Biblical Studies Literacy, New Testament
by
Chris Keith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0177

Introduction

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.

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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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Reference Works

Entries on literacy, education, and orality in reference volumes are perhaps the best places for beginning students or non-specialists to find information about literacy in the time periods and cultures surrounding the New Testament. Carr 2010 and Viviano 2010 are the best initial points of entry for students in light of the abbreviated discussion. Lemaire 1992, Gamble 2000, Bakhos 2010, and Hezser 2010, provide fuller discussions and also fuller bibliographies. Lemaire 1992 is a succinct representative of the view that supports the widespread existence of schools and literacy, which has fallen out of favor among more recent scholars. Hurtado and Keith 2013 discusses the social aspects of literacy reflected in Jewish and early Christian book cultures. Roberts 1970, though dated, is still often cited.

  • Bakhos, Carol. “Orality and Writing.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine. Edited by Catherine Hezser, 482–499. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199216437.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Begins with a helpful and short history of research on literacy in cognate disciplines, then treats related topics such as professional scribes, women and literacy, and the active interplay between orality and literacy in rabbinic transmission.

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  • Carr, David M. “Literacy and Reading.” In The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlowe, 888–889. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.

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    Presents social contexts for literacy and various types of literacy and reading practices in early Judaism. Carr claims that only a minority gained a form of literacy.

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  • Gamble, Harry Y. “Literacy and Book Culture.” In Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds. Edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, 644–648. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000.

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    Excellent, succinct presentation of the different forms of literacy, usages of literacy, interrelationship between literacy and orality, and impact of mass illiteracy on ancient book culture.

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  • Hezser, Catherine. “Private and Public Education.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine. Edited by Catherine Hezser, 465–481. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199216437.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Hezser argues that there is no evidence of a Jewish elementary school system in the pre-70 CE period. Only a few adult males would have been able to read Torah in synagogue.

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  • Hurtado, Larry W., and Chris Keith. “Writing and Book Production in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.” In The New Cambridge History of the Bible: From the Beginnings to 600. Edited by James Carleton Paget and Joachim Schaper, 63–80. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139033671.007Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The second half of this essay highlights the connection between the low-literacy environment of the ancient world and the social significance of reading and writing practices in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, such as the interpretive authority of literates and the high value placed upon producing copies of esteemed texts.

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  • Lemaire, André. “Writing and Writing Materials.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 999–1008. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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    Full discussion of writing, the alphabet, writing materials, book forms, and scribal power from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt through the New Testament period. Lemaire claims that literacy was widespread among Palestinian Jews by the 1st century BCE and that most towns had schools.

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  • Roberts, C. H. “Books in the Graeco-Roman World and in the New Testament.” In The Cambridge History of the Bible: From Beginnings to Jerome. Edited by P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, 48–66. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521074186Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Overview of early Christian book culture. Roberts claims that writing was present at almost all levels of life in early Christianity and its surrounding cultures, and that the New Testament treats reading as a commonplace accomplishment.

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  • Viviano, Benedict T. “Education.” In The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, 561–563. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

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    Short but helpful overview of the sources for Jewish education in the Hellenistic and Roman periods and discussion of primary, secondary, and vocational education processes. Viviano claims that primary schools developed later than secondary schools.

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Greco-Roman Literacy

Studies dedicated to literacy and education in the broader Greco-Roman context are crucial for understanding literacy issues in New Testament scholarship. Harris 1989 is the single most important study on ancient literacy to date. It overturned generations of scholarship and is primarily responsible for the flood of research on ancient literacy that has come in its wake. Beard, et al. 1991 was the first critical response and remains the fullest critical engagement. Bowman and Woolf 1994 is a classic study of how writing was related to the gaining and wielding of power in many Greco-Roman cultures, including Judaism and Christianity. Morgan 1998 is a useful survey of literate education in the Greco-Roman world, providing a backdrop against which one can assess more specific contexts. Cribiore 2001 replaced Morgan 1998 as the most in-depth study of the Greco-Roman Egyptian school papyri, which indicate the practical realities of literate education. Johnson and Parker 2009 includes essays that address the usage of literate skills in specific cultural contexts. A related study, Johnson 2010, describes the employment of literate skills in the specific socio-historical context of elite Roman book culture, altering the scholarly conversation away from discussing how ancients read (whether aloud or silent) to how they used literate abilities to construct and reflect the very identities of their communities. Both of these studies are significant for New Testament studies because they provide a model of “reading cultures,” which New Testament scholars can use to understand the book culture of early Christianity. Youtie 1971 is the first and fullest discussion of the Egyptian village scribe Petaus, who is frequently cited in literacy studies as a case study.

  • Beard, Mary, Alan K. Bowman, Mireille Corbier, et al. Literacy in the Roman World. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series No. 3. Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1991.

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    This collection of essays was the first major critical response to Harris 1989. It overwhelmingly affirms his general conclusions while challenging various details of his arguments.

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  • Bowman, Alan K., and Greg Woolf, eds. Literacy and Power in the Ancient World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    Collection of essays on reading and writing in Mediterranean cultures ranging from c. 600 BCE to 800 CE, approaching literacy as a complex set of skills through which power is exercised.

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  • Cribiore, Raffaella. Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

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    Detailed study of the Greco-Roman school papyri that demonstrates the stages of education during which various literate abilities (such as signature literacy, reading literacy, compositional writing, etc.) occurred. Cribiore stresses that reading and writing were separate literate skills and that very few individuals made it to the far end of the pedagogical process.

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  • Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

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    Survey of reading and writing in classical cultures from ancient Greece through the Roman Empire that argues that no ancient culture knew anything like mass literacy, thus overturning generations of previous scholarship. This study famously asserts a generalized 10 percent literacy rate for the ancient world.

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  • Johnson, William A. Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities. Classical Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195176407.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Detailed monograph on the “reading culture” of elite ancient Roman society that emphasizes the role that literacy and literate activities played in the construction and maintenance of elite identity.

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  • Johnson, William A., and Holt N. Parker, eds. Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Collection of essays illustrating the complex ways in which literate skills were embedded in, and emblematic of, specific groups in the Greco-Roman world.

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  • Morgan, Theresa. Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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    Useful overview of enkyklios paideia, in which students acquired reading and writing abilities, that draws upon the Greek and Roman educational theorists as well as school papyri.

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  • Youtie, Herbert C. “Βραδέως γράφων: Between Literacy and Illiteracy.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 12.2 (1971): 239–261.

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    Initial and still the best discussion of Petaus, the Egyptian village scribe who was literate enough to copy a formula mechanically but not literate enough to read a mistake that he made, thus demonstrating the phenomena of semi-literacy and “slow writers.” Reprinted, pp. 629–651 in Youtie’s Scriptiunculae II (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1973).

