Were the early Christians literate? Literacy in the ancient Roman Empire

This blog contains another modified excerpt from Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said?  Hopefully this will encourage even more people to read this book’s vital information.

In the second chapter of Echoes of Jesus, titled Literacy in the ancient world, I investigated the prevalence of literacy around the time of Jesus. It has often been stated that literacy was rare in the Roman Empire at that time, and that reading and writing were confined to the wealthier classes. As a consequence of this, some argue that Christianity flourished in the first few centuries only because the vast majority were illiterate and, therefore, gullible. Others, such as the author Reza Aslan, underpin much of their historical revisionism on the assertion that Jesus, his disciples, and the apostles were all illiterate peasants.

The chapter revealed evidence indicating that literacy existed in all levels of society at that time, and that it was not rare. I hope you enjoy this brief look inside:

Literacy across the Roman Empire

To gain a better appreciation of literacy across the vast Roman Empire, I examined evidence for literacy in three geographically diverse regions: Greece, Egypt and Britain. Since this book is concerned with the ability of the first Christians to make accurate recordings of Jesus’ life, I’ve devoted a subsequent chapter to literacy in their lands (Judea and nearby regions), and among the Jews. After all, many of the first Christians were Jews and Jesus was a Jew.

Literacy in Roman-occupied Egypt

Egypt, having already been occupied by the Greeks, surrendered to Roman control upon the death of Cleopatra in August of 30 BC. Roman rulers remained in control for over five centuries after this. Although the first word many people associate with Egypt is pyramids, it should perhaps be Oxyrhynchus. This Egyptian town has one of the most startling examples of the prevalence of literacy as it was 2000 years ago. The town still exists today, and is about 160 kilometres south of Cairo. The ancient rubbish dumps from around this town have furnished a massive number of papyrus fragments since their initial discovery in 1896. During one season of exploration, the chief explorers had to employ over 200 men and boys for nearly 14 weeks to carry out the excavation.[1] By 2008 it was reported that 5476 documents (such as letters) and 2918 literary manuscripts (such as excerpts of books) from Oxyrhynchus had been published.[2] Of course, many fragments remain to be published.

By 1975 over 1060 published documents from Oxyrhynchus were available.[3] A list of document types sourced from only the period of the first two centuries AD furnishes a staggering diversity of topics. The following is a partial list of document descriptions: contract for marriage, complaint against a husband, complaint against a wife, deed of divorce, application for remarriage, agreements on the nurturing of a child, apprenticeship contracts including one to a shorthand writer and another to a weaver, examination of a slave before a sale, complaint of extortion from a weaver against a tax-collector, trials concerning inheritance, birth and death notices, promise to attend court, receipts for beer, accident reports, monthly meat bill from a cook, receipt of wages for nursing, order for household utensils and supplies, dinner invitations, reports on mummifying, wrestling rules and medical prescriptions. This long list certainly illustrates the breadth of literacy in that society!


[1] A Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christian and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Harvard Theological Studies, Cambridge, US, 2008, pp. 7– 9.

[2] A Luijendijk, p. 9.

[3] RLB Morris, ‘A study in the social and economic history of Oxyrhynchus for the first two centuries of Roman rule’, PhD dissertation, Department of Classical Studies,  Duke University, 1975, pp. 6–7

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