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Graffiti and Roman Literacy

March 26, 2012

Over on the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins, I’ve posted about a recent essay on graffiti in Pompeii, urging that these data should be reckoned with in our efforts to estimate the nature and extent of “literacy” in the Roman era.
As I note in that posting, this is relevant to current interests among NT scholars about the place of texts and “orality” in early Christianity.

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One Comment
  1. Bobby Garringer permalink

    The ancient practice of reading texts publicly indicates a high level of literary awareness, even among those who could not read.

    Many texts were put together with this public reading in mind. From the New Testament, as examples, Paul (in at least one of his letters) and John (in Revelation) refer to the public reading of what they have written.

    The sophistication of the language in texts that we know were read in public places (including churches) indicates that the masses had a taste for good writing.

    Similarly, public speeches (as the preaching of Jesus) — delivered with rhythm, packed with information, and punctuated with interesting narratives and figures of speech — demonstrates a broad appreciation for rhetoric even among common people.

    It seems obvious that the books of the Bible — the Old Testament as well the New — were written with the assumption that most people were, in some sense, literate. (The same could be said for any ancient documents, written with a poplar audience in mind.)

    The broad tastes for good literature and speech-making, and a touch of inquisitiveness, would suggest at least rudimentary attempts at writing and eloquence among at least a minority of those who were not formally taught. (Some may have become quite good in the use of these acquired skills.)

    The appearance of graffiti in places where ordinary people hang out suggests that this step beyond mere “orality” had, in fact, been some and appreciated by many.

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