Early Christian Literacy

The Accusation Apostolic Literacy
Many Magicians Letters of Commendation
Perpetua Oracles of God
All and Some Exhortation
Any Passer-by Pseudo-Ignatius
John Chrysostom Those Left Out
Christian Educators The Clergy


The Accusation

The anti-Christian polemicist Celsus complained that the Christians were illiterate:

  • “We also may see in their own houses, wool-weavers, shoemakers, fullers, and the most illiterate and rustic men, who dare not say any thing in the presence of more elderly and wiser fathers of families; but when they meet with children apart from their parents, and certain stupid women with them, then they discuss something of a wonderful nature; such as that it is not proper to pay attention to parents and preceptors, but that they should be persuaded by them. For, say they, your parents and preceptors are delirious and stupid, and neither know what is truly good, nor are able to effect it, being prepossessed with trifles of an unusual nature. They add, that they alone know how it is proper to live, and that if children are persuaded by them, they will be blessed, and also the family to which they belong.”
  • (Taylor, Thomas. Arguments Of Celsus, Porphyry, And The Emperor Julian, Against The Christians Also Extracts from Diodorus Siculus, Josephus, and Tacitus, Relating to the Jews, Together with an Appendix, Kindle Locations 281-291, Celsus, On True Doctrine).

It is certain, because the Bible admits as much, that the demographics of the early Christian community were down market:

"For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence." (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Why does God prefer to call those of small account in the eyes of the world?

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

While the demographics of the early Christian community would suggest a literacy rate lower than the average for antiquity, there are factors pointing in the other direction. For instance, this was largely an urban crowd; in fact 'pagan' just means 'country-dweller.' While the church's literacy rate may have been somewhat lower than average, this average is nowhere near as low as commonly represented today. We know in the modern era that it was the Protestant reformers and those who followed them who raised the call for widespread literacy:

"Fifty years after Melanchthon, John Comenius (1592–1670), a bishop of the Moravian Brethren, echoed Luther’s idea of education for all children, especially for the poor, since the wealthy had the means to educate their children. He opened a school at Fulneck in Moravia. Here, as he had formally proposed to the Kingdom of Bohemia, he taught children about God, man, and nature. So convinced was he that children from all social classes should be educated, that failing to do so, he felt, was flouting God’s purpose. He concluded his proposal to Bohemia with the words, 'Have mercy, O Lord, on your heritage.'"
(Schmidt, Alvin J.; 'How Christianity Changed the World' (Kindle Locations 3789-3793). Zondervan.)

This was no new note that entered history at that time. Some people mistakenly think that the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution, gave people the idea that literacy for all was a good thing. They are way too late to the party. To this day the same principle is in operation: "In the Cameroun, a man asked if he were a Christian, would answer, 'Certainly! Can't I read?'" (quoted from Eugene A. Nida, Religion Across Cultures, Rousas J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume 3, Kindle location 4265).

Apostolic Literacy

In 1647 the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay colony required towns of fifty or more households to arrange for public education. The stated aims of this venture included opening the Bible, no longer hid under strange tongues of Hebrew and Greek, or the melodious nonsense rhyme of Latin, but still hid to those who could not read their own native tongue: "It being one chief point of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures. . .it is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction. . .shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read. . ."

It was not a new discovery that the believers Mohammed ibn Abdallah called 'The People of the Book' might benefit from literacy. Nevertheless, even the apostles were accused of illiteracy:

  • “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.”
  • (Acts 4:13).

It does not seem likely however that the apostles were illiterate in the strict sense, rather than only in the language of invective. 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. 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).

The message 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." Given the available information about Jewish literacy in the first century, it seems likely most of the apostles were literate.

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

The fourth century Apostolic Constitutions instructs parents, “Do you therefore teach your children the word of the Lord. Bring them under with cutting stripes, and make them subject from their infancy, teaching them the Holy Scriptures, which are Christian and divine, and delivering to them every sacred writing, 'not giving them such liberty that they get the mastery,' and act against your opinion, not permitting them to club together for a treat with their equals.” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 4, Section 2, Chapter XI, p. 866). This would see to imply that, at least for those who were capable of offering such instruction, ought to do their best to impart some knowledge of holy writ. For the same reason literacy was important to Christians, it had also been important to Jews. Given what is known about Jewish literacy during the early Christian centuries, there is nothing implausible in the traditional Christian account of the authorship of the gospels:


  Justin Martyr  
 Internal Evidence 

Many Magicians

When Paul preached the gospel in the regions about Ephesus in Asia Minor, many believers, coming under conviction for their possession of magical literature, repented of their prior involvement in the dark arts and burned these works:

"And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totaled fifty thousand pieces of silver." (Acts 19:18-19).