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Jewish Literacy

Discussions of Jewish literacy and education have figured prominently in New Testament scholarship on literacy. Recent research has overturned previous scholarly convictions of mass literacy among Jews in the Roman Empire. Hezser 2001 was the standard work in the field until the publication of Wise 2015. Hezser 2001 affirms in great detail some aspects of the short and frequently cited study of Bar-Ilan 1992, such as the connection between literacy and urbanism, and the general low literacy rates of Jews in the Land of Israel under the Roman Empire. Wise 2015 criticizes Hezser 2001 for failing to include a variety of pertinent evidence, but it also concludes with severely restricted literacy for Roman Judea. Bar-Ilan 2004, also frequently cited, later proposes a more generous literacy rate of less than 10 percent in rural areas. Other studies have focused more heavily upon the social significance of low literacy rates for Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism. Schwartz 1995 is a succinct argument for connecting low literacy levels with the symbolic function of knowledge of Hebrew as a marker of the privileged class. Thatcher 1998 applies a sociological model of “textual communities” to explain the character of Jewish resistance in Josephus’ Jewish War. Jaffee 2001 presents Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity as an oral environment in which literate skills were rare and knowledge of texts was typically mediated orally.

  • Bar-Ilan, Meier. “Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE.” In Essays in the Social-Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society. Vol. 2. Edited by Simcha Fishbane, Stuart Schoenfeld, and A. Goldschlaeger, 46–61. New York: Ktav, 1992.

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    In light of connections between literacy and agriculture, population growth, and life expectancy, Bar-Ilan concludes that the literacy rate of Jews in the Land of Israel under Roman rule was less than 3 percent.

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  • Bar-Ilan, Meier. “Writing in Ancient Israel and Early Judaism: Part Two: Scribes and Books in the Late Second Commonwealth and Rabbinic Period.” In Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Edited by M. J. Mulder and Harry Sysling, 21–38. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.

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    Drawing mainly, though not exclusively, upon rabbinic literature, Bar-Ilan asserts an illiteracy rate of greater than 90 percent in rural areas. He also asserts that all classes were aware of, and impacted by, the written word in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

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  • Hezser, Catherine. Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 81. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.

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    Treats almost all aspects of literacy and education in Second Temple and rabbinic literature. She argues that writing ability was less frequent than reading ability among Jews, which was infrequent itself. Hezser proposes that Jewish literacy rates in Roman Palestine would likely have been even lower than Harris 1989 (cited under Greco-Roman Literacy) proposed for the Greco-Roman world.

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  • Jaffee, Martin S. Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195140672.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Prior to discussing the relationship between oral and written Torah in rabbinic Judaism, Jaffee argues that the activities associated with scribal literacy in Second Temple Judaism ultimately emerged from and reflected contexts of oral performance of tradition.

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  • Schwartz, Seth. “Language, Power and Identity in Ancient Palestine.” Past and Present 148 (1995): 3–47.

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    Argues that, in the Second Temple period, Hebrew was replaced as a common language by Aramaic, but continued to serve an important symbolic role. Hebrew was connected with the Torah and temple, and thus an indicator of the privileged class of social authorities among whom it had currency.

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  • Thatcher, Tom. “Literacy, Textual Communities, and Josephus’ Jewish War.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Periods 29 (1998): 123–142.

    DOI: 10.1163/157006398X00010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Describes the symbolic power of the written word in Josephus’s Jewish War from the perspective of the sociological model of “textual communities.”

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  • Wise, Michael Owen. Language and Literacy in Roman Judaea: A Study of the Bar Kokhba Documents. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

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    Comprehensive study of the Bar Kokhba documents with helpful introductory status quaestionis essay that challenges aspects of Hezser 2001. Concludes that between 5 and 10 percent of elite men in Roman Judea could read books, around 65 percent of elite men held signature literacy, and that 16 percent of the adult Judean population as a whole held signature literacy.

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Jewish Education

Paralleling studies of Jewish literacy, recent decades have witnessed a sea change in studies of Jewish education. Older studies such as Schürer 2014 (originally published 1874), Safrai 1968, and Lemaire 1981, argue for a widespread Jewish education system by the time of the 1st century CE. Schürer 2014 has been widely influential and still provides a useful bibliography to older scholarship. More recent studies have argued that Jewish education was restricted to an elite minority throughout antiquity. Haran 1988, Crenshaw 1998, and Rollston 2010 (winner of the Frank Moore Cross Award) are notable for their treatment of epigraphic evidence and disagreement with a position that connects abecedaries too quickly to a widespread elementary school context, exemplified in Lemaire 1981. Although these studies focus heavily upon ancient Israel, they are included here because they often cite evidence from the later period and also because of the relevance of the arguments for how one assesses similar evidence from the later period. Carr 2005 is the most thorough discussion of literacy issues as they relate to the media culture of ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism. Morris 1937 is an early and notable exception to the general trend of asserting universal education among older studies. The author articulates many views on the restricted and late nature of a formal Jewish school system that have become standard in more recent studies but were, at the time, radical. Gerhardsson 1998 has been influential in Gospels studies.

  • Carr, David M. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    Argues that literate education involved “education-enculturation” and was necessarily limited to a social elite minority, and furthermore, that the development of the Hebrew Scriptures and other Jewish writings were products of this process. Covers literacy and textuality in the comparative evidence, ancient Israel, and Second Temple Judaism.

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  • Crenshaw, James L. Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

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    The first chapter of this study addresses literacy and affirms a low literacy rate for average ancient Israelites.

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  • Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Combined edition with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity. The Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

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    Gerhardsson argues that at the time of 70 CE every Jewish town and larger village in Palestine had private elementary schools that taught reading ability in Torah, though attendance was not compulsory. The am ha aretz (“people of the land”) in the rabbinic literature indicate that some remained ignorant. Originally published 1961.

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  • Haran, Menahem. “On the Diffusion of Literacy and Schools in Ancient Israel.” In Congress Volume: Jerusalem 1986. Edited by J. A. Emerton, 81–95. Vetum Testamentum Supplements 40. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1988.

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    Arguing against Lemaire 1981, Haran insists that a direct connection between abecedaries and schools cannot be maintained since the material evidence is open to other interpretations.

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  • Lemaire, André. Les Écoles et la Formation de la Bible dans l’Ancien Israël. Orbis biblicus et orientalis 39. Fribourg, Switzerland: Éditions Universitaires, 1981.

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    Argues that abecedaries indicate that Jewish elementary schools were teaching literate skills and that schools and literacy were widespread in ancient Israel.

