Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Craig Evans on Literacy in the Greco-Roman World

I've been reading through Craig Evans' Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (WJK, 2012), which I have thought about requiring for a class I'm teaching on the Gospels. It's a pretty good, pretty basic survey of evidence organized according to a few different themes. So far, I have read chapters on Sepphoris (ch. 1), synagogues (ch. 2), and ancient books (ch. 3). There is also a preface that talks some about doing archaeology generally and evidence for the existence of Jesus. Still to come for me are chapters on the Temple and its leadership (ch. 4) and Jewish burial traditions (ch. 5). There are also some appendices: one on the so-called family tomb of Jesus, one on what Jesus may have looked like, and one containing discussion questions.

Just a few comments about the book as a whole before I get to ancient literacy. The chapters are very narrowly focused. The chapter on Sepphoris seeks to demonstrate that it's a Jewish city more than a Greek city; the chapter on synagogues doesn't really explore much about what synagogues were used for (a little of this) or how, but whether synagogues existed as such before 70 CE; the chapter on books is really just concerned with ancient literacy rates to help us determine the probability of whether Jesus could read. In this way, the book so far (again, I've only read the first three chapters) seems strangely apologetic and not entirely helpful as a survey of how archaeological research can illuminate the world of Jesus. 

Now to the third chapter. As I mentioned, the driving question here is, "Could Jesus read?" Evans answers--in his usual scholarly but positive way--that the evidence indicates that this is likely. He deals with this question directly only at the end of the chapter (pp. 80-88), and I think he makes a pretty good case. He mentions a few Gospels passages (Luke 4:16-30; John 8:6; John 7:15)--noting, of course, the problems of interpreting some of this evidence--and evidence for literacy more broadly (nature of the Jewish faith, Philo and Josephus, 4Mac. 18, rabbinic lit.) before highlighting the general character of Jesus as narrated in the Gospels: respected as a rabbi, having disciples, challenging his opponents on their "reading" of scripture (Mark 2:25; 12:10; 12:26; Luke 10:26).

This is all fine, but it's the evidence presented earlier in the chapter (pp. 63-75) for widespread literacy in antiquity, and in ancient Judaism particularly, that has me wondering whether it really shows what Evans supposes. Well, actually, I'm not really sure if he's arguing for widespread literacy or not. He says:
Most agree that literacy rates were somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent (and that most of the literate were male), with perhaps somewhat higher rates among the Jewish people. I do not dispute this conclusion. (p. 66)
But he also says that the Vindolanda tablets "provide dramatic evidence of widespread literacy in the Roman army" (p. 69), and that the Palatine Graffito serves as "one more indication that literacy was fairly widespread and included persons from all walks of life" (p. 73), and that "[n]otwithstanding his uncritical use of rabbinical sources, [Shmuel] Safrai's conclusion that literacy was widespread among Jews may be more correct than not" (p. 84). Also, the blurb from Dale Allison on the back of the book indicates that Allison also took Evans' argument to be that literacy was widespread. I guess it all depends on what we mean by "widespread" literacy. Immediately after the statement I quoted above from p. 66, Evans writes: "if most of the literate were males, then among men literacy rates would be somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent." Maybe Evans would classify 10-20% male literacy rate as "widespread" literacy.

Whatever Evans means by "widespread," in the next post I'll comment on some of the evidence he cites to establish the case for this widespread literacy in antiquity.

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