Literacy among the Jews in Antiquity

Hebrew Studies, 44 (2003), pp. 217-222.  Meir Bar-Ilan


Prof. C. Hezser (pronounced Hesher in English), has written a book with the goal of establishing a new standard of scholarship in the field of Jewish literacy in Antiquity. Her exhaustive bibliography looks like nothing has escaped her eye. This ambitious book is intended to open a new era in this field where former studies tended to be seen more sporadic. However, a review of the immense bibliography - around 900 books and articles - shows an over-emphasis on archeological finds in Israel on the one hand, while ignoring some of the main papers dealing with literacy in Antiquity on the other.1 At any event, the book is impressive, though it doesn’t mean that it is without a drawback.

The book is organized in parts and chapters, each on a specific theme. After an introduction, part I is devoted to “The conditions for the Development of Literacy”, divided into the following chapters: 1. Education; 2. The Costs and Distribution of Texts; 3. The Socio-Economic Functions of Literacy; 4. Religion and Literacy; 5. Language Usage. Part II is titled “The Occurrence of Writing” and divided into the following chapters: 1. Letters; 2. Documents; 3. Miscellaneous Notes; 4. Inscriptions; 5. Literary Writing; 6. Magical Writing; 7. Summary. Part III is titled “participation in a Literate Society” and divided into the following chapters: 1. The Readers of the Texts; 2. The Writers of the Texts; 3. Degrees and Distribution of Literacy. Only from looking at the structure of the book and its contents can one appreciate the scholarship, skill and expertise of the scholar who wrote the book.

Beginning with Goody was a good (though lengthy) introduction describing illiteracy in antiquity from a socio-anthropological point of view. This chapter (pp. 2-17) is a kind of an abstract of Goody’s views and his followers (built above 135 footnotes that mostly begin with ‘Goody’ or ‘ibid.’), letting the new comer get more than a rough idea about an unfamiliar subject, usually discussed by anthropologists. Goody personally experienced the awakening of Africa later on in order to analyze the dawn of literate Greek and Sumerian civilizations,2 and now the author applies Goody’s views in the context of Roman Palestine Judaism. However, one is expecting to hear not only of parallel phenomena but to see its relevancy to his, or her, own field. In other words, what conclusion can be drawn from the dawn of literate cultures to the Jews under Roman Palestine where literacy had prevailed for more than a millennium?

In part 1 (pp. 37-109) a bulky chapter is devoted to education in Ancient Israel. That is to say that the scholar doesn’t leave any stone unturned. However, when one recalls that “education” is not necessarily connected with literacy, and until this very day official education doesn’t say much in regard to literacy, one wonders whether this discussion is not superfluous. Just as former scholars have already expressed their opinion on education (pp. 40-43) without any attempt to tackle literacy, it would have been just the same when a discussion on literacy ignores education (especially when there is no attempt at finding any percentage of literate people).

Unfortunately, this erudite scholar touches only in passing on the importance of the rate of literacy, and ignores literacy as affected by social strata. It should be recalled that the shift from prehistory to history began with writing, a fact that leaves the scholar a constant challenge to evaluate the rate of literacy during the ages, a task that Ms. Hezser doesn’t want to accept. Thus the main problem is not whether former scholars were right or wrong concerning this major issue, but rather what is the scholar’s new method by which he, or she, understands ancient literacy. The author discusses literacy among Kings, as well as among Rabbis (p. 212), as if Kings and Rabbis were two different strata in the same society. Apparently the author seems to be unaware of the biblical source of the Rabbinic Halakha concerning a king’s reading the Torah (verbatim: writing; Deut. 17:18), without noting whether it was history or pure speculation.3 Surprisingly, the subject of literacy among women is not given a chapter by itself (compare index p. 557), to raise a doubt if this scholar is a true graduate of the end of the 20th century when ignoring gender. The main problem, of course, is not in “knowing the sources” but rather how to apply them. Using so much archeological data without an attempt to discuss literacy among women leads one to a feeling of a missed opportunity and raises a question concerning the real competence of this scholar.4

Chapter four, in part I, in which the author discusses “Religion and Literacy” (pp. 190-226), is frustrating. True, the author discusses eruditely the written and the oral Torah with the aid of former scholars and ideas. Calling Judaism a “book religion” does no harm, since this is a characterization the Jews got already in the Quran, and from the Religion-studies perspective there are other religions that are book-oriented. For this reason, the uniqueness of Judaism is not clear, nor does it clarify the role of the Jewish religion in making Jews a literate people. Many nations have had oral traditions of some kind, so stress should be laid on the written factors, especially when taking into consideration that in Roman times the people who had oral Torah had had written law of God (Ex. 20), for more than a millennium, and the written Torah takes advantage of using written words to advance religious belief and behavior (for example: Ex. 24:4, 39:30; Num 5:23, 17:17; Deut. 6:9, 27:3, and more).

