Were Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Christians Illiterate, Uneducated?


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The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

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.[1]

The early Christians, a poor, scattered, often illiterate body, looking for the return of the Lord at no distant date, were not likely to care sedulously for minute accuracy of transcription or to preserve their books religiously for the benefit of posterity.[2]

Edward D. Andrews
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 ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Literacy in the First Century

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 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 works of antiquity, the process was repeated over and over again 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 the letters of ordinary people, 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 garbage dumps. However, some recipients of these letters valued them, so they stored them like some 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 common folk, writing about everyday things.


Most of us have heard of Marcus Tullius Cicero, or simply Cicero (106 B.C.E.–43 B.C.E.), who was 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 in order to correspond with others. However, while Cicero was writing letters to one person, he knew that others would be reading them as well. 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 very short letters to far longer, intricate rhetorical letters.

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 effective speaker. As for written works, Seneca is known for twelve philosophical essays, 124 letters to Lucilius Junior, nine tragedies,  and a satire, which is uncertain. 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 simple and bare letters of the day for something far more complex.

The apostle Paul, as we have seen, 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 exhorted them to do so. – Colossians 4:16.

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

We should note that the level of literacy in the first century is a somewhat subjective measurement, because of the limited evidence that is available, as well as one’s interpretation of that evidence. Consider as an analogy the historian today, as compared to the historian during the first few centuries of Christianity. Today, we are capable of covering almost anything that goes on in life, from the most insignificant to the most noteworthy. We in the United States may watch live on television or a laptop as some firefighters in New Zealand rescue a puppy that had been 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 are not even remotely comparable. The 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.” (Barnett 2005, 13)

Literacy in the first century was determined by being able to read, not write.[3] 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.”[4] 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 years. When I fill out a form or even sign my name, I struggle to write, because it is so 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,[5] as literacy was more of an everyday need than they had thought.[6] However, let us assume for the sake of discussion 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 statistically, the literacy rate is low in a certain area or a certain 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 they could not write, or struggled to write; what does this really mean for Christianity? Very little, because if there are 40-100 million people living throughout the Roman Empire and one million of them were Christian by 125-150 C.E., we are only referring to one or two percent of the population. There is no way to arrive at an exact statistical level of literacy for this tiny selection, in a time period 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, which would be very limited when compared to the whole. The last 20 years or so has 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. (Johnson and Parker 2011, 3-4)


Literacy and Early Jewish Education

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.[7] From that time forward, Gentiles came into the Christian congregations. However, the church still consisted largely of Jewish converts. What do we know of the Jewish family, as far as education? Within the nation of Israel, everyone was strongly encouraged to be literate. 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.[38] You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

[38] That is, on your forehead

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” denoted 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. 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.


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.” (Borgen 1997, 187) This certainly involved the ability to read and write at a competent level. Josephus (37-100 C.E.), the first-century Jewish historian, writes,  “Our principle care of all is this, to educate our children [paidotrophian] 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.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 1.60) 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.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.178) 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.” (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.204) 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 the study of the Mosaic Law. If their children were going to live by the Law, they needed to know what it says and understand it. If they were going to know and understand the Law, this would require the ability to read it, and hopefully apply 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.” (Schurer 1890, Vol. 4, p. 89) 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[8] 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.”[9] (Scott 1995, 257)


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 numerous 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. (Whiston 1987, Against Apion 2.175)

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.

How to Interpret the Bible-1

Mark 1:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

22 And they were astounded[8] 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 And they were all astonished,[11] so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

[8] Astounded: (ἐκπλήσσω ekplēssō) This one is extremely astounded or amazed, so much so that the person loses 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.

[11] Astonished: (θαμβέω thambeō; derivative of thambos) This one is experiencing astonishment, to be astounded, or amazed because 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.

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 acquiring an immense amount of knowledge were admired, becoming scholars, forming a group separate from the priests, creating a systematic study of the law and 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. 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. We have addressed it earlier, so what lies below can serve as a refresher. It certainly adds heavy circumstantial evidence to the fact that Jesus could read and 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.

As we pointed out earlier in Jesus In the Temple at Twelve Years Old, 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.

What Amazing Information Do We Learn about Jesus In the Temple at Twelve Years Old?

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 inquisitiveness. 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 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.”[10] 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).[11]

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 provide us with evidence that he had the ability to read very well and likely write. There is the fact that Jesus was also divine. However, he was also fully human and grew, progressing in wisdom, because of his studies in the Scriptures.

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

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.

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; 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 these 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.[12]

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.


Were the Apostle Peter and John Uneducated?

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[*] and untrained men, they were astonished, and they recognized that they had been with Jesus.

