In The Chosen Few, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein offer an explanation for how Jews wound up in high-skilled, urban occupations. They argue (p. 95) that between 200 and 650 AD,
world Jewry became a small population of literate individuals (“the chosen few”). The unintended consequences of the religious ruling that required Jewish fathers to invest in their sons’ literacy and education fully displayed themselves
Jews became much more literate than other populations, but at a cost of numbers, as those who could not afford to educate their sons converted to other religions. Over this time period (p. 113)
the general population decreased by about 12 percent, whereas the Jewish population collapsed by roughly two-thirds
In those days, most people were farmers, for whom literacy’s costs generally outweighed its benefits. However, in an urbanized society with skilled occupations, literacy pays off. As urbanization gradually increased in the late Middle Ages, Jews came to fill high-skilled occupations. Botticini and Eckstein argue that literacy, rather than persecution, is what led Jews into these occupations.
Urbanization is a very important process in economic development. Jane Jacobs made that argument convincingly. So has Ed Glaeser. Specialization and trade take place in cities, by necessity and by convenience. Without modern transportation, rural areas are cut off from trade. Even today, city dwellers account for a disproportionate share of wealth.
This year’s Super Bowl commercial featured Paul Harvey speaking on the theme that God created the farmer. The commercial has a lot of overtones along the civilization-barbarism axis. If Harvey is correct, then God’s gift of the bible to the Jews had some unintended consequences. Ultimately, according to Botticini and Eckstein, the first monotheists embarked on a course that ultimately led them away from farms and into the urban world of specialization and trade.