On Ancient Literacy Levels
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One of the critical points I make often in articles is that in the time of the Bible, literacy rates were no higher than 10% in the NT period and much lower at earlier times. Glenn Miller of the ThinkTank has made this observation himself, and we both use as our source a volume titled Ancient Literacy by W. V. Harris.

An attempt has been made to circumvent this argument and claim that "literacy wasn't as uncommon in biblical times" as I or Miller "wants us to believe." What is noticeably missing from this reply is any sort of data showing that the 10% figure was wrong, or was disagreed with.

Appeals to Pompeiian graffiti, or to graffiti on a cliff in Egypt, offered no such indications; certainly it requires no more than a 10% literate population to have scrawled such things, as certainly it is not our presently significantly literate population that is responsible, as a group, for what we read today in alleys and restroom walls. Nor does that a third of a specific military unit were able to merely sign their names mean anything in this context; even today the otherwise illiterate know how to do as much, having been taught how to do that simple and singular task while not being able to recognize or write anything else.

However, the most critical issue in this commentary has to do with the attempt to rebut Harris himself, and to this effect, appeal has been made to a specific scholarly text it is supposed rebuts the figures Harris provides:

In Ancient Literacy, W. V. Harris claimed that "(l)evels of literacy were low in classical antiquity by comparison with those prevailing in the most educated countries of the last 200 years," but Literacy in the Roman World, a collection of essays available at The Journal of Roman Archaeology took issue with this premise. In her review of this volume, Callie Williamson of Indiana University noted that J. L. Franklin's contribution to this work took issue with Harris's position.
J. L. Franklin ("Literacy and the parietal inscriptions of Pompeii") searches the surviving scraps of writing on walls in Pompeii for indicators of the levels of literacy in Latin in a town in Roman Italy in the 1st century A.D. Presenting a survey of these scraps, which reveal among other things a remarkable familiarity with literary culture on the part of scribblers, Franklin argues that the ability to read and write, and significantly also the habit of writing, was more widespread among people at the bottom of Pompeian society than Harris believed.

It is to be noted, again, that in not one instance did this provide any opposing number to the 10% figure. And there is good reason for this: The scholars writing for Literacy in the Roman World do not in fact disagree with that part of Harris' conclusion.

It is not that they fully agree with all that Harris said. However, none of what they said in any sense rebuts the critical point used by myself and Miller, with respect to the figures for how many people were actually literate. To put it in sum, this is careless, or else dishonest, use of Literacy in the Roman World as a source to make an argument that it never makes.

What do these scholars actually say about Harris' figures? Here is what is said by those who mention the particular of percentages (one essay is in French, though, which I can't read):

  • The Preface says, very clearly: "...it is worth noting that the contributors have hardly challenged Harris' basic point, that levels of literacy in Graeco-Roman antiquity were never high." (emphasis added, here and in quotes following)
  • Tim Cornell [7] quotes Harris' conclusion that, "No serious consideration supports the notion that reading ability was widespread by the end of the sixth century, if such an expression means literacy among more than, say, 5% of the male citizens." Cornell says that this "general conclusion is unexceptionable".
  • Mary Beard [37-8] argues that "there was more writing associated with the cults, rituals, and sanctuaries of Graeco-Roman paganism than Harris' argument implies" and that "writing played a central role in defining the nature of human relations with the divine". Writing was not merely a "utilitarian tool." In terms of numbers, Beard only says that the "vast majority of the Roman population" was "illiterate or at best semi-literate."
  • Horsfall's essay asks the most questions of Harris, but in the end, Horsfall answers his own question: "And do my grubbings and grumblings lead to any general conclusions, or better, to any statistics? That would be too much to hope for" -- he admits to nothing more than "suspicion" that "Roman states of mind outwit modern statistical methods." [76]
  • Franklin, whose essay is cited as above, upon a survey of evidence at Pompeii actually says, "To ask of this evidence a statistical evaluation of the level of literacy, however literacy is defined at Pompeii, is to ask the wrong question....meaningful statistics are beyond the evidence." [80-1] Futhermore, his arguments are solely about Pompeii, where 2 of the 4 impediments to literacy noted by Harris "were lessened" by the nature of the city -- it is not about the larger population of the Roman Empire or places like rural Galilee.
  • Bowman [119] notes Harris' conclusion of literacy levels of 5-10%, and says, "After reading Harris' book, few will feel that there is much to be said for arguing the opposite case." Harris' arguments for low-literacy and the reasons for it are described as "coherent and foreceful" and indeed "all but impregnable."
  • Hopkins [134] calls Harris' "main hypothesis" that "only a minority of adult males (and a tiny minority of adult females) could read and write", "completely convincing...About proportions, in my view, Harris is right."

So what is it then that these writers DO dispute from Harris, if anything?

Cornell's example [7] is typical of the volume: He disputes Harris' argument that literacy was of "little historical significance, and had only a limited range of uses." Cornell rather believes that writing "may have served a wide variety of public and private functions, and that its historical importance is considerable" [8] -- but he does not dispute the figures Harris suggests for ancient literacy. Hopkins, as noted, agrees with the percntages, but feels that Harris underestimated the potential impact that even his 10% of literate males could have [134].

Thus it is clear that the Skeptic has falsely used this source to claim that it says something that it plainly does not, and in fact, clearly says the opposite. The figure used by myself and Miller remains standing without dispute -- much less a contrary number that would support dismissal of Harris' statistics.

-JPH