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

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 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. What this means is that they were not educated in higher learning of the Hebrew schools, such as studying under someone like Gamaliel, as was the case with Paul (Ac 5:34-39; 22:3).[13] 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 the 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  as we saw in the above, Jewish children were taught to read.

Another example: Luke 4:16-30 says that Jesus “came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day and 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.


Within the Roman empire from the first to the fourth century, we find public writings in and throughout all of the cities. 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 name of the deceased; 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?”[14] This impression does not end with inscriptions, because archaeology can extrapolate that between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., millions upon millions of documents came out of Oxyrhynchus, just one city, based on the more than 1.5 million documents found in their garbage dumps. Of these, five hundred thousand have been recovered.

The Library of Celsus (45-ca. 120 C.E.) is an ancient Roman building in Ephesus (completed in 135 C.E.) which contained some 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 goal for the library. Apparently, by the first century C.E., the library contained one million scrolls. The Library of Pergamum (Asia Minor) was one of the most significant libraries in the ancient world. It is said to have housed roughly 200,000 volumes. Historical records say that the library had a large main 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. Certainly, this does not suggest illiteracy but literacy.

Some point out that “Celsus,[15] 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.”[16]  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 were able to grow from 120 in Jerusalem about 33 C.E., to some one million by 100 C.E., a mere 67 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. In addition, 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 truly illiterate, but that they could read and write (with difficulty).

Let us return to Peter and John. We will assume for the sake of argument that literacy was between five and ten percent, with most readers being men. We will accept that Peter and John were 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.[17] 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 Christian congregation. 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. John, on the other hand, 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?


After the conquests of Alexander the Great 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 as well as by 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 divergent 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. (Ferguson 2003, 14)

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. (Ferguson 2003, 111)

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 Aramaic, the language of the Jews, in Latin, the official language of Rome, and in Greek, which was the language spoken from the streets of Alexandria, to Jerusalem, to Athens, to 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 THE DAILY NEWSPAPER OF ROMEC.E., would be the tool that would facilitate the publishing of the 27 New Testament books.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity

Textual scholar Larry Hurtado (Hill and Kruger 2012, 49) borrows an approach from William A. Johnson in his book Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities, and I would like to take the liberty of borrowing this concept as well. Johnson, under the heading, CONTEXTUALIZING READING COMMUNITIES, writes, “The more proper goal, as I [Johnson] have argued, is to understand the particular reading cultures that obtained in antiquity, rather than to try to answer decontextualized questions that assume in ‘reading’ a clarity and simplicity it manifestly does not have.” (Johnson 2012 (Reprint), 14) Johnson focuses his reading culture on “‘the reading of Greek literary prose texts by the educated elite during the early empire (first and second centuries AD)’” (Hill and Kruger 2012, 49), just one of many surrounding reading cultures of the time. We are going to focus our attention on the reading culture of early Christianity, namely, the first three centuries. Just as the manuscript evidence above gave us proof of a universal approach of early Christianity to the publication of their canonical books, showing concern for the accuracy of the content, this will be an extension of that.

What made Johnson’s work so appetizing for Hurtado is the Roman elite reading culture and how he demonstrated that their approach was actually designed to keep out anyone who could not handle the difficulty with which their reading community functioned. The Roman literary world had long had word separation within their texts, but the elite reading culture of the Roman world in the second and third centuries returned to scriptio continua (Lat. for “continuous script”), a style of writing without spaces or other marks between the words and sentences. This choice of writing style over others that were current and common, with spaces between words and sentences as well as punctuation, diacritical marks that indicate how words are to be pronounced, and distinguished letter case, is evidence that they were putting up roadblocks to keep the uneducated out of their elite reading culture.

This is even further evidenced when we consider that they ignored the codex and stayed with the rolls or scrolls that were held horizontally, with the text being read vertically. The text was in “columns ranging from 4.5 to 7.0 centimetres in width, about 15–25 letters per line, left and right justification, and about 15–25 centimetres in height, with about 1.5–2.5 centimetres spacing between columns. The letters were carefully written, calligraphic in better quality manuscripts, but with no spacing between words, little or no punctuation, and no demarcation of larger sense-units. The strict right-hand justification was achieved by ‘wrapping’ lines (to use a computer term), ending each line either with a given word or a syllable, and continuing with the next word or syllable on the next line, the column ‘organized as a tight phalanx of clear, distinct letters, each marching one after the other to form an impression of continuous flow, the letters forming a solid, narrow rectangle of written text, alternating with narrower bands of white space’.” (Hill and Kruger 2012, 50)

Another feature of this elite reading culture was the fact that they cared deeply about the elegant and beautiful or artistic handwriting that was pleasing to the eyes, but not as reader friendly as the rounded, unadorned writing in the Christian texts. Certainly, the elite reading culture cared about the accuracy of the content in their texts as well, but it took a backseat to visually stimulating handwriting. The reader had the task of bringing to life this text with no sense breaks or punctuation.


