Ancient Jewish Literacy

  • “Furthermore, since between 95 and 97 percent of the Jewish state was illiterate at the time of Jesus, it must be presumed that Jesus also was illiterate, that he knew, like the vast majority of his contemporaries in an oral culture, the foundational narratives, basic stories, and general expectations of his tradition but not the exact texts, precise citations, or intricate arguments of its scribal elites.”
  • (John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, pp. 25-26).

Really, was it that low: 3 to 5 per cent literacy, in an "oral culture"? So they say, and this point is central to the 'Jesus Seminar' case against Christianity. Let's see:

Greek Learning Eyes Front
Eunice and Timothy The Talmud
Bethar Moses
Youth of Succoth Hezekiah
Scroll of the Law Philo Judaeus
Military Man Testament of the Twelve
Lamentation Signed and Sealed
Son of a Carpenter Flavius Josephus
Court Clerks Masada
Reader's Digest Rabha
Outliers James Son of Zebedee


  • “It was therefore at bottom only the interest in the law, which made instruction in reading pretty widely diffused. For since in the case of the written Scripture (in distinction from oral tradition) great importance was attached to its being actually read (see below on the order of public worship), elementary instruction in the law was necessarily combined with instruction in reading. A knowledge of reading must therefore be everywhere assumed, where a somewhat more thorough knowledge of the law existed. Hence we find even in pre-Christian times books of the law in the possession of private individuals. ”
  • (Schürer, Emil (2017-02-01). A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 10404-10408). Capella Press.).

Greek Learning

The pagan Greeks achieved a high degree of literacy: "Elementary education for all citizens was achieved early in Athens, at least a century before Socrates, and literacy seems to have been widespread." (I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates, p. 42). Greek culture was spread widely around the Mediterranean basin by the successors to Alexander the Great's conquests. Jewish interaction with Hellenic civilization ranged from the lethal violence of Antiochus Epiphanes to friendly and constructive dialogue. Consequently, first century Jews had mixed feelings about Greek learning; some embraced it, others pushed it away with horror:

"But was Grecian Wisdom proscribed? Did not Rab Judah say that Samuel stated in the name of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel: '[The words] Mine eye affected my soul because of all the daughters of my city [could very well be applied to the] thousand youths who were in my father's house; five hundred of them learned Torah and the other five hundred learned Grecian Wisdom, and out of all of them there remain only I here and the son of my father's brother in Asia'?— It may, however, be said that the family of R. Gamaliel was an exception, as they had associations with the Government, as indeed taught: 'He who trims the front of his hair in Roman fashion is acting in the ways of the Amorites.' Abtolmus b. Reuben however was permitted to cut his hair in the Gentile fashion as he was in close contact with the Government. So also the members of the family of Rabban Gamaliel were permitted to discuss Grecian Wisdom on account of their having had associations with the Government." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Kamma, 83a.)

After the success of Christianity and the attempted genocide that followed the Roman suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt, the Rabbis turned against this earlier openness and became all but xenophobic. The Greeks were a literate people; a 'liberal' education is, literally, the form of education suited for a free citizen of a Greek city:

"It may hold such a place as the instruction you received in school from the teachers of reading and lyre-playing and athletics. You were learning not in order to teach those branches yourself, but to gain the knowledge needed by a free citizen of Athens. Such things are part of a liberal education." (Plato, 'Protagoras,' quoted p. 36, 'The Living Socrates,' Pearl Cleveland Wilson).

This was the way the pagans of the day saw the matter. While some Jews rejected Greek learning, and the Rabbinic tradition decisively pushes it away from the time of the developing Christian heresy onward, they by no means rejected learning. Rivalry with the pagan Greeks may have spurred the development of Jewish popular education:

"In their battle against Greek education, pious Jews began, from the end of the second century BC, to develop a national system of education. To the old scribal schools were gradually added a network of local schools where, in theory at least, all Jewish boys were taught the Torah. This development was of great importance in the spread and consolidation of the synagogue, in the birth of Pharisaism as a movement rooted in popular education, and eventually in the rise of the rabbinate." (Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p. 106).

Though little likely to be historical, tradition records that Ezra played a role in promoting schooling: "It will readily be understood that Ezra occupied a high place in tradition. Fifteen ordinances are ascribed to him, of which some are ritual. Three of his supposed ordinances have a general interest. They enjoin the general education of children, and the exclusion of Samaritans from admission into the Synagogue and from social intercourse." (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix V, Kindle location 26671).

In Greece, education was considered more of a civic responsibility, and in Rome, a duty of parental responsibility to be supplied by the free market. For the Greek system, Plutarch says, "For the Faliscans, like the Greeks, had one common school, as they wished all their children to be brought up together." (Plutarch, Life of Camillus, Chapter X, Plutarch's Lives, Volume I, p. 153). At its best, the Greek system provided near-universal literacy for male citizens: "Whether, however, state officials controlled and inspected schools or not, there is no doubt that feeling and custom made some considerable amount of literary education universal for boys at Athens." (William Smith, Concise Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Article 'Ludus Literarius'). For what it's worth, Plutarch records the name of the first Roman school-master under the free enterprise system: "It was a long time before they began to teach for pay, and the first to open an elementary school was Spurius Carvilius, a freedman of the Carvilius who was the first to divorce his wife." (Plutarch, Roman Questions, Question 59, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 39937).

What was unique in the Greek system was the degree of artisan literacy it involved. Rummaging through discarded ostraca, broken bits of pottery used for notes, yields a shopping list:

"They scribbled lists of goods for shopping and meals: 'Kneading trough, 20 long loves, 4 middle-sized platters. . .'" (Alpha Beta, John Man, p. 224).

It's easy enough to imagine that the party making the list was an aristocrat, but who was the intended reader? Did the aristocracy of the day do its own marketing? This is what the contemporary Jesus Publishing Industry says: that only the super-rich were literate. This simply isn't so what it comes to the Greek city-states and their offspring; the artisan class had the literacy to go along with the political rights they also held, though todays' classics-illiterate populace cannot be made to believe they had either. Here is a message, found in the trash, about a borrowed saw:

"It seems that this Thamneos borrows a saw from a friend who come originally from Megara, twenty miles to the west. Both men are craftsmen who have often used Phoenician letters to leave each other notes. The man from Megara is on his way out of Athens. Perhaps a younger brother has come to fetch him because their mother is sick. Anyway, on the road he suddenly remembers the saw. Thamneos will try to return it, and he, the Megaran, won't be at home to receive it. What to do? He remembers there's a safe place to leave the saw, a little storm-drain under the stone that leads into his garden, if only he can tell Thamneos about it. He casts around, finds a broken pot beside the road, chips off the base, picks up a stone and scratches a message. Here, he tells his younger brother, run back and leave this at Thamneos's place, he'll understand. Thamneos finds the message, and reads his friend's letters, slightly oddly formed in the Megaran style: 'Put the saw under the threshold of the garden gate.' OK." (Alpha Beta, John Man, pp. 224-225).

Which one was the aristocrat: the man who owned the saw, or the one who needed to borrow it? Greek culture was highly influential, both in those areas conquered by Alexander of Macedon,— because the Macedonians saw themselves as Greeks, even if the Greeks did not,— and also in areas never under the successors' sway, like a small town near Carthage: "The inhabitants of this little town were also connected into the wider Mediterranean world. An Attic black-figure wine jug depicting the Homeric hero Odysseus escaping from the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus has been found with an Ionian cup in a tomb dating to the sixth century BC." (Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, p. 80). Though these people were of Phoenician and Libyan heritage, they evidently knew who Odysseus was and who Polyphemus was. Perhaps they also knew that literacy was important.

Institutes of Oratory
Lives of the Grammarians
Lives of the Sophists
On the Training of Children

A forcible attempt to import the Greek system of gymnasia into Judaea under the successors of Alexander of Macedon failed, the leadership lacking the sensitivity to divest the system of those elements which offended Jewish sensibilities, such as nudity, paederasty, and paganism. These conflicts are recorded in the books detailing the Maccabean revolt: "In addition he [Jason] undertook to pay another hundred and fifty talents for the authority to institute a sports-stadium, to arrange for the education of young men there, and to enroll the inhabitants of Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch." (2 Maccabees 4:9-10). These measures proved controversial. But this revulsion against Greek learning did not mean the Jews rejected literacy. They took a different approach. The Jewish way which evolved tethered education to the synagogue.

