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How Many Christians Could Read?

How many Christians by near the end of the New Testament period – say, 100 CE – could read and write?   In his intriguing article “Christian Number and Its Implications,” Roman historian Keith Hopkins tries to come up with some ball park figures.

As you may recall, he is assuming that there were Christian churches in about 100 communities in the world at the time (we have references to about 50 in our surviving texts, and he is supposing that maybe there were twice as many as we have any evidence for); and he agrees that if Christianity started out with about 1000 believers in the year 40 then with a growth rate of 3.4% per year, by the year 100 there would be just over 7000 Christians in the world.

That would mean the 100 churches would have an average of 70 believers.  (Some of course would be larger – think, Rome – others would be much smaller; we’re talking averages here.  And if Rome did have, say 120 believers, they would be meeting in *different* house churches throughout the city).

Hopkins points out that in antiquity the population would be roughly 30% adult male; 30% adult female; and 40% children under the age of 17.   And so an average church at the time would have 20 men, 20 women, and 30 children.

Now, how many of them could read?  The reality is that….

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  1. Avatar
    teresa  May 24, 2016

    I’ve always thought it odd that the written word obtained such supremacy in Christain circles when until the advent of the printing press the ordinary person didn’t have access to written anything and probably couldn’t have read it if he did. I agree with Ms Haines-Eitzen . . .it’s a good way of getting power and hanging on to it.
    My personal belief is in a God who does not require wealth, privilege or intelligence as a prerequisite to a relationship with him.
    Teresa x

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 27, 2016

      Mine is that, if there is a God, he/she wouldn’t/doesn’t require a relationship with Him/Her.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  May 24, 2016

    The argument in favor of this would be that early Christianity gave birth to the Roman Catholic Church, which for centuries afterwards, tended to flocks of mainly illiterate peasants in Europe, few of whom ever so much as held a bible in their hands. Literacy was mainly the province of the clerical class, which controlled access to the holy texts (and preserved them, along with most of what we still have of the knowledge of the ancient world).

    There was a concept of implicit faith–most Catholics didn’t even know what they were supposed to believe, in terms of the more elaborate doctrines. But by accepting the authority of the church, they were deemed to implicitly believe this. Protestantism put more emphasis on individuals explicitly knowing what their specific church (and as you know, there were no end of them) taught, what distinguished them from all the other churches, what made them the truest expression of Christian faith (Emo Phillips had a lot of fun with this in a famous comedy routine).

    It’s easier to be unified as a body of faith when you don’t get into the specifics that much, because let’s face it–no two people have ever believed the same exact things in the same exact way. Putting the Word of God into the hands of individuals meant splintering Christendom into myriad fragments. But it also hastened literacy, and the growth of human knowledge, the dawn of our modern age.

    But in the early decades, there really is no church hierarchy, and as we all agree, practices must have differed a lot. I find it hard to believe that those early believers didn’t want to read the Word of God themselves. Given that all Christians combined back then learning how to read wouldn’t have increased literacy rates at all, can we be sure that some of these early churches didn’t go out of their way to teach people to read?

    The main obstacle to literacy is people not caring enough to put in the effort to learn–you need the desire, combined with access to reading material (which the early churches had), and a few literate people to pass on the knowledge. With the deep sense of community that would have been fostered by their sense of being special, apart from the rest of society, I find it hard to believe there weren’t attempts to increase the number of literate Christians. Once the numbers of Christians began to grow more quickly, and the hierachy began to take form–the sense of a privileged priestly class–then I could see an attitude taking hold that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that each believer being able to read and interpret scripture for him or herself would lead to disunity and heterodoxy. As in fact it did, many times, over the course of centuries.

    What do you think?

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 24, 2016

      One item I forgot to mention–many historians of the Reformation have posited that the rise in literacy that occurred at that time was motivated in no small part by people wanting to read the bible–which was just then becoming much more widely available, thanks to Mr. Gutenberg (it was the first book he ever printed, as is widely known). Obviously most early Christians couldn’t have owned their own copies, but if they hadn’t been passed around at great deal, read over and over again, subjected to constant wear and tear, wouldn’t we have more and earlier copies of the gospel texts? Somebody was reading the early copies, and making many more.

      • Bart
        Bart  May 26, 2016

        They were obviously read a lot, but that doesn’t mean that they were read by a lot of people! (Plus, books normally don’t last more than a couple of centuries)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      The main obstacle to literacy in most societies is economic.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 26, 2016

        People from poor countries are often more literate than the spoiled children of the American middle class (you don’t believe me, look at Twitter). One reason why immigrants do so well here. They know the value of education.

