[b-hebrew] Literature and literacy contemporary to the Torah.

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Fri Jul 9 12:13:15 EDT 2004

----- Original Message -----
From: "Jack Kilmon" <jkilmon at historian.net>

> ----- Original Message ----- 
> From: "Christopher V. Kimball" <kimball at ntplx.net>
> >
> > Again focusing on the 5-6 th century BCE, how many people (of a population
> > of how many) could read the Torah, if they had a copy?
> >
> > Chris Kimball
> About 3% according to:
> Bar-Ilan, M., 'From Scroll to Codex and its Effect on Reading the Torah',
> Sinai, 107 (1991), pp. 242-254 (Hebrew).
> Bar-Ilan, M., 'Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries
> C.E.', S. Fishbane, S. Schoenfeld and A. Goldschlaeger (eds.), Essays in the
> Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society, II, New York: Ktav,
> 1992, pp. 46-61. http://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/illitera.html
> Bar-Ilan, M., 'The Literate Woman in Antiquity', a chapter in the book by:
> idem. Some Jewish Women in Antiquity, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press (Brown
> Judaic Studies 317), 1998 (Abstract).
> Jack Kilmon

This study omits a very important aspect that relates to literacy—the value a people puts on literacy and the expectation that individuals be literate. At least functionally literate.

Also there may have been different definitions of literacy. For example, the Talmudic definition appears to me to have referred to literacy in the Hebrew language, able to read the unpointed texts of that period according to expected pronunciations later codified in the Masoritic points. Apparently only a small percentage of the people knew Hebrew well enough to do that, but that does not preclude their being functionally literate in their native languages (Aramaic, Greek, etc.).

For example, in the United States, literacy was highly prized and even taken for granted that individuals should have at least functional literacy; townsmen, farmers and even on the frontier. Illiteracy was not unknown, but it was not common, and much of it was among immigrants who were from countries that did not highly prize literacy and slaves. Even some of the Indian tribes were literate in their own languages: the Cherokees had a syllabary almost identical with ancient Basque writing and the Micmac Indians of eastern Canada have a well developed hieroglyphic writing.

>From history we read that Christians in the first couple of centuries had a far higher rate of literacy than the peoples around them, and I have heard it attributed to the Jewish influence in the early church.

So back to the question, what was the literacy rate from the time Torah was written in the 15th century BC to the Galut Babel?

>From the example of Jeremiah, while scribes were hired because of their beautiful writing (Jer. 36:32) that did not mean that Jeremiah himself was illiterate, for he too could write if he needed to (Jer. 51:60). From this we learn that the hiring of scribes does not preclude functional literacy. Nor do public readings preclude general literacy (though rare, we still have those today).

Writing is mentioned in over 200 verses in Tanakh, that could be an indication that writing was highly valued and spread widely among the people.

So what was the general literacy rate among ancient Jews from before Galut Babel? There is no way that I know of to tell. But the study cited is flawed in that leaves out the value put on general literacy by a people, which can override other cultural factors such as the percentage of peasants vs. townspeople.

Karl W. Randolph.
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