The claim is made, by the 'Jesus' Publishing Industry, that the literacy rate in Jewish Palestine stagnated in the single digits, and thus no one was capable of penning the works which would be incorporated in the New Testament: "In short, Peter's town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. . .Nothing suggests that anyone in town could write. As a lower-class fisherman, Peter would have started work as a young boy and never attended school. There was, in fact, probably no school there. . .Peter was an illiterate peasant." (Bart D. Ehrman, Forged, p. 75). Israel had its own educational traditions, not beholden to Hellenistic prototypes, as for example the travelling law instructors of king Jehoshaphat's day:

"Also in the third year of his reign he sent his leaders, Ben-Hail, Obadiah, Zechariah, Nethanel, and Michaiah, to teach in the cities of Judah. And with them he sent Levites: Shemaiah, Nethaniah, Zebadiah, Asahel, Shemiramoth, Jehonathan, Adonijah, Tobijah, and Tobadonijah—the Levites; and with them Elishama and Jehoram, the priests. So they taught in Judah, and had the Book of the Law of the Lord with them; they went throughout all the cities of Judah and taught the people." (2 Chronicles 17:9).

Were the Jews behind the Greeks, or in advance? Do the Jewish sources testify in favor of this 'fact,' that 'Jewish' means 'illiterate'? Because the pagan Greeks and Romans had achieved a high degree of literacy, and many of their historians understood the principle of objectivity as well as do any of the moderns, they were driven to the myth of Jewish backwardness: "The people of highly civilized Greece, and of Rome the capital of the world, stood on an eminence which had not been reached in Galilee and Judaea." (David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Introduction, Kindle location 1704). Let's see if it's so.


Eyes Front

Youngsters in the synagogue elementary schools were expected to face the teacher, because,

  • “And though the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your teachers will not be moved into a corner anymore, but your eyes shall see your teachers.”
  • (Isaiah 30:20).

The religion of those whom Mohammed ibn Abdallah called "the people of the book" was helped along by literacy. God had commanded the Israelites to teach His law to their children:

"And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).

Obedience to these commands is made easier by, if it does not actually require, literacy. The point is reiterated in Joshua:

"This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success." (Joshua 1:8).

Flavius Josephus explains how important education was to his Jewish constituency:

"Our principal 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." (Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, Book 1, Chapter 12).

As he explains, this education is directed toward understanding the laws: "Nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the births of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess; but it ordains that the very beginning of our education should be immediately directed to sobriety. 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 might be nourished up in the laws from their infancy, and might neither transgress them, nor have any pretense for their ignorance of them." (Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, Book 2, Chapter 26). The aspiration that all children should be schooled was early expressed:

"The Palestinian Talmud reports the rule of Simeon ben Shetach about 100 BC that all children should go to school (y. Ket. 8.32c), and instruction in the Torah started early, according to both Philo and Josephus (Leg. Gai. 210; Apion 2:178)." (Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, Alan Millard, p. 157).

Psalm 78 likewise makes the point that the duty to inform the children rests upon their parents:

"For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments; and may not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not set its heart aright, and whose spirit was not faithful to God." (Psalm 78:5-8).

The message was not lost on the Jews of first century Palestine, who understood that Moses expected them to instruct their children:

“According to the statement of Josephus, Moses had already prescribed 'that boys should learn the most important laws, because this is the best knowledge and the cause of prosperity.'
'He commanded to instruct children in the elements of knowledge (reading and writing), to teach them to walk according to the laws, and to know the deeds of their forefathers. The latter, that they might imitate them; the former, that growing up with the laws they might not transgress them, nor have the excuse of ignorance.'”

(Schürer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 10375-10377). Capella Press.)

The case of America's 'Old Deluder Act' shows that literacy can seem valuable in people's eyes for reasons unrelated to the means of production, as was also the case with Scandinavia's anomalous early literacy. The pagans of classical antiquity valued literacy, and the believers valued it even more. Early Christian literature is filled with exhortations to read the scriptures:

"Be constant as well in prayer as in reading; now speak with God, now let God speak with you, let Him instruct you in His precepts, let Him direct you." (The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle 1, To Donatus, Section 15, Writings of Cyprian, Volume I, Ante-Nicene Christian Library, pp. 12-13).
"Let no day pass by without reading some portion of the Sacred Scriptures, at such convenient hour as offers, and giving some space to meditation. And never cast off the habit of reading in the Holy Scriptures; for nothing feeds the soul and enriches the mind so well as those sacred studies do." (The Epistle of Theonas, Bishop of Alexandria, To Lucianus, the Chief Chamberlain, Section 9, ECF p. 303).

This religious imperative influenced literacy rates in Israel.

The intent of 'critical' Bible study is to reduce the literacy rate in first century Palestine to a level where few would have found it within their skill-set to pen the New Testament documents, lest these documents be thought early and authentic: "Most people in the ancient world could not read. And those who could read often could not write. . .I'm not saying that just 1 percent of the population could do such a thing. I'm saying that far fewer than 1 percent of the population could do it." (Bart D. Ehrman. Forged, p. 72). The New Testament documents, you see, have to be late, whatever implausibilities we must believe to arrive at that result. While it's certainly true that the population capable of writing beautifully is a small subset of the literate population, nothing in the literary remains of antiquity supports such numbers. The reader who takes the time to study the evidence on ancient literacy will see for him or herself just how fatuous are such claims:


Roman Relief, Second Century, Teachers and Students

A Priori Desiderata
Reality It Takes a Village
School-houses Quintilian
Public Library Grants to Education
Normalcy Hellenic Civilization
Voting Child of Destiny
Liberal Education Old Deluder
A Father Set Free Caius and Caia
Down on the Farm Learned Slaves
Women's Literacy Enlightened Audience
Fame and Fortune The Public
Sign-board Fair Warning
Inscriptions Spare No Pains
Those Left Out Shorthand
Caesar's Army Small Print
Writing on the Wall Ordinary
Believe it or Not Barbarians

Eunice and Timothy

The message, that literacy was a key to unlocking the treasure-trove of scripture, was not lost on New Testament believers:

"But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 3:14-15).

Timothy's father was a Greek, not stated to be a believer (Acts 16:1). But Lois and Eunice made sure that Timothy knew the scriptures "from childhood."

Jesus tells "the Jews," "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me." (John 5:39). Sometimes in the gospel of John, 'the Jews' means the religious authorities specifically. Certainly Jesus thought that the people He was addressing were literate; how else could they "search the Scriptures"? If He intended His remarks for the people as a whole, then literacy must have been widespread.


The Talmud

Readers may protest the attention given in literacy discussions to Athens, one city among many in the ancient world. Even at the height of her political power, when she had subverted a mutual defense pact into an empire, she was never sole mistress even of Greece. Nevertheless, communities in the ancient world far from Athens were stamped in her mold. The degree of violence Hellenizers were willing to inflict to conform once independent societies to this pattern is revealed in the books of Maccabees. The Hellenizers brought the good and the bad: good things like Greek geometry alongside worthless things like pagan worship. Israel stoutly resisted. But for reasons of its own, Israel also valued literacy, and already had an elementary school system in the first century A.D.:

  • “So R. Jehudah said in the name of Rabh: May the memory of Joshua b. Gamla be blessed, for, were it not for him, Israel would have forgotten the Torah, as in former times the child who had a father was instructed by him; but the one that had not, did not learn at all. The reason is that they used to explain the verse [Deut. xi. 19]: 'And ye shall teach them to your children,' etc., literally--ye personally. It was therefore enacted that a school for the education of children in Jerusalem should be established, on the basis of the following verse [Is. ii. 3]: '. . . for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord out of Jerusalem.' And still the child who had a father was brought to Jerusalem and instructed; but the one who had not, remained ignorant. It was therefore enacted that such school should be established in the capitals of each province; but the children were brought when they were about sixteen or seventeen years of age, and when the lads were rebuked by their masters, they turned their faces and ran away. Then came Joshua b. Gamla, who enacted that schools should be established in all provinces and small towns, and that the children be sent to school at the age of six or seven years. . .”
  • (Babylonian Talmud, Tract Baba Bathra (Last Gate), Chapter II, p. 62 [21a]).