        I’m merely saying the literacy rate among early Christians might have been higher, because of the great status that would be conferred on those who could read–and therefore quite possibly interpret–the word of God. General literacy rates among a large population don’t accurately predict literacy rates for all the groups that make up that population. Poverty is an obstacle to learning, but it can be an incentive for self-improvement as well, when given the necessary social and cultural structures.

  3. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  May 24, 2016

    Personally, I would think the possibility of “power” and “control” being motivators for not teaching the general populace to read would be obvious. The church used Latin (and still does) for centuries even though no one actually spoke the language any longer as a method of distancing the uneducated masses from the priestly class. How many people did the church have massacred during the Middle Ages because they had the audacity of questioning ritual, liturgy and sacrament? This was an affront to papal power and control. The Cathars, Jews, Arabs, and Waldensians were all massacred at one time or another for questioning the church or just being in the way. The Spanish Inquisition killed how many? I don’t mean this to be an anti-Catholic rant, but there were no Protestants for many centuries. I would think that to imagine Christians were no less power hungry centuries before these events is naive. Methods would have to be used to stay in power and ignorant parishioners would be a fine way to get started.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 26, 2016

      Bear in mind, the medieval church went out of its way to identify the more promising members of the peasantry, and see to their education. Literacy was, to a great extent, a creation of the Catholic Church, but certainly they wanted to control it to a certain extent. To accuse all clerics of this would be foolish. Many were determined to spread the flame of knowledge as far as they could. And nobody saw the Reformation coming until it came. Even then, the Church mainly used stupid methods to contain it, like buying up all copies of forbidden books–not understanding that with the new technologies, they were just funding the printers to make still more.

      I don’t think there was any desire in the early church to contain literacy. They would have have seen that as an agenda. Propagation of the word and survival. Those were the agendas. And founding a church–not really. They still believed the Kingdom was coming. They went on believing this for some time. You don’t worry about institutional longevity when you think all institutions are going to become obsolete in your lifetime.

  4. Belasaurius
    Belasaurius  May 24, 2016

    What is the deal with Jewish literacy in the first century? Maybe you have a link or book where you’ve already discussed this)
    I’ve read arguments that most of Jesus’ original apostles were illiterate and I’ve read other arguments that propose that because of the resurgence of Jewish nationalism that began under the Maccabees, there was an emphasis that Jewish men should be able to at least read the Torah in Hebrew.
    And there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground between those two views, it’s all one or all the other. Can you shine some light or point me to where you’ve already shined a light?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      The best book in general is William Harris, Ancient Literacy; the best book for Palestine is Catherine Hezser, Literacy in Roman Palestine. They are both quite telling.

  5. Avatar
    Tom  May 24, 2016

    I assume these materials read in the early churches was written in Greek.

    Would readers be expected to translate the Greek into the local language?

  6. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 24, 2016

    “Maybe they weren’t overly eager to share their power …” Yes, and why do you think William Tyndale was burned at the stake on Oct. 6, 1536 for attempting to translate the Bible to English? … In retrospect, I doubt if it was just a mistake made by one Bishop.

  7. Avatar
    Todd  May 24, 2016

    Other than access to the Jewish scriptures, the Jesus movement, during the time of Jesus, would seem to be based on no scriptures other than the Jewish scriptures…it seems to have been an oral ministry led by Jesus. I often wonder who was literate within the Jesus movement, and was Jesus even literate? When Jesus was gone, the movement was still oral but gradually documents were created by those who could read and write. I think of the preface to the Gospel of Luke, that the writer studied many accounts which I assume were written, is one good example of this.

    Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are often called religions of “The Book.” But that seems not to be the case during the life time of Jesus when he taught and ministered.

    Even today Christianity is seen as a Book oriented religion. The Bible is central (often worshiped) with certain translations seen as especially sacred, and those who can interpret it are those chosen and trained to lead the communities….The Clergy….and the Clergy then had the power in the community.

    I often wonder when and how the oral ministry of Jesus transitioned to a religion based on the written word. We know that the letters of Paul were among the first, and the sayings of Jesus in “Q” would have been significant early on. This is a fascinating area of study, though frustrating due to a lack of very early documents.

    I appreciate your post today very much in that regard. I hope you get into this in greater detail in your new book. Very good.

