Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

The Relative Unimportance of Oral Culture for Interpreting Biblical Books

Posted by NT Wrong on November 15, 2008

You read it here, there, and everywhere: literacy levels in ‘ancient Israel’ were less than 5% … less than 3% … less than 1% … etc, etc ….

One percentage is quite assured and of great significance for understanding the way Hebrew Bible authors composed their works, however: Of those who wrote biblical books, the literacy rate was 100%.

Yes – surprising, but true.


9 Responses to “The Relative Unimportance of Oral Culture for Interpreting Biblical Books”

  1. Duane said


  2. Jim said

    im not so sure you’re right. one could hardly say that the author of revelation was literate in any but the most basic sense of being able to put words on scroll.

  3. steph said

    I think I agree with Jim. 100% is a bit generous isn’t it? 🙂

  4. ntwrong said

    I did say ‘Hebrew Bible’. The Anchor Bible Commentary aside, I understand John the Mushroom-Poppin’ Seer of Patmos was a Christian. And you try to write proper whilst on ‘shrooms.

  5. richard said

    2 thoughts:

    1-how does your statement account for the use of an amanuensis. is writing the simple mechanic of pen to paper, ink to papyri, or is it more significant. is the “writer” the author/originator or the thoughts or the scribe who jotted them down?

    2-the oral culture effects our understanding of motivation for composition, and the place/role of the text in the community. that seems relatively important to me.

  6. steph said

    I think the post is supposed to be relatively funny, Richard.

    NT – according to that automatically generated post below, one apparently doesn’t have to be literate to be biblically literate. Not if you’re ‘shrooming I s’pose

  7. ntwrong said

    Richard – I was almost going to write something to try to preempt a reply making exactly the same two points you did. But then I thought it unnecessary. In any case, the weasely term ‘relatively’ covered my arse, along with my general ‘facetious’ tone.

    Mind you, I still think an understanding of the workings of the literate elite is worth a whole lot more than understanding the general orality of ancient cultures. And writing changes everything in a culture (although, I’m not saying it’s not the only factor that’s worth taking notice of).

  8. Bill said

    Nice point! 😉

    Something you may appreciate, Bish: Scott Adams (Dilbert) wrote once that all humanity’s problems can be traced back to sex and trees. In Scott’s view, we only get one brilliant mutant once in a while who comes along and advances civilization to a point beyond which the rest of us monkeys could actually comprehend. And that wasn’t so bad, Scott said, before there was paper. But when these advanced mutations started being able to write down their ideas, we were all doomed. 😉

  9. I think the distinction must be made that those who WROTE the books were all literate. But not all of these books were AUTHORED by the person who actually put pen to paper.

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