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’Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries C.E.’

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the state of illiteracy in the Land of Israel in Late Antiquity. The main problem is to develop methods of evaluating illiteracy in Antiquity without the aid of statistics as is mandatory in the modern study of contemporary illiteracy. While discussing the problem of evaluating illiteracy rates in the past, it is argued that before examining the past, modern processes of changes in illiteracy should be studied. For that reason, illiteracy habits and factors are analyzed together with some tables of statistics of the phenomenon under study in modern times. Subsequently, we shall examine the relationship of two different processes: literacy and agriculture or urbanization. The data are based on various cultures, presented in charts. They reveal that both phenomena go hand in hand. In other words, an increase of urbanization reflects a growth in literacy, and vice versa. The other factors that are related to illiteracy are population growth and life expectancy. From the testimony of Josephus it is argued that, under the Roman rule, the Jewish population in the Land of Israel became urbanized while simultaneously increasing in number. This urbanization process reflects a growth of literacy. Only few of the rabbinic texts can reveal evidence of a low rate of illiteracy among the Jewish population in towns, and almost complete illiteracy in villages. Only implicitly can we conclude from the texts that the percentage of literate people was less than 3% out of the whole Jewish population.

Author(s):  Bar-Ilan, Meir
Format:  Article
Publisher:  Ktav
Publication City:  New York
Date:  1992
Source:  Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society, II
Number:  46-61