Though if taken literally this party flourished in the times of Alexander Jannaeus, he is stated by some commentators to be a first century figure. This compulsory education was the beneficiary of municipal expenditure:

"Raba said: Under the ordinance of Joshua ben Gamala. children are not to be sent [every day to school] from one town to another, but they can be compelled to go from one synagogue to another [in the same town]. If, however, there is a river in between, we cannot compel them. But if, again. there is a bridge, we can compel them — not, however, if it is merely a plank.

"Raba further said: The number of pupils to be assigned to each teacher is twenty-five. If there are fifty, we appoint two teachers. If there are forty, we appoint an assistant, at the expense of the town." (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra, 21a).

This same discussion brings up teachers in the alley-way or courtyard: "Come and hear: If two persons live in a courtyard and one of them desires to become a Mohel, a blood-letter, a tanner, or a teacher of children, the other can prevent him! — Here too the reference is to a teacher of non-Jewish children." (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra, 21a.). . .but explains those were for the Gentiles residing in the place. It would appear the Greeks pursued a municipal model of education, the Jews centered instruction around the synagogue, while the Romans pursued a free enterprise model: teachers in the alley-ways or booths or other low-rent locales charging a fee for their services. The Greeks criticized the Roman system for its patchwork character, but either model is viable: "Consider, in the first place, the national education of the people — a matter on which the Greeks have expended much labor in vain, and which is the only point on which Polybius, who settled among us, accuses the negligence of our institutions. For our countrymen have thought that education ought not to be fixed, nor regulated by laws, nor be given publicly and uniformly to all classes of society." (Cicero, Marcus Tullius (2014-01-09). On the Republic, Book IV, Chapter III, Fragments, Delphi Complete Works of Cicero (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 40969-40972).

According to Origen, Jewish children were educated in the scriptures: "Moreover, we also accept the observance of the following rule from them — it is their custom that all the Scriptures should be given to children by the teachers and the wise, and that at the same time those passages which they call deuteroseis should be held back to the last." (Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs, Prologue, p. 218). Whose responsibility was it to educate the children? The Greeks answered, the civic community. The Roman answer was the family, who then generally handed off the job to private entrepreneurs. The Jewish answer, it seems, was the synagogue.

It is alleged that there were 480 elementary schools in Jerusalem at the time of that city's destruction by Vespasian:

"There were 480 synagogues (batte kenesiot) in Jerusalem, each containing a bet ha-sefer, (primary school for the Scriptures), and a bet Talmud, for the study of the Law and the tradition; and Vespasian destroyed them all" (Yer. Meg. iii. 73d; Lam. R., Introduction 12, ii. 2; Pesik. xiv. 121b; Yer. Ket. xiii. 35c)." (quoted in article, Jewish Encyclopedia, 'Bet Ha-Midrash.'

Neither Jew nor Greek had achieved universal literacy, which cannot be had without laws against child labor and truancy. And the Rabbis' concern is that boys should be educated, not necessarily girls. But neither can the literate population in that day have been as small as the modern-day 'Jesus' industry represents. Progress in this metric is incremental, and where history grants us a glimpse, Jewish literacy is not seen to be the preserve of a tiny elite. The association between synagogues and schools is so close and unbreakable that the word for 'synagogue' in several European languages is 'school:' "This aspect of the synagogue persists in Jewry even today; the German, the Italian, and the Yiddish terms for synagogue is 'school' (Schule scuola, shul)." (Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings, p. 147). The connection goes back to our target period: "We are here speaking only of primary or elementary schools, such as even in the time of our Lord were attached to every synagogue in the land." (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ, Kindle location 1737).

"It has already been stated that in general the school was held in the synagogue. Commonly its teacher was the “chazan,” or “minister” (Luke 4:20); by which expression we are to understand not a spiritual office, but something like that of a beadle. This officer was salaried by the congregation; nor was he allowed to receive fees from his pupils, lest he should show favor to the rich. The expenses were met by voluntary and charitable contributions; and in case of deficiency the most distinguished Rabbis did not hesitate to go about and collect aid from the wealthy." (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ, pp. 105-106).

Tradition traces the origin of the synagogue back to the ten regulations of Ezra, but documenting this institution's actual time and place of origin is difficult. One need not look for a building dedicated to this purpose; just as a brush arbor will suffice for preaching the gospel, any public space will serve for the congregation to assemble and hear the law read. What is certain is that in the first century Philo Judaeus understands synagogue attendance to be the universal custom of Jews, as it likely had become in his day. While it would be anachronistic to back-date the synagogue to Moses' day, the assumption of the 'Jesus' publishing industry that the synagogue did not exist in the first century was not known to the well-travelled Philo:

"But they apprehended him, and led him away to the magistrate, with whom the priests were sitting as assessors; and the whole multitude collected together to hear the trial; for it was invariably the custom, as it was desirable on other days also, but especially on the seventh day, as I have already explained, to discuss matters of philosophy; the ruler of the people beginning the explanation, and teaching the multitude what they ought to do and to say, and the populace listening so as to improve in virtue, and being made better both in their moral character and in their conduct through life; in accordance with which custom, even to this day, the Jews hold philosophical discussions on the seventh day, disputing about their national philosophy, and devoting that day to the knowledge and consideration of the subjects of natural philosophy; for as for their houses of prayer in the different cities, what are they, but schools of wisdom, and courage, and temperance, and justice, and piety, and holiness, and every virtue, by which human and divine things are appreciated, and placed upon a proper footing?" (Philo Judaeus, Life of Moses, Book II, Chapter XXVII).

They started young: "He used to say: "One five years old should study Scripture; ten years—Mishna; thirteen years—should practise the commandments; fifteen years old—should study Gemara; eighteen years old—the bridal; at twenty—pursuits; at thirty—strength; at forty—discernment; at fifty—counsel. . ." (Pirke Aboth, Chapter V).

The Jewish Encyclopedia summarizes this history as,

"The founder of the system of elementary education was Simon ben Shetah (Yer. Ket. viii. 11, 32b). The school was not in immediate connection with the synagogue; but sessions were held either in a room of the synagogue or in the house of the teacher. The teachers ranked in the following order, namely, sage, scribe, hazzan (Sotah ix. 15). Between 63 and 65 C.E. Joshua ben Gamla reformed the system by constraining every community, no matter how small, to provide instruction for its children (B. B. 21a). In accordance with Oriental custom, the pupils sat on the ground in a semicircle about the teacher, who sat on a raised platform (Meg. 21a). The compensation of the teacher was not stipulated, but consisted of a restitution for loss of time." (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, Article Pedagogics).

When the synagogue was established is an open question. The Rabbis are partial to the fable that Moses established all their traditions, in a parallel oral teaching, while detractors of ancient literacy date the institution very late. But certainly by the time Psalm 74 was penned, "Your enemies roar in the midst of Your meeting place; they set up their banners for signs." (Psalm 74:8). 'Synagogue,' a Greek word, means 'meeting-house.' "They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues [moed] of God in the land." (Psalm 74:8 KJV). "The expression apparently has reference to synagogues (and this ought not to be disputed), as Aquila and Symmachus render the word." (Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament). Other commentators differ; perhaps the reference is rather to a similar institution of the same name. While critics deny there were many synagogues in the Holy Land during our period, the archaeological evidence being lacking, literary sources suggest there were plenty:

"Were there, however, no more [judges]? [Did not] R. Phinehas. in fact, state on the authority of R. Oshaia that there were three hundred and ninety four courts of law in Jerusalem, and an equal number of Synagogues. of Houses of Study and of schools? — Judges there were many, but we were speaking of Judges of Civil Law only." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kethuboth, 105a).

