The comparative anthropological study of illiteracy began relatively only recently, and therefore it is no wonder that most of its research is devoted to contemporary societies. Only few studies are related to literacy in Antiquity from which we obviously do not possess such data as we have from Europe in recent centuries.1
A social historian who wants to know the rate of illiteracy in Late Antiquity, as well as the way this rate changed in the course of time, should first study the methodological frameworks employed in the research of literacy processes in the last few centuries. This modern data might assist him to evaluate the same phenomenon that occurred in the past. That is, a cultural historian of the past must be acquainted with modern phenomena as models to extrapolate parallel phenomena in his period of inquiry.2
Therefore, to speculate on the forces involved in illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the first centuries c.e., some processes taking place in contemporary societies, where changes in the illiteracy rate have been investigated, will be analyzed. Few social changes seem to be irrelevant to changes in illiteracy, and many will be found to be directly connected to literate habits and changes. Nonetheless, one should be aware of the obstacles that confront a historian of illiteracy in the past.3
It seems that the first problem that the social historian of Late Antiquity faces is the lack of contemporary data in this field. This drawback of the impossibility of observing and questioning people of ancient cultures, as practiced in the research of contemporary cultures, denies the scholar one of the major tools of the modern sociologist. These tools include questionnaires, statistical analyses of data, etc.
This void goes together with additional queries that exist even in the contemporary study of illiteracy. That is, the definition of an illiterate, how to perceive the data, how the data reflect illiteracy, and so forth. For example, if centuries ago, a person signed his name on a list in church, does it mean that he was literate, or that except for his signature, he was a total illiterate?4
Further, an obstacle in itself is the way all data received from different countries and different times (and even by different means and standards), should be weighted to get a coherent system, from which a general conclusion might be drawn.5 Looking at the state of illiteracy in different countries during the 20th century is essential here. In the last century there was an increase in the tempo of social changes all over the world, so each decade is meaningful. It appears in the area of illiteracy, as in other areas, that the modern acceleration of the process implies slower tempo of changes in the past, so it is important to understand the internal behavior of the modern process to extrapolate the ancient changes in illiteracy.6
In this paper we shall examine relevant 20th century data that relate to the encounter between a traditional and a modern society, i.e. western civilization which is based on writing. This cultural confrontation might be taken as a paradigm of a more ancient parallel: the encounter of Jews in the Land of Israel with Hellenism. Judaism, a traditional society, confronted Hellenism, a more 'modern' one, where the literacy rate was apparently higher than that among Jews.7
For example we can observe data of illiteracy gathered from different societies in the first half of the 20th century: Turkey 1927: 91.8%; Egypt 1927: 85.7%; South Africa 1921: 90.3%; India 1921: 90.5%; Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia before 1950: above 90%. Our question is, what can be learned from these rates of modern illiteracy that concern ancient illiteracy, from societies before their industrial revolutions? In other words, can't a tentative conclusion be drawn that in ancient 'traditional' societies the rate of literacy was less than 10%?
Certainly, there is no definite answer to such a question, and maybe there is no comparison between 20th century Egypt and the Land of Israel in the first century. An examination of the data in Egypt would reveal that if ancient Jewish literacy was somewhat around 5%, then the modern figures of 10% in Egypt are an exaggeration of 100%. Nonetheless, the modern figures might give us an idea concerning the literacy rate we are dealing with in pre-industrial ancient society: the Jews in the Land of Israel in Late Antiquity.
In the following section we shall examine a few processes that are related to illiteracy, or social phenomena that reflect changes in illiteracy. An examination of these processes might explain why people in a certain society are more literate since literacy does not emerge in a vacuum but rather from social and historical circumstances.
While comparing data of illiteracy from all over the world, as well as from different periods, it becomes evident that there is a direct correlation between literacy and other aspects of life in a society under study. This correlation helps because it moves the scholar from the twilight zone of speculation into a clearer field of research. This correlation, even imprecise or partial, makes the whole issue understandable since it places it under general conditions of illiteracy in various cultures. In other words, the comparison gives a general 'rule' of the illiteracy rate. First an already identified correlation between illiteracy and agriculture will be considered.
