The literacy of Jesus debate

source – Craig Evans: Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus –

Quoting from a paper written by Craig Evans in which he addresses the charge made by some modern theologians that Jesus could not read. Craig cites  three passages in the Gospels which suggest Jesus was able to read:

  1. The first passage is Luke 4:16-30, which describes Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah and then preaching a homily. Most scholars hesitate to draw firm conclusions from this passage because of its relationship to the parallel passage in Mark 6:1-6, which says nothing about reading Scripture.
  2. The second passage is John 8:6, which says Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. The problem here is that in all probability this passage (viz. John 7:53-8:11) is inauthentic.3 Even if the passage is accepted as preserving a genuine reminiscence of something Jesus did, it tells us nothing certain about Jesus’ literacy. He may have been doing nothing more than doodling.4
  3. The third passage, John 7:15, directly speaks to the question of Jesus’ literacy, at least in the narrative world of the fourth evangelist. Some in Jerusalem wonder: “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” Literally, they have asked how he “knows letters” (gra,mmata oi=den), “not having studied” or “not having learned” (mh. memaqhkw,j). But the reference here is to a lack of formal, scribal training, not to having had no education whatsoever. Jesus has not sat at the feet of a trained, recognized rabbi or sage. We encounter the same language in Acts, which describes the reaction of the religious authorities to the disciples of Jesus: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated[agv ram, matoi],commonmen[idv iwt/ ai],theywondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). The words avgra,mmatoi and ivdiw/tai should not be rendered “unlearned and ignorant,” as in the King James Version (and ASV). To be avgra,mmatoj is to lack scribal training (so LSJ), and is in fact the opposite of the grammateu,j, the professional “scribe.” To be avgra,mmatoj does not necessarily mean to be unable to read. To be an ivdiw,thj is to be one outside of the guild, or outside of the group, as in 1 Cor 14:16, 23, and 24, where Paul refers to the “outsider” (so RSV) or “ungifted” (so NASB) as an ivdiw,thj. In contrast to professional trained scribes and priests the ivdiw,thj is a layman.7 In 2 Cor 11:6 Paul says of himself, “Even if I am unskilled [ivdiw,thj] in speaking . . .” (RSV). Paul, of course, could and did preach, and did so effectively. Yet he conceded that he lacked formal training in rhetoric and oratory. Hence he regarded himself as “unskilled” or outside the guild. ivdiw,thj may also refer to a commoner, in contrast to royalty.8 The ivdiw,thj is the unskilled (with reference to any profession or trade) or commoner (in contrast to a ruler) and seems to be the equivalent of the Hebrew hediyot, as seen in m. Mo‘ed Qatan 1:8 (“He that is not skilled [hahediyot] may sew after his usual fashion, but the craftsman may make only irregular stitches”) and m. Sanh. 10:2 (“Three kings and four commoners [hediyototh] have no share in the world to come . . . ”).

In his detailed conclusion, Evans also responds to the scholar William Harris, „whose influential study in literacy in antiquity concludes that probably not more than five percent of the population was functionally literate”  :

The comments in John 7:15 and Acts 4:13 should not be taken to imply that Jesus and his disciples were illiterate. In fact, the opposite is probably the intended sense, as most commentators rightly interpret. That is, despite not having had formal training, Jesus and his disciples evince remarkable skill in the knowledge of Scripture and ability to interpret it and defend their views. These texts, more than Luke 4:16-30 and John 8:6, lend some support to the probability that Jesus was literate.9

One might also mention the titulus placed on or near Jesus’ cross (cf. Mark 15:26; Matt 27:37; Luke 23:37). Its placement surely implies that some people observing Jesus could read, among them perhaps his own dis- ciples (for whom the titulus serves as a warning, in keeping with Roman policy of public execution as a deterrence). According to the fourth Gospel: “Many of the Jews read [polloi. avne,gnwsan tw/n VIoudai,wn] this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek” (John 19:20). It is interesting to note that the evangelist could assume that “many” Judeans were able to read the titulus.

