewish faith seems to suggest the contrary.[30]

How did Jesus gain such wisdom? Jesus, although divine, was not born with this exceptional wisdom that he demonstrated at the age of twelve and kept increasing. It was acquired. (Deut. 17:18-19) This extraordinary wisdom was no exception to the norm, not even for the Son of God himself. (Luke 2:52) Jesus’ knowledge was acquired by his studying the Hebrew Old Testament, enabling him to challenge the thinking of the Jewish religious leaders with his questions at the age of twelve. Therefore, Jesus had to be very familiar with the Hebrew Old Testament and the skill of reasoning from the Scriptures.

Books, Reading, and Writing; the Literacy Level of
the Apostle Peter and John

Acts 4:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

 13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated[31]  and untrained men, they were astonished, and they recognized that they had been with Jesus.

Acts 4:13 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

13 Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.

How are we to understand the statement that Peter and John were uneducated? (ESV, NASB, HCSB, LEB, UASV, and others) [unlettered (YLT) or unlearned (ASV)] This did not necessarily mean that they could not read and write, as the letters that were penned by these apostles (or their secretaries) testify that they could. This means that they were not educated in higher learning of the Hebrew schools, such as studying under someone like Gamaliel, as was the case with apostle Paul (Ac 5:34-39; 22:3).[32] The Greek words literally read καταλαβομενοι [having perceived] οτι [that] ανθρωποι [men] αγραμματοι [unlettered] εισιν [they are] και [and] ιδιωται [untrained]. This means that the disciples were not educated in rabbinic schools. It did not mean that they were illiterate. In other words, they lacked scribal training. In addition, ιδιωται [untrained], simply means that in comparison to professionally trained scribes of their day, they were not specialists, i.e., were not trained or expert in the scribal duties. This hardly constitutes the idea that they were illiterate.

It was the same reason that the Jewish religious leaders were surprised by the extensive knowledge that Jesus had. They said of him, “How is it that this man has learning when he has never studied?” (John 7:15) This is our best Scriptural evidence that Jesus could read. Let us break it down to what the religious leaders were really saying of Jesus. They asked πως [how] ουτος [this one] γραμματα [letters/writings] οιδεν [has known] μη [not] μεμαθηκως [have learned]. First, this is a reference to the fact that Jesus did not study at the Hebrew schools, i.e., scribal training. In other words, ‘how does this one [Jesus] have knowledge of letters/writings, when he has not studied at the Hebrew schools. This question means more than Jesus’ ability to read because Jewish children were taught to read, as we saw above.

Another example is Luke 4:16-30, which says that he “came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found …” (Lu 4:16-17) Jesus was able to take the scroll of Isaiah and read what is now known as Isaiah 61:1-2. While the parallel account in Mark 6:1-6 does not refer to Jesus reading this text, scholars have long known that the gospel writers shared the events through their separate viewpoints, i.e., they drew attention to what stood out to them and what served their purpose for writing their Gospel accounts.

From the first to the fourth century, we find public writings in and throughout all cities within the Roman Empire. It encompasses inscriptions, which are “dedications, lists of names, imperial decrees, statements or reminders of law, quotations of famous men, and even rather pedestrian things, such as directions. Many gravestones and tombs are inscribed with more than the deceased’s name; some have lengthy, even poetic obituaries; others have threats and curses against grave robbers (literate ones, evidently!). The impression one gains is that everybody was expected to be able to read; otherwise, what was the point of all of these expensive inscriptions, incised on stone?”[33] This impression does not end with inscriptions because archaeology can conclude that between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of documents came out of Oxyrhynchus, just one city, based on the more than 500 thousand documents found in their garbage dumps. Of these, five hundred thousand documents, they were discovered in the first three meters that ran nine meters deep, as the bottom six meters the sand was damp from the seepage from a nearby canal. We could extrapolate that if all nine meters were salvageable, we might have 1.5 million documents available to us.

