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