Unfortunately, the text dos not give an exact count of the numbers of believers, though the silversmiths say it is a considerable number: "this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people. . ." (Acts 19:26). What we have here is not a situation, as is sometimes described, in which the church leadership were the only literate people in the building; "many" of the members had spent good money to purchase books, presumably for something other than coffee table decoration.


Letters of Commendation

It was standard operating procedure in the early church for visiting prophets and evangelists to present letters of recommendation from a sponsoring church:

"Do not ye receive any stranger, whether bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, without commendatory letters; and when such are offered, let them be examined. And if they be preachers of piety, let them be received; but if not, supply their wants, but do not receive them to communion: for many things are done by surprise." (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8, Chapter XLVII, Ecclesiastical Canons, Section 34, p. 1001).

The Apostolic Constitutions, which indulges in the conceit that it was penned by the apostles but was not, incorporates material, some of it old, up to the fourth century. But this particular practice goes back to the church of the apostles: "Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?" (2 Corinthians 3:1). The heterodox 'Clementine Recognitions' commends letters of commendation:

"The Clementine Recognitions also credits James with authority to sanction traveling emissaries and grant them written endorsement, a possible reference, and confirmation of Paul’s reference to letters of recommendation which he denounced. '...observe the greatest caution, that you believe no teacher unless he bring from Jerusalem the testimonial of James the Lord’s brother, or whosoever may come after him. For no one, unless he has gone up thither and there has been approved as a fit and faithful teacher for preaching the word of the Messiah, unless, I say he brings a testimonial thence, is by any means to be received.'” (Bejarano-Gutierrez, Dr. Juan Marcos. The Judaisms of Jesus’ Followers: An Introduction to Early Christianity in its Jewish Context. Yaron Publishing. Kindle location 1411).

Presumably these letters of commendation were a quality control measure designed to cut down on moochers and persons who had worn out their welcome with other churches. It's up to the people who want to claim the early church lacked to literacy to compose gospels, to explain why this system was found suitable to its purpose. If the Church of East Overshoe could read and write letters of commendation, why could no church, big or small, compose gospels?



The account of this Christian woman's martyrdom which has come down to us is based on her own written record:

"A number of young catechumens were arrested, Revocatus and his fellow slave Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and with them Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing. Her mother and father were still alive and one of her two brothers was a catechumen like herself. She was about twenty-two years old and had an infant son at the breast. (Now from this point on the entire account of her ordeal is her own, according to her own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it down.)" (The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas).

She wasn't alone in her martyrdom, nor in her literacy:


Grapte Thecla
Basilna Waiting for Baptism
Watching and Praying Vivia Perpetua
Marcella Aetheria
Olympias Laeta's Daughter
Fabiola Eudocia
Demetrias Eustochium

Oracles of God

Clement of Rome says to the Corinthians, not as a desideratum but as an established fact,

"Ye know, beloved, ye know full well, the Holy Scriptures; and have thoroughly searched into the oracles of God: call them therefore to your remembrance." (First Epistle of Clement of Rome, Chapter XXII, Section 10).

How did they acquire this familiarity? Some Muslims, they say, have accomplished the feat of memorizing the entire Quran, which is however substantially shorter than the Old and New Testaments. Moreover as a rule these people achieve this result using the written text as their study tool.

Is he speaking sarcastically? It seems rather that this congregation was not sunk into the gross ignorance of scripture which would be typical of, say, a medieval congregation. If they were almost all illiterate, how was this achieved?


All and Some

The ancients did not share the modern passion for statistics, and the reader searches in vain for a numerical breakdown of different classes. One must settle for vague estimates. Clement of Alexandria mentions that "almost all" of "us," presumably believers in the church, are lacking in philosophical training:

"Since almost all of us, without training in arts and sciences, and the Hellenic philosophy, and some even without learning at all [επει σχεδον οι παντες ανευ της εγκυκλιου παιδειας και φιλοσοφιας της Ελληνικης, οι δε και ανευ γραμματων], through the influence of a philosophy divine and barbarous, and by power, have through faith received the word concerning God, trained by self-operating wisdom." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book I, Chapter XX).