Thriceholy Radio


From 132-135 A.D., a Messianic aspirant who styled himself Simon Bar Kochba fought for the independence of Judaea from Rome. He lost and an appalling number of people were slaughtered in his defeat, which resulted in the Diaspora of the Jews. Reminiscences of the destroyed city of Bethar mention the many schools of that place:

"Rabbi Gamaliel said: 'There were five hundred schools in Bethar, and the smallest of them had no less than three hundred children. They used to say: "If the enemy comes against us, with these styluses we will go out and stab them." When, however, the people's sins did cause the enemy to come, they enwrapped each pupil in his book and burnt him, so that I alone was left.' He affected to himself the verse: Mine eye affecteth my soul, because of all the daughters of my city. [Lamentations 3.51.]" (Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.2§4)
"Rab Judah reported Samuel as saying in the name of rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel: 'What is signified by the verse, Mine eye affecteth my soul, because of all the daughters of my city? [Lamentations 3.51] There were four hundred synagogues in the city of Betar, and in every one were four hundred teachers of children, and each one had under him four hundred pupils, and when the enemy entered there, they pierced them with their staves, and when the enemy prevailed and captured them, they wrapped them in their scrolls and burnt them with fire." (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 58a).

Admittedly if anyone had gone around counting, it seems unlikely they would have come up with precisely 400 of everything, or 500, or whatever, nor come up with such an astronomical number for the pupil count. And inasmuch as Bethar was the doomed capital city of the false Messiah bar Kochba, the Rabbis' favorite imposter, there may well be an impetus to puffery. However, it is insulting to insist that the lamentations over a lost city focus on a quality the city never had at all. According to the modern 'Jesus' publishing industry, Bethar had hardly any schools because well less than 10% of the populace was literate. Why believe that, against all available testimony? What is clear from the story is that education was valued in Bethar. The sages' testimony is not free from hyperbole and exaggeration, as is well known: "On Raba remarking that this must be an exaggeration, Rav Ammi said the law, the prophets, and the sages are wont to use hyperbolical language." (Chullin, fol. 90, col. 2, Hebraic Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala, Kindle location 3327). But the 'Jesus' scholars are not correcting for possible exaggeration, they are denying all of it, making it to be the very reverse of the truth.

Incidentally, as to the project of using the writing stylus as a weapon, this has been done: "Within my memory the people in the forum stabbed Tricho [or Erixo], a Roman knight, with their writing-styles because he had flogged his son to death; Augustus Caesar's authority barely rescued him from the indignant hands of fathers no less than of sons." (Seneca, On Mercy, Book I). Others who reportedly lost their lives in this fashion include Quintus Antyllius (Plutarch, Life of Caius Grachhus, Section 13). Perhaps the advocates of widespread ancient illiteracy can explain how a mob could quickly gather in a public place armed with the sharp writing stylus (for inscribing a wax tablet) if, as they claim, hardly anyone was literate. Truth to tell, some of these stylus-attacks are patently set-ups, and the weapon more accurately called a 'shiv,' but a case where an outraged mob spontaneously attacks with this implement in hand does testify to widespread literacy.

After Bar Kochba's failure, the repressive measures adopted by the Roman government included criminalizing instruction in the Law, presumably precipitating decline from the high point once achieved. Who was this man, and why did Rabbi Akiba endorse his Messianic claim?:



The wise men of the mislabeled 'Enlightenment' used to explain that Moses cannot have written the Pentateuch either in whole or in part because a written Hebrew language did not exist at that time, meaning by this that archaeology had as of yet unearthed no exemplar of such writing contemporary with the date of the Exodus. This information, repeated by clueless Internet atheists, is grossly outdated; whole libraries have come to light in the meantime of allied Semitic languages. If the Hebrews could not write, they were the only people in the region who labored under any such disability. People of this tendency do not take the Bible as evidence of any sort, even rebuttable evidence, rather, they proceed as if each historical assertion made in the Bible must be independently proved if it is to be believed at all. The Bible asserts, Moses could write, or at any rate he is instructed to do so:

“Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.'”  (Exodus 17:14).

As already noted, Moses' law code incorporates commands from time to time to write certain things down, as "Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water." (Numbers 5:23), prescriptions of uncertain utility if no one could write at the time. Moses, raised by Pharaoh's daughter, would have been literate in the Egyptian language; there is nothing implausible in supposing a similar facility in proto-Hebrew; it may be he was the Carmentia of this young tongue.


Youth of Succoth

The Book of Judges describes conditions in Israel prior to the establishment of the monarchy, showing how surprisingly close in practice theocracy can come to anarchy. While it is not likely literacy was widespread in that chaotic period, what are the odds someone caught at random would turn out to be competent to write out a list? Not nil:

"And he caught a youth of the men of Succoth, and inquired of him; and he wrote down for him the chief men of Succoth, and the elders thereof, seventy-seven men." (Judges 8:14, Darby translation).

The Hebrew word here, 'kathab,' literally means to write though some translators infer it to mean rather that the young man recited the names while Gideon caused them to be written down. The translators of the Greek Septuagint, however, thought that 'write' meant 'write:' "And he took prisoner a young lad of the men of Socchoth, and questioned him; and he wrote [απεγραψατο] to him the names of the princes of Socchoth and of their elders, seventy-seven men. " (Brenton Septuagint, Judges 8:14).



Another Rabbinic encouragement to mass literacy is the claim that Hezekiah, King of Israel prior to the exile, employed the sword to cut down on truancy:

  • “R. Isaac, the Smith, said: [This means,] the yoke of Sennacherib shall be destroyed on account of the oil of Hezekiah, which burnt in the synagogues and schools. What did he do? — He planted a sword by the door of the schoolhouse and proclaimed, 'He who will not study the Torah will be pierced with the sword.' Search was made from Dan unto Beer Sheba, and no ignoramus was found; from Gabbath unto Antipris, and no boy or girl, man or woman was found who was not thoroughly versed in the laws of cleanliness and uncleanliness.”
  • (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 94b).

Though this is not very likely to be an accurate description of conditions under the ancient king Hezekiah, it certainly does show that, as of the time of writing, someone had made the obvious connection between mass literacy and conformance to the law. It remains to be explained why, even knowing this, the community could still only achieve miniscule literacy rates, as is claimed by modern-day detractors.


Scroll of the Law

During the persecution of Judaism under "king Antiochus," one of the Hellenistic successors to Alexander the Great, scrolls of the law were confiscated:

"And when they had rent in pieces the books of the law which they found, they burnt them with fire.
And whosoever was found with any the book of the testament, or if any committed to the law, the king’s commandment was, that they should put him to death." (1 Maccabees 1:56-57).

Josephus confirms this: "And if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed, and those with whom they were found miserably perished also." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, Chapter 5, Section 4, p. 762) How many of these would they have found to burn? It is difficult to say. Not a small number, though, while the temple stood:

"After this, every one brought a scroll of the Torah from home and read it for himself. Why did they bring them? To show to the whole world that they had scrolls (and loved religion)." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume Vi., Section Moed, Tractate Yoma, [70a], Chapter VII, kindle location 24428).

Who is 'each' or 'every one'? To what sphere of the population does this refer? Every high priest? Every priest? Every one of the people gathered in the Temple court? It seems likely at this time that at least some private residences treasured at least a partial copy of the holy scriptures, implying also the ability to read.


Philo Judaeus

Philo Judaeus was an exponent of education to a fault; he was even capable of advancing allegorical interpretations of scripture in which Old Testament characters are identified with 'encyclical instruction' and similarly unlikely things:

"But we must give our belief to another woman, such as it was ordained that Sarah should be, Sarah being in a figure the governing virtue; and the wise Abraham was guided by her, when she recommended him such actions as were good. [Genesis 21:12.] For before this time, when he was not yet perfect, but even before his name was changed, he gave his attention to subjects of lofty philosophical speculation; and she, knowing that he could not produce anything out of perfect virtue, counselled him to raise children out of her handmaid, that is to say out of encyclical instruction, out of Agar, [Genesis 16:2] which name being interpreted means a dwelling near; for he who meditates dwelling in perfect virtue, before his name is enrolled among the citizens of that state, dwells among the encyclical studies, in order that through their instrumentality he may make his approaches at liberty towards perfect virtue." (Philo Judaeus, Allegorical Interpretation, Book III, Chapter LXXXVII).

Kindly note, I'm not suggesting it is a plausible interpretation of Genesis to understand 'Hagar' as the basic instructional curriculum; however, it is apparent that the man who came up with this interpretation perceived a link between instruction and virtue. This implies a positive valuation of literacy.

