Saturday, November 15, 2008

Orality and Literacy VI: Literate authors of ancient texts

N. T. Wrong has posted on the Relative Unimportance of Oral Culture for Interpreting Biblical Books, reminding us of the fact that "Of those who wrote biblical books, the literacy rate was 100%". With the antibishop (thanks to Andrew Criddle for the term), there is always an enjoyable element of facetiousness, but his reminder about this blindingly obvious fact is actually a useful one because it forces us to think again about the role of the literate in a culture where there was widespread illiteracy, to come to terms with the role played by this elite. As Harry Gamble says,
In a community in which texts had a constitutive importance and only a few people were literate, it was inevitable that those who were able to explicate texts would acquire authority for that reason alone (Books and Readers, 9-10).
Moreover, as I have argued here (Orality and Literacy V: Illiterate Tradents), it is not just a question of taking literate authors of literary texts seriously. It is also a question of focusing on literate tradents. The idea of illiterate early Christian tradents remains problematic. Most of the tradents we know about were literate, and one of the earliest pieces of known tradition (1 Cor. 15.3-5) presupposes literate tradents and the importance of tradition interacting with what is written.

Now in that post, I did promise a note on Acts 4.13, where Peter and John are described as ἀγράμματοι, sometimes translated as "illiterate". Many commentators suggest that the word is more appropriately translated "uneducated" than "illiterate", not least because the same text, Acts, depicts Peter as quoting extensively, verbatim, from the Hebrew Bible (or perhaps more accurately here in Acts, the Septuagint). I make no presumption of historicity since it seems likely that Luke has composed those speeches; the point is that the author who depicts Peter and John as ἀγράμματοι in the same text also has them quoting their Scriptures verbatim. Therefore the likely meaning of the word, as Luke uses it, is "uneducated" and not "illiterate", and this verse does not provide a one-stop response to arguments in favour of the likelihood of literate tradents.

6 comments:

Steve Walton said...

Yes, I do agree on your reading of agrammatoi in Acts 4 (although note that you have lifted it from an electronic Greek NT without correcting the accentation - there can only be two accents on a word if there is another word, an enclitic, following).To carry on a trade would mean writing bills and that would require at least a basic level of literacy, for instance.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi Steve. Thanks for your comment. Good call on my laziness, even if you were lazier still by transliterating :) Cheers, Mark

Tim said...

Mark, but wouldn't the illiterate be more likely to be able to quote chunks of Scripture from memory than the literate could? Certainly people in oral cultures seem to remember greater quantities of material with greater accuracy than people from literate cultures expect to...

Bill said...

Mark, thanks for continuing this series. I'll look forward to more someday.

I can't decide precisely why, but I think it's worth pointing out that even published writers are not all literate to the same degree, nor equally skilled in the same areas of literacy. For example, my 1st grader composes beautifully but her spelling needs work.

What can we determine of the Gospel writers' literacy levels, by examining different facets of their compositions?

mikeduncan@badrhetoric.com said...

In response to Bill, I've suspected for a while that the polloi mentioned in Lk 1:1-4 is just that - many. Not just Mark and Q, or not just Mark and Matthew, but there were many other attempts to write gospels that Luke is responding to because he found them all lacking and/or creating such an unacceptable climate of conflict with each other, where someone , like Theophilus, would not know where to start. Luke's editing of Mark (and Matthew) suggests fairly strongly to me that Luke saw himself as a badly needed editor and proofreader. There is, at least, something of a pecking order in the gospels.

Bill said...

Luke also said, "attempted to compile" (NASB).

Even we educated, highly literate folks today can answer the question: How dang hard is it to write a whole book? ;)