Although there is no unambiguous evidence for the literacy of Jesus,10 there is considerable contextual and circumstantial evidence that suggests that in all probability he was literate. At the outset, we should keep in mind the nature of Jewish faith itself. It is centered on Scripture, which narrates Israel’s sacred story, a story that the Jewish people are admonished to know and to teach their children. According to the Shema‘, which all Torah- observant Jews were expected to recite daily, parents were to teach their children Torah (cf. Deut 4:9; 6:7; 11:19; 31:12-13; 2 Chr 17:7-9; Eccl 12:9), even to adorn their doorposts with the Shema‘ (Deut 6:9 “you shall write [ketavka/gra,yete] them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”; cf. 11:20).11 One should suppose that scriptural commandments such as these, which stand at the heart of Jewish faith (cf. Mark 12:28-33; James 2:19), would have encouraged literacy among the Jewish people.

According to Philo and Josephus, approximate contemporaries of Jesus, Jewish parents taught their children Torah and how to read it. Philo claims: “All men guard their own customs, but this is especially true of the Jewish nation. Holding that the laws are oracles vouchsafed by God and having been trained in this doctrine from their earliest years [tou/to evk prw,thj h`liki,aj to. ma,qhma paideuqe,ntej], they carry the likenesses of the command- ments enshrined in their souls” (De Legatione 31 §210). It is improbable that the training of which he speaks here did not include basic literacy. Josephus, however, is more explicit: “Above all we pride ourselves on the education of our children [paidotrofi,an], and regard as the most essential task in life the observance of our laws and of the pious practices, based thereupon, which we have inherited” (Ag. Ap. 1.12 §60). He says later: “(The Law) orders that (children) shall be taught to read [gra,mmata paideu,ein], and shall learn both the laws and the deeds of their forefathers ……….

Recognizing the limited value of the late, idealized rabbinic literature and the apologetically orientated claims of Philo and Josephus, three general factors favor the probability of the literacy of Jesus: (1) the injunctions of Scripture to teach and learn Torah, (2) the value placed on Torah, of knowing and obeying its laws, and (3) the advantage of being the firstborn son. In view of these factors, it is probable that Jesus received at least some education in literacy. The probability increases when we take into account features of his later ministry. In these features we have, I believe, far more compelling evidence for the literacy of Jesus.

Jesus is frequently called “Rabbi”19 or “Rabbo(u)ni,”20 or its Greek equivalents “master” (evpista,ta)21 or “teacher” (dida,skaloj).22 Jesus refers to himself in this manner, and is called such by supporters, opponents, and nonpartisans. Although prior to 70 CE the designation “Rabbi” is informal, even vague, and lacks the later connotations of formal training and ordi- nation, which obtain sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, it is very probable that at least a limited literacy was assumed.

In keeping with his designation as Rabbi, Jesus and others called his closest followers “disciples,” whose Greek form (maqhtai,),23 like the Hebrew (talmidim),24 derives from the verbal cognate “to learn” (manqa,nein/ lamad).25 This terminology, whose appearance in the Gospels betrays no hint that it was controversial or in any sense a matter of debate, or the product of early Christian tendentiousness, creates a strong presumption in favor of Jesus’ literacy. In the Jewish setting, an illiterate Rabbi, who surrounds himself with disciples, debates Scripture and halakah with other Rabbis and scribes, is hardly credible. Moreover, the numerous parallels between Jesus’ teaching and the rabbinic tradition, as well as the many points of agreement between Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture and the rabbinic tradition,26 only add to this conviction. Jesus’ teaching in the synagogues27 is not easily explained if Jesus were unable to read and had not undertaken study of Scripture that involved at least some training in literacy.

