Sunday, September 4, 2016

Bursting Church Libraries in Fourth Century North Africa

While reading through Hugh Houghton's new volume The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its History Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts (p.21), I came across an interesting quotation from Optatus of Milevis in North Africa (ca. mid 4th cen. CE);
“The libraries are filled with books. Nothing is wanting to the Church. In different places the divine praises are everywhere proclaimed. The mouths of the lectors keep not silence. The hands of all are full of volumes [of Scripture]. Nothing is lacking to the people who wish to be taught” (Contra Donat. 7.1)
It is fascinating to read Optatus' description of Church libraries in North Africa as "filled with books" and that the "hands of all are full of volumes." The abundant number of manuscripts available certainly speaks to the wealth of Christians in this area and the popularity of Christianity. There must have been a ready market for those who wished to study the scriptures for themselves. This comment also serves as a contrast to the generally low literacy rates in antiquity. Even though very few people could read, there were enough literates attending Churches that it warranted large collections of volumes.


_____________

Houghton, Hugh. The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its History Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Optatus of Milevis. Against the Donatists. O. R. Vassall-Phillips, trans. London: Longmans, Green, and CO, 1917.


4 comments:

  1. In comparisons between modern and ancient literacy it seems to me as though there is often an assumption that modern societies have achieved "full literacy" or close to it. Yet one must compare apples to apples. The vast majority of the population in the US is, when it comes to literary texts, functionally illiterate even today. Indeed, if one were to define literacy by the ability to make out a literary or religious text with some competency, one might find the gap between ancient and modern society to be much smaller than is often imagined. Such readers will always be in a minority in almost any conceivable society. (One thinks of the first few generations of the Bay Colony Puritans as a possible exception—but even that exception was short-lived)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for that comparison Peter. It is definitely worth noting the modern levels of reading competency in a society such as America, which boasts somewhere in the 99% range of literacy. In antiquity, where so few could read or write at any level, these comments by Optatus are still very striking. On the next page of Houghton's book (p.22) he notes that just a few years later that people packed into the Churches to hear Augustine preach. Even if literacy levels were only 15%, a Church of 2,000 people could still have 300 or more people that had a decent reading competency. If one were to throw public reading into the mix, then the "market" for biblical manuscripts would increase even more. As Optatus mentioned above "The mouths of the lectors keep not silence," or in other words, they are always publicly reading out the texts.

      Delete
  2. Yet in an average American church of 2000, what percentage could (or would) handle a text of Augustine, no matter how contemporary the translation? Only on the narrowest possible definition of literacy is the American population 99% literate. When it comes to the ability to handle literary texts, or even to read the Scriptures, the number is well under 50%—the number that actually choses to do so is lower still. My main point being that while we do have higher literacy than ancient societies did the difference is not nearly so great as often imagined.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Again, an excellent comparison and food for thought.

      Delete