Ancient Literacies IV— Further Insights

On the cover of the book we have been discussing is an image of a little known painted panel from a villa in Pompeii. What it depicts is the tools of the trade of writing– an inkwell, a stylus a papyrus, a wax tablet… Writing in antiquity was nothing like writing on a computer today. It was a long lugubrious, messy process. In this post we want to highlight some of the insights in this collection of essays we have not thus far mentioned.

One of the virtues of this volume for NT studies is the extensive up to date bibliographies on literacy and the Greco-Roman world, and also the bibliographic essay by Shirley Werner at the end of the volume which reviews recent seminal contributions to the discussion. Secondly, there is one of the best essays ever written on Ephesus in so far as helping us to visualize and understand public buildings and their inscriptions by Barbara Burrell entitled “Reading, Hearing and Looking in Ephesos”. It is worth the cost of the volume all by itself and its drawing are especially helpful. George Houston an emeritus professor from my alma mater (UNC) offers a superb essay entitled “Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the Roman Empire”. What is especially interesting about the lists which he highlights and provides pictures of, is that time and again the Romans were largely collecting Greek classics, and older Roman works, not primarily works by their contemporaries during the Empire. In the course of his essay we learn about copying procedures when it comes to literary works. For example, when a copy of a book was made for a collector the copy would be checked, and corrected against the master copy, not by the original scribe but by the ‘diorthotes’ a second scribe whom we might call the proof reader. In a world without footnotes, the buyer of the scroll might well ask for whatever annotations that the author put in the margins (or in parentheses in the text) to be left in the text, or the scribe could even be asked to add explanatory notes. This may bear some relevance to what we see going on in various Gospel texts, for example in Mark 7 when we find the remark ‘thus Jesus declares all things clean’, or the many explanatory parenthetical remarks in John. These may be later additions by either the final proofer of the document or by a final editor of the document.

Time and again we find evidence in antiquity of both ordinary literacy as well as literary literacy, but there can be no hard and fast distinctions. For example, in the graffiti at Pompeii we find a bunch of quotations of the first line of the Aeneid scrawled on walls. We do not really know why, but it probably reflects that even ordinary people who had basic schooling, at the progymnasmata level had learned some bits of this classic which has the famous first line ‘I sing of arms and the man…..’.

Another important insight is that both democracy and Empire in various different ways promoted literacy. In the case of Empire, it required huge amounts of documents to control and standardize things like weights, taxes etc. This required literacy of a sort of thousands of clerks who were definitely blue collar works, and often enough were imperial slaves (see the reference to them in Philippians). In the case of democracy there was voting, and one had to be able to write the name of one’s candidates on various things, or if you were voting for someone to be ostracized (a word that comes from the Greek word mentioned next) you had to be able to write names on a potsherd or the like, an ostraka.

There is much more that could be said about this volume. Obviously some essays are more crucial for NT studies than others (the essays on Roman poetry are the least helpful), but by and large this book is a wealth of information for the student of early Christianity and provides much fodder for further study.

  • Joe Canner

    Dr. Witherington,

    I’m new to the historical-critical issues that you seem to be addressing in these posts. Can you discuss more explicitly what arguments are being made by textual critics that assume a certain degree of literacy (or illiteracy) in the 1st century Roman Empire?

    I am familiar with the arguments that NT authors like John, James, Peter (and perhaps Matthew) likely didn’t write the books named for them because someone of their socioeconomic status wouldn’t have been able to write Greek at NT levels. However, the information you gathered from this book doesn’t seem to address that. Are there other issues you are addressing?

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi: If you will look at the previous series of posts I did last Fall on William Johnson stand alone monograph on Readers and Reading Cultures, you will get some answer to your questions.