The connection between literacy and agriculture is shown hereafter in two ways: synchronously: that is, different peoples in the same period, and diachronously: in the same culture though in different periods. We shall begin with table number 1.8
Table 1: Relationship between economic structure and illiteracy.
From the outset it should be stated that the data does not reveal new information but suggests that the connection between agriculture and illiteracy is a world-wide phenomenon. There is no deviation from this rule in most other countries, though Japan and Mauritius seem to be slightly different. However, we can conclude that since there is no connection whatsoever among all these countries, there is a general rule concerning this connection. This rule can be phrased as follows: the more agricultural the society, the higher the percentage of the illiterate people.
Different data are in the following table, no. 2, from 1930:9
|Illiterate in %||4||14||15||40||59||59||81||88|
|farmers in %||25||30||36||67||72||72||69||77|
|births (out of 1000/year)||20||23||23||45||41||44||44||48|
This table reveals the direct correlation between illiteracy, the percentage of farmers in a given society, and between the birth rate which is one of the major parameters in demography changes. From the table it may be deduced: the more agricultural the society, the less literate and the higher the birth rate (to compensate for the higher infant mortality rate). Perhaps this phenomenon of a higher birth rate should be dealt with separately, but for the time being the direct relationship between farmers and literacy is evident.10
The advantage of this table is that instead of discussing the percentage of the literate out of the total population, about which we have little data if any, we can deal objectively with the percentage of farmers in the population. Thus, in a society where there are no data concerning the literacy rate, that rate can be extrapolated according to the agricultural rate, an area which permits analysis.
As a result of information in the tables we can conclude that there is a world-wide rule from 1930 and 1950. The question than arises: was it valid in former periods? For this purpose we will examine the next table, no. 3.11 From data that have been collected in the two last centuries from the USA, France, England and Belgium, the direct relation between agriculture and literacy is once again evident. However, this time the data reveal changes in the process while the former data reflect a 'frozen' state of illiteracy. From the table it is evident that in the last 120 years the percentage of farmers has decreased in western Europe and the USA, while the rate of literacy has increased.
In other words, in regard to data from different periods, though there is some deviation, it is evident that the table reveals that the correlation between literacy and agriculture is not limited to a specific period and culture, but has been true in general for more than a century (at least).12 Thus it can be concluded that in any given society whose percentage of farmers was reduced, as a result of industrialization or commerce, it can be safely assumed that the literacy rate grew simultaneously.13
It is imperative to point out that the social rule concerning the relationship between agriculture and illiteracy is known not only from the decrease in agriculture as reflecting increase in literacy, but also from an increase in literacy as reflecting decrease in agriculture. Viewing the increase in literacy in China showed that when the literacy rate went up, there was also a considerable improvement in the crops.14 That is, literacy rate improvement is parallel with larger crops, and because of that the percentage of the agricultural population went down when some farmers found themselves redundant in their old villages and emigrated to urban center to seek new occupations.15
Thus, we can conclude a new definition for those who are or are not involved in agriculture, that is, the two sections of the population: rural and urban. In a traditional society, the proportion between the two (uneven) parts of the society hardly changed in centuries. However, during the modernization process some of the farmers went to live in town, as we see, for example, in contemporary Egypt. This reflects not only improvements in agriculture leading to urbanization, but suggests that this is accompanied by an increase of literacy.16
Demonstrating this phenomenon we are dealing with here (rural - urban difference concerning illiteracy) is well attested in data and papers on modern India.17 In 1971 the literacy percentage rate in India was 29.5, though there was a great deal of difference between the inhabitants of towns and in rural areas. While the literacy rate among urban people was 52.4, the rural people's rate of literacy was 23.7 only. That is, the literacy rate in towns was more than twice as great as among rural people. From an examination of a table with the literacy data from India, it is evident that in various states, (with the exception of Kerala, in which Europeans have lived for more than four centuries), the literacy rate among urban residents more than doubled in proportion to the literacy rate of rural residents.18 That is to say that the relationship between literacy, agriculture and urbanization is evident in several ways: from data gathered from the world in the 20th century, from data gathered in Europe for more than a century, and from examining rural-urban literacy data from 'modern' India.