On occasion Jesus himself refers to reading Scripture. He asks Pharisees who criticized his disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath: “Have you never read [avne,gnwte] what David did, when he was in need and was hungry . . . ?” (Mark 2:25; cf. Matt 12:3). To this pericope Matthew adds: “Or have you not read in the law [avne,gnwte evn tw|/ no,mw]| how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless?” (Matt 12:5; cf. 19:4, where Matthew again enriches the Markan source in a similar manner; the same is probably the case in Matt 21:16). In another polemical context, Jesus asks the ruling priests and elders: “Have you not read this scripture [ouvde. th.n grafh.n tau,thn avne,gnwte]: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner . . .’?” (Mark 12:10). Later he asks the Sadducees, who had raised a question about resurrection: “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses [ouvk avne,gnwte evn th|/ bi,blw| Mwu?se,wj], in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” (Mark 12:26). In a discussion with a legal expert (nomiko,j tij), who has asked what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asks in turn: “What is written in the Law? How do you read? [evn tw|/ no,mw| ti, ge,graptai* pw/j avnaginw,skeij*]” (Luke 10:26).29 We find in the rabbinic literature statements like “Similarly you read” (e.g., b. Sab. 97a; Ketub. 111a, 111b) or “How would you read this verse?” (e.g., Ketub. 81b;

Qid. 22a, 40a, 81b). But Jesus’ rhetorical and pointed “have you not read?” seems to be distinctive of his style and surely would have little argumenta- tive force if he himself could not read.30 And finally, even if we discount Luke 4:16-30 as the evangelist’s retelling of Mark 6:1-6, it may neverthe- less accurately recall Jesus’ habit of reading and expounding Scripture in the synagogues of Galilee: “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read [avne,sth avnagnw/nai] . . .” (Luke 4:16, emphasis added). I shall return to this passage below.

It should be noted too that in the Gospel stories reviewed above Jesus’ literacy is never an issue. There is no evidence of apologetic tendencies, in which Jesus’ literary skills are exaggerated. Jesus’ ability to read appears to be a given, but not an issue.31

Indications of Jesus’ literacy may also be seen in his familiarity with and usage of Scripture. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes or alludes to 23 of the 36 books of the Hebrew Bible32 (counting the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as three books, not six). Jesus alludes to or quotes all five books of Moses, the three Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), eight of the twelve Minor Prophets,33 and five of the “writ- ings.”34 In other words, Jesus quotes or alludes to all of the books of the Law, most of the Prophets, and some of the Writings. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes or alludes to Deuteronomy some 15 or 16 times, Isaiah some 40 times, and the Psalms some 13 times. These appear to be his favorite books, though Daniel and Zechariah seem to have been favorites also. Superficially, then, the “canon” of Jesus is pretty much what it was for most religiously observant Jews of his time,35 including—and especially—the producers of the scrolls at Qumran.36 Moreover, there is evidence that villages and synagogues in the time of Jesus did in fact possess biblical scrolls (cf. 1 Macc 1:56-57; Josephus, War 2.12.2 §229 [in reference to Antiochus IV’s efforts to find and destroy Torah scrolls]; Life 134 [in reference to scrolls in Galilee, during the early stages of the revolt against Rome]).

Finally, the frequency and poignancy of Jesus’ employment of Aramaic tradition in his allusions and interpretations of Scripture are suggestive of literacy, regular participation in the synagogue (where the Aramaic paraphrase, or Targum, developed), and acquaintance with rabbinic and scribal education itself. The dictional, thematic, and exegetical coherence between the teachings of Jesus and the emerging Aramaic tradition has been well documented and need not be rehearsed here.

The data that have been surveyed are more easily explained in reference to a literate Jesus, a Jesus who could read the Hebrew Scriptures, could paraphrase and interpret them in Aramaic, and could do so in a manner that indicated his familiarity with current interpretive tendencies in both popular circles (as in the synagogues) and in professional, even elite circles (as seen in debates with scribes, ruling priests, and elders). Of course, to conclude that Jesus was literate is not necessarily to conclude that Jesus had received formal scribal training. The data do not suggest this. Jesus’ innovative, experiential approach to Scripture and to Jewish faith seems to suggest the contrary.