In this passage, he expresses the common assumption that it's the responsibility of parents to educate their children, for which benefaction the children are to be grateful:

  • "For who can be more completely the benefactors of their children than parents, who have not only caused them to exist, but have afterwards thought them worthy of food, and after that again of education both in body and soul, and have enabled them not only to live, but also to live well; training their body by gymnastic and athletic rules so as to bring it into a vigorous and healthy state, and giving it an easy way of standing and moving not without elegance and becoming grace, and educating the soul by letters, and numbers, and geometry, and music, and every kind of philosophy which may elevate the mind which is lodged in the mortal body and conduct it up to heaven, and can display to advantage the blessed and happy qualities that are in it, producing an admiration of and a desire for an unchangeable and harmonious system, which they will afterwards never leave if they preserve their obedience to their captain."
  • (Philo Judaeus, 'A Treatise on the Honor Commanded To Be Paid to Parents,' III)

He sees this, not only a desideratum, but as something achieved:

"Accordingly Petronius, when he had read what he was commanded to do in this letter, was in great perplexity, not being able to resist the orders sent to him out of fear, for he heard that the emperor's wrath was implacable not only against those who did not do what they were commanded to do, but who did not do it in a moment; and on the other hand, he did not see how it was easy to perform them, for he knew that the Jews would willingly, if it were possible, endure ten thousand deaths instead of one, rather than submit to see any forbidden thing perpetrated with respect to their religion; for all men are eager to preserve their own customs and laws, and the Jewish nation above all others; for looking upon their laws as oracles directly given to them by God himself, and having been instructed in this doctrine from their very earliest infancy they bear in their souls the images of the commandments contained in these laws as sacred; and secondly, as they continually behold the visible shapes and forms of them, they admire and venerate them in their minds and they admit such foreigners as are disposed to honor and worship them, to do so no less than their own native fellow citizens." (Philo Judaeus, Embassy to Gaius (Caligula), Chapter XXXI).

Philo's infatuation with education was, if it can be believed, even exceeded by some of the Rabbis, who make literacy a sine qua non for eternal life: "R. Eleazar said; The illiterate will not be resurrected, for it is said in Scripture, The dead will not live etc. So it was also taught: The dead will not live." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kethuboth 111b.) Certainly this snobbish attitude has nothing to recommend itself from a religious perspective, but it is readily apparent how it might serve as a spur to education. They believe instruction in virtue must at some point produce the reality of what is presented:

"But those who are instructed have many more opportunities of prayer than those who are destitute of teachers, and those who are well initiated in encyclical accomplishments have more opportunities than those who are unmusical and illiterate, inasmuch as they from their childhood almost have been imbued with all the lessons of virtue, and temperance, and all kinds of excellence. Wherefore, even if they have not entirely got rid of and effaced old marks of iniquity so as to wear a completely clean appearance, at least they have purified themselves in a reasonable and moderate degree." (Philo Judaeus, On the Change of Names, Chapter XL).

What Philo and the Rabbis are envisioning is a similar paradigm to what certain pagan philosophers were pushing. While the appeal to common sense is immediate, that instruction ought to be strongly correlated with achievement, such a correlation is not always found. In Philo's defense, he does propose a race of the virtuous who are 'self-taught.' Philo is in the end a charismatic: "Yet when God causes the young shoots of self-inspired wisdom to spring up within the soul, the knowledge that comes from teaching must straightway be abolished and swept off. Ay, even of itself it will subside and ebb away. God's scholar, God's pupil, God's disciple, call him by whatever name you will, cannot any more suffer the guidance of men." (Philo Judaeus, The Sacrifices of Abel and Cain, Chapter XXIII, p. 155 Loeb edition).


Military Man

A sixth century Israeli indignantly rejected the implication he could not read:

"In a letter written on an ostracon in the sixth century, when Israelite culture was securely established, an officer replies to a superior who had apparently accused him of not understanding a previous communication. 'Your servant has been sick at heart ever since you sent that letter to your servant,' he writes, cut to the quick. 'In it my lord said, "Don't you know how to read a letter?" As Yahweh lives, no one has ever had to read me a letter! Moreover, when any letter comes to me and I have read it, I can repeat it down to the smallest detail.'" (Alpha Beta, by John Man, p. 152).

This shows literacy at this early period to be the possession of more than a small professional fraternity of scribes.


Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

This late work, either written or edited by Jewish Christians, recommends literacy on the part of Levites:

"And do ye also teach your children learning, that they may have understanding in all their life, reading unceasingly the law of God; for every one who shall know the law of God shall be honored, and shall not be a stranger wheresoever he goeth. Yea, many friends shall he gain more than his forefathers; and many men shall desire to serve him, and to hear the law from his mouth. Work righteousness, my children, upon the earth, that ye may find treasure in the heavens, and sow good things in your souls, that ye may find them in your life." (Testament of Levi, Chapter 13, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs).

This is hardly surprising; literacy is needed to get the job done.



Offering a purely speculative reason for the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabbi Hamnuna says,

"R. Hamnuna said: 'Jerusalem was not destroyed until the children were kept away from school, as it is written [Jeremiah vi. 11]: "(I must) pour it out over the child in the street;' and it may be explained thus: Why must I pour it out? Because the child is in the street and not at school.'" (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume 2, Tract Sabbath, Chapter XVI, Kindle location 6170).

This suggests an expectation on the part of the speaker that a child belongs in school, not on the street. Another source agrees with this diagnosis:

"Resh Lakish said again in the name of the same authority [R. Jehudah the Second]: 'The children should not be withheld from attending school, even while the new temple shall be in process of construction.' Said Resh Lakish to R. Jehudah the Second: 'I have heard a tradition coming from thy parents which says, that the city which has no school for children shall be destroyed; but Rabhina says, the tradition is to the effect that the high court shall put the city under a ban (until a school is built for children.'" (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume 2, Tract Sabbath, Chapter XVI, Kindle location 6189).

This presupposes some ideal of enforcement of childhood education. The Talmud is later than our period of interest, though its testimony remains valuable, because literacy rates cannot have sky-rocketed from next to nothing to near-universal male literacy in  a fortnight. The 'Jesus Publishing Industry' must have Palestinian literacy rates of less than 5 percent, otherwise there is nothing implausible in the traditional assignment of authorship to the gospels, and this really cannot be rationalized in light of the evidence.


Signed and Sealed

A passing reference in the first book of Maccabees suggests that written contracts for commercial transactions were the norm not the exception, already in the second century B.C.:

"In the year 170 (142 B.C.), Israel was released from the gentile yoke. The people began to write [ο λαος γραφειν] on their contracts and agreements, 'In the first year of Simon, the great high priest, general and leader of the Jews.'" (1 Maccabees 13:41-42).

If this was an 'oral culture' as the Jesus Publishing Industry insists, wouldn't written contracts be the preserve of a tiny sliver of society, and not necessarily that sliver enthused about Simon's victory?

The author of the deuterocanonical work Ecclesiasticus advises getting it in writing: "When you make a deposit, see that it is counted and weights, and when you give or receive, have it all in writing [εν γραφη]." (Ecclesasticus 42:7). How this is to be achieved in an 'oral culture,' he doesn't say.

Somebody took this advice to heart, it would seem, because the scanty written remains recovered from Palestine by archaeologists include commercial contracts: "The work of ordinary scribes survives in collections of papyri secreted in caves by the Dead  Sea during the Second (Bar Kochba) Revolt. They include legal deeds, which, although mostly written after AD 70, can justifiably be seen as continuing older practices and so reflecting the activities of previous decades. They deal with gifts and sales of property, loans and receipts, marriage and divorce." (Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, pp. 91-92).

It's interesting to realize that Roman law, like Jewish law, looked for full disclosure: "Fraud, then, ought to be wanting not only in contracts, in which the defects of those things which are for sale are ordered to be recorded (which contracts, unless the vendor has mentioned the defects, are rendered void by an action for fraud, although he has conveyed them fully to the purchaser), but it ought also to be absent in all else." (Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Book 3, Chapter 10, Section 66). A written contract gives protection for both buyer and seller.

