Could most people write and read in the first century? Was Jesus teaching the illiterate masses, or were many of them able to read and write?

Despite many tightly held opinions about the "illiteracy" of the society in which Jesus ministered during his years on earth, the evidence paints quite a different picture. While not everyone who could read could necessarily write, a huge percentage of the free population had to read signs, inscriptions on coins, census material, and of course tax information, bills, and receipts. The archaeological evidence is overwhelming. Yes, professionals were often employed to write--even the learned Paul used a secretary--but this should not be taken to prove the ignorance or illiteracy of the population at large.

For more on this fascinating subject, see Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield Academic Press, 2000). This excellent book contains eight fact-filled chapters, solidly researched:

(1) Ancient Books and their Survival,
(2) Early Christian Manuscripts,
(3) The Form of the Book: Page versus Roll,
(4) Writing in Herodian Palestine,
(5) A Polyglot Society,
(6) Who Read and Who Wrote?,
(7) Oral Tradition or Written Reports?, and
(8) Writing and the Gospels.

Since Palestine in the first century, though Aramaic-speaking, was well familiar with Greek and familiar with Hebrew--not to mention the little bit of Latin that some of the Roman soldiers and politicians must have known--it is fair to describe this society as trilingual. (How about you?!)

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