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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 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 could compose a writing than could read, as shown by the investigations of Raffaella Cribiore, who stresses that reading and composition were taught as two different skills and at different points of the ancient curriculum. Learning even the basics of reading was a slow and arduous process, typically taking some three years and involving repeating “endless drills” over “long hours.” “In sum, a student became accustomed to an incessant gymnastics of the mind.” These kinds of “gymnastics” obviously required extensive leisure and money, neither of which could be afforded by any but the wealthy classes. Most students did not progress beyond learning the basics of reading, to the second level of grammar. Training in composition came only after these early stages, and most students did not get to that point: “the ability to articulate one’s thoughts in writing was achieved only when much literature had been digested.” Especially difficult, and requiring additional training, was acquiring literacy in a second language. Indeed, as, Cribiore points out, “bilingualism did not correspond to biliteracy.”

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How Did Ancient Writers Use Secretaries? A Blast from the Past
The End of Time in Revelation and the Gospel of John



  1. Avatar
    Kathleen  August 4, 2016

    In Luke 4:17-21 Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah and read from it, and John 8:6 he stoops to write on the ground. Do you think Jesus was literate?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2016

      The John 8 passage was a later scribal addition to the next, not original. It is the only passage in the NT where Jesus is said to be able to write, and one recent study argues that it was added by the scribe precisely to show that Jesus was writing-literate (not sure I buy that!). Luke 4 is the only passage where he is said to have been able to read. My long-held view is that he could read but not write; I’m increasingly unsure if he could read….

      • Rick
        Rick  August 5, 2016

        If “Luke” was writing a orderly account of things written before, for a largely educated Roman audience, is it not as likely that he pumped up Jesus educational credentials as it is that a common laborer from rural Galilee could write?

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  August 6, 2016

        In my view, expressed in my novel, “The Murdered Messiah,” what Jesus wrote in the sand was the first letter of each of the ten commandments, which would not have required much writing skill. I don’t think Jesus could write, but I do believe he could read. Of course, it’s also possible that Jesus learned Torah by hearing it read by others. I think much of the belief that only 3% of the population could read in 2d Temple times is based on the thinking that there were very few synagogues in that era. However, more recent scholarship indicates there were 400 synagogues in Jerusalem at that time. Also, more recent scholarship indicates there were synagogues in other parts of Judea and Galilee where non supposedly existed before–included one in Migdal. Further, if Jews of that era were as interested in scripture as I believe, a synagogue doesn’t have to be a separate building any more than for Christians a church had to be anything more than a place, say a residence, where members of the community met.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  August 13, 2016

        Why are you becoming more unsure Dr. Ehrman?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 15, 2016

          Just because I increasingly think it is unlikely that a lower-class impoverished Jew from a small hamlet without a school or any other educational facilities would have learned how to read.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  August 4, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, from what you’re saying I’m still afraid that people may come away thinking that Peter was a total rube. I’m not convinced of that. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being an abject country bumpkin and 10 being Josephus, where would Peter fall? I certainly don’t think he’s a 1 or a 10. But I also don’t think he was a 2 or a 9. He was probably somewhere in the middle — maybe a 4. Indeed, in order to dictate a well-constructed, well-thoughout piece of writing, all one needs to be is an exceptional speaker, and there’s no reason to think that Peter wasn’t, at the very least, very well-spoken in Aramaic. Does this mean he could dictate a terrific letter in Greek? Not at all. I agree with you that Peter almost certainly did not write or dictate the letters attributed to him. However, can we say that Peter couldn’t read one word to save his life? It’s highly doubtful he could read Greek, but I’m sure if he saw Greek writing he’d know it was Greek. And he could probably utter some sentences in broken Greek, just like how a 19th century Chinese resident of Hong Kong could speak some broken English. Could Peter read Aramaic, and by extension Hebrew (since they use the same alphabet)? I think so. I don’t think he was terribly good at it, though (hence why he was accused of being illiterate). And I don’t think Peter could sit down and write a well-composed, orthographically impeccable Aramaic or Hebrew document either. But, alas, he didn’t need to. Peter only need to find someone who could. If Peter could speak eloquently, then as long as he has a well-trained scribe dictating for him, then his eloquence could be transposed onto the page. This is what I think most scholars seem to be hung up on, separating eloquent oratory from eloquent writing. The thing that really separates the two is a good scribe.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2016

      See my post today and especially the one to follow!