In sum: in the above discussion it has been proven that there is a close relationship between agriculture and literacy, a connection of which we have much information from various unrelated places, as a static phenomenon and as a process in change as well. This connection in a given society between literacy and agriculture is presented here as a rural-urban relation, or urbanization. In other words, a society in which the urbanization process develops is a society where the literacy rate rises since urbanization parallels increase in literacy.
There is no reason whatsoever to confine this social-historical phenomenon to the 20th or 19th centuries. It is most likely that the same world-wide rule was valid in former centuries and in the Land of Israel. It is clear now that if agricultural or urbanization changes are studied at a certain time and place, a concomitant improvement in the literacy rate in the same society will be found.
It should be noted that urbanization is not a process by itself but goes hand in hand with another process. This is a growth in population. In a static social system, where the population growth is zero or very close to it, there are no significant changes in the society for relatively long periods. In such a case, urbanization should not be expected since all the newborns (actually, those that survive), will simply replace their forefathers. By itself, it is clear that in such population equilibrium the total number of towns in that society will not change, and the towns themselves will not grow. However, in a society where the birth rate exceeds the deaths, that is, when there is a population growth, new towns will be developed, new places or neighborhoods will be built to house the increase of the population.
This population growth is connected with literacy in two ways; 1) The population growth is attested in a society through urbanization, a process that relates to literacy. 2) Even without any special knowledge in regard to urbanization, population growth always reflects a growth in the rate of literacy.
Table 4: Increase and decrease in three countries.
Table no. 4 shows the population growth of three different societies in the course of three or four decades. These are Egypt, Portugal and Finland.19 The data show that during the years when there was a population growth, the literacy rate improved. The explanation for this phenomenon is, evidently, that the growth of the rural population led to moves to towns since they were superfluous in the old village. That is, population growth led to urbanization, and according to the former analysis, this is connected with literacy. Indeed, this phenomenon which is known from three countries is known from other places, such as India, Argentina and others. These tables show that during population growth the total number of the illiterate remains almost steady which means that the literacy rate was increasing as a result of a population growth (table no. 5).20
Table 5: Increase and decrease in Argentina.
It might be deduced from this phenomenon that whenever the population grows in a given area (that is the population density increases), then urbanization and the literacy rate increases in the same society (together with or slightly later). This 'rule' does not differ greatly from the previously suggested rule, that is: there is a connection between literacy and agriculture and urbanization, and now also with population growth.
Subsequent to our introduction, it may be asked how all this relates to the Land of Israel in antiquity. Did one of the above mentioned processes play any role in Israel? Could we apply these 'rules' to Israel in antiquity? It seems to me that we can confidently answer these questions affirmatively. First, after the social-historical phenomena have been studied in different periods and countries and can be regarded as a 'rule', we can assume they played a part in ancient Israel (or any other country as well). Secondly, it is not hard to find these two phenomena in ancient Israel: population growth and urbanization, so it is evident that the other facet of these social changes, the increase in literacy rate, played a role as well. Certainly, comparative history cannot supply total numbers, nor can it give definite percentages, though it can identify parallel social historical phenomena in different times. Let us dwell on data from the Land of Israel in the first centuries c.e.
In some two or three centuries preceding the common era, and some two centuries after the beginning of the common era, two processes have been detected: 1) Population growth in the Land of Israel; 2) the founding of many towns in the same area during almost the same period. Now, there was undoubtedly a population growth among the Jews in the Land of Israel at that time. The only question among scholars is how great the population growth was between the Maccabean period and the revolt against Rome. Did the Jewish population in the first century reach a million persons, or not?21 This population growth is concluded from various analyses but it can be attested by concomitant data: urbanization. In the books of Josephus if read carefully, it becomes evident that under the Romans many towns were founded, some rebuilt, and some enlarged. According to Josephus (and archeological evidence), the Land of Israel saw in antiquity the foundation of Tiberias, Caesarea, Caesarea of Panyas, Antipatris and others. Jerusalem was enlarged, Appolonia, Ashdod and Beth-shean were resettled. Bethsaida gained the status of a town as a result of its massive population (in comparison with a village).22 Though, it goes without saying, some of this urbanization took place among non-Jews in the Land of Israel, it is evident that all this process reflects Jewish urbanization, that is, population growth as suggested above.