How to Interpret the Bible-1

The Library of Celsus (45 – ca. 120 C.E.) is an ancient Roman building in Ephesus (completed in 135 C.E.) containing 12,000 scrolls. The library was also built as a monumental tomb for Celsus. He is buried in a stone coffin beneath the library. The Ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt (third-century to 30 B.C.E.), was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. Most of the books were kept as papyrus scrolls. King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309 – 246 B.C.E.) is believed to have set 500,000 scrolls as a library goal. Apparently, by the first century C.E., the library contained one million scrolls. The Library of Pergamum (Asia Minor) was one of the most important libraries in the ancient world. It is said to have housed roughly 200,000 volumes. Historical records say that the library had a large central reading room. We have not even mentioned Rome, Athens, Corinth, Antioch (Syria), and the rest. The Mediterranean world from Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.E.) to Constantine the Great (272-337 C.E.), some 700 years, saw hundreds of major libraries and thousands of moderate to minor ones, with hundreds of millions of documents being written and read. Indeed, this does not suggest illiteracy but literacy.

Some point out that “Celsus,[34] the first writer against Christianity, makes it a matter of mockery, that labourers, shoemakers, farmers, the most uninformed and clownish of men, should be zealous preachers of the Gospel.”[35]  Paul explained it this way: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:26-27) It seems that these so-called illiterate Christians, which they were not, were able to grow from 120 in Jerusalem about 33 C.E., to some one million by 125-150 C.E., a mere 92-117 years later. This growth in the Christian population all came about because they effectively evangelized, using the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament). They were so effective with the Septuagint that the Jews abandoned it and went back to the Hebrew Old Testament.

In any case, Celsus was an enemy of Christianity. Also, as was stated above, what Celsus observed was only within the sphere of his personal experiences. How many Christians could he have known out of almost a million at the time of his writing? Moreover, although not highly educated in schools, it need not be assumed that most or all of the early Christians were entirely illiterate, but rather a good number of them could read and write (with difficulty). Many had a very basic ability to understand spoken words, a very basic grasp of written words, very basic math skills (buying in the marketplace), and the ability to sign one’s name for daily living and employment.

Let us return to Peter and John. For the sake of argument, we will assume that literacy was between five and ten percent, with most readers being men. We will accept that Peter and John were entirely illiterate in the sense the modern historian believes it to be true (even though they likely were not). The time of the statement in Acts about the two apostles being “uneducated” (i.e., unlettered) was about 33 C.E.[36] Peter would not pen his first letter for about 30 more years. Throughout those 30 years, Peter progressed spiritually, maturing into the position of being one of the leaders of the entire first-century Christianity. A few years later, Peter and John were viewed as developing and growing into their new position as leaders in the Jerusalem congregation; as Paul said of them, “James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars” of the Christian community. On the other hand, John did not pen his books until about 60 years after Acts 4:13. Are we to assume that he, too, had not grown in 60 years? Could education in the first century have become more accessible?

The Birth of Koine Greek

After Alexander the Great’s conquests and the extension of Macedonian rule in the fourth-century B.C.E, a transferal of people from Greece proper to the small Greek communities in the Middle East took place. Throughout what became known as the Hellenistic period, the Attic dialect, spoken by the educated classes and the traders and many settlers, became the language common to all the Middle East. From about 300 B.C.E. to about 500 C.E. was the age of Koine, or common Greek, a combination of different Greek dialects of which Attic was the most significant. Koine soon became the universal language. It had a tremendous advantage over the other languages of this period in that it was almost universally used. “Koine” means the “common” language or dialect common to all. The Greek vocabulary of the Old Testament translation, the Septuagint, was the Koine of Alexandria, Egypt, from 280 to 150 B.C.E. Everett Ferguson writes,

Literacy became more general, and education spread. Both abstract thought and practical intelligence were enhanced in a greater proportion of the population. This change coincided with the spread of Greek language and ideas, so that the level and extent of communication and intelligibility became significant.[37]

Education was voluntary, but elementary schools at least were widespread. The indications, especially on the evidence of the papyri, are that the literacy rate of Hellenistic and early Roman times was rather high, probably higher than at any period prior to modern times. Girls as well as boys were often included in the elementary schools, and although education for girls was rarer than for boys, it could be obtained. The key for everyone was to get what you could on your own.[38]

By the time we enter the first-century C.E., the era of Jesus and the apostles, Koine Greek had become the international language of the Roman Empire. The Bible itself bears witness to this; e.g., when Jesus was executed by the Roman Pontius Pilate, the inscription above his head was in Hebrew, the language of the Jews, in Latin, Rome’s official language. It was also in Greek, the language spoken on the streets of Alexandria to Jerusalem, to Athens, Rome, and the rest of the Empire. (John 19:19- 20; Acts 6:1) Acts 9:29 informs us that Paul was preaching in Jerusalem to Greek-speaking Jews. As we know, Koine, a well-developed tongue by the first-century C.E., would be the tool that would facilitate the publishing of the 27 New Testament books.