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  • Morris, Nathan. The Jewish School: An Introduction to the History of Jewish Education. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1937.

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    Argues that a Jewish elementary education system arose gradually, beginning after the Bar Kokhba revolt c. 135 CE and not reaching a status as formal and organized until the 4th century CE. He also argues that schools did not teach writing and that the am ha aretz (“people of the land”) in the rabbinic literature indicate that illiteracy remained common.

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  • Rollston, Christopher A. Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age. Archaeology and Biblical Studies 11. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.

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    Collection of essays that serves as the most recent discussion of epigraphic evidence from ancient Israel. Rollston argues that the epigraphic evidence indicates that there were schools that trained scribes in literate skills, but that this education was restricted to a privileged minority.

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  • Safrai, Schmuel. “Elementary Education, Its Religious and Social Significance in the Talmudic Period.” Cahiers D’Histoire Mondiale 11 (1968): 148–169.

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    Affirms widespread Jewish reading ability, arguing that the core claim of b. B. Bat. 21a for the establishment of Jewish elementary schools in each district in the 1st century CE was largely successful and resulted in the eventual dissolution of the social division between sages and “people of the land.”

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  • Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 BC–AD 135). 3 vols. Edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black. London: T&T Clark, 2014.

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    Argues that by the time of Jesus the community provided schools for the young and elementary schools certainly existed by the 2nd century CE. States that reading of the Torah was a focus of primary education and the skill of writing was less widespread. First version published 1874.

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Literate Education and Synagogues

The presence of elementary education in synagogues in the period of the New Testament was simply assumed by generations of scholars, presumably as an anachronistic projection of modern religious instruction onto Second Temple Judaism. Among those who have taken the time to argue for a position based on the evidence, the discussion seems to be split. Those scholars who view the rabbinic traditions as reflective of 1st-century Judaism to some degree generally affirm the existence of literate education in 1st-century synagogues, such as Riesner 1980 and Riesner 1981. Also in this line, York 1979 is the first to argue that the targumim (Aramaic interpretations of Hebrew texts) emerged from both synagogue and school reading practices. Works of scholarship, like Morris 1937, that do not view the rabbinic traditions as reflective of 1st-century realities, tend to place the certain presence of literate education in synagogues much later than the 1st century CE; or, like Hezser 2001, note only that it is a possibility rather than a certainty for the earlier period. Gerhardsson 1998 represents a mediating position in a study that takes the rabbinic literature’s significance for understanding 1st-century Judaism seriously but nevertheless advocates a later date for certain connections between synagogues and schools. Keith 2011 questions the certainty of literate education in 1st-century synagogues by noting the lack of any clear evidence for such practices in the relevant period. All of these studies are either dated or address the issue only in passing. A recent and thorough treatment of the topic is needed.

  • Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Combined edition with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity. The Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

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    Notes that elementary education could have occurred in synagogues earlier, but did not become formally organized and directly connected with synagogues until the 2nd century CE. Originally published in 1961.

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  • Hezser, Catherine. Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 81. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.

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    Notes that some synagogue complexes could have functioned as sites for elementary education, but that the practice of teaching reading skills in synagogues increased in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

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  • Keith, Chris. Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee. Library of Historical Jesus Studies 8/Library of New Testament Studies 413. London: T&T Clark, 2011.

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    Argues that there is no clear evidence for the existence of literate education in 1st-century synagogues.

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  • Morris, Nathan. The Jewish School: An Introduction to the History of Jewish Education. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1937.

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    Argues that elementary education happened in synagogues, but this did not begin consistently until after the Bar Kokhba revolt of c. 135 CE and did not reach formal organization until the 4th century CE.

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  • Riesner, Rainer. “Jüdische Elementarbildung und Evangelienüberlieferung.” In Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Vol. 1. Edited by R. T. France and David Wenham, 209–223. Sheffield, UK: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1980.

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    Relying upon rabbinic evidence, Riesner claims that synagogue servants could have functioned as elementary teachers.

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  • Riesner, Rainer. Jesus als Lehrer. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.7. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1981.

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    Relying heavily upon rabbinic evidence, Riesner argues for a popular-level elementary education system in synagogues at the time of Jesus.

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  • York, Anthony D. “Targum in the Synagogue and the School.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Periods 10.1 (1979): 74–86.

    DOI: 10.1163/157006379X00246Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that the scribe and synagogue officials functioned as elementary school teachers. The author traces this function back to Second Temple Judaism in light of Sirach 39:1–11 and Nehemiah 8:8 and argues further that the targumim had a role in synagogues and schools, and thus emerged from both, already in 1st century CE.

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Jewish Scribes

Older studies of Jewish scribes, such as the widely influential Schürer 2014 (first version published in 1874), portrayed Jewish scribes as primarily interpretive experts. More recent studies have added further complexities to scholarly understanding in light of literacy issues. Schams 1998, for example, is the most thorough consideration to date and shows conclusively that not all Second Temple scribes were Torah scholars, although some were. The author identifies the unifying characteristic of all Second Temple scribes as the literate skill of writing, which they deployed in a variety of ways. Saldarini 1992, a shorter, earlier study, argues similarly. Those Second Temple scribes who were Torah scholars derived their interpretive authority directly from their literate skills in a text-centered community wherein illiteracy was the norm, as is clear in Saldarini 1988, Goodman 1994, Snyder 2000, and Bar-Ilan 2004. Wise 2015 fills a lacuna in the discussion with a detailed discussion of the scribes of the Bar Kokhba documents.

  • Bar-Ilan, Meier. “Writing in Ancient Israel and Early Judaism: Part Two: Scribes and Books in the Late Second Commonwealth and Rabbinic Period.” In Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Edited by M. J. Mulder and Harry Sysling, 21–38. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.

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    Discusses scribes as a specialized profession in Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism and thus focuses upon details such as scribal education, writing materials, social position, and usage of books.

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  • Goodman, M. D. “Texts, Scribes and Power in Roman Judaea.” In Literacy and Power in the Ancient World. Edited by Alan K. Bowman and Greg Woolf, 99–108. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    Argues that the power of scribes in Roman Judea stemmed primarily from their ability to write and thus copy the law.

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  • Saldarini, Anthony J. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society. The Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

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    Views scribes, as well as Pharisees and Sadducees, as part of an educated retainer class that brokered imperial power among the largely uneducated Palestinian populace.

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  • Saldarini, Anthony J. “Scribes.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 5. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 1012–1016. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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    Brief presentation of scribes in the ancient near east, Old Testament, Greco-Roman period, New Testament, and rabbinic literature, which emphasizes their identities as literate individuals who occupied various social positions, including being Scripture authorities.

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  • Schams, Christine. Jewish Scribes in the Second-Temple Period. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 291. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

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    Demonstrates the variety of social positions that Second Temple Jewish scribes occupied in light of being professional writers, and specifically that not all scribes were Torah scribes. Schams also argues that Schürer 2014 is primarily responsible for the mischaracterization of all Second Temple scribes as Torah scholars.

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  • Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 BC–AD 135). 3 vols. Edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black. London: T&T Clark, 2014.

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    Volume 2 of this monumental survey of Judaism at the time of Jesus portrays Jewish scribes as Torah scholars who arose alongside the priesthood and by New Testament times were spiritual leaders. He defines the primary tasks of scribes as defining legal principles, teaching, and administering justice. First version was published 1874.

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  • Snyder, H. Gregory. Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World: Philosophers, Jews and Christians. Religion in the First Christian Centuries. New York: Routledge, 2000.

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    Identifies Second Temple Jewish scribes, along with other literate individuals in text-centered communities, as “text brokers” and demonstrates that their authority stems from their position as mediators of a corpus of written tradition in a culture characterized by widespread illiteracy.

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  • Wise, Michael Owen. Language and Literacy in Roman Judaea: A Study of the Bar Kokhba Documents. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

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    Detailed study of the literate levels and languages of the scribes associated with the Bar Kokhba documents, including an appendix that lists the scribes by name (when known), language they wrote in, and writing level.

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Literacy of Jesus

Scholarly discussions of Jesus’ literacy have often functioned as a microcosm of the larger field of literacy studies. Scholars have argued for both a literate Jesus and an illiterate Jesus.

Jesus as Literate

Historically, scholars and non-specialist readers of the Gospels have viewed Jesus as literate. An early, overlooked, and nuanced perspective is Strauss 1892 (originally published 1835), who, with hesitation, posited that early Christological statements in the Gospels that distance Jesus from Jewish education could have served to cover the fact that he was actually literate. As part of a larger discussion of Jesus as a teacher, Riesner 1981, arguing that Jesus would have received an elementary education, though not a higher education, remained the most thorough consideration of the issue until Keith 2011 (cited under Jesus as Illiterate). Meier 1991–2009 argues similarly to Riesner and is perhaps the most frequently cited scholarly discussion of Jesus’ literacy. More recently, scholarly works such as Foster 2006, Eddy and Boyd 2007, and Evans 2012 argue for a literate Jesus in response to proposals for an illiterate Jesus. Vegge 2005 affirms the literacy of Jesus on the basis of the linguistic style of his teachings.

  • Eddy, Paul Rhodes, and Gregory A. Boyd. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

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    As part of an overall argument that the Synoptic Gospels are historically reliable, this study concludes in agreement with Meier 1991–2009, that Jesus was literate.

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

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    Chapter 3 of this book appeals to contextual and circumstantial evidence, such as Jesus garnering the title Rabbi, his posture of sitting while teaching, and references to Scripture, to argue that Jesus most likely was literate.

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  • Foster, Paul. “Educating Jesus: The Search for a Plausible Context.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 4.1 (2006): 7–33.

    DOI: 10.1177/1476869006061776Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In response to Crossan 1991 (cited under Jesus as Illiterate), Foster assesses evidence from the canonical Gospels (Luke 4:16–30; 2:46–47; 1:36; John 7:15; John 7:53–8:11) and non-canonical Gospels (alpha beta logion in Inf. Thom. and Ps.-Matt.). He concludes that Jesus likely had reading ability.

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  • Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 4 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1991–2009.

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    In Volume 1 of this study (published in 1991), Meier discusses Luke 4:16–30, John 8:6, and John 7:15. He concludes that John 7:15 indicates that Jesus’ literacy extended beyond tradesmen’s literacy to scribal literacy.

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  • Riesner, Rainer. Jesus als Lehrer. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.7. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1981.

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    Grants that Luke 4:16 and John 8:6 could indicate literate skills for Jesus, but argues that the strongest evidence for Jesus’ elementary education comes from his home life and the Nazareth synagogue, which he claims would have engaged in elementary education.

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  • Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Edited by Peter C. Hodgson. Translated by George Eliot. SCM Press Lives of Jesus. London: SCM, 1892.

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    Addresses the literate status of Jesus very tentatively, claiming that the evidence in the Gospels indicates that Jesus did not attend a formal rabbinic school. The author proposes, however, that this portrayal may actually cover up the fact that Jesus was educated and does so in the Christological interest of asserting Jesus’ independence from human learning. The German original was published 1835.

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  • Vegge, Tor. “The Literacy of Jesus the Carpenter’s Son: On the Literary Style in the Words of Jesus.” Studia Theologica 59 (2005): 19–37.

    DOI: 10.1080/00393380510032292Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that Jesus was a literate carpenter’s son on the basis of the linguistic style of his teachings in the Gospels, especially his parables. Vegge posits that the Gospels accurately reflect the teaching style of the historical Jesus.

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Jesus as Illiterate

Although John 7:15 and Origen’s Contra Celsum (1.29) indicate that Jesus’ literate status was questioned in the ancient context, scholarly arguments for this position have been a more recent phenomenon. Crossan 1991 and Crossan 1998 are tremendously influential and have resulted in several critical responses. Kelber 1983 was an earlier argument and was perhaps most important for its argument about the larger illiterate and oral milieu in which it placed Jesus. Craffert and Botha 2005 argues that, even when Jesus appears literate in the Gospels, one must regard these portrayals as cultural events of performance rather than true employments of literacy. Thatcher 2006 and Keith 2014 address Jesus’ conflicts with other teachers and his social posturing as a teacher in terms of his lack of education. Keith 2011 is the most detailed and thorough consideration to date and the only monograph on the topic.

  • Craffert, Pieter F., and Pieter J. J. Botha. “Why Jesus Could Walk on the Sea but He Could Not Read or Write.” Neotestamentica 39.1 (2005): 5–35.

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    In the second half of this article, Botha argues that Jesus was illiterate and that the portrayal of Jesus in Luke 4:16 consists of a cultural event of tradition performance, not literal reading.

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  • Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

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    Perhaps the most famous scholarly portrayal of an illiterate Jesus. Argues that Jesus was an illiterate peasant.

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  • Crossan, John Dominic. The Beginnings of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

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    States that Jesus was illiterate until proven otherwise and that Luke’s image of a literate Jesus is reflective of a larger shift in Christianity away from peasant origins and toward scribal leadership.

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  • Keith, Chris. Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee. Library of Historical Jesus Studies 8/Library of New Testament Studies 413. London: T&T Clark, 2011.