The Early Christian Reading Culture

The early codex manuscripts present us a picture of early Christianity that was a book-buying, book-reading, and book-publishing culture unlike no other, as they turned to the book form, i.e. the codex, finding it handy, convenient, and portable. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude were moved along by the Holy Spirit, penning their books. The writings were then delivered and distributed by a trusted traveling companion, who then read it aloud to the Christian congregation(s).

Paul in his final greeting to the Ephesians writes, “So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts.” (Eph. 6:21-22) Paul tells the Christians in Colossae, “Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts.” (Col. 4:7-8, ESV) The first Christians were encouraged to read the Scriptures during their religious services and to discuss them. (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16; 1 Tim. 4:13; See Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14; Rev. 1:3)

The members of these early Christian congregations were from a wide-ranging spectrum; the poor, slaves, freedman (emancipated from slavery), male and female, old and young, children, workers, business owners, landowners, and even some from the wealthy segment of society. Generally, the powerful political leaders of the day and the very wealthy were missing from these Christian meetings. The apostle Paul exhorted Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (1 Tim 4:13, UASV) Writing about 155 C.E., Justin Martyr says of the weekly Christian meetings, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.[18]

Gamble says that Justin Martyr’s words suggest what was typical in mid-second century weekly Christian meetings in Asia Minor and Rome; scholars agree that the reading of Scripture at Christian meetings, offering an exposition of what had been read, was common and likely universal in Justin’s day, the practice originating with the first-century Christians. (Gamble 1995, 151-152) By the end of the first century, it is likely that every Christian community in the then-known world had as many of the New Testament books as were available (excluding the Gospel of John, his three epistles, and the book of Revelation, since they were written between 95-98 C.E.). In addition, they would have had Old Testament books as well. These congregations would have had a number of readers who were responsible for the congregation’s library. Further, it is highly likely that many Christians themselves could read. In addition, it is likely that these assigned readers were also serving as scribes. These readers/scribes would likely have had the same training as the Jewish Sopherim (scribes), meaning that they possessed excellent reading, copying, translating, and interpreting skills. It might even have been that these were Jewish converts to Christianity, very familiar with the synagogue practice of copying manuscripts, studying the texts, and reading and interpreting the texts. As Comfort points out, ‘the relationship between scribes and readers is found in the subscription to 1 Peter and to 2 Peter in P72, where in both places it says, “Peace to the one having written [i.e., the scribe] and to the one having read [i.e., the lector].’ As such, the scribe of P72 was asking for a blessing of God’s peace on the scribe [presumably himself] and on the lector. As such, the scribe knew that the publication of 1 Peter and 2 Peter was dependent on the twofold process–the copying of the text and the oral reading of it.”[19]

When we look at the evidence for the first three centuries of Christianity, we find that most early Christians were from a lower social stratum, a minority from the middle level, and a minute few from the upper levels of society. (Hill and Kruger 2012, 55) It would seem that the early Christian manuscripts were prepared for the early Christian reading culture. We have already spoken at length about the book form of the codex, as opposed to the roll or scroll with its continuous text. Unlike the elite reading culture that Johnson surveyed, the Christian reading culture was not aiming for what was pleasing to the eyes, i.e., elegant handwriting. The highest priority was creating a text that was accurate in content and reader-friendly. While the elite reading culture during this same period was creating texts designed to keep the uneducated out (too overwhelming for the average reader), the Christian texts were prepared in such a way that they placed fewer demands on the reader (more Christians could reach out to be readers), so as to bring this to a more diverse audience. If we are to understand fully early Christianity, the early reading culture, and their view of their text, we need to look to the early papyri and scribal activity, the patristic quotations, and any early attitudes that have been expressed about textual transmission.


