The literacy rate of the Graeco-Roman world is a debated topic in NT scholarship. It seems that the current consensus is that c. 10% of the population of the Mediterranean Basin were literate. However, this figure is not helpful and over simplifies a complicated issue. For example, how do we define literacy? Is it the ability to read? Is it the ability to read and to write? Or, is literacy the ability to sign one’s name? Are NT scholars projecting modern standards of literacy back onto the world of the NT? What are we to make of the plethora of graffiti discovered all over the Graeco-Roman world? And how are we to interpret the inscriptions that were ubiquitous across the Mediterranean Basin so much so that one Classicist has called the Graeco-Roman world a civilization of epigraphy. I think you get the picture.
While there is no way to answer this question in a blog-post (or a dissertation for that matter), it may be helpful to provide a concrete example of just how complicated the question of literacy was in the Graeco-Roman world. Note the following papyrus, which is a loan for a mortgage that dates c. 170 CE:
“Helene, minor [i.e., under 25 years old], daughter of Psosnaus and Eudaemonis, with her son Diodorus, also known as Longius son of Amois son of Diodorus, inhabitant of Chusis, as her guardian [i.e., a legal representative for his mother] and surety for the payment of all that is secured under this mortgage . . . I, Diodorus, also known as Longinus son of Amois, have been appointed my mother’s guardian, and wrote for her because she is illiterate, and I am surety for the payment of what is secured under the mortgage, the same date” (P.Oxy 2.134; translation from Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, 2.128-29).
A few items are noteworthy in this papyrus. One, literacy is defined as the ability to write. Notice that Diodorus says “I, Diodorus . . . have been appointed my mother’s guardian and wrote for her because she is illiterate . . .” I suggest however that being illiterate does NOT mean that Helene could not read. It is just as likely that Helene could read, but could not write. For a modern example of this same phenomenon, ask your local minister who can read NT Greek to compose a letter in Greek. My guess is he or she probably could not 🙂 Two, it is clear from this papyrus that “literacy” (which in this case is the ability to read AND to write) was not consistent in the same family, for while the son Diodorus could write, his mother Helene could not.
I posit that this papyrus is a great example of the complicated issue of literacy in the Graeco-Roman world. Hence, when we talk about the topic, we must first define the type of literacy of which we are speaking and then interpret it within its context.