Were the Earliest Christians Illiterate?

How Christianity Could Be a Textual Religion When Most People Couldn't Read

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

June 11, 2024

In the 1979 film Rocky II, the newly famous Rocky Balboa, fresh off his split-decision loss to Apollo Creed, is hired to do a TV commercial. During the filming of the commercial it quickly becomes clear that he can’t read the cue cards. The director, frustrated by how long the filming is taking, ruthlessly mocks Rocky: “You cost us thousands of dollars because you can’t read!”

Rocky is humiliated and embarrassed. Why? Because in our modern, western society most people can read. Reading is the norm. Illiteracy is the exception. It doesn’t matter how famous you are, or how talented you are. If you can’t read, you feel like an outcast.

But it was not so in the ancient world. Indeed, Rocky would have fit right in. If we look at the time period of the first and second centuries, most studies have concluded that literacy rates hovered around 10 to 15 percent (of course, “literacy” is a vague word and has a wide range of meanings that we cannot explore here). That means that nearly 90% of those in the ancient world couldn’t read.

The same was true for the earliest Christian communities. The vast majority of Christians couldn’t read, just like their secular counterparts. There was nothing scandalous about this because everyone was in the same situation.

However, there was one notable difference. Christianity, as a religion, was very textually oriented. From the very beginning they engaged with the Old Testament Scriptures in remarkable depth. And very soon they began writing their own books, including those which would eventually be regarded as Scripture themselves.

The idea of a religion that is textually oriented—with sacred texts as their foundation—seems quite normal to us in the modern day. But it was not that way in the ancient world. Other ancient religious systems (with Judaism as the exception) did not base their religious activities on books. For them, it was less about doctrine and more about ritual.

So, that raises a fundamental question. How do we reconcile the fact that early Christianity was a textually-oriented religion with the reality that most Christians couldn’t read? Let me offer some considerations that might help us.

Public Reading

In our modern day, if someone wants to know the content of the Bible, they simply walk over to their book shelf, pull out their personal copy of the Bible, and begin to read. Or, as is done more and more commonly, they pull up the Bible on their smartphone and begin to read. Either way, most people encounter the text of the Bible personally.

But, this was not the case in the early Christian movement. During that time, most people encountered the biblical text publicly. This typically happened in corporate worship services as Scripture was read aloud, often for very long periods of time.

This practice would have been built upon earlier practices, namely the Jewish reading of Scripture in the synagogue, and even Paul’s request to have his own letters read publicly (2 Cor 10:9; Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27; cf. Rev 1:3). We already see this happening in the time of Justin Martyr when both the Gospels and the Old Testament were read aloud (1 Apol. 67.3). In addition, the letter of 2 Clement references the public reading of Scripture (2 Clem. 19.1), as does the introduction to Melito’s homily On the Passover (Peri Pascha 1).

In a Christian context, the importance of the public reading of Scripture is exemplified in the story told by Augustine about a congregation in North Africa. While the bishop of that congregation had typically read from the Old Latin translation of Scripture, one Sunday he decided to switch to Jerome’s newer Latin translation during a reading of the book of Jonah.

When the congregation noted that just a single word had been changed, “there arose such a tumult in the congregation, especially among the Greek-speakers, correcting what had been read and denouncing the translation as false, that the bishop was compelled to ask for assistance.” In order to avoid a near riot, Augustine tells Jerome that the bishop “was compelled to correct your version in that passage…as he desired not to be left without a congregation,—a calamity which he narrowly escaped” (Augustine, Ep. 71.5).

Catachesis

In addition to public reading, Christians were able to learn texts in other ways.  For example, new converts were often given thorough (and sometimes prolonged) period of instruction prior to baptism. This period of “catechesis” would certainly have included the teaching of Scripture, but possibly also learning the rule of faith—that summary of Christian beliefs that united Christians together.

Other types of catechetical instruction would have occurred, such as Celsus’s description of how women took children “to the wooldresser’s shop, or the cobbler’s or the washerwoman’s shop, that they might learn perfection” a likely reference to some sort of teaching or doctrinal instruction (Cels. 3.55). And certainly, we cannot discount early Christian preaching as a way that early believers would have orally learned the Scriptures and Christian doctrine. Again, Justin’s account tells us that Scripture was not only read, but “when the reader is finished, the Ruler in a discourse instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (1 Apol. 67).

Private Reading

Even though most Christians would have learned the text of Scripture through either public reading or catechesis, it is important to observe that some Christians could read. And they often engaged the Scripture personally by reading their own private copies.

While such private reading would have been the privilege of the educated (and wealthy) few, it is curious to note that Christian leaders often exhorted their congregations to read their Scriptures at home.  The frequency of such exhortations raises questions about whether the literacy rates among Christians were as low as we think. What sense does it make to encourage your congregation toward private reading when 90% of them could never do it?

Perhaps more than any patristic writer, John Chrysostom encouraged private/individual reading. He asks his audience “That each of you take in hand that section of the Gospels which is to be read among you on the first day of the week . . . that he sit down at home and read it through” (Hom. Jo. 11.1). Here we see a plain contrast between the liturgical reading during a Sunday worship service, and private/individual reading at home. Other patristic sources make similar exhortations toward private reading (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Origen).

We also have evidence for private reading in that many Christian manuscripts were small, portable, and “pocket size.”  These are known as miniature codices and nearly all scholars agree that they were designed to facilitate private reading. We have an impressive number of these tiny books—see my forthcoming volume with Oxford University Press—suggesting again that perhaps private reading was more common that we might have thought.

Conclusion

Here’s the big point. Even though most Christians were largely illiterate that doesn’t mean that Christianity wasn’t a textually-oriented culture. People absorbed the text of Scripture in other ways, namely through public reading and catechetical instruction.

Moreover, there is quite a bit of evidence that private reading might have been more abundant than we first thought. While that doesn’t mean most early Christians could read (most could not), it does suggest that the literacy rates in Christianity might not have been exactly the same as other religious groups.

Regardless of the actual literacy rates, it doesn’t change the simple fact that early Christianity had a “bookish” culture. Unlike the other religions of the day, Christians were committed to their Scriptures as the guiding light for everything they did.

SHARE VIA

Discover more from Canon Fodder

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading