William Harris has been the first to write a monograph on Graeco-Roman literacy from a historical point of view.
He suggests that preconditions for the existence of a large proportion of literate people among the populace are
- a wide distribution and easy availability of texts,
- an extensive and subsidized school network which offers elementary education free of charge,
- an economic need for a large quantity of people able to read and write,
- a connection between literacy and social mobility, and
- a religious or other ideological motivation for becoming literate.
These conditions were mostly lacking in the ancient world, even at its most advanced stage.
The time when the usage of texts was no longer limited to a few people who derived practical advantages must have taken place by the end of the 4th century B.C.E. But even from the 4th c. B.C.E. onwards the literacy rate will not have surpassed 10-15 percent of the population.
Though high degree of literacy can be assumed for the urban upper classes, only a few artisans and merchants and even less farmers and rural workers will have possessed that skill. p.24
Mary Beard and Richard Gordon: Writing turns a religion into an ideology and helps to maintain the social domination of an elite. Beard agrees with Gordon that the preservation and interpretation of otherwise unintelligible religious traditions could foster the religious leaders’ power.
These considerations might be applied to the writing down of rabbinic traditions as well.
Alan Bowman: Scholars who believed in a high level of literacy seem to have been misled by their focus on the written remains: the classical ancient world has a literate ‘feel’ to it, for illiterates could participate in it through intermediaries p.27
a formal elementary school system did not exist at the biblical time; ancient Israelites lived in an « oral world » which made only spare use of writing.
Allen R. Millard (1972): most of the extant texts seem to have been written by professional scribes and fall into the categories of monumental and professional inscriptions; professional scribes were responsible for the bulk of Hebrew written documents.
- Millard, Allen R., ‘The Question of Israelite Literacy’, Biblical review, 111/3 (1987), pp. 22-31.
- Millard, Allen R., Readin and Writing in the Time of Jesus, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
Menahem Haran (1988): Scholars and educated people, among whom the scribes were included, were probably to be found within a fairly thin layer of the population, the representatives of which underwent long years of study in schools », whereas the majority of the population lacked any such schooling and must be considered entirely illiterate or barely literate with a rudimentary knowledge of letters only.
Susan Niditch (1996): The epigraphic evidence of writing in ancient Israel, such as short texts and letters on ostraca and papyri, shows that writing was used « for circumscribed purposes » only: « The vast majority of texts and letters are pragmatic and brief – military, military-commercial, or commercial in nature ». Texts for military and commercial purposes were commonly written by scribes and may have been read by secretaries only. The types of literacy which some artisans and traders may have possessed and the literacy necessary for the formation of the biblical tradition are different. Israelites live in a world heavily informed by the oral end of the continuum.
Albert Baumgarten (1997): « Literacy often goes hand in hand with urbanization. »
Jewish sects from Maccabean times until 70 C.E. can best be compared with members of Graeco-Roman philosophical schools; originated from the literate and urban sectors of society, they considered themselves a chosen elite, « standing above society » and distinct from the unlearned ‘ ‘people of the land ».
Meir Bar-Ilan (1992) on the illiteracy of the Palestinian rural population in the first centuries C.E: « With increasing urbanization the Jewish literacy rate will have slightly increased, but one must not forget that ancient Jewish society remained an agrarian society.
In some rural towns and settlements the literacy rate will have been below 1%, and some villages may not even have had one single individual who could read.271 Accordingly, « if there were towns with 1% literacy, then the literacy of all the towns was not higher than 5% (at most) ». In cities such as Tiberias the literacy rate may have been double or triple that of the smaller towns, that is, 2-15%. With the illiterate rural population constituting approximately 70% of the total population of Roman Palestine, the 20% of urban population with a literacy rate of 1- 5% and I 0% of highly urban population with a literacy rate of 2-15% will not have changed the overall picture much.
It is no exaggeration to say that the total literacy rate in the Land of Israel at that time (of Jews only, of course), was probably less than 3%« .
All scholars agree that if girls were educated at all, they were educated at home, by their parents or other relatives. 33 Girls are unlikely to have attended the schools which boys frequented.
Josephus (and and within Talmudic sources), by claiming that the Jewish educational system was successful, that at places where schools existed almost all parents did send their sons to them in Second Temple and rabbinic times, falsely assumes that mnemonic Hebrew knowledge of the Torah could be equalized to literacy.
Louis Ginzberg: that Josephus’ boasting statement concerning Jewish education may have applied to the cities only, and after the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt, primary education were taken up again by Palestinian rabbis in the third century only.
Birger Gerhardsson (1961): only toward the end of the Amoraic period (circus. 500 C.E.) was school attendance quite general among the Jews.
S. Safari: The phenomenon of a social stratum with a separate Am Aratzuth (people of lands) consciousness, … , did disappear during the period of the Amoraim (circus (cf. 200-500 C.E.)
The Mishnah, Tosefta, and tannaitic Midrashim (around Jesus era) – just like Josephus and other Jewish writings from Second Temple times- never explicitly mention schools. They only mention parents and (less frequently) individual teachers engaged in instructing children.
ln the elementary school context the Aramaic-speaking pupils seem to have needed to acquire a passive knowledge of Hebrew only.
His father teaches him the Shema (Deut 6), the Torah, and the holy language », does not necessarily imply that the child learned spoken Hebrew. The speaking of Hebrew was probably limited to -the loud reading of the Torah,
The ability to speak Hebrew, which a child acquired in this way, would be very limited nad largely be restricted to the religious realm.
Nathan Morris (1937): ln Graeco-Roman society, a general education consisted not only of basic reading and writing skills, but also of the ability « to count, weigh, measure and calculate ».178 Morris has emphasized the absence of these subjects from Jewish elementary education, at least in the form in which rabbis discuss it, and considers this absence « the chief characteristic of the Jewish school, distinguishing it both from the contemporary Hellenistic as well as from the modem school ».
Critical review of Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine by George Snyder on Journal of Biblical Literature (2002):
The main result is easily stated: Jewish society in Palestine, in both the early and late imperial periods was characterized by lower literacy and more restricted use of texts
than the Greco-Roman society of which it was a part. Rabbis can certainly be classed as literate intellectuals, though Hezser believes that this intellectual effort took place more
on the oral than on the written level.
While certain hellenized elites in Palestine would have schooled their children broadly, after the Greco-Roman model, education among Palestinian Jews generally was a very spotty affair. Hezser finds very little evidence of systematic attempts to educate children from an early age, and she considers views by an earlier generation of scholars- Aberbach, Safrai, among others-as much too optimistic about the existence of Jewish schools. Even when such education did exist, emphasis was placed on reading the Torah, and this narrowly focused skill would have had less utility for participation in literate society than a more general education that included attention to writing and calculating skills.
Critical review of Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine by Meir Bar-Ilan
‘Literacy among the Jews in Antiquity’ , Hebrew Studies, 44 (2003), pp. 217-222.