Botha, P.J.J. "Chapter Three: Greco-Roman Literacy and the New Testament Writings." Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013, 52-74.
Botha evaluates the concept of increased literacy in the early Christian period. At issue, in his opinion, is whether modern authors who make claims about literacy conceive of it in the same way as people in the early Christian period would (Botha 2013, 52). A second, more challenging question is how the author's work governs the reader's response.
In addressing the alleged breadth of a reading public, Botha observes that almost all widely distributed texts in antiquity were Homer and Euripides, with other pieces of literature in very limited circulation. He also finds little evidence of a book selling industry, let alone publishing (Botha 2013, 53). In the empire as a whole, while it certainly would have been possible to make many copies of a wide variety of works, and while alphabetic languages are relatively easy to read, in fact we don't find it happening widely. The usage was, rather, fairly limited, including noteworthy inscriptions (Botha 2013, 54).
Among the difficulties inherent in studies of literacy are different definitions. Botha notes while some equate it with reading, others equate it with writing, competencies which require very specific skills and admit of varied levels of proficiency (Botha 2013, 55). Further, orality and literacy only very rarely could be considered to exist entirely apart from each other. In the presence of literacy there is necessarily an oral element. Botha additionally observes that inscriptions may well have been seen merely as part of the decoration of a monument. Graffiti, though apparently plentiful, does not tend to show a high level of literacy and may have been engaged in by a relatively small group of people (Botha 2013, 57).
For literacy to become widespread, access to schooling is required (Botha 2013, 59). Botha asserts public funding as necessary for building literacy, and the lack of such public funding in small communities to have severely limited literacy throughout the Roman empire. Elementary schooling was available to the wealthy, both free children and some slaves of wealthy people (Botha 2013, 60).
Botha turns to Roman Egypt for evidence of education, finding that extensive finds of papyrus have yielded some documentation of life (Botha 2013, 61). Both school exercises and evidence from homes indicate Homer as the primary literary figure. Schoolwork done on pieces of papyrus suggest a prosperous economy. Literacy seems widespread among the wealthy. In less prosperous villages there are fewer signs of literacy. Though writings of a more technical nature can be found, Botha considers them to be highly theoretical or technical, not useful for a general purpose (Botha 2013, 62). This emphasizes the utility of oral tradition as a means of imparting practical learning. Orality remained the default means of spreading information (Botha 2013, 63).
Because of the usefulness of orality, Botha observes that many in antiquity would have had little use for writing. It would not be the first means of communication for most purposes (Botha 2013, 64). Literacy would, however, have purposes. Botha cites Levi-Strauss, as well as Graff, following Gramsci, who takes literacy as a primary means to keep secrets, thus exercising oppressive power over others (Botha 2013, 64). Governmental use of writing could therefore be a tool of power, thus discouraging the desire to spread literacy (Botha 2013, 65). Letters might be written, but often simply to introduce a messenger. Many religious practices did not require literacy either (Botha 2013, 66). Religious writings were generally intended to be read aloud so as to be received by others.
Because of the cultural context of orality, Botha extrapolates, "Early Christian writings must be seen in their historical environment" (Botha 2013, 67). Citing Ong, Nelson, and Lord, Botha describes early Chrsitian literature as not having the structural and rhetorical features which have frequently been assumed of literature (Botha 2013, 68). Botha's argument suggests that the way we interpret the Gospels is through the lens of redaction criticism, as the work of self-conscious editors using pieces of other works. Likewise, with Paul, if we assume a listening audience rather than a reading audience, some methods of text dissection can be seen as irrelevant.