Books, Reading, and Writing; Archaeological Evidence for Literacy
In Early Christianity

Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of thousands of examples of graffiti on the outsides of buildings throughout the ancient Roman world, over 11,000 in Pompeii alone.

Graffiti and Literacy in Early Christianity

Pompeii was a prosperous populace (15,000), economically diverse ancient Roman city near modern Naples in Italy’s Campania region. Over 11,000 graffiti samples, etched into the plaster or painted on the walls, in both public and private places, have been uncovered in the excavations of Pompeii. Archaeologists have been studying and recording graffiti in Pompeii since the 1800s.

Mount Vesuvius blew a column of gas, magma, and debris for thirty-six hours that literally darkened the sky as though it were night, which caused a dreadful rain of ash and lapilli (small lava rock fragments ejected from a volcano). It only took two days until Pompeii, and an enormous rural area was covered with a thick layer, with the average depth of about eight feet [2.5 m]. The earth continued to be shaken by violent tremors that released a massive cloud of poisonous gases into the air. These gases were invisible but deadly, which covered the city, bringing death. As Pompeii was being buried, the small Roman town Herculaneum vanished instantly, being preserved more or less intact. “Lava flowed down on Herculaneum, submerging that town under a mass of mud and volcanic debris to a depth that reached twenty-two meters [72 feet] near the shore.”[39]

VI.13.6 Pompeii. Painting of two gods with graffiti inscriptions, found on front exterior wall between entrances 6 and 7.

A fresco showing the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, from Pompeii: “This remarkable portrait on the wall of a bakery in first-century Pompeii depicts the proprietor holding a book roll and his wife holding a stylus and a diptych made of two waxed wooden tablets. The stylus tablets are for taking notes; the book roll represents the finished, polished text. The portrait proclaims the literacy of this otherwise modest couple.”[40]

CIL IV, 03494

CIL IV, 03494 National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. N. 111482), Scenes of osteria, Pompeian fresco (50 x 205 cm) from the Caupona of Salvius (VI, 14, 35-36) with “comics.”

These buried cities have helped us understand the ancient Roman world better, and specifically, it’s Graffiti that has enabled us to understand its literary level better. The Graffiti of the ancient Roman world was writing in charcoal, scratched with a stylus or stick, painted with a brush, or drawings scribbled, scratched, or painted with a brush on a wall or other surface in a public place. In the ancient world of the first-century Roman Empire, graffiti was a valued form of expression, which was even interactive. It should not be confused with the modern-day criminal defacement we now see in most of our modern cities. There are dialogues where one passage answers another. These responses take the forms of greetings, insults, prayers, etc.

Successus textor amat coponiaes ancilla(m)

    nomine Hiredem quae quidem illum

    non curat sed ille rogat illa com(m)iseretur

    scribit rivalis vale

TRANSLATION: Successus the weaver is in love with the slave of the Innkeeper, whose name is Iris. She doesn’t care about him at all, but he asks that she take pity on him. A rival wrote this

A response to this translates to: You’re so jealous you’re bursting. Don’t tear down someone more handsome – a guy who could beat you up and who is good-looking.[41]


CIL IV, 10237 A graffito from Pompeii shows musicians, the emperor, and a fight between a murmillō and a secūtor.

1CIL 4.5296, transcribed in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. A poem of graffiti on the wall of a hallway in Pompeii. It is discovered in 1888 as one of the longest and most elaborate surviving graffiti texts from the town.

CIL IV, 4091

CIL IV, 4091 “Whoever loves, let him flourish, let him perish who knows not love, let him perish twice over whoever forbids love”

As we have already seen from above and others not mentioned herein, some scholars have attempted to downplay the importance of the texts of the Greek New Testament within early Christianity. Instead, they argue that the oral gospel played a far more critical, dominant role. This is primarily supported by the long-held belief that the vast majority of those in the ancient Roman world could not read and write. Many scholars throughout the twentieth century have argued that the low literacy level is evidence that the early Christians did not place a significant value on the texts of the New Testament. On this, Alan Millard, professor of Hebrew and ancient Semitic languages, writes, “Another authority stated, ‘there was a gap of several decades between the public ministry of Jesus and the writing down of his words by the authors of the Gospels. During this time, what was known about Jesus was handed on orally.’” The Jesus Seminar, fifty critical Biblical scholars and one-hundred laymen founded in 1985 by Robert Funk, even argue that Jesus’ early disciples “were technically illiterate.”[42]


