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How Many People Were Literate in Antiquity?

Over the past month I have received a number of questions on the blog about whether it was possible that some of the apostles used "secretaries" to write their books -- so that when 1 or 2 Peter, say, claims to be written by Peter, it actually was written by Peter in a sense.  Peter told a secretary what to write and the secretary (e.g., Silvanus? 1 Peter 5:12) actually put pen to papyrus.  But the thoughts and ideas were all Peter's. It's an important question, and I've dealt with it a good bit over the years.  I actually did a short thread on it over six years ago now here on the blog.  I've decided to return to the issue.  This will take three posts.  The first is on what levels of literacy back at the time of the New Testament: how many people cold read and how many write (which is not the same thing in antiquity!); and apart from who could write, who could compose a writing? Here is what I said about [...]

2022-09-02T10:35:38-04:00August 31st, 2022|Catholic Epistles, Forgery in Antiquity|

Was John the Son of Zebedee Capable of Writing a Gospel?

I deal with an interesting question in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag: is it plausible that the apostle John could compose a Gospel in Greek?  If you have a question you would like me to address, ask away, and I will add it to my long list!   QUESTION: You mention in your book Forgeries and Counter Forgeries that John most likely did not write the Gospel attributed to him as he almost certainly could not write in Greek. I seem to remember you writing that the Greek of that Gospel was good and fairly nuanced. However, I am being told by someone who is fairly conversant in these matters that John could easily have learned the Greek necessary to write the Gospel, since he lived for over 60 years on the mission field and that his Greek is the most basic of the NT. Is he right? And if so how would you respond?   RESPONSE Yes, I get asked this question a lot, or rather, get told this a lot – that if an [...]

2021-01-20T00:51:04-05:00August 20th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Who Could Read and Write? A Blast from the Past.

It’s been fun for me to look over posts on the blog from years ago.  Here is one of relevance to some of my recent comments on the book of Revelation, for two reasons. One involves literacy: who could read and write?  Could John the son of Zebedee? The other involves “secredaries.”   Since my Revelation posts, a couple of people have asked me if it’s possible that the author used a “secretary” for the book (that is: since John the son of Zebedee couldn’t write, maybe he instructed a literate companion to write it for him.)  The issue of “secretaries” in early Chrsitianity was the subject of two posts that I made exactly at this time, four years ago.  I’ll give both posts, since they strike me as of perennial significance (and interest!)  Here is what I said back then (as you’ll see, in this case the issues involved whether Peter could have written 1 Peter)   ***************************************************************** IN RESPONSE TO MY POSTS ON SECRETARIES AND THE BOOK OF 1 PETER, SEVERAL PEOPLE HAVE RAISED [...]

Jesus’ Literacy

QUESTION: I don't know if you have covered this or not, but how about the issue of whether Jesus was literate or not? I came across a recent book on titled "Jesus' Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee" by Chris Keith, and the topic sounds interesting.   RESPONSE: Yes indeed, it’s a very interesting – and much debated – issue. I have not yet read Chris Keith’s book, but it’s on my (very long) list. I do know what he argues (since I just asked him in an email): he thinks that Jesus was not trained in reading and writing, the way scribes in Palestine were; but it may be that lower class people who heard Jesus engage in serious discussion over the meaning of the Torah may well have *mistaken* him for someone who was. Scribes themselves would have looked on him as not up to their standards. I’ll have to read the book before passing judgment. But basically, it sounds like he and I are on the same page. Here [...]

Peter as Literate? Part 2

THIS IS A CONTINUATION OF MY POST FROM YESTERDAY ON WHETHER PETER COULD HAVE WRITTEN 1 PETER, BASED ON THE QUESTION OF HIS POSSIBLE LITERACY. READ THE FIRST POST FIRST, OR THIS ONE WON'T MAKE AS MUCH SENSE! In pursuing this line of inquiry, we might ask what we can know about Peter as a person, prior to his becoming a disciple of Jesus. The answer is that we do not know much at all. The Gospels are consistent only in portraying him as a fisherman from the village of Capernaum in rural Galilee. We can assume that since he was a common laborer, he was not from the landed aristocracy; and since he was from rural Galilee, he would have spoken Aramaic. What can we say about his home “town” of Capernaum? The historical and social insignificance of the place can be seen by the fact that it is not mentioned in any source, including the Hebrew Bible, prior to the writings of the New Testament. In the Gospels it is portrayed as a [...]

2020-04-03T19:28:29-04:00August 7th, 2012|Book Discussions, Catholic Epistles|

Peter as Literate?

IN RESPONSE TO MY POSTS ON SECRETARIES AND THE BOOK OF 1 PETER, SEVERAL PEOPLE HAVE RAISED THE QUESTION OF WHETHER PETER WAS HIMSELF LITERATE (ABLE TO READ, OR MORE SIGNIFICANTLY, TO WRITE). THIS IS THE FIRST PART OF WHAT I SAY IN MY BOOK FORGERY AND COUNTERFORGERY; THE SECOND PART WILL BE IN THE NEXT POST. ************************************************************************************************************************ In his now-classic study of ancient literacy, William Harris gave compelling reasons for thinking that at the best of times in antiquity only 10% or so of the population was able to read [Ancient Literacy; Harvard University Press, 1989]. By far the highest portion of readers was located in urban settings. Widespread literacy like that enjoyed throughout modern societies requires certain cultural and historical forces to enact policies of near universal, or at least extensive, education of the masses. Prior to the industrial revolution, such a thing was neither imagined nor desired. As Meir Bar Ilan notes: “literacy does not emerge in a vacuum but rather from social and historical circumstances.” Moreover, far fewer people in antiquity [...]

2021-01-20T01:06:19-05:00August 6th, 2012|Book Discussions, Catholic Epistles|
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