In other words, almost all of those within the sound of Clement's voice lacked the encyclical education, or specialized training in philosophy, and there were even indeed illiterate members. Now, he does not say "almost all" were illiterate, which is the claim made by the 'Jesus' Seminar. Why not?

The elementary education available, say, at Rome, was very basic. The youngsters learned the alphabet and basic grammar, memorized the Twelve Tables, copied a lot of edifying moral maxims, and learned basic arithmetic and weights and measures. If they wanted further instruction, say in Greek, or in rhetoric, they had to go on to the next level. And if they wanted to discourse knowingly about the varied schools of Greek philosophy, they had to go on to the next level after that. Perhaps like Horace and Julius Caesar, they would even travel east to imbibe Greek wisdom at its source, obtaining in Athens or at Rhodes a graduate level education. The 'scholars' of the 'Jesus' Seminar wrongly assume the most basic level of education was a very rare achievement, when it was anything but. Unfortunately Clement's revelation that there were illiterate Christians is far from a numerical estimate. However, it is noteworthy that he doesn't say, 'almost all,' which is the claim.



The pagans of classical antiquity valued literacy, as has been seen, 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).

Roman Relief, Second Century, Teachers and Students

Believers were ever encouraged to read God's word: "By these meditations the mind is to be strengthened, dearest brethren, by such exercises to be hardened against all the darts of the Devil. Let divine reading be before the eyes, good works in the hands, thoughts of the Lord in the understanding." (The Treatises of Caecilius Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and Martyr, Charles Thornton, Treatise XII, On Jealousy and Envy, Chapter 9). "You then, who are sealed in the spiritual camp by a heavenly warfare, do but preserve in integrity and sobriety your exercise of religious virtues; be ever either in prayer or reading; now speak with God, now let Him speak with thee. Let His precepts instruct and form you; whom He has made rich, none will make poor. . ." (The Treatises of Caecilius Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and Martyr, Charles Thornton, Treatise I, On the Grace of God, addressed to Donatus, Chapter 13). It goes without saying that such exhortations are addressed to those capable of obeying them, not those incapable, but still it is striking that Cyprian seems unaware he is encouraging only a tiny minority to the "exercise of religious virtues."

While the world of classical antiquity saw nothing approaching universal literacy, literacy for male citizens was the norm not the exception. Little Greek and Roman boys (and sometimes girls) went to school like they do today; Anaxagoras, as his memorial, chose to give them a day off:

"And Anaxagoras, giving up the honors which had been granted him, requested that on the day of his death the children be allowed to play and be free from their lessons." (Plutarch, Moralia, Precepts of Statecraft, Chapter 27, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 55667).

The background literacy rate was by no means as low as is represented today by the Jesus Publishing Industry:

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

Any Passer-by

Origen describes the written gospel as what any passer-by could read:

"What a mind, then, must we have to enable us to interpret in a worthy manner this work, though it be committed to the earthly treasure-house of common speech, of writing which any passer-by can read, and which can be heard when read aloud by any one who lends to it his bodily ears?" (Origen, Commentary on John, Book 1, Chapter 6, The Fourfold Gospel, p. 457, ECF_1_10).

This would be a bit eccentric if, in fact, the overwhelming majority of passers-by could not read.


There is a longer form of the letter of Ignatius to the Philadelphians that instructs fathers to teach their children the holy scriptures:

“Fathers, 'bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord;' and teach them the holy Scriptures, and also trades, that they may not indulge in idleness. Now [the Scripture] says, 'A righteous father educates [his children] well; his heart shall rejoice in a wise son.'” (Ignatius, Letter to the Philadelphians, Longer Form).

While this instruction does not go back to the early Christian martyr, it does date from the early church period. Normally one would not listen to a man named 'Pseudo,' but in this case, he is giving good advice!

John Chrysostom

For those within the sound of John's voice, the illiterate man had become the exception, not the rule. The homely examples sprinkled through his sermons include the experience of little children learning the alphabet:

  • "Now, though I would fain say nothing to disgust you, yet I beseech again and entreat you, imitate at least the little children’s diligence in these matters. For so they first learn the form of the letters, after that they practice themselves in distinguishing them put out of shape, and then at last in their reading they proceed orderly by means of them."
  • (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel according to Matthew, Homily 11, 9).