In view of the data reviewed above and what strikes me as the most logical inference from it—namely, that Jesus was literate to some degree—why does Professor Botha reach a very different conclusion? He

is not alone, for other scholars have expressed doubts that Jesus could read. Their doubts may owe in part to William Harris, whose influential study in literacy in antiquity concludes that probably not more than five percent of the population was functionally literate. In short, “it seems unlikely that a person from rural and peasant background of Jesus of Nazareth would have learnt to read or write.” Botha has invoked a cultural argument, in contrast to the literary and traditional arguments set forth above. Let us review his argument briefly.

Botha begins with literacy in antiquity. He rightly complains about scholarly conclusions that do not sufficiently recognize the paucity and ambiguity of the evidence for literacy in the Mediterranean world of late antiquity: “In general, references to literacy in antiquity reflect fairly unrealistic understandings of literacy.”42 On this point I think he is mostly correct. Botha also rightly questions some of the inferences made from ostraca and inscriptions.43 His most forceful argument revolves around a description of “Jesus’ peasant world.”44 In this world the expense of education would have been viewed as an extravagant, unnecessary risk. Better to spend time in the field or the shop than in study, from which there would be little economic gain.

Botha offers another, very creative argument, in which he delineates several forms of literacy and their roles within the peasant culture of

Galilee, in which Jesus “performs” a “reading.”45 “The historical Jesus could not read or write,” Botha explains, but he may well have made use of a scroll in performing what could be described as a “magical reading.”46 Accordingly, the account in Luke 4:16-30, in which Jesus is said to have read from the scroll of Isaiah, may reflect an actual episode. Jesus takes the scroll, unrolls it, paraphrases a passage (though not actually located and read), rolls it up, hands it back to the attendant, and then proclaims his message. The scroll plays an important role in Jesus’ dramatic performance, but really provides no evidence that Jesus was literate in the sense that he could read and write. As a Galilean peasant, Botha explains, Jesus “was at best able to recognize a few letters (meaning numbers) and construe a few names and/or inscriptional signs.”47

Botha’s proposal of a dramatic performance, perhaps even a “magical reading,” is an intriguing suggestion. It is consistent with Jesus as healer and exorcist. It is consistent with his experiential use of Scripture and could also explain his dynamic paraphrasing of Scripture.

Nevertheless, I find an illiterate Jesus harder to explain, in the light of the Gospel tradition. Jesus was regarded as a teacher—by friend and foe alike. He argued points of Scripture with scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and ruling priests. He specifically challenged their readings of Scripture. He taught disciples—“learners”—who in turn preserved his teaching. The movement that Jesus founded produced a legacy of literature, including four Gospels, a narrative of the early Church (i.e., the book of Acts), and a number of letters. The sudden emergence of a prolific literary tradition from an illiterate founder is not impossible of course, but it is less difficult to explain if Jesus were in fact literate.

I also find aspects of Botha’s cultural argument unpersuasive. The con- clusions reached by Harris, on which evidently Crossan and others rely, may be accurate with regard to the Mediterranean world in general, but do they apply to the Jewish people? Moreover, Botha makes assumptions about the typical Galilean—specifically that he is illiterate—and assumes that Jesus was no more than a typical Galilean peasant.48 How does he know this? On the contrary, the status and following that Jesus achieved suggest that Jesus was not a typical Galilean. Botha is correct in challenging the specific application of generalities about literacy, but the same goes in applying generalities about Galileans to the specific person Jesus. He was regarded as unusual by many of his contemporaries, by both friend and foe.

In the end it is a question of probability, not proof. I agree with Foster, with his inferences from the sources. The decisive factors in the debate are not found in generalities touching the world of Jesus, but in specific and distinctive features found in Jesus himself.

I urge Botha and other like-minded scholars to take into account these specific features—a rabbi who instructs disciples, engages in theological and scriptural debate with religious authorities, frequents synagogues, appears to be familiar with certain parts of the Jewish scriptures, founded a movement that produced literature, not least a body of writings that comes to be called the New Testament. In my judgment probability favors the conclusion that Jesus was literate, not of course in the professional or scribal sense, but in a functional sense. Jesus was no typical Galilean Jew, and, further, the Jews may not have been typical Mediterranean people, especially when it came to literacy.

Read the entire paper (13 pages), including the explanatory footnotes here –

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