Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Craig Evans on Literacy in the Greco-Roman World (part 2)

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.

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.