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I’m not sure if this will interest you or not, but I thought your post on literacy in the Biblical period was cool. Since I don’t seem to be able to comment there, here goes…
I question whether the passage in 2 Kings is necessarily a reflection of wide-spread illiteracy in the kingdom of Judah. Here’s the thing(s):
1. Public reading of treaty documents was standard practice in the ancient Near East, as a method of ratification and commemoration. We have dozens of Hittite and Assyrian diplomatic texts, which are commonly believed to have been the model for the book of Deuteronomy at some level. In each of those documents, there is a specific and formulaic provision for exactly the kind of thing that is depicted in 2 Kings. Thus, it seems likely that Josiah and the priests were simply following standard practice when they read the book of the law to the people. That’s how you make and commemorate covenants – you read them aloud, in front of witnesses. It is possible that this kind of thing was necessary because virtually everyone in the ancient world who was not a priest or a noble was – in fact – illiterate. I wonder though, if the mass, public proclamation of these agreements wasn’t simply a nod to the time and expense that would have been involved in transcribing and disseminating thousands of copies of the document in question; in the absence of a printing press, reading the thing out loud is the path of least resistance, even if literacy is approaching 100%. Given the possibility of this alternate explanation, I don’t think we’re warranted in assuming that most – perhaps even many – people were unable to read for themselves. At least, not based on 2 Kings alone.
2. Along those lines, we have some interesting inscriptional evidence that suggests a degree of literacy, even among laborers and non-aristocrats, shortly after the time of Josiah’s reign:
a. Lakhish – A memorandum from a soldier to his superior officer, in which the soldier objects to the suggestion that he is incapable of understanding a direct, written order. This suggestion was apparently intended as a rebuke, and the soldier gives the clear impression that he is insulted by the idea.
b. Yavneh Yam – A legal appeal, written by an agricultural worker, in which the worker objects to the confiscation of his garment by an overseer, on the charge of not having filled his daily quota.
Of course, it’s possible to suggest that both of these documents might have been written by a third party, but I wonder if professional amanuensises (?) were typically present in Judahite military encampments (Lakhish), or if grain pickers who only owned a single outer garment (Yavneh Yam) would have been able to afford the services of a professional scribe-for-hire. Seems unlikely.
3. Partially because of texts like these, it has been credibly suggested that literacy was fairly common, and the Pentateuch may have already assumed something close to its final form – as a widely circulated collection of sacred texts – as early as the 8th century BCE. (I could have my facts all screwed up on this particular point, but it seems to me as if W. Schniedewind [UCLA] has made this argument in a book titled “How the Bible Became a Book,” just within the last five years or so.)
4. There is a fair amount of stuff in the Hebrew Bible that doesn’t necessarily seem to be aimed at either priestly or aristocratic concerns. For example: various specific agricultural laws, repeated commands to teach the next generations about the mighty acts of YHWH, injunctions to study the law throughout the course of a regular day, etc. It seems to me as if this kind of material presumes a wider audience, and more continual access to Scriptural texts, than is really compatible with a mostly illiterate population.
Of course, it is exceedingly difficult to answer the question when – or even if – literacy became wide-spread in ancient Israel. Moreover, the position that you have staked out is both intuitively reasonable and – I think – widely accepted. However, I sometimes want to ask whether we shouldn’t all reserve judgment on this one, given the data above.