Without seeming to realize they were mostly illiterate, John gave a reading assignment to his congregation to complete at home:

  • “I desire to ask one favor of you all, before I touch on the words of the Gospel; do not you refuse my request, for I ask nothing heavy or burdensome, nor, if granted, will it be useful only to me who receive, but also to you who grant it, and perhaps far more so to you. What then is it that I require of you? That each of you take in hand that section of the Gospels which is to be read among you on the first day of the week, or even on the Sabbath, and before the day arrive, that he sit down at home and read it through, and often carefully consider its contents, and examine all its parts well, what is clear what obscure, what seems to make for the adversaries, but does not really so; and when you have tried, in a word every point, so go to hear it read. For from zeal like this will be no small gain both to you and to us.”
  • (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 11, 1).

John realizes that the poorer members of the congregation will have trouble complying with his request, but the difficulty he identifies is not illiteracy, but rather lack of means to purchase a Bible:

"There is another most foolish excuse of these sluggards; that they have not the books in their possession. Now as to the rich, it is ludicrous that we should take our aim at this excuse; but because I imagine that many of the poorer sort continually use it, I would gladly ask, if every one of them does not have all the instruments of the trade which he works at, full and complete, though infinite poverty stand in his way?" (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 11, 1)

Thriceholy Radio

This is a strange and really arrogant request to make if things are as the 'Jesus' publishing industry portrays them. Doesn't John know that practically all these people are illiterate?

This kind of request was incidentally not new:

"The mind must be strengthened, beloved brethren, by these meditations. By exercises of this kind it must be confirmed against all the darts of the devil. Let there be the divine reading in the hands, the Lord's thoughts in the mind; let constant prayer never cease at all; let saving labor persevere." (Cyprian, Treatise on Jealousy and Envy, Treatise X, Chapter 16, p. 49, The Writings of Cyprian, Volume II, Ante-Nicene Christian Library).

It might seem natural to assume that the children in John Chrysostom's congregation were learning to read through wholesome Christian 'McGuffey's Readers;' but such is not the case. From the time when Tertullian recommended Christians not teach school, through the time when Julian the Apostate ejected Christians from the teaching profession, and on into John's Constantinople, little children still learned to read and write Greek by chanting the Iliad and Odyssey. Reflecting that teachers were paid with a 'Minerval,' the money theoretically passing through the aetherial hands of the pagan non-entity known by that name, and that they taught their pupils to celebrate the mighty deeds of various other pagan non-entities, Tertullian advised an exit. He could not, of course, advise the children to follow their Christian teachers out the door; how, then, would they learn to read, a skill which "cannot be avoided"?:

“We know it may be said, 'If teaching literature is not lawful to God’s servants, neither will learning be likewise;' and, “How could one be trained unto ordinary human intelligence, or unto any sense or action whatever, since literature is the means of training for all life? How do we repudiate secular studies, without which divine studies cannot be pursued?” Let us see, then, the necessity of literary erudition; let us reflect that partly it cannot be admitted, partly cannot be avoided. Learning literature is allowable for believers, rather than teaching; for the principle of learning and of teaching is different. If a believer teach literature, while he is teaching doubtless he commends, while he delivers he affirms, while he recalls he bears testimony to, the praises of idols interspersed therein.” (Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 10).

The curriculum established in Athens in the fourth century B.C., the trivium and the quadrivium, proved indestructible.

As Cyril points out, "some" pew-sitters are illiterate:

  • “For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered as to the knowledge of them by want of learning, and others by a want of leisure, in order that the soul may not perish from ignorance, we comprise the whole doctrine of the Faith in a few lines.”
  • (Cyril of Jerusalem, The Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 5.12.).

Those Left Out

What about women's literacy? Unfortunately it lagged throughout this period; however the situation was by no means as bleak as is sometimes represented. It's a joy to encounter literate Christian women like Grapte and Paula. The Apostolic Constitutions gives the following advice to widows maintained by the church: "Let such a one also be free from the love of money, free from arrogance, not given to filthy lucre, not insatiable, not gluttonous, but continent, meek, giving nobody disturbance, pious, modest, sitting at home, singing, and praying, and reading, and watching, and fasting; speaking to God continually in songs and hymns." (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 3, Section 1, Chapter VII, p. 851). Wait a minute: weren't all women in the day illiterate? How were illiterate women expected to read? The reality is somewhat different from what you hear nowadays.