The Early Cristian View of the Originals

Paul was the author of fourteen letters within the Greek New Testament.[20] Paul’s earliest letters were 1 Thessalonians (50 C.E.), 2 Thessalonians (51 C.E.), Galatians (50-52 C.E.), 1&2 Corinthians (55 C.E.), Romans (56 C.E.), Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (60-61 C.E.), Hebrews (61 C.E.), 1 Timothy, and Titus (61-64 C.E.). 2 Timothy was penned last, about 65 C.E. This means that the apostle Peter could have been aware of at least thirteen out of fourteen Pauline letters at the time of his penning 2 Peter in 64 C.E., in which he writes,

2 Peter 3:15-16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. [bold is mine]

Notice that Peter speaks of Paul’s letters, referring to them as a collection. Thus, Peter is our earliest reference to Paul’s letters being gathered together as a collection. Peter also states that the letters were viewed as being on equal footing with the Hebrew Scriptures when he says that “the untaught and unstable distort” Paul’s letters as they do “the rest of the Scriptures.” Günther Zuntz was certain that there was a full collection Pauline letters by 100 C.E. (Zuntz 1953, 271-272) In 65 C.E.[21] Peter could say of Paul, “in all his letters,” and his readers would know who Paul was and of Paul’s many letters, as well as accept the idea that they were equal to the Hebrew Scriptures, which indicates that they were being collected among the churches.

1 Timothy 5:18 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” [bold is mine]

Notice that Paul says, “the Scripture says” (λέγει γὰρ ἡ γραφή), just before he quotes from two different Scriptures. The first half of the quote, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” is from Deuteronomy 25:4. The Second half, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” seems to be from Luke 10:7. Here Paul is doing exactly what Peter did in the above at 2 Peter 3:16, placing the Gospel of Luke on par with the Hebrew Scriptures.

Some have tried to dismiss 1 Timothy 5:8 by saying that Paul was just quoting oral tradition, but that can hardly be the case when he says, “the Scripture says,” which requires a written source and it happens that we have such a source: the Gospel of Luke. Luke was written about 56-58 C.E. in Caesarea, and First Timothy was written about 61-64 C.E. in Macedonia. Then, there is the fact that Luke was a faithful traveling companion and co-worker of the apostle Paul. Luke was one of Paul’s closest traveling companions from about 49 C.E. until the time of Paul’s martyrdom. The Gospel of Luke was written just after the two of them returned from Paul’s third missionary journey, while Paul was imprisoned for two years at Caesarea, after which Paul was transferred to Rome in about 58 C.E. Other “scholars believe Luke wrote his Gospel and the book of Acts while in Rome with Paul during the apostle’s first Roman imprisonment. Apparently, Luke remained nearby or with Paul also during the apostle’s second Roman imprisonment. Shortly before his martyrdom, Paul wrote that ‘only Luke is with me’ (2 Tim. 4:11).”[22] Either way, Luke was a very close co-worker with Paul for almost twenty years. In fact, Luke’s writing shows evidence of Paul’s influence (Lu 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25). We must remember that Luke was a first-rate historian, as well as being inspired. He says that he “investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out” (Lu 1:3). Regardless, the apostle Paul had access to Luke’s Gospel for many years before penning 1 Timothy, where it appears that he made a direct quote from what we know now as Luke 10:7, referring to it as Scripture.

The authority of the New Testament books is further confirmed by the use of the well-known phrase, “it is written.” So that we understand that when this phrase is used, it is a reference to the Scriptures of God, the inspired Word of God, it should be noted that the gospel writers themselves use the phrase “it is written” some forty times when referring to the inspired Hebrew Scriptures.

The Epistle of Barnabas dates after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., but it dates before the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 C.E. At Barn 4:14, we read, “let us be on guard lest we should be found to be, as it is written, ‘many called, but few chosen.’”[23] Immediately after using the phrase “it is written,” Barnabas quotes Jesus’ words found in Matthew 22:14, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians dates to about 110 C.E. Poly 12:1 reads, “For I am convinced that you are all well trained in the sacred Scriptures and that nothing is hidden from you (something not granted to me). Only, as it is said in these Scriptures, ‘be angry but do not sin,’ and ‘do not let the sun set on your anger.’ Blessed is the one who remembers this, which I believe to be the case with you.”[24] The first phrase “be angry but do not sin” is a quotation from Ephesians 4:26, where Paul is quoting Psalm 4:5. However, the latter part of the quote, “do not let the sun set on your anger” is Paul’s words alone. It is clear here that Polycarp is referring to both the Psalm and the book of Ephesians when he writes, “it is said in these Scriptures.”

Clement of Rome (c. 30-100 C.E.) penned two books: we focus on the second, An Ancient Christian Sermon (2 Clement), which dates to about 98-100 C.E. II Clement 2:4 reads, “And another Scripture says, ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”[25] Here Clement is quoting Mark 2:17 or Matt. 9:13, which is likely the earliest quotation of a New Testament passage as Scripture. In the Gospel of Mark and Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (ESV). II Clement 14:2 reads, “But if we do not do the will of the Lord, we will belong to those of whom the Scripture says, ‘My house has become a robbers’ den’” which is a quote from Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, and Luke 19:46, where Jesus himself is quoting Jeremiah 7:11 after cleansing the temple of greedy merchants.