From the last forty to fifty years, the evidence supports that people of all sorts knew how to read and write in the first century. The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages were common at all levels of society during Jesus’ life and ministry and the apostle’s lifetime. The argument that the Gospels came out of an utterly illiterate society is false because the evidence tells another story entirely, as reading and writing would be pretty common throughout the Roman Empire. In almost every circumstance, there would be people who could write something that someone tells them, be it for their personal use or the benefit of another.

CIL IV, 5092

CIL IV, 5092 Graffiti from Pompeii, in verse. The writer, burned by the flames of love, incites the mule driver to stop drinking and goad the mules to get to Pompeii first, where a handsome boy, whose writer is in love, awaits him, and where love is sweet.

For example, consider the commonness of graffiti in Pompeii and throughout the Roman Empire. The elites that argue for orality do not include this kind of evidence in the discussion, which they should, but it would detract from their literacy theme, impacting the production, publication, and distribution of a written text. Think about graffiti by its very nature cannot be derived from the wealthy, prominent Roman society members. Who would argue that such memorable writers as Vergil (or Virgil), Horace, Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid were found scribbling on the side of some public building? On this, Kristina Milnor writes, “The corpus of Pompeian wall writings, moreover, has been seen as a window onto the language of everyday life in the ancient Roman world, one of our few opportunities to read words written by ordinary people performing an activity (writing graffiti) that we in the modern-day do not associate with the cultural elite.”[43]

As Milnor rightly points out, the graffiti is not by the hands of the elite writers but rather by ordinary everyday people. She makes the acute observation that the prominent Latin poets of the day had mixed feelings and concerns about producing their book that they knew would be read and reread, which meant being copied and copied, and copies of copies being copied. They knew this also meant that human error would creep into the work, and copyists may even take liberties. Moreover, these published authors knew that they also faced public criticism. In contrast, the graffiti authors knew their work was an autograph and never had to face any production, publication, distribution issues, or even critical reviews. The author of a graffito simply concerned himself with the technical aspects of his written work: its properties and techniques, as seen from a literary and language perspective. In many cases, the Latin poet’s work may become known throughout the entire empire, while the graffito author is simply a local phenomenon.

We need to view graffiti in the light of all written works that impacted the ancient Roman culture of the day. Some might mistakenly believe that graffiti was at the bottom of the written record spectrum. However, we might place the graffiti above the daily writings of advertisements for rental properties, shopping lists, or signs throughout the city offering public information to the passerby. We might even place the graffiti on the same level as the local newspaper or something like the tabloid magazine of the first century C.E., with writers showing much interest in the classics, who dabbled in poetry and mythology, as well as local gossip, with a mixture of advertisements. While it is true that the messages were likely more impactful on the urban level, let’s not think the elites were any less impacted by the graffiti than the elites of today and TMZ. The readers were incidental in nature, happening upon the graffiti, not seeking it out like a published book. However, the workers of the elites likely communicated these things to their employers or masters if the subject or context was relevant. There is nothing to say that when a wealthy person walked the streets through the shops, they never paused to read the graffiti. The general conclusion is “It seems clear that a significant percentage of wall writers and readers were literate in Greek, although the common practice of transliteration suggests that there may have been more speakers than writers/readers.”[44]

While we have focused on the public places of Pompeii and the Roman empire as a whole, graffiti can also be found in the catacombs and on various early Christian monuments. Throughout the Roman Empire of the first three centuries of Christianity, graffiti could have been in the millions engraved into or painted on the walls, floors, and engraved on tombstones. Craig A. Evans informs us that Israel was not exempt from graffiti, stating, “There are many examples in Israel too, though not nearly as ‘colourful’ as those preserved on the scorched walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum. At the very least these graffiti and inscriptions attest to a crude literacy that reached all levels of society.” Evans cites Rock Inscriptions and Graffiti Project (3 vols, SBLRBS 28, 29, 31; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992-4), “Stone and his colleagues catalogued some 8,500 inscriptions and graffiti found in southern Israel: the Judean desert, the desert of the Negev and Sinai. The inscriptions are in several languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Nabatean, Armenian, Georgian, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and others. Not many date to late antiquity, because, unlike the graffiti and inscriptions of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the graffiti and inscriptions in the deserts of Israel were exposed to the eroding elements.”[45] The graffiti help us to illustrate literacy and the literary sources of the life of the early Christians.