These social changes mirror the other facet of the change which is the increasing literacy among the Jewish population during (or slightly after) the urbanization. That is, according to the above social models, it is clear that the Jews under Roman rule not only grew in numbers and urbanized, but improved their literacy rate as well. According to this analysis, one cannot speculate on the size of this literacy rate since this rate depends on various factors such as: the rate of the population growth, the state of the roads, merchandising, the influence of other cultures, and other factors. However, it can be safely assumed from our study that under the Romans the literary rate of Jews increased.
Modern studies teach that there is, though indirectly, a connection between literacy rate and life expectancy in a given society. This interdependence is seen in table no. 6 which gives data from six countries from 1974.23
|Literate in %||98||98||98||61||30||25||28||12|
|Infant mor. (1000/year)||11||18||35||94||128||65||139||227|
|Life expectancy (years)||74||71||68||61||51||62||50||41|
There are three related phenomena here: illiteracy, life expectancy and infant mortality rate.24 Though no direct connection between literacy and infant mortality can be seen, unlike, e.g., the percentage of doctors in the society, there seems to be, however, a connection between literacy and life expectancy. The higher the literacy rate, the lower the number of infant deaths and the higher life expectancy. From this we can conclude that knowing one facet of these phenomena may lead us to speculate on the other phenomena rate in any given society and period.
Nonetheless, the explanation of this relationship between life expectancy and illiteracy is still rather vague. A reasonable explanation of this might be the superiority of the written cultural message over its oral parallel. The written word, especially that which relates to hygiene, agriculture, baby care and livestock, improves the survived of the society in difficult conditions. Infant mortality and life expectancy may not be related directly to literacy, but they both proclaim the state of that society's progress.
In the examination of Rabbinic sources, on the one hand, and parallel data from different societies on the other, the infant mortality rate among the Jews of the Land of Israel in antiquity may be concluded to be above 30%. In other words, the projection of this figure signifies a literacy rate lower than 10%. Obviously this figure is not precise, though it is not far from the 'real' rate. Therefore, to get a different view of the same phenomena, Rabbinic sources should be studied. All this, together other parallel investigations in other societies, might yield a closer understanding of the illiteracy of the Jews in the past.
Assessing the literacy rate in modern society is very easily accomplished
but the answer to this question in antiquity is the other way around.
Nonetheless, this percentage is reflected in one of the rules in Soferim
11:2 (ed. Higger, p. 218):
A town in which there is only one who reads; he stands up, reads (the Torah), and sits down, he stands up, reads and sits down, even seven times.
In other words, in some towns there was only one person who could read the Torah, which is a highly (Hebrew) religious reading.25 This rule appears also in t. Megila though with a slight difference: instead of 'town' it says there: 'a synagogue of which there is only', etc.26 However, this minor difference in the text has no significance since in the small towns in the Land of Israel there usually was one synagogue only, such as in Korazim, Beit-Shearim, and so forth. That is to say that the meaning of that rule was the same even though there was a textual difference. Calculating the balance between males and females, taking into consideration that female literacy rate is always lower than the male rate leads to the idea of there being one reader only in various places. If the fact is not overlooked that in all the synagogues that have been unearthed there was place for more than 50 people, the conclusion must be reached that while issuing that rule the Tanna was speaking of a town where the literacy rate was approximately 1 percent (if not lower).
It may be argued that the Tanna ruled in a unique case, but it seems that usually the Tannaim did not speak of rare cases. On the contrary, most if not all, of the cases studied show that the rules of the Tannaim played their role in people's lives.27 Of course, it does not mean that in all rural places there was such literacy, but, on the other hand, if there were towns with 1% literacy, then the literacy of all the towns was not higher than 5% (at most). Therefore, taking into consideration the above rule, together with the fact that there are rules that reflect a zero literacy rate in the rural areas lead to the assumption of a low rate of literacy in the whole population. Even if we assume that in cities (as happens all over the world in urban areas in comparison to rural areas), such as Tiberias, for example, the literacy rate was double and even triple in comparison with the towns, still the figures of literacy are around 2-15%. With the assumption that the rural population was around 70% (with 0% literacy), 20% of urban population (with 1-5% literacy), and 10% of highly urban population (with 2-15% literacy), the total population literacy is still very low. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the total literacy rate in the Land of Israel at that time (of Jews only, of course), was probably less than 3%.