Certainly, we can garner from this brief look at early Christianity’s view of Scriptures that the New Testament books were placed on the same footing as the Hebrew Scriptures quite early, starting with the words of Peter about the apostle Paul’s letters. Again, Justin Martyr tells us that at the early Christian meetings “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (1 Apology 67).[26] Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-108 C.E.), Theophilus of Antioch (d. 182 C.E.), and Tertullian (c. 155-240 C.E.) also spoke of the Prophets, the Law, and the Gospels as equally authoritative.


Literacy in the Roman Empire and the Early Church

The question of reading, writing, and literacy levels in the Roman Empire and the early Church is not as settled or decided as secular scholarship might like us to believe. We can start by noting that there is a difference between what we deem literate today, and what the situation was in the Roman Empire and the first three centuries of the Church. Being literate today means having the ability to read and write, while literacy in the Roman Empire mainly applied to those who could read. The ability to write was not necessarily assumed.[27] Secular sources suggest that the literacy level in the Greco-Roman world was rarely if ever more than twenty percent. Scholars argue that the average was possibly not much more than ten percent in the Roman Empire. They point out that it varied within different regions, which however would be true for any period. They further argue that in the western provinces, literacy never rose above five percent.[28]

Some Bible scholars are unfamiliar with the reading culture of early Christianity. In many cases, they fail to mention the overabundance of evidence for a literate culture between 50 B.C.E. and 325 C.E. What is more; there is considerable evidence that the early Christians’ literacy rates were higher than those of the Roman Empire in general. Bible scholar Christopher D. Stanley offers us the commonly accepted misconception about the literacy level among the early Christians:

Literacy levels were low in antiquity, access to books was limited, and most non-Jews had little or no prior knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. Of course, Gentile Christians who had been Jewish sympathizers (Luke’s “God-fearers”) would have been exposed to the Jewish Scriptures, but we have no reason to think that their literacy levels differed appreciably from their contemporaries.[29]

In the Greco-Roman world, education was voluntary. Nevertheless, we do know that elementary schools were widespread. The archaeological evidence, especially the papyri, actually point to a literacy rate in the Hellenistic-Roman world that was higher than at any other time outside modern history. We will touch on the literacy level of early Christianity numerous times throughout this book and will briefly look at more evidence here in this chapter.



From the days of Gaius Octavius, who became the first emperor of Rome (thereafter known as Caesar Augustus), to almost two centuries after the execution of Christ (59 B.C.E. to 222 C.E.), the Roman Empire published and distributed a regular news publication for the city of Rome. The Latin phrase Acta Diurna (Daily Acts/Events or Daily Public Records) were the official notices from Rome, a sort of Daily Roman Times. Much of the news out of the city of Rome was also published broadly across the Empire as well.[30] Acta Diurna introduced the expression “publicare et propagare,” meaning, “Make public and propagate.” The expression was placed at the end of the news release, which was to both Roman citizens and non-citizens. There was a daily papyrus newspaper, which informed all who could read of the daily events. It was distributed throughout Rome, in such places as the public bathhouses,[31] as well as message boards.

Pliny the Elder (23 C.E. – 79 C.E.) was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as a naval and army commander. Pliny informs us that there were different grades of papyrus, such as the low-grade Saitic paper, so called from the city of that name in Lower Egypt, as well as the taeniotic paper, possibly from Alexandria.[32] These low-grade papyruses were likely used for the public notices, which would also explain why we have never discovered a single piece of the Acta Diurna (Daily Events). This Daily Newspaper of Rome covered such important information as royal or senatorial decrees and events, military and political news, deaths, crimes, trials, as well as economic insights. It also offered social information like wedding and divorces, births, festivals, astrology, human-interest stories, and even gossip. On this, Brian J. Wright writes,

The Latin term Acta in its broadest sense means ‘the things that have been done,’[33] or more simply, ‘events’. Without any additional qualifiers, these events could – and did – include public and private activities; secular and sacred matters; government and civilian affairs. With additional qualifiers, these events had a narrower and even more specialized meaning. The Acta Militaria refers to published military events,[34] the Acta Senatus indicates published senatorial events,[35] and the Acta Triumphorum denotes the published triumphs of emperors.[36] The main qualifier for the purposes of this study is diurna, which simply means ‘daily’. Thus, the Acta Diurna represents published ‘daily events’.[37] Though there are no authentic fragments of these specific kinds of acta,[38] and thus no physical features to discuss, there are ample references to them in ancient authors (again, by various nomenclature). Both Tacitus and Suetonius used these Acta as sources for information about the Empire’s earlier emperors when they were writing their histories of Rome.[39] (Wright 2016)[40]

