My previous post introduced my thoughts on Craig Evans' new book Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence and I began offering some reflections on the discussion of ancient literacy in ch. 3. Evans argues for rather widespread ancient literacy, sort of, maybe. In this post I want to offer some reflections on the evidence he cites in this regard.
Some of the evidence does seem to indicate that a great many people could read. This includes the many inscriptions from antiquity, the vast numbers of documents found at Oxyrhynchus (Egypt), the Vindolanda tablets (England), the various graffiti in Pompeii (Italy; examples and discussion here), and the Palatine Graffito (Italy). These provide good evidence for widespread literacy, it seems to me, because they show sometimes lower-class people and private individuals using writing for ordinary purposes. Especially for Oxyrhynchus and the Vindolanda tablets, there is no discernible motivation to merely use the appearance of literacy (literacy as a symbol). And we should probably put the Palatine Graffito here, as well, if it really was found in slave's quarters (cf. p. 71).
I do wonder about the inscriptions and the graffiti from Pompeii. Possibly writing on inscriptions could have served symbolic purposes for the general populace, and only a few would have actually been able to read the writing. That is, the reason to carve something in stone is not just to communicate a written message, but to communicate a symbolic message, as well. And everyone could get the symbolic message of power and permanence even if they could not read the text. The graffiti in Pompeii might similarly communicate a message (this time of defiance or humor) even if people could not understand the writing. Of course, someone had to compose the writing.
I guess all of this would make sense with 10-20% literacy among males, which is all that Evans explicitly claims (see previous post). It would be worthwhile comparing this evidence to similar features in a more recent society of low literacy levels for which our estimates would be more accurate. I'm thinking of America or Europe before the explosion in education, when literacy was relatively low. In those societies, were there still a great number of inscriptions and graffiti?
There are other bits of evidence cited by Evans that don't carry much conviction with me. The libraries at Alexandria and Ephesus (p. 65) were intended for the elite, weren't they? The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, a private home with a library containing a thousand books (pp. 69-70), also has little implications for literacy beyond this seemingly very well-to-do family. Even in the case of the family, could the library have been primarily a cultural symbol? Or if the books were used regularly, might a slave have read aloud to the family or invited guests? What does the presence of so many books in one house actually tell us about the literacy level of the household?
Finally, the painting in Pompeii of a Baker holding a scroll and his wife holding a stylus and waxed tablets (see here) tells us nothing about whether they could read and write. It demonstrates that the couple wanted to appear in the painting with books and a stylus, but it doesn't tell us why. Evans' statement that they "evidently wanted to emphasize their literacy" is a reasonable guess (p. 68), but there are other possible guesses. Evans goes on to note that the wife is striking the "Calliope look" in imitation of a similar pose (with stylus pressed to lips) held by Calliope (muse of epic poetry) in a "fresco found at Murecine near Pompeii." So, the wife wanted to strike a pose reminiscent of Calliope. Does that mean she can read or write? If I strike the Heisman pose for a photograph, that says very little about my ability on the football field.
Am I being too minimalist about all this? Anyway, as I said before, I do think Evans presents some strong evidence for his case, especially the documents found at Oxyrhynchus and the Vindolanda tablets, along with the Palatine Graffito.