At first glance this figure looks quite low, and maybe too low. However, in a traditional society, knowing how to read was not a necessity: neither for economic reasons, nor for intellectual ones. On the contrary. Why should a farmer send his son to learn how to read when it entails a waste of working time (=money)? Why should he himself learn how to read if his culture is based on oral tradition (though with a written Torah)? According to the Torah, there is no need to read or write, except for writing the Mezuza, Tefilin, and the Torah itself. However, for these purposes there was always a scribe, so a Jew in antiquity could fulfill the commandments of the Torah while being illiterate. Not only that, but 3% of the total population seems to be high in comparison with other cultures. In ancient Egypt, a land with a lot of scribes, only half a percent were literate.28 Now, even if it is taken into consideration that training in hieroglyphs takes much more time than script with some 22 symbols, still the conclusion of the extent of literacy in a neighboring country some millennia later with literacy rates that are some six times larger than its predecessor, seems quite plausible.
According to the growth processes in population and urbanization as mentioned above, it may be surmised that before the beginning of these processes, in the days of the Maccabees and at the end of the 'biblical' period, the literacy rate of the Jewish people was 1.5% if not lower. Nevertheless, if the conclusion seems farfetched, it can be rejected only by cogent arguments.29
Literacy data from all over the world show the relationship and dependence between farmers (or the state of agriculture), and literacy. This tie has been found in various peoples and in the course of time. The data 'create' a world-wide rule.
The other facet of this dependence is population growth, urbanization and infant mortality that apparently go hand in hand with literacy. This connection enables the student of societies in the past to deal with the problem of literacy whenever the direct evidence is not available. This study offers a method to analyze processes that took place in a specific society so that the literacy rate may be derived.
Comparative data show that under Roman rule the Jewish literacy rate improved in the Land of Israel. However, rabbinic sources support evidence that the literacy rate was less than 3%. This literacy rate, a small fraction of the society, though low by modern standards, was not low at all if one takes into account the needs of a traditional society in the past.
1 Literature on this subject see: R. Pattison, On Literacy - The Politics of the word from Homer to the Age of Rock, Oxford University Press, New York - Oxford 1982, pp. 221 ff. The available literature in Hebrew is (only): A. Stahl (ed.), Literacy and Cultural Changes, Educational Issues Translations from Educational Literature, The Hebrew University and the Ministry of Education and Culture, Jerusalem 1972.
2 For this pattern of historical research in illiteracy, see: J. Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1968; J. Baines, 'Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society', Man (ns), 18 (1983), pp. 572-599 (includes bibliography); Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989.
3 On the state of this question, see: A. Demsky and M. Bar-Ilan, 'Writing in Ancient Israel and Early Judaism', Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, Section II, vol. I, MIKRA, M. J. Mulder (ed.), van Gorcum, Assen / Maastricht & Fortress Press, Philadelphia 1988, pp. 1-38.
4 It seems that signing one's name is the elementary stage in literacyneeded when signing on contract, on testimony, and so forth, though there is not a definite proof for this theory.
5 This data is taken from: A. C. Moorhouse, The Triumph of the Alphabet, Henry Schuman, New York 1953, pp. 199 ff.
6 Some changing processes took place in ancient times such as industrialization, urbanization, and great wars though they all were confined in comparison with modern times.
7 The main proof for that is comparing female literacy where it seems that the percentage in Hellenistic culture was higher than in Jewish culture. See: Susan Guettel Cole, 'Could Greek Woman Read and Write?', Helene P. Foley (ed.), Reflections of Women in Antiquity, New York - London - Paris 1981, pp. 219-245.