Even early on, business dealings like the transfer of title to real estate were expected to be in writing:

“‘Men will buy fields for money, sign deeds and seal them, and take witnesses, in the land of Benjamin, in the places around Jerusalem, in the cities of Judah, in the cities of the mountains, in the cities of the lowland, and in the cities of the South; for I will cause their captives to return,’ says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 32:44).

Though the Talmud is somewhat later than our period, an accused person also has the right to demand the charges be reduced to writing: "However, if there was a  necessity to question the assembly, they might write and send it in writing. And also, if the defendant demands, 'Write down the reason why you accused me, and give it to me,' he may be listened to." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume XV, Tract Sanhedrin, Chapter III, Kindle location 61040).

When the unjust steward summoned the master's creditors, they wrote out the current state of their accounts:

“So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’” (Luke 16:5-7).

This parable has always perplexed Christian readers, because it seems to endorse dishonesty. In any event, none of the creditors asked leave to sign with an 'X' and let the master determine how much was still owed; that wouldn't be very smart, would it?


Son of a Carpenter

Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed in the gospels (Luke 4:16-17) as literate. The savants of the 'Jesus Seminar,' like John Dominic Crossan, scoff, assuring us that no carpenter could have been literate. The same author, however, does not conclude that Paul was illiterate because he was a tent-maker, nor that the Rabbis were illiterate because in the main they also pursued trades. The early Christians, like Tertullian, were contemptuous of the apocrypha because of its fictive character, though the 'Jesus Seminar' insist this literature is of the same character and reliability as the orthodox gospels. One particularly appalling example of the genre gives us Jesus' early education:

"There was also at Jerusalem one named Zaccheus, who was a schoolmaster. And he said to Joseph, Joseph, why dost thou not send Jesus to me, that he may learn his letters? Joseph agreed, and told St. Mary; so they brought him to that master; who, as soon as he saw him, wrote out an alphabet for him. And he bade him say Aleph; and when he had said Aleph, the master bade him pronounce Beth. . .Then said Joseph to St. Mary, henceforth we will not allow him to go out of the house; for every one who displeases him is killed." (I. Infancy, Chapter XX, The Lost Books of the Bible, p. 57).

One is forced to agree with Tertullian's evaluation of this genre of literature. The quality of this author's imagination is repellent and gangrenous; he envisions the young Christ as a Dennis-the-Menace, but with divine powers, and thus a threat to the community's well-being. Needless to say this work has no historical value. But, contra Crossan, it does show the reading public in the empire had no problem with the idea of a literate Jesus. Had there been any difficulty, as he claims, the authors could have passed it over in silence as an embarrassment. Rather, this author is troubled only by the thought Jesus would have had to learn his ABC's like the other students. Why did it take two thousand years for anyone to notice there is a problem with a carpenter's literacy?

Not only could Jesus read, many read about him, "Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin." (John 19:19-20). John does not say that many saw the title but were unable to read it, but that many read the title. The striking confession in this title may have been intended only in mockery by Pilate, but is nonetheless true to the letter.


Flavius Josephus

Flavius Josephus is a morally ambiguous character who at one time held the leadership of the Jewish resistance to Roman rule in Galilee. By his own account, however, he was not trying too hard to accomplish his mission. His Judaism, which centered around hereditary priesthood and the temple, is so totally extinct that people today cannot really grasp his point of view. Those who want to put a red beret atop the heads of the deceived deceivers of the day, and pose it at a jaunty Che Guevara angle, cannot abide his dislike of these 'freedom fighters,' whose achievement in the end resembles more that of Jim Jones of Jonestown than of George Washington. One thing worth noting, regardless, is that he was a talented youngster who received encouragement from everybody:

"I was myself brought up with my brother, whose name was Matthias, for he was my own brother, by both father and mother; and I made mighty proficiency in the improvements of my learning, and appeared to have both a great memory and understanding. Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law; and when I was about sixteen years old, I had a mind to make trial of the several sects that were among us." (Life of Flavius Josephus, Chapter 2, p. 1, The Complete Works of Josephus).

I don't suppose the learned men felt they needed to know his opinion, but they made a fuss over him anyway. This is not characteristic of the 'agrarian' societies envisaged by the Jesus Seminar. If only a tiny elite perched atop the population can ever become literate, a huge amount of talent must of necessity go to waste, and who could ever invest any energy in regret? Fussing over a talented child is the kind of thing the ancient Romans used to do, and. . .oh, I'm forgetting they were almost entirely illiterate too.

One interesting fact Josephus records about the Jewish rebellion, is the zealots' revival of the ancient practice of filling offices by casting lots,

"Hereupon they sent for one of the pontifical tribes, which is called Eniachim, and cast lots which of it should be the high priest. By fortune the lot so fell as to demonstrate their iniquity after the plainest manner, for it fell upon one whose name was Phannias, the son of Samuel, of the village Aphtha. He was a man not only unworthy of the high priesthood, but that did not well know what the high priesthood was, such a mere rustic was he!" (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book IV, Chapter 3, Section 8).

Whether assigning office by lot is a good idea or a bad idea, it is clear from Josephus' contempt for Phannias, which he expects the reader to share, that it was not taken for granted at the time that a priest should be anything other than a learned man. This attitude is commonly expressed in the literature of a day; the apocryphal testament of Levi instructs,

"So now, my sons, teach writing and discipline and wisdom to your children, so that wisdom may be their perpetual glory, for the one who learns wisdom shall have glory through it. But whoever disdains wisdom becomes an object of scorn. Consider, my sons, my brother Joseph, who teaches writing and discipline and wisdom." (The Words of Levi, Dead Sea Scrolls, Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook, p. 257).

It is understandable that the Levites, the teachers of Israel, should teach "writing" to their children, because it is an acquired skill without which they cannot do their assigned job; it is less understandable how people like Bart Ehrman can expect to get away with assigning a literacy rate of 1 or 2 per cent to first century Israel. While exhortation is one thing and acquisition another, the reader should note the futility of exhorting people to acquire a skill to which only a tiny percentage were born entitled, in their imagined 'agrarian society.'


Court Clerks

While the evidence of the Talmud comes from a later period, courts were expected to have clerks, just like our courts:

"Then, a further two clerks, two sheriffs, two litigants, two witnesses, two zomemim, and two to refute the zomemim, gives a hundred and fourteen in all. Moreover, it has been taught: A scholar should not reside in a city where the following ten things are not found: A court of justice that imposes flagellation and decrees penalties; a charity fund collected by two and distributed by three; a Synagogue; public baths; a convenience; a circumciser; a surgeon, a notary; a slaughterer and a school-master." (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 17b.)

Why? To make note of the proceedings, presumably.



To judge the social dynamics of the Jewish Revolt by Josephus' account, the ranks of the insurgents were not filled with the wealthy, most of whom either sympathized with or were resigned to Roman sovereignty. So the Sicarii who gathered, and died, at Masada are not likely to belong to the top tier economically. Were they literate? The archaeological record shows that some certainly were. People in antiquity used broken pottery shards as a kind of free and plentiful note-paper, and fortunately they stand up to weathering better than do other writing materials.

"The greatest number of ostraca comes from Masada, all assigned to the time of the First Revolt. They are brief, some extremely brief, messages; over two dozen require the issue of bread on specific days to named individuals, some others are five or six lines long, one pleading for repayment of a debt.. . .Names were also painted on pottery vessels to mark ownership, such as Joseph, Johanan (=John), Saul, while on other pots were notes of their contents, 'pressed dates,' 'fish,' 'dough.'" (Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, pp. 94-96).

Some of Masada's defenders were bilingual, giving orders in Greek,

"Ostraca may withstand the elements better than papyri, although the ink may be washed off, and, in fact, some 20 Greek ostraca were uncovered on Masada and attributed to the period of the First Revolt (66-73/4). They are brief orders for supplying wheat or barley, such as 'Give seven measures of wheat to the donkey drivers, for baking' (or 'for the kitchen'), lists of names with sums of money beside them, single names and letters of the alphabet in order." (Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, p. 116)

Who were the people expected to give grain to the donkey drivers? The upper crust of society?

