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Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Language and Literacy » Literacy in Yeshua’s Time

Literacy in Yeshua’s Time

There is a myth, owing its origins to certain passages in the Talmud (put in writing about 500 CE) and a few in the Mishnah (200 CE), that in Yeshua’s time all Jewish boys went to school and learned to read. This myth has been propagated in a number of well-meaning writings about the Jewish background of Yeshua’s life.

What is the real story about literacy in Yeshua’s time?

John Meier provides a helpful overview of the data in his A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1.

First, note that the majority were not literate in Hebrew or the Hebrew scriptures. This is evident from the existence and widespread use of Targums (Aramaic paraphrases which were read with the Hebrew text so the majority could understand). People not only could not read Hebrew. They could not understand spoken Hebrew in many cases.

Second, a fair number of people were literate in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. One evidence of this is the relative abundance of inscriptions on objects which were not likely written only by the upper classes (including pitchers and arrows, for example). The book of Maccabees suggests that some Jewish families had private copies of the Torah (1:56-57). Josephus says that families were expected to teach their children to read and learn the Torah (Against Apion 2.25).

The resulting picture is of a higher literacy rate in Judea and Galilee than in other parts of the Roman empire. Jews had a religious motivation to gain at least a certain kind of literacy related to the scriptures (Hebrew and Aramaic). Yet the ideal was far from being realized, so that the majority required Aramaic readings in the synagogue to understand the scriptures.

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