      • Avatar
        Kazibwe Edris  August 6, 2016

        i notice that in ancient world people used alphabet of another language to write their own name in their native language. i also notice that even if a person is writing in a language not native to his that does not mean that writing in another language means one SPEAKS another language.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 7, 2016

          I don’t think that’s normally true. Writers used their own alphabets to give the names of the people to whom they referred.

  3. Avatar
    prairieian  August 4, 2016

    What about numeracy? Presumably the merchant class at the least would have had this skill, along with the rudiments known by most so that they could get paid, sell their fish, etc. Or, was much of the economy on a barter basis?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2016

      Yes, I assume merchants would need to be able to count money. I doubt it most lower class merchants could do much more than that.

  4. Avatar
    Michael Sommers  August 5, 2016

    I would suppose that until Gutenberg came along, a major obstacle to widespread literacy was the lack of affordable things to read.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 5, 2016

    Of course, true believers would say he was given the ability to do it miraculously, because God wanted him to write what he did! And if they’re devout Catholics, they’ll insist that *everything* in their version of the Bible is correct, including claims of authorship.

  6. TWood
    TWood  August 6, 2016

    1. Hezser says Josephus only one… but Paul was too… or is he not considered a Jew in Roman Palestine?

    2. I’ve studied this, but what’s your view: is it basically synonymous to say “Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew” and “Jesus was a first century Israeli Jew” (some non-Jews lived in Israel right). The NT seems to refer to it as Israel.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2016

      Paul was not a Palestinian Jew.

      No, “Palestinian” Jew does not mean that he was a Palestinian in our sense (Palestinian vs. Israeli). It means “a Jew who lived in the region that the Romans called Palestine.” There were no Israelis then.

      • TWood
        TWood  August 7, 2016


        1) What was Paul then? An Asian Minor Jew?

        2) Jesus was a Palenstinian Jew, correct? If not, what was he?

        3) When did Anienct Israel become the Roman Palestine of 1st century?

        4. When New Testamnet says “Israel” (Luke 7:9, Romans 11:26, etc?) Does I it just mean “all Jews everywhere?” With no reference to geography?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 8, 2016

          1. Yes, a diaspora Jew 2. Yes, a Jew from Palestine 3. In the second century under Hadrian, about a hundred years after Jesus’ death 4. It is much debated: it appears normally to refer to all those descended from the original twelve tribes of Israel.

          • TWood
            TWood  August 8, 2016

            Hadrian. Right. But before that in the New Testament I can’t think of a reference to Palestine. A couple references to the land of Israel (Matt. 2:20-21, Matt. 10:23). Other recerences to Galilee and Judea. In light of this, why is it not correct to say Jesus was a first century Israeli Jew? (I’m not saying it’s wrong to say Palestian Jew also. But I don’t understand why Israeli is wrong before Hadrian).

          • Bart
            Bart  August 9, 2016

            No, I don’t think that would work. “Palestinian” in the sense historians use it means “someone who lived in the region that the Romans came to call Palestine.” The term “Israeli” refers to a nationality “someone who is a citizen of the modern state of Israel.” The first definition applies to Jesus, the second does not.

  7. Avatar
    rap2016  September 29, 2016

    Hi Bart
    Nice to have forum to exchange thoughts. Firstly the letter J was not added to the English alphabet until 1630. The 1611
    KJB is faithful to this and uses “Iesus”. Now does this mean praise Zeus. As “Iesus” is a greek name. It ends in “us”. There are further implications the state of Israel was not created until 1948. So when people talk about an ancient Israel it is incorrect. Also no J therefore no Joseph of Aramathia, no John, no James, no Joseph, no Jude, no Judea, to name a few. Now a Jew was not a term used at that time. They were actually money lenders and always have been. A Jew is a person who lends money against jewellery. The term Jew is a nick name. These are facts. I welcome comments

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2016

      It is historically false that Jews were always money lenders. I think you may want to read up on the history of anti-Semitism.

      • Avatar
        rap2016  October 1, 2016

        Hello Bart, Thank you for your reply. Could you comment on the other points I made above especially on the letter J and its implications to those names used and also on the view that Serapis was a mythical creation from Ptolomy 1 dynasty by the Egyptians who used Osiris and Apis together to make Oserapis which developed to Serapis which then became a for runner to the Chrestus which became Iesus which became Jesus.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 2, 2016

          I didn’t understand the point about the letter J. On Serapis: yes, it appears to have been an invented god, along the lines you suggest.