The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

Moreover, it should be noted that the Roman Acta Diurna (Daily Acts/Events or Daily Public Records) was not the only newspaper of its kind during this period of 59 B.C.E. to about 222 C.E. Around 225 C.E., we find a Roman official ordering several mayors in the Hermopolite region of Egypt to post copies of his letter ‘in well-known places so that all may be aware of his pronouncements’ (P. Oxy. 2705). When we consider these things on face value, they indicate that notices were being written so that the populace could be updated about current affairs by reading them, not having them read to them.

We can conclude from these facts that reading, writing, and the dissemination of information was far wider than has long been held, with a much higher basic literacy level, which then adds to our understanding of the writing, publication, and distribution of the Greek New Testament letters that were read in the Christian congregations throughout the Roman Empire (Col. 4:46; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:13; Jam. 1:1; Rev. 1:3). Evidence indicates a far higher level of basic literacy throughout the Roman Empire than thought, as well as Christians who originated primarily as Jewish converts who prided themselves on their ability to read and write, coupled with a message that they were commanded to evangelize to the whole inhabited earth (Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20; Ac 1:8). As a result, it is no exaggeration to say that Christians were able to take over the Roman power that had a military unlike any other up to that time, by growing the faith in a pagan world. They went from 120 disciples at Pentecost in 33 C.E. to over one million disciples a century later.

Jewish education under this same period was significantly different as to the content, though in some respects they had stages similar to Greco-Roman education. The primary objective of Jewish education was knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. The parents were the first and primary educators of their Jewish children, especially their earlier elementary education in reading, writing, and understanding the Torah (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14-15). We read briefly of young Jesus as he grew up in Nazareth. He would have received his education from three sources: 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 Scriptures from his mother though his Father was a Greek (Acts 16:1), no doubt Jesus did as well from Joseph during his childhood. Jesus would have also received education in the Scriptures from the attendant at the synagogue, which was a place of instruction.

We know that another source of knowledge and wisdom for Jesus was the divine Father. Jesus said, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me,” i.e., the Father (John 7:16, UASV). Mark 1:22 reads, “And they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (UASV).

The third century Rabbi Judah b. Tema outlines the stages of Jewish education. “At five years old one is fit for the Scripture, at ten years for Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments, at fifteen for Talmud, at eighteen for marriage, at twenty for retribution (a vocation).”[41] Again, the home was the primary place of Jewish education in reading, writing, and the memorization of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the first century, there were a number of primary schools in Jerusalem, but it was not until the second century C.E. that they grew more numerous outside of Jerusalem. Children began their studies as early as age 4-5 in primary school Beth Sefer (“house of reading”). Both boys and girls could attend the class in the synagogue, or in an adjoining room. (Ferguson 2003, 112)

First-century Jewish historian Josephus (30-100 C.E.) said of the Jewish life, “Our principle care of all is this, to educate our children well.”[42] In speaking of what the Mosaic Law commands, he wrote, “It also commands us to bring those children up in learning 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.”[43] We have even more texts, especially from the later Rabbis, which make similar statements. If we take these comments at face value, it is evidence of a reading culture among the Jews that is surely higher than that of the Roman Empire, which was certainly higher than the secular sources claim.


Five hundred years from now, what if we were to ask the historian, “how well could the Amish in America read and write?” It would be difficult to be accurate because they teach themselves. It is 2017, and they have one-room county schoolhouses with chalkboards, which remind us of the pioneer days in America, or some Laura Ingalls Wilder novels. The historian might find slate chalkboards and tablets that are blank, so they could only guess at the level of the reading and writing. Would it surprise anyone that this highly religious community, who value the ability to read their religious books, very similar to the first-century Jewish community, can speak two to three languages (Dutch or German and English), as well as read and write well?

When we see signs of a reading environment, it suggests a populace with at least a basic reading level. In the first-century Roman Empire, there were hundreds of public inscriptions of dedications, imperial decrees, lists of names, laws, and regulation, and even directions. Even the gravestones of the time were meant to do more than mark the name of the person. Some had lines of poetry; others had threats and curses for any who even thought of robbing the graves. The painstaking time taken to publish these things indicates the expectation that the public is able to read them, even lowly grave robbers.

We have over 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 of 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 their being written on perishable material, we cannot discover the documents of these centers of education as we have in the dry sands of Egypt. Yet, should we for a moment believe that their garbage dumps saw any fewer books than were discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt?