The church boasted that it taught women and children, for free, which was in no way the practice of the pagan philosophers:

"Not only do the rich among us pursue our philosophy, but the poor enjoy instruction gratuitously; for the things which come from God surpass the requital of worldly gifts. Thus we admit all who desire to hear, even old women and striplings; and, in short, persons of every age are treated by us with respect, but every kind of licentiousness is kept at a distance." (Tatian, Address to the Greeks, Chapter 32).

What kind of instruction? Presumably Tatian is thinking of the oral instruction received by candidates for baptism, instruction in sermons, and the reading aloud of the scriptures in church. How many of those "old women" would have been able to read? Probably more than you think:

Pompeii, The Baker and His Wife

Lactantius, writing in the fourth century, differentiates between "common learning" and the advanced study of the trivium and quadruvium:

"They attempted, indeed, to do that which truth required; but they were unable to proceed beyond words. First, because instruction in many arts is necessary for an application to philosophy. Common learning must be acquired on account of practice in reading, because in so great a variety of subjects it is impossible that all things should be learned by hearing, or retained in the memory. No little attention also must be given to the grammarians, in order that you may know the right method of speaking. That must occupy many years. Nor must there be ignorance of rhetoric, that you may be able to utter and express the things which you have learned. Geometry also, and music, and astronomy, are necessary, because these arts have some connection with philosophy; and the whole of these subjects cannot be learned by women, who must learn within the years of their maturity the duties which are hereafter about to be of service to them for domestic uses; nor by servants, who must live in service during those years especially in which they are able to learn; nor by the poor, or laborers, or rustics, who have to gain their daily support by labor. And on this account Tully says that philosophy is averse from the multitude." (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 25).

He is contrasting philosophy, which aspires to teach virtue, with the gospel. The philosophers concurred that, in theory, they should offer generously to all seekers such a wondrous gift; if indeed they could teach anyone how to be virtuous, then they ought to teach everyone. But few women were able to acquire much beyond the "common learning" he mentions; the advanced study of disciplines such as astronomy and geometry, considered indispensible preludes to the study of philosophy, was mostly out of reach. More women, however, did achieve at least the level of "common learning," involving literacy and basic arithmetical skills, than modern scholarship acknowledges. In other words, women with an elementary education were plentiful in the ancient world, college-educated women scarce. Misogynists like Bishop John Shelby Spong assert that all women in antiquity were illiterate, which is absurd:

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
Fulvia Apicata
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

As an instance of the distinction between common learning and higher education, consider the case of Trajan, a Spaniard who became emperor. He sent a dispatch to the senate in his own hand: "When he had been made emperor, he sent a despatch to the senate written with his own hand, which stated, among other things, that he would not slay nor dishonor any man of worth." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 68, Chapter 5). So he possessed at least basic literacy. But Cassius Dio also says that Trajan lacked education: "He lacked education in the exact sense,— book-learning, at least,— but he both understood and carried out its spirit, and there was no quality of his that was not excellent." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 68, Chapter 7). So when we read of someone in that world who is said to be uneducated or unlearned, it does not always mean illiterate.

Jerome was concerned about reaction from both the learned and the unlearned to his new translation of the Bible:

"Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language, and call me a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein?" (Jerome, Letters and Select Works, quoted Kindle location 1587, From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man, James B. Williams, editor).

If 'unlearned' meant 'illiterate,' why would any "unlearned" person find himself reading what "does not suit his settled tastes"? Illiterate people can't read! One need not worry about the damage an orangutan can do if he gets hold of a thesaurus; he might eat it or throw it, but he cannot use it to craft cutting remarks. Illiterate persons cannot have been on the front line of Jerome's critics. "Unlearned" does not always mean "illiterate."

Women would commonly have lacked rhetorical or philosophical education, yet they are exhorted to read. Moses' holiness code isolated certain categories, like blood, and death, which defiled. Some in the early church followed this line of reasoning, but others, like the authors of the Apostolic Constitutions, stressed that menstruation or child-birth, for instance, must be a matter of indifference respecting religious observances: "Thou therefore, O woman, if, as thou sayest, in the days of thy separation thou art void of the Holy Spirit, thou art then filled with the unclean one; for by neglecting to pray and to read thou wilt invite him to thee, though he were unwilling. For this spirit, of all others, loves the ungrateful, the slothful, the careless, and the drowsy, since he himself by ingratitude was distempered with evil mind, and was thereby deprived by God his dignity; having rather chosen to be a devil than an archangel." (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 6, Section 5, Chapter XXVII, p. 919). The author implies that women who do not "read" are "slothful!" Has he forgotten, they were all illiterate?

