ABSTRACT: 'Socialized Literacy in Antiquity'

MAARAV, 21.1-2 (2014), pp. 237-250  Meir Bar-Ilan


The aim of this paper is to illuminate anew several aspects of literacy among the Judeans in Antiquity and to reevaluate the role of literacy in Ancient Jewish society. The main target is to explain the way how literacy was diffused from scribal circles into the laity by viewing different ceremonies where writing took place: the Wayward Wife, the bill of divorce, writing on a Mezuza, and the Lord's Name that was written on people's body.

The case of the Wayward Wife (Num. 5:5-31) shows a woman that is tested in Ordeal and the writing of the Biblical text is essential part of the ceremony. There is no other ancient Ordeal that goes together with the practice of writing; Ordeal is a remnant of archaic law of pre-literate people, while writing reflects more advanced society. Here is a case when the written word played a role in the life of a common woman and the crowd that watched that woman, mostly illiterate. Common people became aware of the impact of literacy in daily life while God is manifested by His written law.

The bill of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4) is a rare case where one can see the impact of literacy on the whole society. Unlike monarchic bureaucracy that is restricted to governors and their clerks and unlike priestly literature that is confined to old traditions and ceremonies, a bill of divorce has a daily and socialized impact: it enables a woman to get married. The law shows how the values of the literate higher society penetrated lower classes while even the illiterate people must have had some idea about a document in their possession.

The law in today's terminology 'Mezuza' (Deut. 6:9; 11:20) commands that in every house there will be graffiti where the words of the Lord will be written. Thus everyone everyday confronts the divine, and script, and thus one knows from childhood the importance of God and His commandments, as well as script.

There were people that inscribed the Name of the Lord on their body (Isa. 44:5), and this practice reflects not only an act of manifestation of the Lord but also a belief in the power of the written word. Unlike other texts that were written to be read by few people only: a king, a priest or a governor, here is a walking text aimed to be read in public, that is reflecting mass-literacy or at least showing the illiterate the advantage of the written word.