  8. Avatar
    Monty  May 24, 2016

    It has occurred to me that perhaps, since many if not most church congregations were somewhat informal affairs (family, friends, etc.), that the importance of needing to read in a relatively illiterate society may have spawned the first century equivalent of the “circuit rider.” If there were literate Christians who made the rounds of churches where literacy levels were low (or non-existent), then a relatively coherent doctrine could be maintained across many churches, despite the problem of literacy. Taking my guesswork to an even more precarious precipice, I can see the possibility that they even received remuneration from the congregations they served. I have been acquainted with small, rural churches who could not afford a regular minister, so they would pay a small stipend to an itinerant preacher to visit and preach to them. Not the same issue (literacy) but the same concept.

  9. Avatar
    groucho  May 24, 2016

    Kim Haines-Eitzen’s thesis on how literacy conferred power and control on church leaders is borne out well into the Reformation. During that time people were burned at the stake for translating the Bible into vernacular. Church authorities did not want the ordinary people reading the Bible because doing so would undercut the clergy’s power of interpretation of religion, thus weakening their societal control.

  10. Avatar
    cjeanne  May 24, 2016

    Another possible explanation…..since the texts held the secret. .ie…it was written down rather than just general knowledge of the gods, those who could read could point to the text and say to the illiterate, see….there it is, it’s written here therefore it’s true,

  11. Avatar
    lbehrendt  May 24, 2016

    Bart, in considering literacy in the ancient world, I think it’s important to ask the question: how much material was available to read? It’s an interesting thought experiment: wherever you are now, scan 180 degrees around you and consider how much text-containing material you see. It may not all be literary. Some of the text might be contained on labels, or brochures, or junk mail. But you can read it, and you do read some of it. Then: imagine you are sitting in some like place in the ancient world, 2000 years ago. How much of this text would you see there? The answer is, just about none of it. Even if we put to one side the question of access to education, literacy depends on access to text. The elites that likely learned to read also had an elite access to enough text so that they could practice and maintain that skill.

  12. Avatar
    chrispope  May 24, 2016

    Re. your last two paras: I’d certainly go along with Kim’s argument. I know that you can’t extrapolate backwards, but isn’t this almost exactly what happened when English language translations of the Bible first came along? For centuries, the text had been the exclusive province of the educated elite who could read Latin. The clergy were in control, were the only ones who could promulgate the scriptures and their interpretation of them. This was the accepted order: those who could read the scriptures told the general populace what they said and what they meant, and the general populace went along with it. All hell broke loose (if you pardon the expression) when people could read (and potentially interpret) the scriptures for themselves.

  13. Avatar
    chrispope  May 24, 2016

    Further thoughts re the development of the early church.
    Whilst the Roman Empire had a communications network which surpassed anything that had gone before – and so ideas could be shared – more recent history shows just how theologies can differ, even amongst apparently homogenous groups.
    For example, the Millerites in the mid 19th century split into IBSA (who split into Jehovah’s Witnesses), SDA, Christadelphians etc. etc. Plymouth Brethren split into Open and Exclusives (and many sub divisions thereof), never to speak to each other again.
    This is purely speculation (and I know that you can’t extrapolate backwards) but my feeling is that when meeting in small groups, with a small number of leaders (who could read and therefore preach) substantial diffences in theology and beliefs would arise. We see this in the Muslim religion today, let alone the Christian religions and the Judaic ones.
    I’m not sure whether this is historically true or not (it sounds right to me) but the founders of the Plymouth Brethren left the Anglican church to follow the truth under ‘universal’ priesthood. Within two years, they’d split into three factions who never spoke to each other again, each convinced that the other was in unredeemable error.
    And there’s the apocryphal story of the non-conformist who was washed up on a desert island. He immediately set to to build two churches. One to worship in, the other he wouldn’t be seen dead in.

  14. Avatar
    Epikouros  May 24, 2016

    This makes sense to me. I wonder if the gospels were written by powerful clergy in the early church to make sure they passed on the right version (ie, their version) of the Christian message to younger members whom they were training to be future clergy?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      Interesting idea!

    • Avatar
      FocusMyView  June 4, 2016

      I can see that line of reasoning working for John. Definitely meant to be a cornerstone in its use of sacred numbers and signs to portray the divinity of Jesus.
      The other gospels seem to be trying to present a biographical account. So much so that they may even be read that Jesus was not the Messiah at all.
      On second thought, include Luke in with your hypothesis. He went as far as to write Acts, and so wrote an early history of the church along with the gospel. It seems like a good foundation to build the religion on.

  15. talmoore
    talmoore  May 24, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I can’t help feeling that you’re thinking about this the wrong way. There’s an external variable in this case that you and other scholars appear to be taking for granted. Namely, it’s not that Judaism and Christianity were more book-centric. (I mean, they were in comparison to their pagan neighbors. But that’s incidental.) What’s important is that Jews and Christians were just as God-centric (or gods-centric) as their pagan neighbors. In each case, for both Jew and Gentile, knowing what the heavenly powers thought and willed for us was of utmost importance.

