Thursday, August 14, 2008

Literacy in the First Century

If most of the first century world was illiterate, could the NT have been written and transmitted so quickly during this time?  Or must we assume, as some scholars would suggest, that the NT was written late, the content of which sprang forth from oral traditions which were tens (and perhaps hundreds) of years old?

Carson and Moo, in An Introduction to the New Testament, suggest that "the world into which Jesus was born was highly literate" (p 24).  In their context, however, it is important to note that they are avoiding such notions implicit in the questions above, namely, that the NT is late and based on oral traditions.  Most scholars (conservative and liberal) have accepted the fact the literacy rate in the Greco-Roman world was low, perhaps 20% or lower (specific stats vary widely).  But in recent years, the prominence of a first century 'literary culture' has begun to emerge in research.  In other words, there is substantial evidence that even though many in the first century were illiterate, there existed an influential written culture, books, contracts, letters, etc..

For more information, read this fascinating article by Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts: "Paul's Bible, His Education and His Access to the Scriptures of Israel."  This article addresses essential issues for Greco-Roman background studies.

Here are a few 'highlights' I found interesting:

"The first stage is to try to create a scenario in which to place Paul. Though orality was significant in the Greco-Roman world, including the world of Diaspora Judaism, it maintained a complex interplay with literacy and a growing and developing book culture. " (p26).

"As a literate person and a major letter writer (we believe it is impossible for Paul not to have known that he was a major letter 

writer, on the basis of simply seeing how his letters compared to other, more typical letters of the ancient world), he probably wrote or had written multiple copies, with copies being kept, with later copies being made from them, and with the copies perhaps forming the basis of his letter collection." (p27).

Regarding Paul and his 'parchments' (2 Tim 4.13): "A likely hypothesis, therefore, is that Paul, or one of his early Christian colleagues, compiled an anthology of significant texts for specific purposes, as liturgical, doctrinal or compositional tools" (p29).

"More than likely, the Greek text was dealt with in terms of individual books and their respective scroll(s)—it did not exist as a single volume until the dissemination of the codex in the second century CE" (p29). 

Dealing with question regarding the Scriptures brings up a topic about which I'd like to blog soon: Biblical apologetics, that is apologetics that utilize arguments based on biblical studies, especially original language studies.  

By the way, my position is that the books of the New Testament were completed by AD 90-95 (though many of the books were written around the 50s and 60s).  I also maintain verbal plenary inspiration.

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