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

Jack Kilmon jkilmon at historian.net
Fri Jul 9 15:08:14 EDT 2004

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Karl Randolph" <kwrandolph at email.com>
To: "Hebrew" <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Friday, July 09, 2004 11:13 AM
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] Literature and literacy contemporary to the Torah.

> ----- 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
> > > 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
> > 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
> > Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society, II, New York:
> > 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
> > 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
> 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.

I don't find Bar-Ilan's work flawed, Karl, and I don't know what value to
put on an "appreciation of literacy" as a tool.   I will concede that some
studies appear to discuss two classes..the literate and the
illiterate..while leaving open what I would call the "quasi-literate" class
whose poor writing, grammar and spelling we often find on ostraca.


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