CIL IV, 8364

2 CIL IV, 8364 Pompeyan inscription Translation: “I subscribe to your dear Prima in every place a cordial greeting, I beg of you, my mistress, to love me.”

Public Writing

Theodotus Inscription to Greek-Speaking Jews

Theodotus Inscription to Greek-Speaking Jews: The inscription reads: “Theodotus son of Vettenus, priest and synagogue-president, son of a synagogue-president and grandson of a synagogue-president, has built the synagogue for the reading of the Law and the teaching of the Commandments, and (he has built) the hostelry and the chambers and the cisterns of water in order to provide lodgings for those from abroad who need them—(the synagogue) which his fathers and the elders and Simonides had founded.”[46]

The text was carved on a limestone slab measuring 72 cm (28 inches) in length and 42 cm (17 inches) in width. It was discovered early in the 20th century on the hill of Ophel in Jerusalem. The inscription, written in Greek, refers to a priest, Theodotus. It has been dated to shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It is evident that there were Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem in the first century C.E. (Ac 6:1) Some believe that the writing is referring to “the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called),” The inscription also references that Theodotus, as well as his father Vettenus and his grandfather, had the title archisynagogos (leader of a synagogue, local ruler of the community),[47] a title that used a number of times in the Greek New Testament. – Mark 5:22, 35-36, 38; Luke 8:49; 13:14; Acts 13:15; 18:8, 17, etc.

There has been a countless number of archaeological finds that seem to suggest that many within the Roman Empire could read. Throughout the Roman Empire, we find hundreds if not thousands of public inscriptions like the Theodotus Inscription shown above. These inscriptions range from a list of names, general public information, imperial decrees, laws and regulations, quotations from famous people, as well as directions or distances from one place to another. In addition, even in the graveyards and the tombs, we find far more inscribed on the gravestones than merely the names of the deceased. On these tombstones, we find graffiti as mentioned above but also an inscription on the stone itself, such as threats and curses against any suspecting grave robbers who might happen upon their burial site. Indeed, it seems that they believed that the lowest criminal elements of the day could read. The impression from all of this public writing is that the public as a whole could read; otherwise, what is the point of spending all of the time and money so that a mere 5-10 percent of 100-150 million people could read it.

Literacy and the Literature from Egyptian Garbage Heaps


Beginning in 1778 and continuing to the end of the 19th century, many papyrus texts were accidentally discovered in Egypt that dated from 300 B.C.E. to 500 C.E., almost 500 thousand documents in all. About 130 years ago, there began a systematic search. At that time, a continuous flow of ancient texts was being found by the native fellahin, and the Egypt Exploration Society, a British non-profit organization, founded in 1882, realized that they needed to send out an expedition team before it was too late. They sent two Oxford scholars, Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, who received permission to search the area south of the farming region in the Faiyūm district. Grenfell chose a site called Behnesa because of its ancient Greek name, Oxyrhynchus. A search of the graveyards and the ruined houses produced nothing. The only place left to search was the town’s garbage dumps, which were some 30 feet [9 m] high. It seems to Grenfell and Hunt that all was lost but they decided to try.

Grenfell (left) and Hunt (right) in about 1896

Grenfell (left) and Hunt (right) in about 1896

In January 1897, a trial trench (excavation or depression in the ground) was dug, and it only took a few hours before ancient papyrus materials were found. These included letters, contracts, and official documents. The sand had blown over them, covering them, and for nearly 2,000 years, the dry climate had served as a protection for them.

Illustrates excavations at Oxyrhynchus

Illustrates excavations at Oxyrhynchus

It took only a mere three months to pull out and recover almost two tons of papyri from Oxyrhynchus. They shipped twenty-five large cases back to England. Over the next ten years, these two courageous scholars returned each winter to grow their collection. They discovered ancient classical writing, royal ordinances and contracts mixed in with business accounts, private letters, shopping lists, and fragments of many New Testament manuscripts.

