A question for congregational christians in 2009: Does your church have a website? What percentage of your members would you guess know how to surf to that website? What percentage were involved with setting up that website? Or could have been? Anyone?
We live in a culture where Computer Literacy is broad, but varies greatly in depth. Ancient Literacy was the same way, especially among the Jews. Today, most people can surf to a website, and anyone can look at it. Fifteen years ago few could even surf. I think these proportions suggest a practical model for thinking about ancient literacy. It was broad, but varried greatly in depth.
Every Synagogue member could hear scripture read, but fewer of them could actually read aloud. Literacy rates soared among the Jews after 70 AD. Before then, we're not sure. But just like most of us have to hire professionals to program our computers and design our websites (and companies to facilitate our free blogs), the ancient world in all epochs had very few writers. However, they all valued writings.
"These words.. shall be on your heart.. teach them.. talk of them.. bind them as a sign.. write them on the doorposts..... then watch yourself that you do not forget the Lord..." (Deut 6:6-12) The most uneducated housewife could fondly look on her doorpost at unintelligible symbols and recall what she had been told that it meant. In the same way today, the clerics among us are rare, but they exist because we rely on their skill, because we need and we value their product.
I've said this before and I'll say it again. The low rate of literacy does NOT make it more likely there were no early writings among Jesus' followers. The high rate of value ascribed to literature, not to mention the community minded attitudes of the ancient Jews, makes it highly likely that the earliest Jesus followers would have conscripted one literate person among their numbers to start writing things down!
They all valued writings about Moses and Elijah. Is it possible they neglected to give Jesus the same consideration? Jesus talked about scripture all the time. Is it possible they didn't value his words at least as much as the words he was quoting? I am firmly convinced any twelve guys can be blind idiots about very significant details, but in three years of following Him around and asking each other, "What was that he said the other day?" Don't you think one of them, at least once, spoke up and said, "Do we have anybody who can write some of this down?"
The scholarly writer leads a largely solitary life, but the early believers did almost nothing alone. If even one of the 120 was literate, the odds are very high indeed that the group, as a group, encouraged that one to begin some kind of written record. Of course, we don't have that record. We may or may not be able to speculate with much confidence on who wrote it or whether it informed the Gospels as a source. But I do think we should at the very least be more expectant that such a record of Jesus' words and deeds did exist, than that it did not.