The Ancient World Was Literate

23 Jan

I have long opposed the archaeologists’ and scholars’ arguments that the ancient world was illiterate except for a few lucky elite people. Dr. Wm. Dever plainly states this idea in his lecture series How Archaeology Illuminates the Bible

When you study the ancient world you can see that those arguments just do not stack up with the evidence we discover.  The following question did not originate with me and I have long forgotten where I read it and who said but it is a very important question  given the amount of ancient inscriptions, monuments, pottery shards with writing on them, manuscripts and much more unearthed since archaeology began.

The question is: Who were the rulers and scribes writing to when they produced so much written information?  If it were for the elite, they would not need so many stone steles and other large monuments depicting the deeds of the kings and other rulers. The elite were not that large of a group, much like today. So why would kings, governments, scribes, etc., spend so much money on those items when they could get away with just writing on paper, papyrus and other writing material.

To show you how much written material there was in the ancient world, here is a sample from one small city

5) Since we don’t really hear much about first century evangelistic endeavors in Egypt, does it surprise you that so many texts are being found in mummy masks? Not at all. The ancient world was far more literate than we moderns realize. Some 500,000 pages of papyrus have been recovered from Oxyrhynchus alone and it was not an especially important or cultured city. We have this enormous amount of material simply because the arid climate made preservation possible. There would have been millions of documents in other cities like Ephesus, Alexandria, Rome, Rhodes, and the like. (

If the rulers were writing for the elite alone, they would not have needed that amount of written material. Then we need to ask why were their libraries in the ancient world if only the elite could read or write? There was not enough of them with an interest in writing to fill one library let alone many throughout the ancient world. Why did the church fathers write their work if only the elite could read them? Speaking to them would be a lot easier and cheaper.

6) The article posted by NBC News said you believe the original writings of the gospels were in circulation for as long as 200 years. What leads you to believe that is true? For two reasons: (1) Church fathers, writing 150 to 200 years after the originals were written, refer to the autographs as still available in their time. (2) Several libraries and book collections have been recovered which provide compelling evidence. For example, a collection is found in a layer of the Oxyrhynchus landfill that is dated to the fourth century C.E., yet the books that are recovered were produced in the first and second century C.E. This shows that the library was in use for at least 200 years before being retired. Many books, including old Christian Bibles, have been found to have been read, corrected, repaired for more than 500 years. Several Bible scrolls from Qumran (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls) were at least 200 years old before the Qumran community was destroyed by the Romans in the first century C.E. (Ibid)

There is just too much written information to plausibly argue that the ancient world was filled with people who could not read or write. i have often made the argument that if future archaeologists dug around the Capital in Washington DC they would assume that only the elite politicians and their aides knew how to read and write. The rest of the population of America, according to them, having been taught to read and write would be seen as illiterate because they did not leave any writing samples behind.

This is concluded despite the fact that in the 20th century America hundreds of millions of people were educated and taught to read and write. Evidence for education and literacy is hard to prove because the majority of people do not write much beyond their names on a check. Paper checks would not survive 1000 years or so that would be needed for future archaeologists to dig them up and study them. Nor would many notes scribbled in haste or to remind someone of some event or appointment.

We cannot know the extent of literacy in the ancient world because most of the people, though taught to read and write, would not leave any writing samples behind to prove their education. Given the lack of extant books from those famous writers, Pliny the elder, Plato, Herodotus, to name a few, how can we expect to find writing samples from the common population? The copies we have of most ancient authors are not even close to being original and many were copied 400-800 years AFTER the attributed author died. If we are that lucky. (See F.F. Bruce’s Are The New Testament Documents Reliable)

I have asked this before, why would these authors write if there was no one able to read their works? They would not make much money or make a living out of writing even though we are told most of these people did survive by writing.  So if their audience was as small as archaeologists and scholars claim, then how could they support themselves?

The evidence stands on the side of ‘the ancient world was literate’ argument. As for the debate about is it ethical to destroy ancient mummy masks or not to recover texts? It is hard to say. While I do not like destroying ancient artifacts, I am more against missing out on written material that is vital to our , one, learning about the ancient world; two, finding verification for the Bible.

The secular world wants to suppress the discovery of materials vital to biblical verification, so they raise faulty arguments in opposition. I do not think it is unethical to destroy mummy masks because the owners of the items have given their permission for the researchers to go ahead and do it. If the items were recently plucked from an archaeological dig and were rare, then I would have a serious problem with their destruction.

But since they are not rare, they are not valuable, and do not provide any new information about the ancient world, then I do not see why they cannot be dismantled in search of valuable information that will shed more light on the past than the mummy mask could ever produce whole. Unbelievers are just creating a controversy for no reason at all, a controversy that will hinder biblical research and that is not right.

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Posted by on January 23, 2015 in academics, archaeology, Bible, education, history, leadership, science


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