Levels of Literacy in the NT World

The Bible and Culture | 11/30/2018 | Staff
samtetley (Posted by) Level 3
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A few decades ago, 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. The earlier claims of an extremely low level of literacy resurfaced in some comments, so I take the time to draw attention to some previous postings on the subject.

In a previous posting I complained about the frequent failure to take account of relevant material evidence for reading and writing in the Roman world. 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).

Importance - Graffiti - Activities - Elites - People

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...
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