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    Argues that the historical Jesus was likely not a scribal-literate teacher, though he was often perceived as one. This study highlights the complex factors affecting the perception of scribal authority in Jesus’ environment and argues that already in the 1st century Christians disagreed about Jesus’ scribal-literate status.

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

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    Building upon the argument of Keith 2011, argues that the debated status of Jesus as a scribal authority was a central, though not exclusive, factor in the initial emergence of conflict between Jesus and scribal-literate authorities.

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  • Kelber, Werner H. The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

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    Claims that Jesus was illiterate and an oral teacher. Kelber identifies Matthew as the creator of the image of an educated Jesus.

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  • Thatcher, Tom. Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006.

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    Argues that Jesus engaged in riddling in order to compensate for a lack of academic qualifications.

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Literacy and Early Christians

Studies that feature the literate status of early Christians have ranged in topic. Dibelius 1971 (German original 1919) demonstrates how assumptions about illiteracy among the earliest Christians played a prominent—though often underappreciated—role in the incredibly influential method of form criticism. Benko 1980 and Hilton 1997 are both useful collections of pagan criticisms of Christian illiteracy, with the latter interpreting Acts 4:13 in light of them. Keith 2015 also treats Acts 4:13, but specifically in reference to the disciples’ association with Jesus in the text. Keith 2009 is the first study to argue fully that later Christians deliberately modified New Testament texts in light of pagan criticisms. Kuhn 2010 uses literacy as a primary means of understanding the social status of Luke as a Gospel author. Thatcher 2006 explains the textualization of Johannine Jesus tradition in light of a low-literacy environment. More specific studies have focused upon Paul’s literacy and on female literacy.

  • Benko, Stephen. “Pagan Criticism of Christianity during the First Two Centuries A.D.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW): Part 2, Principat. Edited by Wolfgang Haase, 1055–1118. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1980.

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    Collection of pagan criticisms of Christian unlearnedness.

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  • Dibelius, Martin. From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. Scribner Library 124. Cambridge, UK: James Clark, 1971.

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    Argues that the earliest Palestinian Christians were too illiterate to be capable of producing the written Gospel narratives and thus attributes their authorship to the later Hellenistic church. English translation of the German original published in 1919.

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  • Hilton, Allen. “The Dumb Speak: Early Christian Illiteracy and Pagan Criticism.” PhD diss., Yale University, 1997.

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    Taking its cue from the description of Peter and John as “illiterate” in Acts 4:13, this study locates the author of the Acts of the Apostles as the first in a line of early Christian apologists who responded to pagan criticisms of Christian illiteracy by acknowledging the accuracy of the charge and appealing to the Spirit as the reason for their success.

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  • Keith, Chris. The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus. New Testament Tools, Studies, and Documents 38. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004173941.i-320Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that a later Christian inserted the Pericope Adulterae into John 7:53–8:11 around the 3rd century CE in order to provide the canonical Gospels with an image of a grapho-literate Jesus in John 8:6, 8, thereby responding to pagan criticisms of the illiteracy of Jesus and early Christians.

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  • Keith, Chris. “The Oddity of the Reference to Jesus in Acts 4:13b.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134.4 (2015): 791–811.

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    Argues that Luke’s portrayal of the Sanhedrin’s association of Peter and John with Jesus on account of their illiteracy and unlearnedness in Acts 4:13b is out of step with an interpretive strategy that he used throughout his Gospel, whereby he turned Mark’s scribal-illiterate Jesus into a scribal-literate authority.

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

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    Uses restricted nature of literacy in antiquity as a primary means of locating Luke’s social location and presents Luke as a member of the elite.

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  • Thatcher, Tom. Why John Wrote a Gospel: Jesus—Memory—History. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006.

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    Argues that the author of the Gospel of John chose to place the oral Johannine Jesus tradition into book form in order to capitalize upon the symbolic value of books among predominantly illiterate Christians.

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Literacy of Paul

In comparison to studies of Jesus’ literacy, studies of Paul’s literacy are fewer. Hengel 1991 is a brief and still useful discussion of the main issues. The most detailed considerations now are Vegge 2006 and Schellenberg 2013, the only monographs dedicated to the topic and representative of alternative views on the implications of Paul’s literary style for his education level. Porter and Pitts 2008 attempts to situate Paul against Jewish and Greco-Roman sources for education broadly. Keith 2008 focuses specifically upon Paul’s ability to write in Greek. Deissmann 1926 and Botha 2012 represent arguments for an illiterate or uneducated Paul.

  • Botha, Pieter J. J. “Letter Writing and Oral Communication: Galatians.” In Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity. By Pieter J. J. Botha, 193–211. Biblical Performance Criticism 5. Eugene: Cascade, 2012.

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    Comparing Paul to Petaus the village scribe, in light of Galatians 6:11, Botha claims that Paul likely was unable to write in Greek, and thus illiterate in this sense. Reprinted from “Letter Writing and Oral Communication in Antiquity: Suggested Implications for the Interpretation of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.” Scriptura 42 (1992): 17–34.

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  • Deissmann, Adolf. Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History. 2d ed. Translated by William E. Wilson. New York: George H. Doran, c. 1926.

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    Claims that it is certain that Paul was from the unliterary lower class and that Paul dictated letters because writing was difficult for him, as indicated by Galatians 6:11.

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  • Hengel, Martin. The Pre-Christian Paul. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM, 1991.

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    Posits that Paul attended a Greek-speaking Jewish elementary school that strongly featured the Septuagint, and that at least part of this education could have occurred in Tarsus.

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  • Keith, Chris. “‘In My Own Hand’: Grapho-Literacy and the Apostle Paul.” Biblica 89.1 (2008): 39–58.

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    In light of 1 Corinthians 16:21, Galatians 6:11, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:17, and Philemon 17, argues that Paul (or someone writing in his name) strategically demonstrated his “grapho-literacy” in Greek in some letters in order to signal his status as a literate textual authority.

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  • Porter, Stanley E., and Andrew W. Pitts. “Paul’s Bible, His Education, and His Access to the Scriptures of Israel.” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 5 (2008): 9–41.

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    Argues that Paul would have gained initial literate education in Tarsus as well as initial instruction in written Torah interpretation before continuing his education in oral Torah in Jerusalem. Mixing Jewish and Greco-Roman evidence, they suggest that Paul’s grammar school education would have included Torah instruction as well as the progymnasmata and other writing instruction.