Hypatia's Bookshelf

Another outsider group are slaves. The percentage of the Christian population in servitude is difficult to estimate, partly because his number is a moving target. The wars of imperial expansion led to the wholesale enslavement of entire people groups, but then many of these diligent folk eventually worked their way to freedom. Although the slave population included learned Greek philosophers, in general this group was less likely to be literate:

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

When Rome rose to the mastery of the Mediterranean basin and beyond, all the riches of the world came streaming into the capital city, including human beings. When a city was sacked, the victorious conquerors would sell everybody into slavery. This presented a financial opportunity for some people, but meant ruin for others, and not only the slaves themselves. Abraham Lincoln's father, a dirt farmer, could not compete with slave labor,— slaves work for nothing,— so he moved to free territory. The free peasantry of Italy could not compete with slave labor either, yet when rich owners began accumulating acreage to devote to large-scale farming, utilizing the cheap slaves pouring into the market, where could they go? It was the ruin of the class of independent peasant proprietors who had made-up the backbone of the Roman legions.

Most economic news stories are not lose-lose stories; if somebody is losing, somebody else may well be winning. For example, inflation, which the news media used to lament with one voice in the 1970's and '80's, is the best news going for debtors, who pay back their creditors with money worth less than they money they borrowed. Is that even legal? Over time, the slaves who made up the labor force on the latifundia, the large estates of the ancient world, tended to change over into tenants or serfs. Why did this happen? Was this what the slaves wanted, and they used their limited but real bargaining power to achieve it? To judge from literature like 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' the worst terror in slave life is a mother's fear her child will be taken from her and sold down the river. If you could wake up and find your spouse, parents or others important to you gone, never to see them again, who could tolerate that? Over time the serfs became attached to the land, rooted and immovable, which probably played a role in the economic stagnation of the middle ages but may have been what they wanted. The practical result of the American Civil War was that the Southern slaves continued farming the same land, but as share-croppers, not slaves. The share-cropper is in some ways worse off, because he takes on much of the risk of crop loss, but as respecting freedom under the law, he is a king compared to the slave. And so the Emancipation Proclamation was not a hollow victory nor a blank piece of paper. Thinking slave-owners, like Thomas Jefferson, have instituted 'profit-sharing' plans for their slaves to address the otherwise insoluble problem of worker motivation under slavery, and these too may shade over into tenancy. Slavery is the rare economic news story which really is lose-lose; it damages everything it touches, not only the slave who has lost everything, but the free man who cannot compete with slave labor and ruins himself trying. This institution retarded literacy and harmed Christians and everyone else touched by it, excepting only the sole beneficiary, the slave-owner.

Irenaeus knows of believers who are as illiterate as illiterate can be: they were barbarians who did not even have a written alphabet:

"To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom."
(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 4, Section 2, pp. 831-832, ECF_1_01).

Then as now, the impetus to bring the gospel to unreached people groups led to the formulation of written alphabets for barbarous tongues. Languages like Gothic and Slavic took shape as written tongues under the hands of missionaries. One must imagine Irenaeus' 'barbarians' held a simple faith; maybe they knew the 'Our Father' or the Apostles' Creed. Such a simple, dumbed-down Christianity would become the norm for Europe in the dark ages, allowing every kind of barbarous superstition to flourish in its shadows.

That even in the early church many believers were illiterate is not hidden in the literature. We learn here how greatly esteemed were those believers who knew no more of scripture that scattered memorized phrases, which, however, they took to heart, in this late apocryphal work mostly given over to describing the torments of hell:

"And turning round I saw golden thrones placed in each gate, and on them men having golden diadems and gems: and I looked carefully and I saw inside between the twelve men thrones placed in another rank which appeared of much glory, so that no one is able to recount their praise. And I asked the angel and said: My Lord, who is on the throne? And the angel answered and said unto me: Those thrones belong to those who had goodness and understanding of heart and made themselves fools for the sake of the Lord God, nor knew new Scriptures nor psalms, but, mindful of one chapter of the commands of God, and hearing what it contained they wrought thereby in much diligence and had a right zeal before the Lord God, and the admiration of them will seize all the saints in presence of the Lord God, for talking with one another they say, Wait and see the unlearned who know nothing more: by which means they merited so great and such a garment and so great glory on account of their innocence." (The Vision of Paul, Section 29, p. 236 ECF_1_10)

