I started reading Chris Keith's Jesus' Literacy last week, finally, and I haven't been able to put it down. It is a wonderful piece of scholarship, and a real page-turner. (Apparently it hasn't been reviewed at RBL. Nor any of Chris Keith's books. Peculiar.)
I've only gotten through ch. 3, about 120 pages, so I'm not done yet. Upcoming chapters include an evaluation of the early Christian traditions about Jesus' literacy (ch. 4) and a historical reconstruction of Jesus' literate abilities (ch. 5). Previous chapters have explored the confusion in scholarship on whether Jesus was literate or illiterate (ch. 1)--here I really appreciated Keith's pointing out that for some scholars, Jesus was literate because he was a first-century Jew, meaning that he obviously learned to read the Torah, and for other scholars Jesus was illiterate because he was a first-century Jew, and a peasant to boot, meaning that he was just one of the illiterate masses--and a consideration of method in historical Jesus studies, entailing for Keith a rejection of the criteria of authenticity and an appreciation of social memory for the preservation of traditions about Jesus (ch. 2). I'm not a historical Jesus scholar, but what Keith has written here makes a great deal of sense to me, and it coheres with a larger trend in historical Jesus studies, as Keith points out, that began decades ago.
But the main reason I wanted to read this book was ch. 3, on scribal literacy in first-century Palestine, what that meant and who possessed it. This 50-page chapter is an excellent overview of the evidence and evaluation of that evidence. Keith affirms William Harris' suggestion that only about 10% of ancient people attained a significant degree of literacy. Some scholars argue that ancient Jews possessed unusually high literacy rates. Keith surveys the evidence put forward for this assertion and convincingly interprets it in different ways.
One of the main problems with thinking about ancient literacy is that all scholars who examine the matter grew up themselves in a society in which literacy is assumed for every adult. We assume literacy in the modern west because we assume literacy in the modern west--that is, we have an ideology according to which every person should be able to read and write. Employers demand literate workers. We communicate with each other through writing all the time. And we spend massive amounts of money on public education to make sure that no child is left behind, that everyone learns how to read. And if a person gets to teenage years without being a strong reader, we almost interpret that fact as evidence of societal sin.
But this entire ideology was lacking in antiquity, as Harris showed twenty-five years ago. First of all, there was a lack of a public educational system that instilled in all people the ability to read. Such a system has always been necessary to engender mass literacy, as Keith emphasizes (73–74). Furthermore, there was a lack of diffusion of written texts, lack of ideology that each person should be able to read, and lack of demand for a literate workforce (74n10, citing Harris).
I was reading this chapter while attending a piano competition. (It was an all-day event, and I paid attention when my daughters were playing! But when other kids were up, I read. :) And it got me thinking that perhaps playing the piano (or any musical instrument) might be a good modern analogy to ancient literacy. In the modern west, playing the piano is a highly prized skill that very few people acquire to any significant level. A good number of people learn some very basic things about the piano, and some do so without any formal education, but very few people learn enough about the piano to be able to perform in front of a paying audience. Likewise, in antiquity, very few people could read well enough to read in front of people (such as in synagogue).
Why this lack of knowledge of piano? Because not many people have studied it, and the reason for that is that our society has not deemed knowledge of piano to be such a universally valuable skill that everyone should acquire it (despite studies about its many benefits). So, there is not public education that assures that no child will be left behind in piano knowledge. There is no ideology that each individual should learn the piano. While there is plenty of sheet music around, there are fewer people that can do anything with it. And there is hardly any need for a piano-playing workforce.
That's not to say that when we meet someone who can play piano really well that we are not impressed, and wish that we also could do the same. We recognize it as a coveted skill. And yet, we think to ourselves, we have neither the time or (in some cases) the money to hire a personal tutor to train us in the skill. And we recognize that learning to play the piano well takes a lot of time, many years of constant practice.
There are varying levels of skill at playing piano. If you asked my oldest daughter (age 11) if she can play the piano, she will tell you that she can play some pieces, but not super complicated pieces. But neither can she read super complicated books (though if you asked whether she can read, her reply would be a simple yes). So also in antiquity, as Keith and others have demonstrated, there were varying levels of literacy. Actually this point should be so obvious that it hardly needs proof. Even today there are varying levels of literacy. When my son (age 6) finishes his beginning reading book, we wont say that he now knows how to read and be done with it. Learning to read well is a skill that takes many years of special training. Each school grade has special classes designed to help children progress in their ability to read. But once a person graduates high school, that does not signal that he or she can now read a book such as Keith's Jesus' Literacy. It would take several more years of specialized study to gain the competence to understand Keith's prose. (Keith uses something close to this analogy on p. 120.) For a complicated piano piece, my daughter would be able to identify the individual notes, but she would have trouble putting them together into a comprehensive whole. So also with complicated books. Reading the individual words does not entail comprehension.
The high respect that some people have today for classical music, or other types of music (folk, country, rock, rap, etc.) does not necessarily imply that they will learn to produce such music. If you love Mozart, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to learn to play Mozart's music on the piano. More likely, you'll just pop in a CD and listen to someone else playing Mozart. (Am I dating myself with a reference to a CD?) So also with ancient Jews, their respect for the Torah does not necessarily imply that they would learn how to read it (despite frequent arguments to the contrary). Going to a symphony concert does not impart the skill of playing the music. (Neither does going to a restaurant impart the skill of cooking, nor going to a synagogue impart the skill of reading.) Even parents who can play the piano often feel they do not have the time to teach their children, or they may even think the skill is not valuable enough to their children to compensate for the hard work on both of their parts necessary for the parent to teach the child.
What would happen today if somehow you got a hold of a piece of sheet music that you needed to read? If you can't read music, you would take it to someone who does and see if they can play it for you. So also with ancient texts. But mostly not knowing how to play the piano does not affect you negatively, aside from the occasional wish that you could. It just doesn't come up very often in our society.
If archaeologists in 2000 years dig up a lot of sheet music from early 21st century America, some of them may conclude that playing the piano was a nearly universal skill. Of course, that would be the wrong interpretation.
Perhaps the analogy could be taken further, but I guess that's enough to make the point. I think this might be a useful pedagogical approach to exploring the lack of literacy in ancient societies.