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  • Schellenberg, Ryan S. Rethinking Paul’s Rhetorical Education: Comparative Rhetoric and 2 Corinthians 10–13. Early Christianity and Its Literature 10. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt5hjgrvSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that Paul’s usage of rhetoric gives no evidence of formal rhetorical education and is rather indicative of informal rhetoric. Schellenberg thus claims that Paul was not of high social standing.

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  • Vegge, Tor. Paulus und das antike Schulwesen: Schule und Bildung des Paulus. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 134. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006.

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    Detailed discussion of rhetorical and philosophical education in the Greco-Roman world, concluding on the basis of his literary style that Paul was an educated and competent handler of texts. Vegge argues that Paul was likely exposed to Greco-Roman and Jewish literate education already in Tarsus.

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Female Literacy

Female literacy in antiquity was substantially more restricted than male literacy, but not altogether unknown. Hezser 2010, a short and student-friendly discussion of the issue, notes that there is no clear evidence for literate education among Jewish women. Kraemer 1991 collects possible instances of Jewish and Christian female authorship. In the Christian context, women’s acquisition of literate skills fared better. Haines-Eitzen 2000 was one of the first thorough studies to discuss the evidence for female Christian scribes. Particularly important for female literacy in early Christianity is the exchange of books between two individuals, at least one certainly a woman and the other possibly a woman, witnessed by P.Oxy. 4365, an early fourth-century letter discovered at Oxyrhynchus. Epp 2005 (originally the presidential address for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2003) and Luijendijk 2008 offer short assessments, while Kraus 2007 devotes an article to the topic and discusses more of the history of research. Both Luijendijk 2008 and Kraus 2007 offer transcriptions of the Greek text. Haines-Eitzen 2012 is the first book-length treatment of female literacy in early Christianity and is invaluable for its collection of evidence.

  • Epp, Eldon Jay. “The Oxyrhynchus New Testament Papyri: ‘Not Without Honor Except in Their Hometown’?” In Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism: Collected Essays, 1962–2004. By Eldon Jay Epp, 743–801. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 116. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.

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    Discusses P.Oxy. 4365, which reveals an exchange of “Ezra” (likely 4 Ezra/2 Esdras) and the “little Genesis” (likely Jubilees) between, Epp suggests, two Christian women. Notes that literacy, especially the ability to write, empowered some women in Roman Egypt and speculates that the two women could have been church leaders. Reprinted from Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004): 5–55.

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  • Haines-Eitzen, Kim. Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Chapter 2 collects and presents the evidence of Roman as well as early Christian female scribes. Among the latter group are Origen’s calligraphers, Melania the Younger, Caesaria the Younger and her virgins, and Thecla. Haines-Eitzen claims that urban elite women were typically literate.

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  • Haines-Eitzen, Kim. The Gendered Palimpsest: Women, Writing, and Representation of Women in Early Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    The most comprehensive discussion of early Christian female writers and readers to date. It gives attention not just to the historical issues but also to the complicated reception-history of women (literate and otherwise) in antiquity and modern scholarship.

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  • Hezser, Catherine. “Private and Public Education.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine. Edited by Catherine Hezser, 465–481. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199216437.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that there is no evidence for women attending Jewish elementary schools and that any education in Torah they received would have come from home, private tutoring, or listening in synagogue.

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  • Kraemer, Ross S. “Women’s Authorship of Jewish and Christian Literature in the Greco-Roman Period.” In “Women Like This”: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World. Edited by Amy-Jill Levine, 221–242. Atlanta: Scholars, 1991.

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    Treats a number of possible female authors in Jewish and Christian literature, noting along the way the scant nature of the evidence. Kraemer argues that some elite Jewish and Christian women would have possessed the resources and ability to write, but that their works have been lost or preserved as pseudonymous or anonymous.

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  • Kraus, Thomas J. Ad fontes: Original Manuscripts and Their Significance for Studying Early Christianity. Texts and Editions for New Testament Study 3. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004161825.i-272Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Chapter 11 is a translated and republished study of P.Oxy. 4365. Kraus argues that the sender’s gender cannot be decided but that both sender and receiver are from the upper stratum of society in light of reading and writing abilities. Originally published as “Bücherleihe im 4. Jh. n. Chr. P.Oxy. LXII 4365—ein Brief auf Papyrus und die gegenseitige Leihe von apokryph gewordener Literatur,” Biblos 50 (2001): 285–296.

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  • Luijendijk, AnneMarie. Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and The Oxyrhynchus Papryi. Harvard Theological Monographs 60. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

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    In a chapter on nomina sacra, Luijendijk discusses P.Oxy. 4365. Luijendijk argues that we cannot know the gender of the writer of the request and we cannot know whether the women were church leaders. She places them among the wealthy in light of their possession of books and ability to read.

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Literacy and Early Christian Media Culture

Literacy studies have played a prominent role in the discussion of New Testament scholars of the various phenomena that constitute the ancient media culture, such as orality, scribality, textuality, aurality, performance, and memory. Achtemeier 1990 was an early impetus for further studies and is still frequently cited, despite the refutation in Gilliard 1993. Eve 2013 provides an excellent introduction to scholarly efforts to approach and understand the oral Jesus tradition and is written at a level that will serve well students and scholars alike. Other studies, such as Fox 1994 and Draper 2004, have noted the link between literacy and power. Rodríguez 2009 provides a useful snapshot of the past thirty years of discussion in New Testament studies and cognate disciplines. Goodacre 2012 is a brief overview of literacy and orality and one of the few studies to apply these issues to demonstrating a later text’s awareness of earlier texts. Thatcher, et al. 2017 now serves as a reference work for this field of scholarship.

  • Achtemeier, Paul J. “Omne verbum sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109.1 (1990): 3–27.

    DOI: 10.2307/3267326Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Primary argument is that all reading in antiquity was out loud and thus the media environment of New Testament texts should be considered thoroughly oral. Prefiguring the rise of performance criticism, he suggests that all New Testament texts were created and performed as oral tradition.

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  • Draper, Jonathan A. Orality, Literacy, and Colonialism in Antiquity. Semeia Studies 47. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

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    Interdisciplinary collection of essays that accept low estimates of literacy for antiquity and proceed to address specific issues of orality and literacy as they related to imperialism in antiquity.

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  • Eve, Eric. Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition. London: SPCK, 2013.

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    Comprehensive introduction to scholarship on the Jesus tradition as oral tradition. Begins with a short introduction to the ancient media environment before discussing various models for the oral tradition, ranging from form criticism to more recent applications of social memory theory.

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  • Fox, Robin Lane. “Literacy and Power in Early Christianity.” In Literacy and Power in the Ancient World. Edited by Alan K. Bowman and Greg Woolf, 126–148. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    Addresses the usage of “sacred literacy” in early Christianity, and specifically its combination with three positions of authority in the pre-Constantine church: visionaries; martyrs; and bishops.