While trying to understand how King Josiah’s cultic reform is pertinent to the Jewish religion in Roman Palestine, one looks in vain to find any discussion on the Rabbinic concept of writing Torah as a “heavenly deed”.5 Likewise is the case of discussing the canonization of the Bible, very important indeed, without paying attention to the rules of the rabbis that one must read the Torah (unlike the biblical king only), or that everybody is obliged to read the Scroll of Esther (t. Meg. 2:7). Thus, according to the author, the contribution of Roman Palestine Judaism, the Tannaim, to their old heritage, is vague. Instead, the reader learns once more that there is no agreement concerning the process of canonization, or that the sectarians were quarrelling over the correct interpretation of the Torah, issues with very slight connection to literacy. And something else about focusing on literacy, a property the author lacks. It is obvious that the author likes to discuss magic (pp. 209-226; 436-444 and passim), though one wonders how exactly all the archeological evidence, well studied and organized, yields any new data concerning literacy.

After bringing very interesting comparative data from seventeenth-century New England, the author writes (p. 212):

In contrast to seventeenth-century New England, where relatively many people will have possessed a copy of the Bible, one may assume that in Roman Palestine only a few rabbis and wealthy Jews will have owned Torah scrolls or been able to borrow them from relatives or friends. Consequently, the rareness of Torah scrolls will have increased their holiness, etc.

To this statement one is apt to agree only when one doesn’t know the sources, or when the author avoids discussing the rate of literacy as is evident this subject is mentioned only sporadically (index p. 553). Without devoting a chapter to such a crucial issue, is like trying to conquer your enemy without attacking him. One must take into consideration not only “introductions” to literacy, but rather methodology of how to extract literacy-rate from Rabbinic and other sources.6 So now, the meaning of “rareness” is hazy, especially when one forgets to analyze relevant texts. For example, in b. Ber. 18a there is an halakha that discusses one who walks with his Torah scroll in a quite customary way. In addition, m. Yeb. 16:7 speaks of a Rabbi who went on a trip and took his Torah scroll with him. In school every child had his own book (b. Git. 58a), and when Rabbis were martyred they had their Torah scroll in their hands (b. Ab. Za. 18a). There are more sources that should be discussed more thoroughly, how much they reflect pure history and how the Rabbinic “movement” should be taken as reflecting Roman Palestine, all of which are beyond the scope of this review. However, it seems that the author prefers to flit from flower to flower, that is: secondary-learned scholars, than delving in the Rabbinic texts to find evidence for her case, so far unfamiliar to the scholarly world.

The problem of paucity of books is discussed elsewhere while dealing with libraries (pp. 160-168). It is true that libraries in the modern sense of the word were not in existence in Antiquity, however, synagogues were a kind of a library. The author is skeptical about this issue, while stating that the Rabbinic sources “do not specify whether the Torah scrolls would be kept or brought to the synagogue” (p. 163; p. 165 n. 324; p. 166. n. 327). It is true that Torah scrolls would have been brought to the synagogue before Shabbat as was done in Sepphoris in the second century (b. Er. 86b), probably for security reasons, so that the scrolls would not be stolen (m. B.Q. 10:3; b. B.B. 43a). Even in modern libraries there are cases where a book is kept in a special warehouse, outside the library itself, so nothing essential should be deduced from the absence of books in a synagogue. Not only that, but books were essential to the ritual of the Temple (Neh. 8:1-18; m. Yom. 7:1; m. Sota 7:8), where books were stored (II Macc. 2:13), like in other temples in ancient times. Judaism from its very beginning was based on reading books (Ex. 24:7; I Macc. 3:47; Syr. Bar. 77), and writing texts (Ex. 28:9; Deut. 6:9; Deut. 27:8).7 There is no way one can imagine Judaism under Roman Palestine (and much earlier) without books even though we are probably talking of a paucity of books (like in the Hellenistic world), with very low selection (unlike the Hellenistic world), except in the case of Qumran. It should be added that more than 150 synagogues have been unearthed (though true, many from a bit later period than “Roman”), and according the Rabbis one townsman can force the other people in town to buy scrolls of the Torah or of the prophets (and Kethubim; t. B.M. 11:23). R. Tarfon, a well-known Tanna in Roman Palestine of the second century, ruled that one who gives charity “in all times” is one who writes books and lends them to others (Midr. Psa. Buber, 106; b. Ket. 50a).8 Taking all this into consideration, the only conclusion is that in Antiquity there were many more books than the author realizes, and the whole issue deserves to be reevaluated (with references to sources ignored for the most part by the author).

