Saturday, April 30, 2011

Literacy and Culture in Early Christianity

Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian TextsGamble begins his first chapter with an intriguing quote from Origen. Perhaps the greatest biblical scholar of the early church, Origen was defending the scriptures from the accusation of being literarily lackluster. He did not defend the gospels as masterpieces of literature, but rather argued,
It was not any power of speaking, or any orderly arrangement of their message, according to the arts of Grecian dialectics or rhetoric, which was in them the effective cause of converting their hearers. Nay, I am of opinion that if Jesus had selected some individuals who were wise according to the apprehension of the multitude, and who were fitted both to think and speak so as to please them, and had used such as the ministers of His doctrine, He would most justly have been suspected of employing artifices, like those philosophers who are the leaders of certain sects, and consequently the promise respecting the divinity of His doctrine would not have manifested itself; for had the doctrine and the preaching consisted in the persuasive utterance and arrangement of words, then faith also, like that of the philosophers of the world in their opinions, would have been through the wisdom of men, and not through the power of God. (Against Celsus 1.62)
Origen goes on to quote Paul’s response to his cultured Corinthian despisers (1 Cor 2.4-5).  Similarly, Acts portrays the apostles as “unlettered and uneducated” (Acts 4.13). Origen did not disagree with Celsus’ assessment of the literary quality of early Christian literature. Instead, like Paul and Luke, he evaluated it as a testament to the divine power behind the movement.
Despite the response of a highly educated man many years later, one has to wonder about the literary culture of the early Christians. Harry Gamble raises three pertinent questions, “First, to what extent were the skills of literacy available within early Christianity, and what role did literacy play in Christian life? Second, how far did early Christians depend upon texts? Third, how are Christian texts to be understood in relation to the literature of the larger society of which the early church was a part?” (2). His first chapter in Books and Readers in the Early Church thoughtfully addresses these questions.

The question of early Christian literacy is immediately complicated by competing conceptions of “literacy.” The contemporary world is highly textual. The technology of the printing press was only more radically intensified with the advent of the internet. So, it is difficult for those of us in the information age to appreciate the lack of textual familiarity in the largely oral culture of the first century. Still, it is important to recognize that “literacy,” was both extremely rare and widely varied. It was rare in the sense that most people could not read. It was varied in that “literacy” could describe one’s ability to read a simple text aloud or the skills to compose lengthy texts.
The typical estimate of literacy, broadly defined as “the ability to read or write at any level” (4) was only about 10 percent of society at large. The lack of any widespread educational system meant literacy was limited to the elite. Thus a small movement composed largely of the non-elite would have been even less literate. A number of descriptions among the church fathers seem to imply that the vast majority of believers were not among the educated elite. Consider for example, Tertullian’s description of how believers struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity, “the simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned) who always constitute the majority of believers” (Against Praxeas 3). Or again, Origen in response to Celsus,
Although, among the multitude of converts to Christianity, the simple and ignorant necessarily outnumbered the more intelligent, as the former class always does the latter, yet Celsus . . . himself admits that it was not the simple alone who were led by the doctrine of Jesus to adopt His religion; for he acknowledges that there were amongst them some persons of moderate intelligence, and gentle disposition, and possessed of understanding, and capable of comprehending allegories. (Against Celsus, 1.27).
Even Paul indicates the general low status of the Corinthian community (1 Cor 1.26; 2.8). This leads Gamble to the sober conclusion, “not only the writing of Christian literature, but also the ability to read, criticize, and interpret it belonged to a small number of Christians in the first several centuries, ordinarily not more than about 10 percent in any given setting, and perhaps fewer in the many small provincial congregations that were characteristic of early Christianity” (5).

This does not mean that the early Christians lacked familiarity with texts. Christian communities were unique among ancient religions in their focus on texts. Gamble thinks it quite likely that some level of literacy was a requirement of early Christian leaders (Acts 18.24; 1 Tim 4.13; cf. 1 Clement; Ignatius’ letters; Polycarp to Phil.; Papias of Heirapolis). Thus, despite low levels of literacy, “Every Christian had the opportunity to become acquainted with Christian literature, especially the scriptures, through catechetical instruction and the reading and homiletical exposition of texts in the context of worship” (10). Literacy, then, was not widespread in early Christianity, but was common among leaders who then made texts available to their communities via public reading.