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  • Gilliard, Frank D. “More Silent Reading in Antiquity: non omne verbum sonabat.” Journal of Biblical Literature 112.4 (1993): 689–696.

    DOI: 10.2307/3267404Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Very brief response to Achtemeier 1990, demonstrating conclusively that silent reading was known in antiquity.

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  • Goodacre, Mark. Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

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    As part of a larger argument that the Gospel of Thomas is familiar with the Synoptic Gospels, chapter 8 of this book presents an overview of orality and literacy. Goodacre especially focuses upon New Testament scholars’ misuse of Ong’s category of “secondary orality” and the important interplay between orality and literacy in a context of majority illiteracy.

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  • Rodríguez, Rafael. “Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32.2 (2009): 151–178.

    DOI: 10.1177/0142064X09351056Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues against the thorough juxtaposition of orality and literacy and that textuality—appreciation for texts—is more important for a historical understanding of Palestine and Galilee than simply low levels of literacy.

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  • Thatcher, Tom, Chris Keith, Raymond F. Person Jr., and Elsie Stern. The Dictionary of the Bible and Ancient Media. London: T&T Clark, 2017.

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    Nearly five-hundred-page dictionary with short and long entries on the key concepts, methodologies, and scholarly figures for the integration of media studies (orality, textuality, memory, material culture, etc.) with studies of ancient Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, and early Christianity.

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Literacy and Orality

As scholars began to view the ancient world as primarily illiterate, orality became an important analytical category. Outside Biblical Studies, particularly influential is Ong 2002 (originally published 1982). This groundbreaking study discusses ancient Israel and early Christianity briefly but, more importantly, is highly influential on Kelber 1983, which is one of the earliest studies to highlight orality in New Testament studies. Although the conclusions of Kelber 1983 have not been widely accepted, its influence is great. Most of the subsequent work interacted with it, and it gave birth to performance criticism. Dewey 1995 is one of the earliest full engagements with the main emphases of Kelber 1983. Whereas these older studies emphasized the differences between orality and textuality, more recent studies have been more nuanced, conscious of the manners in which orality and textuality could function similarly, as exemplified in Kelber 2013 and Rodríguez 2014. Dunn 2013 (originally the presidential address at the 2002 meeting of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas) is frequently cited as an argument for approaching the Jesus tradition as oral tradition. Botha 2012 and Weissenrieder and Coote 2010 are more recent collections of essays that reflect the dynamic relationship between oral tradition and written tradition in biblical periods and that demonstrate the progression of the discussion about literacy and orality in Biblical Studies. The breadth of topics covered in Weissenrieder and Coote 2010 is impressive and makes it a valuable scholarly resource, though the detailed studies would be of limited use to beginning students and non-specialists. Rodríguez 2014 is an ideal introduction for students and beginners, as it is minimally footnoted and begins with a helpful glossary of terms.

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

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    Collection of essays wherein Botha consistently emphasizes the illiterate nature of early Christianity in order to explain literate activities (reading, writing, transmission of tradition) in terms of performance in a predominantly oral context.

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  • Dewey, Joanna, ed. Orality and Textuality in Early Christianity. Semeia 65. Atlanta: Scholars, 1995.

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    Collection of essays emerging from the early work of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media group of the Society of Biblical Literature. Topics covered include Jesus’ usage of parables, rabbinic culture, and Paul.

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  • Dunn, James D. G. “Altering the Default Setting: Re-envisaging the Early Transmission of the Jesus Tradition.” In his The Oral Gospel Tradition. By James D. G. Dunn, 41–79. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

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    Argues for detaching scholarly conceptions of the transmission of the Jesus tradition from print-based models and re-envisaging the process in an oral society. Among other points, he argues that this points away from the idea of an “original” version of the tradition and that oral tradition is characteristically stable but diverse. Reprinted from New Testament Studies 49 (2003): 139–175.

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  • Kelber, Werner H. The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

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    Emphasizing the stark differences between orality and textuality, the first part of this book argues that Mark textualized the gospel tradition in order to usurp the Christology of the oral Jesus tradition. The second part of the book addresses the relationship between orality and textuality in Pauline letters.

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  • Kelber, Werner H. Imprints, Voiceprints, and Footprints of Memory: Collected Essays of Werner H. Kelber. Resources for Biblical Study 74. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt5hjh34Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Collection of Kelber’s essays from 1985 to 2011, demonstrating that his later work was much more favorably inclined toward the dynamic interaction between orality and literacy. Importantly, Kelber also introduces New Testament scholars to social and cultural memory theory in these essays, revealing the importance of these methods for previous discussions of orality and textuality.

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  • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 2002.

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    Addresses the different psychodynamics of orality and literacy, covering a range of topics, including the Bible. This book introduced New Testament scholars to the term “secondary orality,” which, for Ong, refers to modern-day orality supported by electronic media. Many New Testament studies have inaccurately imported this term as a reference for text-derived orality in the ancient context. Originally published in 1982.

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  • Rodríguez, Rafael. Oral Tradition and the New Testament: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T&T Clark, 2014.

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    Resituates the scholarly discussion of orality away from searching for traces of oral tradition in written texts and toward understanding the complex media environment, in which early Christian texts circulated, that witnessed a dynamic interaction between orality and textuality.

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  • Weissenrieder, Annette, and Robert B. Coote. The Interface of Orality and Writing. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 260. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

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    Collection of twenty-two essays covering a variety of issues in the Hebrew Bible and early Christian studies relating to writing, orality, memory, and performance.

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Performance Criticism

Studies of ancient literacy have played a prominent role in the establishment of performance criticism in New Testament studies. This new method takes the widespread illiteracy of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity as its starting point and argues that most texts were learned and performed orally. Rhoads 2010 is arguably the most thorough single introduction to performance criticism, while Hearon and Ruge-Jones 2009 is an excellent starting point for applications of the method. Wire 2011 argues for the compositional origins of Jesus tradition in oral performance. Shiell 2004 is an early application of performance criticism outside the Gospels, along with Horsley 2007. Rodríguez 2010 is a more moderate application of the insights of performance and orality. Trenchant criticisms of performance-critical perspectives have come from Hurtado 2014 and Nässelqvist 2016, the latter of which is now the fullest study of the lector in early Christianity.

  • Hearon, Holly E., and Philip Ruge-Jones, eds. The Bible in Ancient and Modern Media: Story and Performance. Biblical Performance Criticism 1. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009.