    And there was only one way to know what the gods wanted. The gods would have to speak to us through some medium. Their will would have to be revealed to us either indirectly through a chosen person (i.e. a prophet/prophetess) or through the interpretation of some natural or chance occurrence (e.g. divination, augury, etc.) that was assumed to be heaven trying to communicate with us. In both cases, a human being would have to act as the receiver or interpreter of the revelation from heaven. But once that revelation was made, it was up to us to accept or reject it, to hold on to it or forget it. That’s where scripture comes into play.

    What distinguishes scriptural revelation from oral revelation is that what is spoken, without ever being written down, is effectively lost in the wind — even when the smartest people with the best memories attempt to preserve it orally. (Indeed, that was the whole point of your most recent book, no?) But when an ostensible revelation from the Sustainer of the Universe becomes recorded for posterity, people tend to think that it was preserved in writing for a reason. They tend to exalt it beyond the transitory utterances of (presumably) lesser mediums. That’s why the Jews came to worship their scripture to such an extent. They truly believed that it was the preserved will of their god — the God! — and that’s why they continued to squeeze the juice from that fruit way past the point when those documents ceased to be of any use. (That’s why I often say that the New Testament canon is basically fourth generation Isaiah fan fiction.)

    If you read the NT with an eye towards this fact, then it should be obvious that, on the surface, it’s all re-interpretations of the same old, tired relevations from God going back hundreds of years. But at some point, these writings went from being mere interpretations to revelations in their own right. The letters of Paul went from being mere apologetics and midrash to becoming the will of God himself working through Paul as a prophet! When that happened, that’s when the NT became not just writings to be read but to also be worshipped, just as the Jews worshipped their will of God in writing.

    In other words, it wasn’t the ability to read these writings that made Christians important. It was the ability to show that God was speaking through you (and through these writings) that was important. That’s why the Holy Spirit was so emphasized, because they believed the Holy Spirit was a conduit through which God could and would communicate his will to humanity, and the Holy Spirit was what allowed the faithful to properly (re-)interpret the Jewish scriptures for the coming Day of Judgment.

  16. John4
    John4  May 24, 2016

    Wonderful Bart 🙂

    In your post today, you seem to assume that literate leaders of the early churches did not in fact teach other people how to read. I understand that there could have been obstacles to teaching other people in the church how to read. I can imagine that it may not have occurred to the literate leaders to teach other people how to read. However, I’m not sure that I understand the basis for your apparent assumption that the literate leaders did not in fact teach other people how to read. Is there a basis for this assumption other than the potential obstacles you suggest?

    Many, many thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      Other than the fact that there’s nothing to suggest that Christians were being trained in literacy, not really.

      • John4
        John4  May 26, 2016

        An argument, then, that literate leaders of the early churches did not teach other people how to read would be, to a certain extent at least, an argument from silence?

        Thank you so very much, Bart.

        I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying your current series of posts. I’m very much looking forward to your *Triumph* book!


        • Bart
          Bart  May 27, 2016

          Arguments from silence are normally arguments that a certain thing did happen, not that a thing did *not* happen. Anyone who thinks that something happened has the burden of proof.

  17. Avatar
    Scott  May 24, 2016

    So, could there be an insinuation that some literate leaders of the early church may have heightened the importance of the written word in order to protect their positions of influence?

  18. Avatar
    marcrm68  May 24, 2016

    I was just thinking about this yesterday… If Paul was writing letters to churches, how many could actually read them? It seems that Christianity started as an elitist religion… Power still drives the world today! Paul was using his skills at writing as a formidable weapon…

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      Most would “read” them by hearing them read out loud in the congregation.

  19. Avatar
    Manuel  May 24, 2016

    Are your generalities applicable to the Jewish Communities, particularly the “Christian”Jews? It seems likely to me that the people of the Torah would have a higher literacy rate than the general population. Do we have any studies of the literacy rates specifically among Jewish Communities?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      It appears that Jews were no more literate than anyone else. They most often *heard* their Scriptures rather than “read” them to themselves.

  20. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 25, 2016

    How many femaile apostles, deacons, etc. are mentioned by name in 1st century Christian sources you would consider reliable? Could that provide a basis for estimating how many Christian women in 100 CE were literate and potentially in leadership positions in the churches?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      Just a few in the NT (for example Phoebe and Junica in Romans 16). The problem is that htere’s no way to know what percentage would have been mentioned.

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