The modern 'Jesus' publishing industry gives us an ancient world whose blissful inhabitants traipsed around, unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Was the ancient world actually anything like 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 people of the day 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
Publishing Contract

Christian Educators

Those Christians who labored in the field of education found themselves facing a conundrum. Even primary education revolved around students' memorizing quotations from Homer and similar authors. Given the abundance of pagan gods running around in the Iliad and such works, what interest could Christian educators have in teaching such texts? Julian the Apostate thought they had no business doing so:

"All, therefore, who profess to teach, ought to possess worthy manners, and should never entertain opinions opposite to those of the public; but such especially, I think, ought to be those who instruct youth, and explain to them the works of the ancients, whether they are orators or grammarians; but particularly if they are sophists. . .What then? Were not Homer, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Isocrates, and Lysias, the leaders of all erudition? And did not some of them consider themselves sacred to Mercury, but others to the Muses? I think, therefore, it is absurd for those who explain their works to despise the gods whom they honored.

"I do not mean (for I think it would be absurd) that they should change their opinions for the sake of instructing youth; but I give them their option, either not to teach what they do not approve, or, if they choose to teach, first to persuade their scholars that neither Homer, nor Hesiod, nor any of those whom they expound and charge with impiety, madness, and error concerning the gods, are really such as they represent them to be. For as they receive a stipend, and are maintained by their works, if they can act with such duplicity for a few drachms, they confess themselves guilty of the most sordid avarice. . .

"To masters and teachers let this be a common law. But let no youths be prevents from resorting to whatever schools they please." (Julian the Apostate, An Edict, Forbidding the Christians to Teach the Literature of the Heathens, Arguments of Celsus, Porphyry, and the Emperor Julian, Against the Christians, Thomas Taylor, Kindle location 749).

Julian was raised a Christian, but renounced the faith and reverted to paganism. His family had the unfortunate habit of murdering one another in order to simplify the succession. It may be that inheriting the faith is a negative not a positive, if the people you inherited it from are trying to kill you. Though he was willing to use the police power of the state to harass and inconvenience believers, his fervid pounding of the bully pulpit during his brief term in office did little to slow the advance of Christianity. Unlike his pagan predecessors, he drew back from deadly force: "He was a persecutor of the Christian religion, yet so that he abstained from shedding blood." (Eutropius' Abridgement of Roman History, Kindle location 1468).

Pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus called his edict forbidding Christians to teach rhetoric "cruel:"

"For he made some laws which, with but few exceptions, were not offensive, though they very positively enforced or forbade certain actions. Among the exceptions was that cruel one which forbade Christian masters of rhetoric and grammar to teach unless they came over to the worship of the heathen gods."

(Marcellinus, Ammianus. Book XXV, Chapter IV, Section 20 Delphi Complete Works of Ammianus Marcellinus (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 60) (Kindle Locations 7101-7103).)

Is it reasonable to insist that those teaching pagan literature should be pagans themselves? Maybe on the contrary, it is believers who would have trouble with this material. Certainly those who accuse Homer of impiety, a class that includes Plato, find difficulty justifying his portrayal of the gods. The theory that Homer himself was an atheist who intended to discredit the pagan theology was formulated even in antiquity.

Of course if only those who personally believe in the myths are allowed to teach the classics, there would be no such instruction today. Christians grew comfortable teaching works they could only classify as fiction. That is what Bart Ehrman would like to see happen to Christianity. He finds the gospel story moving, just like "Dickens's great novel David Copperfield" and comparable works of fiction: "And fiction can be life-transforming because it is full of meaning, even though it never happened." (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p. 292). The question of whether Christian educators should teach these works was a difficult one that elicited both positive and negative responses in antiquity.

The Clergy

Ambrose recommends that the clergy read the scriptures: "Why dost thou not spend the time which thou hast free from thy duties in the church in reading? Why dost thou not go back again to see Christ? Why dost thou not address Him, and hear His voice? We address Him when we pray, we hear Him when we read the sacred oracles of God." (Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Book 1, Chapter 20, Section 88). It might seem to be belaboring the obvious to point out that, if a bishop is to be apt to teach, he ought to be literate. But in the climate of opinion created by modern secular Bible scholarship, pointing out the obvious is a pressing necessity.