The record of Jewish literacy on broken pottery goes back to pre-exilic times,

"Another piece of evidence of the time is an ostracon found at Mesad Hashavyahu, a small fort near Yavneh-Yam on the coast. It is a letter of a wronged peasant to the officer of the fort, and it shows how the social laws of the Bible were reflected in contemporary life during the reign of Josiah. (Archaeology of the Bible: Book by Book, by Gaalyah Cornfeld and David Noel Freedman, p. 134)

How striking that a wronged peasant, at this early date, could find the means to petition his government for a redress of grievances!


Reader's Digest

Is it permissible to prepare a scroll containing excerpts from the Law for the edification of young scholars? The Rabbis are of two minds on this point:

"Abaye asked Rabbah: Is it permitted to write out a scroll [containing a passage] for a child to learn from? This is a problem alike for one who holds that the Torah was transmitted [to Moses] scroll by scroll, and for one who holds that the Torah was transmitted entire. It is a problem for one who holds that the Torah was transmitted scroll by scroll: since it was transmitted scroll by scroll, may we also write separate scrolls, or do we say that since it has all been joined together it must remain so? It is equally a problem for one who holds that the Torah was transmitted entire: since it was transmitted entire, is it improper to write [separate scrolls], or do we say that since we cannot dispense with this we do write them? — He replied: We do not write. What is the reason? — Because we do not write." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin 60a).

The concept being, since God delivered it as a unit, so it must remain, lest we add to or subtract from scripture. What is clear is that there was a demand: somebody wanted to prepare such scrolls to facilitate childhood education. And some Rabbis saw no problem with such excerpts:

"On this point Tannaim differ [as we were taught]: 'A scroll should not be written for a child to learn from; if, however, it is the intention of the writer to complete it, he may do so. R. Judah says: He may write from Bereshith to [the story of the generation of the] Flood, or in the Priests' Law up to, And it came to pass on the eighth day.'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin 60a).

Some of the Rabbis point out that the Torah must have occupied multiple scrolls from its first writing down, as indeed must have been the case.



In the Babylonian Talmud, a speaker identified only as Rabha explains that male literacy was near-universal in his day, not like in "ancient times:"

"GEMARA: Rabha said: Great Halakhoth can be inferred from the custom of saying Hallel: From the custom of our time, when almost all men can read the Hallel themselves, nevertheless they repeat the beginnings of the chapters after the reader, we may infer what are the essential portions of Hallel, and how it was done in the ancient times, when the people could not read themselves, and a man was wanted to read it, for them to repeat after him." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume VII, Section Moed, Tract Succah, Chapter III, Kindle location 29463).

This same tractate goes on to identify "Rabha" as a contemporary of Abayi; they hold a conversation: "Abayi said to Rabha: Why do we use the Lulab all the seven days. . .Rabha answered: We use the willow tied with the Lulab together all the seven days. Rejoined Abayi: But we use it not for the sake of the willow. . ." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume VII, Section Moed, Tract Succah, Chapter IV, Kindle location 29658). This brings us to the third-fourth century A.D., rather far from our period of interest; still, knowing that Jews had achieved universal male literacy by this period should serve as a brake to assumptions of universal illiteracy a few centuries prior.

Looking back to the first and second centuries, it was certainly not impossible for an adult male to be illiterate; Rabbi Akiba was illiterate up until middle age:

"For how did R. Aqiba begin his wonderful career? (Was it not in the manner hinted in the above words?) It has been said that when he was forty years old he had not learned yet anything. (At that age however, he conceived the idea of applying himself to study.). . .He at once turned to the study of the Law. He and his son went to a school were children were instructed, and addressed one of the teachers: 'Master, teach me Torah.' Aqiba and his son took hold of the slate, and the teacher wrote upon it the alphabet, and he quickly learned it; and then wrote it in the reversed order, and learned as fast; then he learned the Book of Leviticus, and proceeded from one book to the other, until he finished the study of the Bible." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume 9, Tract Aboth, Chapter I, Kindle location 37164).

So male illiteracy was still possible; still, the percentage cannot have been as represented, because, just as you cannot turn the Queen Mary in a tight radius, so you cannot change a huge social variable like literacy in a heartbeat. In the tractate touching on oaths, there seems an assumption of universal schooling,

"Said Abayi: Rabbi holds that elementary knowledge is considered, i.e., the knowledge one learns in school when yet a child (e.g., he learned that he who toucheth an unclean thing becomes defiled). Said R. Papa to him: According to this theory, how can we find a case in which he was unaware before? And he answered: It may be found with him who was captured by heathens while he was still an infant, and was brought up by them." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume 17, Tract Shebuoth, Chapter 1, Kindle location 68265).

If, to discuss a hypothetical unschooled person, one must theorize about someone kidnapped by heathen, then it seems like the goal was ultimately achieved! The goal, while yet unachieved, cannot have been unheard of or unthought of, even in our earlier period.



There have always been illiterates: "And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned." (Isaiah 29:12). Entire population groups have been neglected. What about women's literacy? Unfortunately it lagged throughout this period; however the situation was by no means as bleak as is sometimes represented. The situation amongst the Jews mirrored that in the larger society: "Before passing to an account of elementary schools, it may be well, once and for all, to say that the Rabbis did not approve of the same amount of instruction being given to girls as to boys. . .The unkindest thing, perhaps, which they said on this score was, 'Women are of a light mind;'  though in its oft repetition the saying almost reads like a semi-jocular way of cutting short a subject on which discussion is disagreeable." (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ, p. 103). They were unsympathetic, sometimes aggressively so: "He answered her: There is no wisdom in woman except with the distaff." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, 66b.):

Pompeii, The Baker and His Wife

Women's Literacy
Cleobuline Sappho
Phaedra Daphne
Pindar's Relative Hestiaea
Agallis Among the Scythians
Eurydice Aspasia
Pythagoras' Mother Leontion
Telesilla Megisto
Polycrite Corinna
Praxilla Lovers' Leap
Anyte Kratesiklea
Sophonis Timoxena
Love-Letters Philenium
Hortensia Virginia
Attica Caecilius's Girlfriend
Neaera Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi
Sulpicia Heroides
Cleopatra Perilla
Thisbe Caenis
Persinna Sempronia
Cornelia, Pompey's wife Pompeia
Caligula's Sisters Detractors
Cydippe Calpurnia
Fundanus' Daughter Verania
Saturninus' Wife Marcia
Callirhoe Manto
Leucippe Melite
Rectina Baker's Wife
On the Wall Aurelia
Midwives Zenobia
Vivia Perpetua Domitia
Sosipatra Julia Domna
Hypatia Chrysanthius' Melite
Bassula Serena

One literate Jewish woman from our period is Doris, Herod's wife, the mother of Antipater. Unlike Mariamne, his Hasmonaean queen, Doris was of no noble descent. But she wrote letters: "And also the letters of the mother of Antipater are read, in which she had written to her son, that he should be aware of the picture of his crimes that had been presented to his father; he ought by no means to be present, unless somehow his hand should be summoned by Caesar, with whose protection he should wall himself round, nor should he commit to judicial investigation who was assailed by the confessions of so many but should defend himself with arms." (Pseudo-Hegesippus, Book 1, p. 114). The resort of the detractors against women's literacy when presented with letters written by women, of which a vast quantity survive from antiquity, is that these women went to their local Kinko's and dictated the letters. No doubt some of them did. But noticing that the letters cited above counsel high treason, would it really be a good idea to dictate them? This is why my page on women's literacy concentrates on compromising documents. Or better yet: 'Scribe, come here and taken a letter. Then I'll have to kill you.' Wouldn't that be an excuse to dawdle.

Hypatia's Bookshelf

Another outlier group are the slaves. The percentage of the Palestinian Jewish population who had fallen into slavery would seem to have been smaller than for the empire at large. The percentage of slaves in the population of the holy land was less than one third, presumably owing to Moses' institution of the sabbatical year, "An official document of the year AD 71 shows that in one region where the fiscal authorities counted three hundred and eighty-five tax-payers, all these people together owned no more than forty-four slaves, that is to say, one slave between nine of them." (Henri Jules Charles Petiot, Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ, p. 141.)