Of what benefit were all these documents? Foremost, the bulk of these documents were written by ordinary people in Koine (common) Greek of the day. Many of the words used in the marketplace, not by the elites, appeared in the Greek New Testament Scriptures, which awakened scholars to the fact that Biblical Greek was not some unique Greek. Instead, it was the ordinary language of the common people, the man on the street in the marketplace. Thus, a clearer understanding of Biblical Greek emerged by comparing how the words had been used in these papyri. At the time of this writing, less than ten percent of these papyri have been published and studied. As was stated earlier, most of the papyri were found in the top 10 feet 93 m] of the garbage heap because the other 20 feet [6 m] had been ruined by water from a nearby canal. If we look at it, this will mean that the 500 thousand documents found could have been 1.5 – 2 million in total. Then, we must ponder just how many documents must have come through Oxyrhynchus that were never discarded in the dumps.

We have almost a half-million papyrus documents (likely there were millions more that did not survive) in garbage dumps in the dry sands of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. This is but one city in the entirety of the Roman Empire. Are we to believe that Oxyrhynchus is the exception, and some of the biggest cities, such as Rome, Corinth, Athens, Pergamum, Ephesus, Smyrna, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Carthage, which numbered anywhere from one hundred thousand to over a million in their population, did not have equal or greater writings discarded in their dumps? Then we should consider the temples and the libraries that boasted about tens of thousands of books. Reportedly, by the first century C.E., the Alexandrian library housed one million scrolls. In fact, Mark Antony took 200,000 scrolls from the library at Pergamum to replenish the Alexandrian library for Cleopatra. Because of moisture damage and being written on perishable material, we cannot discover the documents of these centers of education as we have in Egypt’s dry sands. Yet, should we for a moment believe that their garbage dumps saw any fewer books that were discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt?

Clearly, the tremendous amount of document discoveries begs for widespread literacy, not low levels. We are not trying to overturn the apple cart here. Historians’ common consensus is that in the Roman Empire, the first three centuries of Christianity were 5-10 percent literate, and they were male. We are not trying to suggest that widespread means the 80-90 percent literacy but instead at least 40-50 percent, if not more. We think of the immense production of the twenty-seven New Testament books of the first century and the Apostolic Fathers in the late first and early second centuries, as well as the Apologists from near the middle of the second century through its end. Then, we consider the publication of these books, the copying of these books, and their circulation, and we conclude that the use of these books in the early Christian Church is apparent. All of the available evidence clearly shows some level of literacy within Christianity, but it cannot offer us the exact extent. We would argue the percentage be broken down instead of trying to suggest a one-size-fits-all.

Full Illiteracy (20%): This one has no reading or writing skills, no math skills, and is incapable of signing his name for daily living and employment beyond fundamental manual labor. He would work as fruit and vegetable picking, handling materials or low-level tools, manual digging or building, farming, or working in large workshops that produced items such as dishes or pots, as well as household slaves.

Fragmentary Literacy (40): (inconsistent or incomplete in some areas) The very basic ability to understand spoken words, a very basic grasp of written words, very basic math skills (buying in the marketplace), and the ability to sign one’s name for daily living and employment. He would work as a manual laborer in the marketplace, not requiring math, a shop assistant that performs manual labor, or a soldier.

Fundamental Literacy (20): The basic ability to understand spoken words, an elementary grasp of written words, basic math skills and the ability to sign one’s name, and the ability to read and write simple words for daily living and employment, such as work as a craftsman, works in the marketplace, or soldier.

Functional Literacy (15%): This one has the competent ability to understand spoken words, a beginner-intermediate level grasp of written words, and the ability to prepare basic documents for daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level. He is a semiliterate writer who is untrained in writing but has the ability to read or write simple sentences and take on some basic jobs, such as a copyist or scribe.

Proficient Literacy (3%): This one is a highly skilled person, who can understand spoken words, and has an intermediate-advanced level grasp of written words. He has the proficient ability to prepare short texts for daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills at the intermediate level. He is a literate writer who is trained in writing and can take on jobs, such as a copyist or scribe, a tax collector, or a clerk.

Full Literacy (2%): This one is a highly skilled expert who can understand spoken words, an advanced level grasp of written words. He has the professional ability to prepare long texts for daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills at the advanced level. He is a fully literate writer who is professionally trained in writing and can take on jobs, such as a copyist or scribe, a tax collector, teacher, lawyer, or a clerk, to high-ranking positions like Senators.




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[1] Mary Beard; et al, Literacy In the Roman World (Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1991), 11.