We have such great quantities of written material as to suggest a much higher literacy level than most are willing to accept. Only ten percent of the Oxyrhynchus papyri have been investigated, but they offer insight that indicates a more literate society, not less. Many men and women who wrote had scribes pen their words, indicating that they were literate by what they said, while their signatures at the end of letters show only that some of them had poor penmanship. We should not judge their literacy level by the limitations of their penmanship. We must remember, in that period, that it was reading that dictated one’s level of literacy.


We also have the Vindolanda Writing Tablets. “The writing tablets are perhaps Vindolanda’s greatest discovery and have been previously voted by experts and the public alike as ‘Britain’s Top Treasure’. Delicate, wafer-thin slivers of wood covered in spidery ink writing, the tablets were found in the oxygen-free deposits on and around the floors of the deeply buried early wooden forts at Vindolanda and are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain. Like postcards from the past, the tablets allow a rare insight into the real lives of people living and working at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall nearly 2000 years ago. They provide a fascinating and compelling insight into private and military lives from a very different time but are hauntingly familiar, covering matters from birthdays through to underpants! Have we changed that much in two millennia?”[44]

The Vindolanda Writing Tablets, like the papyri in the dry sands of Oxyrhynchus, offer us insights into the literacy of the Roman officers who we would expect to be literate but also indicate the literacy of the low-ranking soldiers, wives, friends, and servants. The handwriting of these tablets ranges from writing that is barely legible, to the professional hand. We have to ask ourselves the same question: if these common soldiers had some basic writing skills, some even to the document hand level, and even a few at the professional hand, what are we to think of the literacy level of the Roman Empire?[45] Must we keep disputing the obvious? If the evidence suggests, as it does, a far higher literacy level than a mere twenty percent throughout the Roman Empire, what are we to expect from the Christian community that grew out of the Jewish populace that so valued reading, writing, and memorization, that was commissioned with evangelizing the entire inhabited earth?



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[1] Craig A. Evans (2012-03-16). Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Kindle Locations 1403-1406). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] F. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (1895), 157.

[3] (Richards, Paul And First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection 2004, 28)

[4] (Richards, Paul And First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection 2004, 28)

[5] “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

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

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

[9] Mishnah Yoma 8:4

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

[11] 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.

[12] (Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence 2012)

[13] 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)

[14] (Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence 2012)

[15] 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.

[16] 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

[17] 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.”

[18] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 186.

[19] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 52.

[20] This author accepts that Paul is the author of the book of Hebrews. For further information see the CPH Blog article, Who Authored the Book of Hebrews: A Defense for Pauline Authorship


(Wilkins) I disagree, mainly because of the Greek style of Hebrews. Nevertheless I respect Mr. Andrew’s position and note that he is in good company.

[21] 2 Peter generally is wrongly dated to about 100-125 C.E. (e.g. J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and of Jude: Introduction and Commentary; J. D. Mayor, the Epistle of St. Jude and the Epistle of Second Peter; D. J. Harrington, Jude and 2 Peter). Other Bible scholars date 2 Peter to 80-90 C.E. (e.g., R. Bauckham Jude, 2 Peter; B. Reicke, The Epistle of James, Peter and Jude). We should begin with a date of about 64 C.E. for 2 Peter. Then, the Greek makes it apparent that the author is a contemporary of the apostle Paul because it suggests that Paul is speaking to the churches at the time of this writing. The Greek ἐν πάσαις ἐπιστολαῖς λαλῶν (“in all letters [he] speaking”) strongly implies such. The author of the document says that he is “Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1, NASB). He refers to this as “the second letter I am writing to you” (2 Pet. 3:1, NASB). The author clearly states that he was an eyewitness to the transfiguration of Jesus Christ, at which only Peter, James, and John were present (Matt. 17:1-13; Mark 9:1-13; Lu 9:28–36; See 2 Pet. 1:16-21). The author mentions that Jesus foretold his death, “knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me” (2 Pet. 1:14; John 21:18, 19.). The argument that the style is different from 1 Peter is moot because the subject and the purpose in writing were different. The implication of the phrases “in all his letters” and “the rest of the Scriptures” is that many of Paul’s letters (thirteen of them) were viewed as “Scripture” by the first-century Christian congregation and should not be “twisted” or “distorted.” In addition, Second Peter was regarded as canonical by a number of authorities prior to the Third Council of Carthage (i.e., Irenaeus of Asia Minor c. 180 C.E., Origen of Alexandria c. 230 C.E., Eusebius of Palestine c. 320 C.E., Cyril of Jerusalem c. 348 C.E., Athanasius of Alexandria c. 367 C.E., Epiphanius of Palestine c. 368 C.E., Gregory Nazianzus of Asia Minor c. 370 C.E., Philaster of Italy c. 383 C.E., Jerome of Italy c. 394 C.E., and Augustine of N. Africa c. 397 C.E.).