  8. Avatar
    rap2016  October 3, 2016

    hello Bart
    If the letter J was not introduced into the English Alphabet until 1630 then how can we be confident in literature or history, that uses words like Jews, Josehus of Aramethea, James John. Therefore what would be their original name and why do they not use the original names. Could it be that the literature of the Bible is much later. The renaissance period did not start until 1400s. The only languages with an alphabet was Latin and Greek. You say you can read Greek. Is Jesus Christ mentioned in the Papyrus literature that exists. I believe not. Finally, the point on Israel. Not a state until 1948. Created by the Europeans. Can you comment on the work of Dr Walter Williams, the Historical Origin of Christianity. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      I’m afraid I still don’t get it. THe Bible wasn’t written in English, so it didn’t use *any* English letters, not just J.

  9. Avatar
    rap2016  October 11, 2016

    hello Bart. thank you for your reply.
    Okay lets discuss the seven Ecumenical Council meetings…..
    1 The council of Nicea, 325 an attempt by Constantine to keep the East and West parts of the empire together. The conflict was the controversy between Arianism which supported Monophysitism and the Dyothysites that the Chrestus has two natures. The Nicaean creed condemned Arianism and the Chrestus was renamed Iesus Chrestus. It should be noted that the Christians before this Council meeting were known as Bishops of Christ.
    2 The Next Council Meeting, the First Council of Constantinople 381, upheld the Nicean Creed and condemed Apollinarism, that Iesus could not have a human mind.
    3 The Council of Ephesis 431 created the virgin Mary the theotokos. There was clearly a dispute about the human nature of Iesus Chrestus. The claim was that for the Iesus Chrestus to have a human nature you must come through the body of a woman.
    4 The council of Chalcdon 481 was the declaration that Chistianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.
    Justinian 1 in 535 renovates the Hagia Sophia which becomes the first Christian Church.
    5 The Second Council of Constantinople 553 Condemned Nestorianism. Two separate natures
    6 The Third Council of Constantinople 680/1 condemned. Monothelitism. That the Iesus Chrestus has one will.
    7 The Second Nicaean Condemned 787. Condemn Iconoclasism.
    Does this show that this Iesus Chrestus that later became Jesus Christ was a created creature. From the Zeus Serapus that became Iesus Chrestus.
    In fact why would they be discussing these issues if Iesus was a real person that lived and walked.
    This controversy seems to have continued for nearly 500 years.
    My point is they do not seem to be paying any attention to the Hebew texts. They do appear to be paying any attention to a real life Iesus that was crucified and resurrected and that he died for our sins. No discussion of Paul and his epistles, the fact that they do not talk about an earthly Iesus. No discussion about the Iesus teaching parables or miracles.

    Can you address this point Jesus is a Greek name not Jewish that means “Hail Zeus”.
    Also if we don’t know what his actual name was when he existed then how can we be sure we are speaking of the same person. Thank you. I welcome comments too.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2016

      No, Jesus does not mean “Hail Zeus.” It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua. We do know his name. It was Yeshua.

  10. Avatar
    rap2016  October 13, 2016

    thank you Bart
    Could you comment on the points raised by the 7 ecumenical council meetings.
    This dispute went on for over 500 years…………

    Why would they be unable to reach agreement on the two natures of Iesus Chrestus.

    Why do they have to create a Theotokos at the council of Ephesis in 431. The claim here by the Monophysites that to have a human nature you must come through the body of a woman.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2016

      Each of these councils was called to deal with a different issue, not the same one each time. Theotokos was important for people who wanted to affirm that absolute and full divinity of Christ, even at his birth.

  11. Avatar
    rap2016  October 13, 2016

    Hello Bart
    Why was there such a prominent opposition to The Christ having two wills. This seems to be a common contention in the first 1000 years of Christianity. The descriptions used were monophysitism, Arianism. Monothyletism. that the nature of the Christ is spiritually the same as God. The opposition was to his human nature. This is at least 400 years after his alleged life ended.
    Could you comment on this. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2016

      The problem was that he had to be fully human and fully divine, not half of each. Otherwise, it was thought, he wasn’t “really” either, but a kind of hybrid.

  12. Avatar
    rap2016  October 16, 2016

    Hello Bart
    I feel that your view on this issue is not as significant as I think……….
    Lets go back to Paul.
    1 Did Paul exist? Can you give a source outside the Bible?
    2 Do you agree that Jesus in Paul’s Epistles is celestial?
    3 Is Paul a Gnostic Christian?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2016

      1. Yes, Paul is talked about in non-biblical sources, e.g., his death is discussed in 1 Clement and in later Acts of Paul.
      2. Jesus is a pre-existent divine being for Paul, who becomes a human being and is crucified by the Roman authorities for the salvation of the world,
      3. Gnosticism did not exist in the days of Paul