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, MISQUOTING JESUS: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, NY: Harper One, 2005), 37-38

[3] Retrieved Tuesday, March 26, 2019 (Larry Hurtado’s Blog Comments on the New Testament and Early Christianity (and related matters)

Literacies in the Roman World

[4] Craig A. Evans, JESUS AND HIS WORLD: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), Loc. 1403-1406, KDP.

[5] A rhetorician is a speaker whose words are primarily intended to impress or persuade.

[6] N. Lewis 1989.

[7] William A Johnson; Holt N Parker. Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Kindle Locations 655-659). Kindle Edition.

[8] Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (After Jesus, Vol. 1) Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005, 13.

[9] E. Randolph Richards, PAUL AND FIRST-CENTURY LETTER WRITING: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 28.

[10] E. Randolph Richards, PAUL AND FIRST-CENTURY LETTER WRITING: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 28.

[11] “Throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world the distinction prevailed in that there were educated people who were proficient readers and writers, less educated ones who could read but hardly write, some who were readers alone, some of them only able to read slowly or with difficulty and some who were illiterate.” – Millard, Alan Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), p. 154

[12] Exler, Form. P. 126 warns, “The papyri discovered in Egypt have shown that the art of writing was more widely, and more popularly, known in the past, than some scholars have been inclined to think.” For example, see PZen. 6, 66, POxy. 113,294, 394, 528, 530, 531 and especially 3057.

[13] Demotic is a simplified form of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics is a writing system that uses symbols or pictures to denote objects, concepts, or sounds.

[14] William A. Johnson; Holt N. Parker, Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3-4.

[15] Cornelius was a centurion, an army officer in charge of a unit of foot soldiers, i.e., in command of 100 soldiers of the Italian band.

[16] I.e. on your forehead

[17] Peder Borgen, Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for His Time (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 1997), 187.

[18] Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 590–591.

[19] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 777.

[20] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 805.

[21] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 807.

[22] Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Second Division., vol. 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890), 89–90.

[23] The Mishnah was the primary body of Jewish civil and religious law, forming the first part of the Talmud.

[24] Mishnah Yoma 8:4

Julius J. Scott Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 257.

[25] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 805.

[26] Astounded: (Gr. ekplēssō) This is one who is extremely astounded or amazed, so much so that they lose their mental self-control, as they are overwhelmed emotionally.–Matt. 7:28; Mark 1:22; 7:37; Lu 2:48; 4:32; 9:43; Ac 13:12.

[27] Astonished: (Gr. thambeō; derivative of thambos) This is one who is experiencing astonishment, to be astounded, or amazed as a result of some sudden and unusual event, which can be in a positive or negative sense.–Mark 1:27; 10:32; Lu 4:36; 5:9; Acts 3:10.

[28] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Lk 2:48.

[29] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 308.

[30] Craig A. Evans, JESUS AND HIS WORLD: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), Loc. 1872.

[31] Or unlettered (YLT) that is, not educated in the rabbinic schools; not meaning illiterate.

[32] Gamaliel was a Pharisee and a leading authority in the Sanhedrin, as well as a teacher of the law, of which Acts says, Paul was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers.” (Ac 22:3)

[33] Craig A. Evans, JESUS AND HIS WORLD: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), Loc. 1418, KDP.

[34] This Celsus was a second-century Greek philosopher and opponent of early Christianity, who should not be confused with the previously mentioned Celsus, Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus.

[35] The History of the Christian Religion and Church, During the Three First Centuries, by Augustus Neander; translated from the German by Henry John Rose, 1848, p. 41

[36] B.C.E. means “before the Common Era,” which is more accurate than B.C. (“before Christ”). C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord.”

[37] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 14.

[38] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 111.

[39] Dell ‘Orto; Luisa Franchi, Riscoprire Pompei (Rediscovering Pompeii) Italy: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1990, 131.

[40] Craig A. Evans, JESUS AND HIS WORLD: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), Loc. 1462, KDP.


[41] Benefiel, Rebecca R. “Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii.” American Journal of Archaeology 114.1 (2010): 59-101. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

[42] Alan Millard, READING AND WRITING IN THE TIME IF JESUS (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000), 185.

[43] William A. Johnson; Holt N. Parker, Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 291.

[44] William A. Johnson; Holt N. Parker, Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 295.

[45] Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2012), Loc. 3317, KDP.

[46] G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology (London, United Kingdom: Gerald Duckworth & Co, 1962), 240.

[47] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).


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