Those Illiterates!

Those Illiterates! March 4, 2019

On Literacy 

I am just old enough to have met men, and they were mostly men, who did not read much, if at all, but were very bright and successful members of society.

You did not have to be (very) literate to run a business or a farm for much of human history. The West Virginia of my childhood prized literacy and education, but not everyone had the same chances. Some successful people simply never learned to read or learned to read very little.

As a result, I learned from experience the power of an oral tradition: story telling from father to son, looking for patterns not words, seeing differently. It was splendid, an aural and oral culture that sharpened wit and memory. The oral culture that made this possible is mostly dead.

Sometimes I meet people who assume an illiterate is dumb, dubious, or dogmatic.

Leaving aside the class bigotry, hard though that might be: It’s just not true.

First Nations (American Indians), the Greeks who shaped the Iliad, my West Virginia roots had powerful cultures without being totally reliant on written words. Christians are people of a Book, but that did not mean everyone could read the Book. Of course as a result of the Bible, wherever Christianity went literacy followed, but not everyone wished to read or needed to read.

There was power in listening and speaking. Plato got this in his worries about books at the end of Phaedrus. Literacy gives us more than it costs us, but it costs us something. There was a shrewdness and intellectual skills (orality and aurality) we have lost.

I love books, I have founded one great books undergraduate program and a great books college. Yet I also love oral culture. Both have value and both can be brilliant.

This obvious truth came to mind in a chat with a thoughtful critic.

On Those Illiterate Farmer Peasants and Christianity 

He was wondering about the New Testament use of “up” for the location of heaven. Did Jesus ascend at the speed of light? If so, why can’t we see him with a telescope? Didn’t the Biblical writers have an easily falsifiable view of the cosmos?

My response may have been less charitable than it should have been. The Bible is a collection of books spanning thousands of years. There is no single dominant cosmology in the many places, times, and people that wrote Bible books. Take the cosmology in Plato’s Timaeus.*

Plato has a finite, but huge, cosmos shaped like a ball. Heaven, to the extent he has heaven, is not so much “up” as another dimension, a deeper reality. Plato wrote this four hundred years before Jesus. When the Old Testament had to be turned into Greek, the translators were influenced by and used Plato’s vocabulary from Timaeus. If you read a Greek Genesis in the time of Jesus or Paul, you were reading Genesis influenced by Plato!


Or maybe some of the many alternative cosmologies were in mind for any particular New Testament writer. It’s hard to know. How do you know what the writer had in mind?

There is an obvious retort and my interlocutor made it. Why would the illiterate peasants, including Jesus, know any of this?

Leave aside for a moment that the Gospels show Jesus as literate. Assume the worst: nobody, including Jesus, could read.

The first difficulty is that this, for contemporary readers, becomes an IQ test. They must have been credulous and stupid if illiterate. This, as we have seen, is just wrong. In the ancient world opportunity for literacy was limited and the necessity of literacy was limited. Most people did not have a chance for an education nor did they need it in their daily lives.

So where does that leave Jesus?

Assume the “worst” case: almost nobody, including Jesus, was literate. So what?

They could have been brilliant. They need not have been credulous.

Scholarship, even skeptical scholarship knows a highly educated man, Paul, was writing letters (epistles) by 50 AD. Within seventeen years of the death of Jesus, a highly trained rabbi was writing with other Christians very complex, rhetorically powerful, philosophical letters.

In the ancient world, if you wrote a letter, you either did so yourself or hired someone to do it. If you read a letter, you either did so yourself or you hired someone to do it.

So when it comes to understanding the books of the New Testament: we are dealing with the literate producing material that could only be directly consumed by the literate. Paul was writing to someone who could read and explain what he wrote.

What does this mean?

Christians (for all we know) could have been illiterate to an extreme, but they could not have been entirely so. Paul (or his scribe) wrote to be read by someone! Here is the interesting thing: in a reading optional society, the illiterate always consumed a book in the presence of the literate! One could ask this . . . Elder . . . What the epistle or book meant. He or she was there, because otherwise the book could not be read. 

This means the worldview of the illiterate while unknowable is not so important. Recall we cannot know with high certainty what they thought as they (mostly) did not leave written records! Yet this need not mean “stupid” views, just unknowable ones. They also had access to readers when they wanted to hear a book or letter. Those readers had access to any number of views of reality.

In short, the books of the New Testament were written within two decades of Jesus’ death with the expectation someone could read them. If someone could read them and explain them, then the “ignorant peasants” had access to a literate explanation of a text in the person reading the book to them.

If Fred is illiterate, he can still hear a book. If Fred doesn’t get it, he can ask the reader. He gets some of the best of both the literate and oral culture worlds. After all ‘illiteracy” in some cultures is access to a beautiful, shrewd, practical culture not based on reading! Fred has it all.

Christianity could have been born in a world with few readers (scholars dispute the percentages) and still be people of the Book, because you can grasp a book without reading it.

Thank God for! Now imagine having the Audible reader there with you to explain. You don’t need massive literacy yourself, because the Reader is there to fill in your gaps. Sometimes this goes wonderfully well and I assume sometimes badly, but people of the Book get the Book through the literate!

Our Arrogant Post-Literacy May Be Worse 

In fact, there is a danger in our present post-literacy.

Those people I knew who could not read often hid it. They learned to “fake it” and sign the invoices for their (prosperous) business. They knew what they did not know and gained their theological knowledge from pastors.  They might listen and disagree: after all they were shrewd and logical.

Yet they would not have set themselves up as Bible scholars!

After all, they already were hiding, without lying but artfully, a lack of literacy. They had a modesty about what they knew, because of a lack of credentials. This modesty was, if anything greater than it needed to be, since common sense, logical thinking, and the training of an oral culture often left the the “uncredentialed” better able to understand a thing than they knew.

Too much modesty is not a feature of social media opining. There we have people with no particular skills in reading a text opining because they can “read.” Many of us learned to read, but now read Tweets and headlines. Our reading skills decay and so I meet many people who read right well in their fields, but whose general literacy is less than my college students!

If your general reading skills (outside your job) have decayed, maybe Romans seems “silly” to you, because you can’t read at a tenth grade reading level anymore. This leaves aside the skills necessary to understand an old book in a different language from another culture.

Many of us are post-literate in anything where the vocabulary is outside what we use to do our job. Doubt this? Test yourself. Pull out an old college humanities paper you wrotein the day and see if you still “get it.” Skills not going forward, go backward. As a result, even the highly literate in a specialized field should beware opining in another field. We no longer easily keep up a general literacy.

Try telling that to a medical doctor. He assumes that any ancient book is plain to him, because he can read, can’t he?

Well, no.

He does not know how to read ancient books, the original tongue, or the genre. He is nearly illiterate when it comes to the book, but he is highly credentialed (in another field) so off he goes.

This multiplies error. 

Of course, much of Scripture is plain to the well read person. Sadly, most Americans are not well read outside of our niche. We forget this and so opine freely.

This is the lout who does not know a chiasm from a chasm so falls into interpretive error.

And yes, this is why seminary trained pastors are vital (generally).


*I use this example because I have written a book on it and it is relevant to the early New Testament era.

Obviously, in a culture that forces nearly everyone who can learn to read to learn to read, and where jobs are made dependent on literacy, one finds “smarter” people in certain jobs. The world was not this way when I was a boy and it was certainly not that way in the ancient world




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