  13. Avatar
    rap2016  October 19, 2016

    Hello Bart
    Could you comment on these points, thanks
    1 Paul in his letters is not referring to an earthly but a Celestial Jesus. In fact in his letters he points out that this is “My Gospel” and it comes by revelation. Not from any man. So we have a celestial Jesus.
    2 After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the authors of the NT look to their scripture and on Paul’s Celestial Jesus and construct the Gospels of Mark Matthew and Luke. These three are similar, there is overlap, as well as additions in Matthew and Luke from Mark. We could probably conclude that the differences are due to the authors interpretation of the life of the Messiah, who may or may not of existed. The differences between the Gospels are not necessarily material. John’s Jesus is more like the Jesus of Paul. Could this be where we get the two natures of Jesus. The Jesus in Paul is divine. The Jesus in the Gospels is human. Therefore two kinds of Christians on the scene.
    3 This controversy continues right through the 7 Ecumenical Council Meetings. 325 to 787 CE.
    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2016

      No, I”m not a mythicist, so I don’t agree that Paul did not know about a historical Jesus. But I’ll be *debating* a mythicist on Friday! If you want to see my views on these things, you may want to read my book Did Jesus Exist?

  14. Avatar
    rap2016  October 26, 2016

    hello Bart
    I am agnostic on the existence of a Jesus. But I will get and read your book.
    Can you comment on these points please
    1 The period 70 CE to 325 CE two main strands of Christianity emerged prominent. Those that believed that Jesus had 1 nature, human. Those that believed he had 2 natures human and divine.
    2 Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 324 after a period of civil wars against Maxentius and Licinius. He was compelled to call the Council of Nicea to keep the Empire united under 1 Religon. He saw the power of a monotheistic theology.
    3 Successive Roman rulers Constantine II and Theodosius II enforced participation in the State Religon by attendance on Sunday and in other rituals.
    4 How and when and by whom was the dispute about the two natures resolved or agreed.
    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2016

      I’d suggest you read my book How Jesus Became God. The debates actually were about something else in the first three centuries.

  15. Avatar
    rap2016  November 2, 2016

    hello Bart
    Could you comment on these points please.
    The authors of John proclaim Jesus as God. It is hear that he became God. Before Abraham I am. If you have seen me you have seen the father, I and the father are one. These statements clearly indicate that the author wants the readers to believe he is God. This Jesus is bold and unafraid. Confident and sure of himself.
    I see Matthew and Luke as spin doctors who are really elaborating on the storey told by Mark.
    If we look at the first Gospel Mark we see a completely different Jesus. He is preaching a mystery religion that no one really understands, not his family, not his disciples, not his community, unless you are in on the secret.
    If we go back further to the letters of Paul we get a celestial Jesus who communicates by revelation and never seen on earth. He is only seen after his dearth, burial and resurrection. Paul repeatedly claims that he did not receive by any man. This is my gospel says Paul. Further he refers to scripture but does not quote from where.
    My question is given this perspective can the lay person really believe there was an actual Jesus…
    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2016

      The fact that two authors portray a figure differently, in my view, has no bearing on the quesiton of whether the figure existed. Just think of two accounts of Barack Obama, one written by a rabid tea-party hater of Obamacare and the other written by an equally rabid and passionate left-wing liberal. They would be massively different. But would the difference show that Obama never existed?

  16. Avatar
    rap2016  November 6, 2016

    The fundamental differences in Paul, Mark, Matthew and Luke and John indicate that there probably wasn’t a unique Jesus. These differences are not just about the events in his life they are different in the way they view Jesus. Paul does proclaim he is writing scripture, he calls it my gospel and revelation from Jesus.
    On the gospel accounts the evangelists do not proclaim to be writing scripture or that they have been inspired by anyone. Further, we don’t have any eye witness accounts of his life by any contemporaries.
    1 Why was he under their radar.
    2 The analogy you make above are people at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Do we see clear differences in his Political life within the scriptures. I don’t believe we do.
    3 Can we dismiss categorically a historical Jesus. Probably not 100%.

    I believe that 1 to 30-33 CE Jesus could have existed but really was an ordinary Jew. We simply don’t have the original manuscripts to prove it either way. There was clearly legend and Pagan mythology adding to the story of his life and the evangelist writers used popular legend to promote their Jesus story through time.

    Could you comment on the 50 bibles commissioned by Constantine and is Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus surviving ones from that 50.

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      Some scholars have argued that these are two of the fifty. My view is that there is almost zero evidence to argue the point, apart from thei date and high quality.