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    Collection of essays in honor of Tom Boomeshine and celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bible in the Ancient and Modern Media section of the Society of Biblical Literature. The essays approach the interpretation of the Bible in terms of storytelling and performance in the ancient world and today.

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  • Horsley, Richard A. Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007.

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    Argues that Second Temple scribes and scribal authorities learned and taught Israelite traditions orally and typically without recourse to manuscripts.

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  • Hurtado, Larry W. “Oral Fixation in New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity.” New Testament Studies 60.3 (2014): 321–340.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688514000058Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Sustained criticism of performance critics, especially Rhoads, arguing that performance critics have oversimplified the ancient media culture. Particular emphasis is given to the lack of familiarity with ancient manuscripts in the work of performance critics.

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  • Nässelqvist, Dan. Public Reading in Early Christianity: Lectors, Manuscripts, and Sound in the Oral Delivery of John 1–4. Novum Testamentum Supplements 163. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

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    Argues that oral performance of memorized tradition was the practice of actors and orators in the ancient context, not lectors. Thus, contra the claims of performance critics, demonstrates that early Christian lectors actually read manuscripts, as did their pagan counterparts.

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  • Rhoads, David. “Performance Events in Early Christianity: New Testament Writings in an Oral Context.” In The Interface of Orality and Writing. Edited by Annette Weissenrieder and Robert B. Coote, 166–193. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 260. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

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    Introduces performance criticism and its significance for several issues in New Testament and Gospels scholarship, including composition of the Gospels, reading of the Gospels, reception of the tradition, and general role of the socio-historical context of transmission.

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  • Rodríguez, Rafael. Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance and Text. European Studies on Christian Origins/Library of New Testament Studies 407. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

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    Although insisting on the importance of orality and performance for understanding the origins of the Jesus tradition, argues that such approaches should not juxtapose oral and written tradition and that the Gospels do not represent oral performances so much as they are instances of the Jesus tradition. At the close, Rodríguez calls for a synthesis of social memory approaches and oral-traditional approaches to the Gospels.

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  • Shiell, William D. Reading Acts: The Lector and the Early Christian Audience. Biblical Interpretation Series 70. Boston: Brill, 2004.

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    Argues that the reading of Acts in early churches would have been a performance accompanied by gestures, facial expressions, etc.

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  • Wire, Antoinette Clark. The Case for Mark Composed in Performance. Biblical Performance Criticism 3. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011.

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    Argues for approaching Mark’s Gospel as a tradition that was composed in oral performance, not (initially) written by an author on a manuscript.

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Book Culture

Literacy and literacy-related phenomena have played a prominent role in one of the most exciting areas of New Testament studies currently—sociological approaches to early Christian book culture. Still the standard and unsurpassed study is Gamble 1995, a comprehensive discussion of primary and secondary literature. This study prompted the constructive critical response of Epp 2005 (originally published 1998), which especially features evidence from Oxyrhynchus. Haines-Eitzen 2000 is groundbreaking for focusing upon the identities and educated statuses of early Christian scribes. Gamble 2004 connects the illiterate nature of most Christians with the function of early Christian liturgy and thus the formation of the canon. Kraus 2007 is a valuable collection of essays that deal specifically with the relevance of manuscript studies for understanding ancient literacy. Haines-Eitzen 2014 provides a useful status quaestionis of socio-historical approaches to literacy and manuscript studies, in which this stage of research is described as “a ‘material turn’ in studies of early Christianity.” Kloppenborg 2014 surveys a variety of literacy-related issues from the beginning of Christianity to Constantine, and is particularly valuable for its collection of secondary sources. Similarly, Wright 2017 provides a useful collection of communal reading in and around the 1st century.

  • Epp, Eldon Jay. “The Codex and Literacy in Early Christianity and at Oxyrhynchus: Issues Raised by Harry Y. Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church.” In Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism: Collected Essays, 1962–2004. By Eldon Jay Epp, 521–550. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 116. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.

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    Builds constructively upon Gamble 1995 on two issues: codex format and literacy. Epp brings the evidence of Oxyrhynchus to bear upon the question of literacy and suggests that literacy among Christians in that locale was above 10 percent. Reprinted from Critical Review of Books in Religion 11 (1998): 15–37.

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  • Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

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    Classic study of early Christian book culture from its beginning stages to the formation of early Christian libraries, addresses literacy in depth in the first chapter. Gamble argues that only a minority of Christians were literate—literacy was not normally above 10 percent in the early Church—and that literacy was intricately connected to who rose to leadership.

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  • Gamble, Harry Y. “Literacy, Liturgy, and the Shaping of the New Testament Canon.” In The Earliest Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels—The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45. Edited by Charles Horton, 27–39. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 258. London: T&T Clark, 2004.

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    Explores the paradox of early Christianity being mainly illiterate yet nevertheless deeply committed to texts, thus articulating the social significance of texts in an oral culture. Gamble specifically argues that the majority of illiterate individuals were not removed from literary culture but had opportunity to participate in it through public reading of texts.

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  • Haines-Eitzen, Kim. Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Thorough discussion of the identities, training, and roles of early Christian scribes. Notable arguments include that most early Christian copyists were also the users of the texts, and thus not “mere copyists,” that early Christian book circulation occurred along social networks, and that scribes’ ability to write gave them power to enter theological debates through their work with manuscripts.

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  • Haines-Eitzen, Kim. “The Social History of Early Christian Scribes.” In The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis. 2d ed. Edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, 479–495. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.

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    Status quaestionis essay on sociological approaches to early Christian scribal culture that describes recent work in three areas: literacy and education; book production and copyists; and manuscripts.

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  • Kloppenborg, John S. “Literate Media in Early Christ Groups: The Creation of a Christian Book Culture.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 22.1 (2014): 21–59.

    DOI: 10.1353/earl.2014.0004Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that the illiteracy of most early Christians underpinned and enabled the growth of an early Christian book culture, in which texts and textuality were valorized and founding figures were increasingly portrayed as literate.

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  • Kraus, Thomas J. Ad fontes: Original Manuscripts and Their Significance for Studying Early Christianity. Texts and Editions for New Testament Study 3. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004161825.i-272Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Collection of (mostly) previously published essays addressing various aspects of manuscript studies, many of which deal with literacy-related topics, including literacy and illiteracy in nonliterary papyri, “slow writers,” the description of the disciples as “illiterate” in Acts 4:13, the reference to Jesus’ “knowing letters” in John 7:15, and P.Oxy. 4365.

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  • Wright, Brian J. Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1tm7gt4Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Thorough collection of references to public reading events in Jewish, Christian, and Greco-Roman sources. Many critical scholars will rightly question the author’s argument that communal-reading events served as a “quality control” on the development of Christian tradition.

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