[22] T. R. McNeal, “Luke,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1056–1057.

[23] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 373.

[24] Ibid., 294.

[25] Ibid., 141.

[26] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 186.

[27] See Eric A. Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), 38-59.

[28] William V. Harris, Ancient literacy (Harvard University Press, 1989) 328.

[29] Christopher D. Stanley, Arguing with Scripture: The Rhetoric of Quotations in the Letters of Paul (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 3.

[30] Propertius 2.7.17–18; Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historia 35.2.11; Epigrams 7.17; Epigrams 5.5; Tristia 4.9.20-25; Tristia 4.10.130.

[31] The largest of these was the Baths of Diocletian, which could hold up to 3,000 bathers.

[32] Pliny, Natural History, book 13, ch, 23

[33] John Percy Vyvian Dacre and Andrew William Lintott, ‘Acta’, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford: UP, 2012), 10.

[34] The first-century papyrus PSI 13.1307 is one example. For further details, see J. F. Gilliam, ‘Notes on PSI 1307 and 1308’, Classical Philology 47.1 (1952), 29-31. Cf. Sergio Daris, ‘Osservazioni AD alcuni papyri di carattere militare’, Aegyptus 38 (1958), 151-58, esp. 157-58; Sergio Daris, ‘Note di lessico e di onomastica militare’, Aegyptus 44 (1964), 47-51. For other examples from inscriptions and ancient authors see M. Léon Renier, Inscriptions Romaines de l’Algérie (Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1855); J. F. Gilliam, ‘Some Military Papyri from Dura’, in Yale Classical Studies: Volume 11, ed. Harry M. Hubbell (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), 171-252, esp. 209–252.

[35] The bulletin of daily news was almost exclusively a private affair before Julius Caesar made it regular and official in 59 BC. Although private publications continued, he ordered that these occasionally published Acta were to be published daily for mass consumption under the authority of the government from the court reporters’ notes (e.g. Seneca the Younger Apocolocyntosis 9). After Julius Caesar’s death, a custom arose that future emperors (and their magistrates every January) were to swear to keep and respect all previous Acta Senatus from their predecessors (e.g. Dio Cassius 47.48; cf. 37.20); with a few exceptions (e.g. Dio Cassius 56.33). For inscriptional evidence of how emperors dealt with the acta of their predecessors, see Benjamin Wesley Kicks, ‘The Process of Imperial Decision-Making from Augustus to Trajan’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers, 2011), 86-91, the case study regarding the Epistula Domitiani ad Falerienses. For additional details and texts, see, among others, William Smith, William Wayte, and G. E. Marindin, eds., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London: John Murray, 1890); Harry Thurston Peck, ed., Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities (New York: Cooper Square, 1965), 14-15.

[36] Pliny, Naturalis historia.  37.6.

[37] Too much emphasis should not be placed on the word ‘daily’ since it is possible that it could mean ‘everyday’ events, as in ‘current events.’

[38] I say ‘authentic’ here because some forgeries have been published. For example, eleven fragments of the Acta Diurna were published in 1615 by Pighius, and defended by Dodwell. Though the fragments were exposed as a fifteenth century forgery (by Wesseling, Ernesti et al.), some scholars still attempted to defend their authenticity at least as far as 1844; with Lieberkühn. For more details and background to this story, see Wilhelm Sigismund Teuffel, A History of Roman Literature: Volume One, The Republican Period, trans. Wilhelm Wagner (London: George Bell and Sons, 1873), 381. Cf. Hermann L. G. Heinze, ‘ De Spuriis Actorum Diurnorum Fragmentis Undecim: Fasciculus Prior’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Greifswald, 1860), 11-24; Andrew Lintott, ‘Acta Antiquissima: A Week in the History of the Roman Republic,’ Papers of the British School at Rome 54 (1986), 213-28.

[39] A. W. Mosley, ‘Historical Reporting in the Ancient World’, NTS 12.1 (1965), 10-26.

[40] COMING FALL 2017

Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into
Early Christian Reading Practices
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

[41] Robert Henry Charles, ed., Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 710.

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

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

[44] Vindolanda Writing Tablets – Roman Vindolanda and Roman .., https://www.vindolanda.com/roman-vindolanda/writing-tablets (accessed March 23, 2017).

[45] (Bowman 1998, 82-99)

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