The discussion of the languages in Roman Palestine (pp. 227-243), might exemplify the merits of the book as well as its weaknesses. From the way the scholar analyzes the problem it is evident that she is not only diligent but well equipped with all the methodologies concerning bilingualism, or multi-language usage in society. However, her knowledge of the sources is limited especially when she refrains from showing the relevant data to the reader, and instead relies on ill-competent scholars, while, at the same time, fails to quote better scholars. There is no doubt that at least four languages prevailed in Palestine: Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and the only question is to what extent, where and when. From the beginning of the Second Commonwealth, Hebrew and Aramaic shared a role in Jewish identity, as can easily be seen in the books of Ezra and Daniel. The same type of bilingualism is evident in the Aramaic Megillat Ta‘anit, where its commentary (scholion) is in Hebrew. The other way around is the Hebrew Mishnah with its Aramaic “commentary”, the Palestinian Talmud. Moreover, there are Aramaic sentences in the Mishnah itself.9 This state of affairs was not new, of course, since already in the Temple both languages were in ritual use.10 Moreover, the rules of the Tannaim of the Mishnah take for granted that the Hebrew Bible is translated, that is to Aramaic (with very few exceptions to Greek). From this period (and later) emerged the Aramaic Targumim, Aramaic Poetry, Aramaic magic, and Aramaic documents in the core of Judaism (such as the Ketubba or a writ of divorce). This shortened version of the role of Aramaic in Antiquity calls into doubt the statement of the scholar that “Aramaic was not an essential component of Jewish Antiquity” (p. 240). When the scholar continues: “nobody will have been particularly interested in its preservation and its prevalence over Greek”, it becomes clear that the scholar is underestimating the role of Aramaic while overestimating the role of Greek (the language of the conquerors) among the Jews in Antiquity. All together, when analyzing the role of Aramaic in Ancient Judaism one wonders whether the aforementioned statement was made by a historian or by one who portrays Judaism in Antiquity according to contemporary Judaism.


There is no doubt that the author of this book is highly learned in Judaism, as well as in the archeology of Palestine and in literacy studies as well. However, her writing lacks focus and is verbose which sometimes offends academic clarity, not to speak of her tendency to prefer secondary literature over primary sources (depreciating the Babylonian Talmud as reflecting Roman Palestine).11 It should be admitted that the issue of literacy is highly complex and even though the author’s opinion seems to be a bit questionable, one can’t but thank her for her efforts to present a comprehensive picture of this topic. Though with some reservations, there is no doubt that the book under discussion will remain for a long time as a basic sourcebook on Jewish literacy in Antiquity.

1. For former studies take a look at

2. It is interesting to note that while rejecting Goody’s view (p. 11) concerning the connection between rationality and literacy the scholar somehow failed to mention the book where this issue is one of the main themes: J. Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

3. On the ability of Jewish kings to read and write, see: 2 Kings 5:7; 2 Kings 10:1; II Chronicle 10:1; m. Sota 7:8.

4. On literacy among Jewish women in Antiquity, discussed especially with reference to archeological findings, see: M. Bar-Ilan, Some Jewish Women in Antiquity, Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998, pp. 31-51.

5. B. Shabbat 28a-b; b. Erub. 13a; b. Pes. 50b; and more.

6. M. Bar-Ilan, ‘Illiteracy as reflected in the Halakhot concerning the Reading of the Scroll of Esther and the Hallel’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 54 (1987), pp. 1-12 (Hebrew); idem., ‘Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries C.E.’, S. Fishbane, S. Schoenfeld and A. Goldschlaeger (eds.), Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society, II, New York: Ktav, 1992, pp. 46-61.

7. For that reason, the author’s statement in the bottom of p. 452 should be taken as understatement.

8. In a way, this is to dismiss the author’s claims against S. Krauss (p. 166-167). See also: A. Yaari, ‘Loan of Books’, Sinai, 34 (1954), pp. 122-136 (Heb.).

9. For example: m. Avot 1:13, 2:6; m. Hagiga 1:9; m. Ket. 4:8; m. Git. 9:2; m. B.M. 9:3; and more.

10. A. Büchler, The Priests and their Cult, Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1966, pp. 47-52 (Hebrew).

11. Moreover, in p. 481 n. 36 the author dismisses tractate Soferim as Babylonian, stating: “obviously such a strict rule did not exist in Palestine”. As a matter of fact, while one doubts the exact date of Soferim, there is little doubt that this is a Palestinian document for several reasons (in short: Christians are mentioned; the liturgy represents the place of the Sanhedrin [=Tiberias]), and there is other evidence for the Palestinian origin of the liturgy; there are lists of words that easily can be seen as a precedent of the Masora; most of the rabbis mentioned there are Palestinian). For that reason one can only be surprised that in the index (p. 546), Soferim is given as Babylonian, and probably for that reason, it is mostly ignored (that is: an old guidance manual to scribes is mentioned only twice in a book dedicated to literary activities).