New Testament scholarship is a discipline weaned on form criticism and its assumptions about the development of NT literature. One of the primary assumptions is a sharp distinction between oral and textual transmission of tradition. Gamble argues that this assumption is misguided. Thus old distinctions between literature proper and early Christian texts as crude written compilations of oral stories simply do not hold water (11-20). Furthermore, “No Greco-Roman religious group produced, used, or valued texts on a scale comparable to Judaism and Christianity, so that apart from Jewish literature, there is no appreciable body of religious writings with which early Christian literature can be fruitfully compared” (18). As far as the evidence indicates, Christians and Jews were uniquely dependent on texts as part of their religious identity.
Recognizing the paucity of comparable evidence, one of the immediately obvious facts about early Christian literature is its interaction with the Old Testament. “From the beginning Christianity was deeply engaged in the interpretation and appropriation of texts. That activity presupposed not only a mature literacy but also sophisticated scribal and exegetical skills” (27). Thus, again we see a Christian predisposition to value texts.

But overall, how does early Christian literature fit into its first century environment? First, the language of the NT seems to be significantly influenced by Semitic grammatical oddities. This is probably explained by the fact that the NT writers were Jewish and deeply indebted to the Greek version of the OT (LXX). What about the fact that NT Greek lacks the poetic literary methods of historians and philosophers? Studies have shown that this is not a vulgar Greek but rather the language “commonly used by scholars with scientific and humanistic interests,” like pharmacology, astronomy and mathematics (33). Thus, the NT language “was not the classicizing Greek of arts and letters, nor was it popular Greek, but the professional prose of the day” (34).

Second, there is the observation that early Christian literature employs common features of ancient rhetoric. Indeed, “most Christian writers of the second through the fifth centuries were practiced in the rhetorical arts” (35). Likewise, Paul seems to be a capable rhetorician in his letters, though this is widely debated among scholars. There has been much work on rhetorical criticism of the NT since Gamble’s work was published so this point is only stated most generally.

Third, the genres of the NT are quite unique. The gospels fit awkwardly among Greco-Roman biographic literature but there is little else to compare them. The numerous letters show affinity with ancient epistolary conventions but substantially differ in length and content. Historical narrative of Acts broadly fits among historical literature, but is narrow in its focus on Peter and Paul. Apocalyptic, “the most identifiably Jewish” (38) genre, is set apart by its focus on Jesus. NT literature is not generically similar to extant Greco-Roman literature from the first century.

Gamble thus concludes, “For axiomatic as it may be that Christians wrote for practical rather than aesthetic purposes, there is in writing that intends to teach and persuade both the opportunity and the need for literary skill, skill that must have been available to Christianity from its birth” (39). As Christianity grew and spread so did its literary capacity eventually producing Origen, Augustine, the Cappadocians and others. Yet the first Christian educated people were primarily converts who put their literary skills to work for the cause of Christ.


Josh Huckabay said...

Hey bro, thanks for writing this post. I've often wondered about the effects of literacy on Christian spirituality in the first 3 centuries. How do you think those uneducated Christians engaged in their Christian spirituality? I know that the concept of personal piety is a much later conceptual idea, but it has sparked my interests.

Anyway, sounds like a book I need to get and read. Appreciate you taking the time to write. Know that your study and scholarship is still ministering to me hundreds of miles away.

Unknown said...


As always, it is good to hear from you. This is a really interesting question, and one I had not yet given much thought. As you already mentioned, we don't want to impose modern conceptions of spirituality on the early Christians.

Luke Timothy Johnson has a book that just came out called Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity which argues that the early Christians practiced religion in very similar ways to other ancient religions. I have only read through the first couple of chapters, but that might be an interesting place to start. It would place the early Christians in their religious context. Also, Johnson is not trying to prove Christianity is utterly unique but providing a generous account of Christianity as an ancient religion. That might be an interesting place to further pursue your question.

Gamble's book is really fantastic, so dive in if you're interested. Much love to the Huckabay's. Keep commenting some thoughts as I review the remaining chapters.