In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literacy, New Testament

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Greco-Roman Literacy

Biblical Studies Literacy, New Testament
Chris Keith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0177


Although various New Testament texts reflect the importance of literacy and illiteracy in early Christianity (for example, Mark 13:14; John 7:15; Acts 4:13; 8:30; 1 Corinthians 16:21), these issues have taken on greater significance in New Testament studies since the 1980s. This period witnessed an explosion of interdisciplinary research on ancient literacy and illiteracy in cognate disciplines such as classics, cultural anthropology, literary criticism, and media criticism. Cumulatively, these interdisciplinary studies have established a new and sustained scholarly majority opinion that most ancient persons were illiterate. As a result, New Testament scholars now see literacy and illiteracy as important factors for interpreting New Testament and early Christian texts in their socio-historical contexts, especially for understanding the diffusion of social power in the text-centered cultures of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. Such a perspective has breathed fresh life into old debates, such as the education of Jesus and his followers or the identity of Jewish scribes, and has introduced, or participated in, new perspectives, such as “performance criticism” and the “material turn” in studies of early Christian book culture. Most of these studies accept that the majority of the population in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity was illiterate and proceed to understand the social consequences of the use of books and literate skills in a predominantly oral environment. Along these lines, further studies have increasingly come to indicate the overall inadequacy of the terms “literate” and “illiterate” for understanding the complex manifestations of literate skills in practice. Complicating factors include the facts that reading and writing skills were acquired and used separately, reading and writing skills existed in varying levels and varying languages even for an individual, and that literacy (the ability to access written tradition for oneself) should not be confused with textuality (the awareness and appreciation of written tradition). These factors and others have impacted New Testament scholars’ understanding of the authorship, reception, and circulation of texts in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity.

General Overviews

General overviews of literacy issues in New Testament criticism are not plentiful and all have come after the publication of general overviews in other disciplines. Although almost entirely overlooked in scholarly discussions, Müller 1994 was the most comprehensive discussion of reading practices in early Christianity until Millard 2001. Millard 2001 is a good initial point of entry into the literature and serves well as a pedagogical resource in light of the breadth of evidence discussed and photographs of the evidence. Botha 2012, a collection of previously published scholarly essays, gives detailed attention to the historical and exegetical significance of approaching early Christianity as a culture in which illiteracy was the norm. It is the most careful representative of performance criticism, whereby scholars emphasize widespread illiteracy in order to assert the performative nature of textual practices in antiquity. Kuhn 2010, Evans 2012, and Keith 2014 are textbooks that include chapters on the literacy environment of Jesus and early Christians, useful for introducing the topic to non-specialist and student readers.

  • Botha, Pieter J. J. Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity. Biblical Performance Criticism 5. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012.

    Treats a variety of issues such as oral texts, reading practices, authorship, writing, performance, and manuscripts. Several essays also argue for approaching the Jesus tradition and Paul’s letters as products of a primarily oral culture.

  • Evans, Craig A. Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence. London: SPCK, 2012.

    Although not disputing the claims of 5 to 10 percent literacy in the ancient world, the third chapter of this book cites textual and archaeological evidence from the Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts in an effort to show that limited reading and writing skills were more widespread than such rates might suggest.

  • Keith, Chris. Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.

    Chapter 1 of this study describes the ancient literary environment of Jesus in light of six factors: majority illiteracy, degrees of literacy, separate skills of reading and writing, multilingualism, scribal literacy, and the social perception of literacy.

  • Kuhn, Karl Allen. Luke: The Elite Evangelist. Paul’s Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in Faith. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010.

    Chapter 1 is a short introduction to recent literacy studies, emphasizing the social aspects of majority illiteracy in light of five factors: restricted literacy; high levels of literacy attained by few; advanced literacy restricted to social elite; high levels of literacy as a commodity for honor and status; and literacy as a means of enculturation and control.

  • Millard, Alan. Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. The Biblical Seminar 69. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

    Millard’s argument that the material evidence supports the idea that Jesus’ disciples could have kept written records of his teaching during his day has not been widely supported. His detailed discussion of that material evidence, however, including attested languages, ancient book forms, manuscript fragments, inscriptions, and the social status of readers and writers, remains valuable.

  • Müller, Peter. Verstehst du auch, was du liest? Lesen und Verstehen im Neuen Testament. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994.

    Taking its cue from the question of Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:30, this study surveys select portrayals of reading and reading practices in the New Testament and early Christianity. It briefly considers reading practices in Greco-Roman culture and ancient Judaism as well as the significance of liturgical reading of early Christian writings.

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