Here’s a question I have gotten repeatedly over the years: Could Jesus read? I received a form of the question in a comment recently:
My question is: Could Jesus read? I thought I had read in your books or heard in one of your videos that you thought he, along with his immediate followers, were illiterate. But recently in one of your Sunday lectures you either stated or implied that he could actually read, and at least some of the instances in the gospels where he was reading from “the scrolls” were likely true. Please straighten me out on this topic.
RESPONSE: I’ll begin with something that I’ve talked about on the blog several times before literacy in Roman Palestine. The reality is that the vast majority of people then and there could not read or write. This comes as a surprise to many people who have heard the modern myth that all boys in Palestine went to Hebrew school and became literate there. Turns out, that’s not true.
This is a rather important issue — whether you are a Christian or simply someone interested in the Bible or the past in general. And I give here information that most people don’t know. Want to know? Keep reading! How? Join the Blog! Click here for membership options
Could Jesus Read? My Thoughts
First, the broader picture: modern studies of literacy have shown that in antiquity most people in every time and place were illiterate. The most influential study has been by Columbia University professor of ancient history William Harris, Ancient Literacy. Harris shows that at the best times and places in the ancient world (say, Athens in the days of Plato), maybe 15% of the population was roughly literate. In most times and places, it was more like 10%. Of that number far more could read than could write. That’s because, as scholars like Raffaella Cribiore have shown, in her books on reading and writing/education in the ancient world, reading and writing were two different skills, and writing composition is still another. Almost all those who *could* read and write, or even just read, were upper-crust urban elites. Jesus, of course, was none of the above.
Literacy in 1st Century Palestine
Now, the more narrow picture: literacy in first-century Palestine (i.e., in the days of Jesus) was almost certainly lower than in the empire at large. This has been shown in an influential article by Meir Bar-Ilan and in the full and authoritative study Literacy in Roman Palestine by Catherine Hezser. Anyone who wants to engage in this topic needs to read this book. Bar-Ilan and Hezser both argue that in the Roman period, probably only 3% of the population of Palestine was literate. And again, those who were were primarily the rich and well-off folk living in the cities. So what are the chances that someone like Jesus could read and write? Well, not good. But it’s still possible.
And now on to the NT itself. First, there is not a shred of evidence to indicate that Jesus could write. The only account of him writing is the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7-8, which, as most readers of this blog probably know, was not originally in the NT but was added by a later scribe. Chris Keith has another book – one that I *have* read (since he published it in a monograph series that I edit for E. J. Brill) – that this story was in fact added to the Gospel of John by a scribe who wanted to show that Jesus *could* write. I’m not completely convinced by that, but it’s a very interesting argument and Keith makes a good case for it.
Could Jesus Read? Probably Not
My strong sense is that Jesus could not write. I think he certainly could not compose, and he was probably never trained to copy (for example, the Scriptures). That kind of training took years, and I doubt if the kind of hand-to-mouth existence he and his family had in the little hamlet of Nazareth would have afforded him the time or leisure to get it.
But could he read? As it turns out, there is some conflict over that matter just within the pages of the New Testament. In Mark 6, we learn that Jesus’ own townspeople – the ones he grew up with, cheek by jowl (Nazareth was a very small place) – are flabbergasted that he has learned of any kind and can’t understand how he came by it (Mark 6:2-4). This is based on his teaching in the synagogue, and the passage does not indicate that Jesus actually read the Scriptures before he started teaching about them. But the clear implication from this, our earliest account of the matter, is that Jesus was not known by the people who would have known to have had an education.
There is Some Evidence in Luke 4 that Jesus Could Read
This view is at odds, however, with the way the same story is told in Luke 4:16-21. This is the one passage in the entire NT that indicates that Jesus could read. He does read. And the people are not amazed that he suddenly seems educated when they knew he wasn’t; they are instead taken aback at the “gracious words” that he spoke.
Luke 4, then, is our only solid evidence that Jesus could read. It is based on a story in Mark where Jesus is not said to read. So could Jesus read?
Many people have thought that since he was acclaimed as a Jewish teacher, he surely could read the Scriptures that he taught about. That may well be right, and I slightly lean-to that view – that Jesus could read the Hebrew Bible (well? fairly well? not so well?). But I don’t think that it’s necessarily the case: a teacher does not have to read, and it is possible for very smart people to acquire their knowledge of texts – even accurate knowledge of texts – from hearing them read aloud (which is how most people “read” in the ancient world: by hearing a text read aloud in a public context).
Rabbis Weren’t Always Highly Educated
I should stress that we cannot say that “rabbis” were always highly educated, that Jesus was a “rabbi,” and that Jesus was therefore highly educated. That’s precisely what we don’t know. The technical term/office of “rabbi” came about long after Jesus had passed from the scene. To call Jesus a rabbi in his day was not to say that he belonged to the rabbinic office or participated in a rabbinical school. It simply was to say that he was a teacher, back in the days when that did not require special training.
Still, I am slightly inclined to the view that Jesus could read. How did he learn? I’m afraid we can only guess. The best guess is that if it’s true that he could, he must have been taught by someone who had access to books (of Scripture) and who took the time to teach him. And that would suggest that it was the local leader of the local synagogue. If that’s the case, then that unknown person turns out to have been one of the most important figures in the history of western civilization: if Jesus had not been taught (either orally or to write), we would not have had Christianity![/mepr-show]