8 World Illiteracy at Mid-Century, UNESCO, Switzerland 1957, p. 179.
9 Kingsley Davis, Human Society, New York 1949, pp. 614-616.
10 The subject of births is discussed here only briefly in relating it to life expectancy. It has been shown elsewhere that the infant mortality rate reflects literacy rate. Therefore, high birth rates don't necessarily reflect population growth. See: M. Bar-Ilan, 'Infant Mortality in the Land of Israel in Late Antiquity', S. Fishbane and J. Lightstone (eds.), Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society, Concordia University Press, Montreal 1990, pp. 3-26.
11 World Illiteracy (n. 8), p. 181; this is a logarithmic table and it may deceive at first glance.
12 It should be noted that the same conclusion could be reached from table no. 1 on the ground that the data would be perceived as reflecting historical change, a process of westernization.
13 On the industrial revolution in the 18-19th centuries that led to significance changes in literacy, see: E. G. West, 'Literacy and the Industrial Revolution', Economic History Review, 31 (1978), pp. 369-383.
14 Moorhause (above, n. 5), p. 207 ff.
15 Concerning the question of what came first, increase in literacy that brought about the development of the society or vice versa, see West (above, n. 13).
16 E.g., the immigration of Jews from Islamic countries to the Land of Israel is characterized as urbanization (at least for the majority of that population). Accordingly, this population increased its literacy rate, especially due to the increase of female literacy.
17 G. Krishan and M. Shyam, 'Regional Aspects of Urban-Rural Differential in Literacy in India: 1971', The Journal of Developing Areas, 13 (1978), pp. 11-21.
18 The detailed studies on literacy in India could be taken as a model of the spread of literacy according to sex, age etc. See: G. S. Gosal, 'Literacy in India: An Interpretative Study', Rural Sociology, 29 (1964), pp. 261-277; G. Krishan and M. Shyam, 'Literacy Pattern of India Cities', Geoforum, 19 (1974), pp. 77-80.
19 Progress of Literacy in Various Countries, UNESCO, France 1953, p. 225.
20 Ibid., p. 227.
21 See: M. Broshi, 'The Population of Western Palestine in the Roman Byzantine Period', BASOR, 236 (1979), pp. 1-10; M. Broshi, 'The Population of the Land of Israel in the Roman Byzantine Period', T. Baras (and others, eds.), The Land of Israel: from the destruction of the second Temple to the Islamic Conquest, I, Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem 1982, pp. 442-455 (Hebrew); Z. Safrai, 'The Demographic growth as a basic process in the Life of the Land of Israel in the Mishnah and Talmud Periods', A. Oppenheimer (and others, eds.), Man and Land in Ancient Israel, Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 20-48 (Hebrew).
22 See: Josephus, Antiquities I,8,4; XVIII,2,1; Wars I,21,1; II,9,1; and more. See also the only paper that discusses urbanization in Late Antiquity: Z. Safrai, 'Urbanization in Israel in the Greco-Roman Period', Studies in the History of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, V (1980), pp. 105-129 (Hebrew).
23 The table is based on data taken from: Geoffrey Barraclough (ed.), The Times Atlas of World History, London 1978 (6th impression 1982), p. 294.
24 Infant mortality is only one facet of life expectancy. On infant mortality see above n. 10.
25 From here on, compare my paper: '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).
26 A similar case occurs in the parallel of y. Ber. 5:4, 9d and b. Sota 38b.
27 Read carefully b. Hor. 3b (and parallels); b. Sanh. 71a.
28 See: Baines (above, n. 2), and: J. Baines, and C. J. Eyre, 'Four Notes on Literacy', Goettinger Miszellen, 16 (1983), pp. 65-96.
29 This percentage might be raised artificially. If we ignore women (on the ground of their not participating in society), take into consideration children above the age of seven only, forget the far-away farmers and regard literacy of the non-educated people (e.g., one who cannot read the Torah but reads a bulla, that is: pragmatic literacy), then the literacy rate (adult males in the centers), might be even 20%, a high rate in traditional society.
1 Connection of agriculture and illiteracy - note 8.
2 Agriculture, illiteracy, births - note 9.
3 Logarithmic table - note 11.
4 Egypt, Portugal and Finland - note 19.
5 Argentine - note 20.
6 Times atlas - note 23.
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