  17. Avatar
    rap2016  November 8, 2016

    Hell Bart
    Coming back to the existence of Jesus for a moment consider these parallels.
    Astrology was human kinds first attempt to explain and understand and predict the changing cycles of the seasons. Their survival depended on it. Astrology then lead to Mythology. Although the two were not discrete they overlapped. Constantine continued to worship Sol Invictus an astrological deity.
    There is clearly undeniable astrological influence in the gospels especially Matthew
    1 For example Jesus starts his ministry at 30………The moon orbits the earth in around 30 days
    2 Jesus has 12 disciples……….12 Months of the year
    3 Jesus Ministry lasts 1 year……..The orbit of the earth is 1 year around the Sun
    4 The Sun drops to its lowest point in the Northern Hemisphere on 22 December and after 3 days begins to rise…….Jesus dies on the cross and is resurrected in 3 days.

    Can you confirm if it is true that the Sun sits in the constellation of the Southern Cross during these 3 days, that is December 22, 23 and 24. Then begins to rise on the 25, hence reborn. If this is true then the Term the “Sun dies on the cross” has evolved.

    5 The Sun enters Aquarius……..Jesus is Baptised by John the Baptist
    6 The Sun visits Pisces the two fish……….Jesus visits two fisherman Simon and Peter
    7 The Sun visits Aries…………….Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away sin.
    I am sure you are familiar with the rest of this.

    There is clear and undeniable Parallels here Bart that there could have been a cult that was following this astrological version or interpretation of Jesus.

    You also quote that Paul meets James the brother of Jesus and also there is a big bust up between Paul and Peter regarding Circumcision and whether to eat with the Gentiles.
    Could the connection between Paul and Peter be a later insertion by the Church Fathers. Is it conceivable that Paul is proclaiming a different Jesus. In Romans 10:14 and also he reinforces by stating this is “My Gospel” not from any man. Further in Galatians 1:1 – 11 he refers to other gospels that may be threatening the message…..let them be under Gods curse.

  18. Avatar
    rap2016  February 27, 2017

    hello Bart
    I have researched some leads and I conclude that before the European Renaissance very few people could read or write. The only people who were literate were the Egyptians, they had three forms of script. Hieroglyphic, phonetic I and phonetic II. From which we get the Arabic and Hebrew and the Greek and Latin. It is false to believe thje Greeks had an alphabet. It was a derivative of the ancient Egyptian phonetic II. The manuscripts that you refer to P52 and the similar are ancient Egyptian writings.
    I await your comments. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      Ancient Egyptian is a hamitic language, unrelated both to Hebrew and Arabic, which are semitic languages, and to Greek and Latin which are indo-european.

  19. Avatar
    Hon Wai  November 1, 2018

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,
    Dr. Hurtado has just posted a blog article presenting a thesis directly opposite to yours concerning low level of literacy in the Greco-Roman world:
    “it became fashionable in some scholarly circles, including NT/Christian Origins, to hold the view that in the Roman period there was an extremely low level of literacy, and that only elite levels of society had that skill. One still sees this view touted today (typically by those echoing what they believe to be authoritative pronouncements on the matter by others). But a number of studies show that such generalizations are simplistic, and that “literacy” was both more diverse and much more widely distributed than some earlier estimates.”
    It would be helpful if you can post a rejoinder on this topic in the near future.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2018

      I’d like to see what he’s actually talking about. This statement is pretty broad and sweeping, so I’m not sure what he has in mind. Just speaking for myself, my views are not based on authoritative pronouncements of others, but on the detailed investigations of Bar-Ilan and CAtherine Hezser. If Larry disagrees with their data or conclusions, I’d love to know why!

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  November 2, 2018

        Dr. Hurtado cites studies of graffiti from Pompeii:
        “In other postings, I drew particular attention to the data provided in a study of graffiti from Pompeii, and also the really interesting study of graffiti by Roger Bagnall, in his book Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). The particular importance of graffiti is that they don’t likely reflect the activities of elites, but more likely people of lower/various social levels. One can’t imagine Cicero stopping to write graffiti! But also graffiti seem to have been addressed to similarly diverse social levels, with the expectation that various/many passersby would be able to stop and read them. As the cited studies observe, this all means that, at least in urban settings, some meaningful levels of literacy were much more common that some have previously asserted.”

        • Bart
          Bart  November 4, 2018

          I wonder what “meaningful” levels of literacy means? The vast majority of the population was rural — over 80%. So even if literacy rates in urban areas could reach, say, 30%, the vast majority of people could not read or write. Those who *could* read were the ones who gave all the others access to written texts, including graffiti. They read them out loud

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