People taken into captivity by military conquest retained whatever literacy capacity they had attained while at liberty, but those born into this condition could not, in general, expect many resources to be devoted to their schooling. There are exceptions; it may be that an imperial power makes it a policy to raise up, in order to co-opt, ethnic elites. Thus, even in an earlier day and under an alien empire, Daniel and his friends were educated by their captors:

"Then the king instructed Ashpenaz, the master of his eunuchs, to bring some of the children of Israel and some of the king’s descendants and some of the nobles, young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans. . .As for these four young men, God gave them knowledge and skill in all literature and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams." (Daniel 1:3-17).

"Notice that all those who have made a deep impression on the world, and have shone most brightly, have been men who lived in a dark day. Look at Joseph. He was sold as a slave into Egypt by the Ishmaelites. Yet he took his God with him into captivity just as Daniel later did." (D. L. Moody, The Overcoming Life, Kindle location 648). Just as they took their God with them, they took also their literacy status. Some slave-owners were forward-looking enough to develop the wealth of human resources they found in the slave-quarters, but most, one strongly suspects, did not. So, as will be seen, slaves as a group were not entirely illiterate, though their literacy rate was not in line with the free-born:

Meno Grammarian Slaves
Human Resources One Third
Great Emancipator Servius Tullius
Phaedo Epictetus
Prohibition Braggart Soldier
Arms Control Sparta
Bookkeeping First Generation
Peevishness Shepherd of Hermas

Hazarding a guess, my best estimate of the literacy rate for the larger, Gentile society was 25% or so. Certainly the great majority of residents were illiterate; notice how Hippocrates, an early Greek physician, seems to assume most people are not literate and thus cannot access medical literature:

"And most especially, it appears to me, that whoever treats of this art should treat of things which are familiar to the common people. For of nothing else will such a one have to inquire or treat, but of the diseases under which the common people have labored, which diseases and the causes of their origin and departure, their increase and decline, illiterate persons cannot easily find out themselves, but still it is easy for them to understand these things when discovered and expounded by others. For it is nothing more than that every one is put in mind of what had occurred to himself. But whoever does not reach the capacity of the illiterate vulgar and fails to make them listen to him, misses his mark." (Hippocrates, On Ancient Medicine, Chapter 2, p. 140).

If the illiterate were a small minority, why would Hippocrates establish it as his 'mark' to reach them? However modern secular Bible scholarship woefully low-balls ancient literacy, both Jewish and Gentile. More than that, they have introduced fanciful ideas of their own, like that ancient readers could not tell the difference between fact and fiction and did not much care whether what they were reading fell into one category or the other. How likely is that? Perjury was a criminal offense under the Mosaic law, as also under Greek and Roman law, which is odd when you stop to consider the modern claim that these people had no conceptual framework within which to distinguish between fact and fable:

Moses Twelve Tables
Untangling the Threads Fact-Checking
Seth Speaks Quintilian
Self-Incrimination Pythagoras
Who's Zooming Who? Historiography
False Musaeus Jerome's Vulgate
Publishing Contract

Not only is falsification an issue in criminal cases, commercial life cannot go on smoothly if people are making it up as they go along. And there were, of course, measures taken to safeguard the integrity of the process:

"But [is there no reason] to apprehend that he might forge [the lower section of the folded deed] and enter whatever he wished [after] the witnesses had signed? — 'Firm and established', is entered on it. Is [there, however, no reason] to apprehend that he might enter whatever he wished and then write a second time, 'firm and established'? — [The formula], 'firm and established', is entered [only] once, not twice." (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra, 160b).

Realizing that there is an entire 'Jesus Publishing Industry' trying to put the idea across that people in the ancient world could not even conceptualize the difference between an accurate narrative and a made-up story, it is hard to see how they can have taken rational measures to prevent forgery, like the Rabbis' concluding line below which additional information cannot be entered. But if, as is plainly the case, they clearly realized fraud was wrong, just as they realized perjury was wrong, how can they have been unable to perceive that truth is one thing, fiction is another?


James Son of Zebedee

This next author is pretending to be James, the son of Zebedee, although he certainly is not:

"Since you asked that I send you a secret book which was revealed to me and Peter by the Lord, I could not turn you away or gainsay (?) you; but [I have written] it in the Hebrew alphabet and sent it to you, and you alone. . . .I also sent you, ten months ago, another secret book which the Savior had revealed to me. Under the circumstances, however, regard that one as revealed to me, James; but this one [untranslatable fragments] the twelve disciples [were] all sitting together and recalling what the Savior had said to each one of them, whether in secret or openly, and [putting it] in books — [But I] was writing that which was in [my book] — lo, the Savior appeared, [after] departing from [us while we] gazed after him." (The Apocryphon of James, The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson, p. 30).

This gnostic account of a post-resurrection appearance by the Lord carries no more weight of authenticity than the other constituents of this genre, which is to say, basically none. Notice however that the author, whoever he is, finds it plausible and believes his readers will find it plausible that this group of Jewish men should be able to write a book in Hebrew and jot down their reminiscences in a book. This person, a bona fide inhabitant of the ancient world though not really one of the twelve, finds credible what is today widely thought incredible.

This issue of the literacy rate in first century Palestine is no mere arm-chair speculation. It is the capstone of the arch of modern secular Bible scholarship; the apostles had to have been illiterate, lest the gospels be early and authentic: "It would most unquestionably be an argument of decisive weight in favor of the credibility of the biblical history, could it indeed be shown that it was written by eye-witnesses, or even by persons nearly contemporaneous with the events narrated." (David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Kindle location 1563). The myth of near-universal illiteracy is essential to these claims. But that's all it is, a myth.


  Justin Martyr  
 Internal Evidence 

Seeing that the available evidence does not really support the Jesus Seminar's contention that the literacy rate in first century Palestine was as low as 2-3 per cent, then where do those numbers come from? From elsewhere, of course. You needed to ask? And why is it considered legitimate to port in numbers from elsewhere? Because this is the 'inter-disciplinary' approach. Literacy rates were probably rather low in sixteenth century Japan. From the time the Phoenicians invented the phonetic alphabet, mass literacy became a goal achievable in theory; but sixteenth century Japan did not have a phonetic alphabet. So bring in those numbers. In a similar vein, if there is not an abundance of evidence that first century Palestine was a 'honor-and-shame' society, and the Bible does after all say, "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Exodus 23:2), substitute contemporary Berber tribesmen. They do, after all, live near the Mediterranean. Those sparkling blue waters never used to have the power to enforce cultural conformity,— what has the democracy of ancient Athens to do with the hieratic god-kings of Egypt,— but evidently acquired this force at some subsequent time. Since sixteenth century Japan is an 'agrarian' society, i.e., uses the iron plow, but is pre-industrial, therefore statistics about social conditions can be freely ported from there into the first century Roman empire. Do you demand, dear Reader, 'Prove it!'? That is an alien concept to these folks:


Me and Thee
Japanese Warlord
The Farmer Feeds Them All
Cultured Class
What is a Peasant?
Gospel of Thomas
Bed of Procrustes
Second Generation
Offhand Brutality
To the Smiters
Open Commensality
Middle Class
A World of One's Own


If, as Bart Ehrman some of the time alleges, the Jewish literacy rate in Palestine was as low as one percent, it is difficult to see how these instructions could have been followed:

  • “In any place where is gathered the ten-man quorum, someone must always be engaged in study of the Law, day and night, continually, each one taking his turn. The general membership will be diligent together for the first third of every night of the year, reading aloud from the Book, interpreting Scripture, and praying together.”
  • (Charter of a Jewish Sectarian Association, The Dead Sea Scrolls, Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook, p. 134).

On its face, it would seem to require a literacy rate of at least ten percent for these instructions to be followed at all, and even then the "taking turns" bit would have to be dropped. There might be only ten members of this small sect in a given locality. If so, one member must make it his business to study the law. There are ways for non-literate people to do that; a person might attend lectures. But if there are only ten members of the sect in this locality, it seems unlikely lectures, congruent with their distinctive sectarian viewpoint, would be held there. So this one-in-ten student really must be literate. That gives you a literacy rate of at least 10%. If we are to 'take turns,' as directed, it must be higher. Oh, but these rules are imaginary. Certainly there's an entire body of literature which is imaginary, the 'Jesus' Publishing Industry, and so there might very well be imaginary rules. They could hire an imaginary 'reader' while they're at it; he could pantomime.