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Jesus’ Literacy

QUESTION:

I don’t know if you have covered this or not, but how about the issue of whether Jesus was literate or not? I came across a recent book on Amazon.com titled “Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee” by Chris Keith, and the topic sounds interesting.

 

RESPONSE:

Yes indeed, it’s a very interesting – and much debated – issue. I have not yet read Chris Keith’s book, but it’s on my (very long) list. I do know what he argues (since I just asked him in an email): he thinks that Jesus was not trained in reading and writing, the way scribes in Palestine were; but it may be that lower class people who heard Jesus engage in serious discussion over the meaning of the Torah may well have *mistaken* him for someone who was. Scribes themselves would have looked on him as not up to their standards.

I’ll have to read the book before passing judgment. But basically, it sounds like he and I are on the same page. Here let me tell you what I think and why.

I’ll begin with something that I *have* talked about on the blog 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.

 

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Comments

  1. EricBrown  July 12, 2013

    I’m sure Jesus was an academic over-achiever. After all, he had a Jewish mother!

  2. gregmonette  July 12, 2013

    This is a fascinating topic and I think you noted some of the leading works discussing it in detail. Well done! I keep thinking about all the ancient graffiti we find in obscure places. Why write messages on the walls to the lower class if they couldn’t even read it???? We know that there was a lot of graffiti encased on the walls of the buildings covered by the hardened lava from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption. Also, we know of some funny graffito that one guy wrote on his doorway in the ancient world saying…”to the guy taking a dump on my doorstep…frig off…I have already called down a curse upon you!!!” (my targumic translation). Then we find the vindolanda tablets from England. In the late first century soldiers (traditionally thought to be illiterate) were writing notes back to their families while away on war leave. I have a feeling we will be hearing much more about literacy in the ancient world in the next few years. Check out the chapter on literacy in the ancient world in Craig Evans’ book, “Jesus and his world: The archaeological evidence”. Dale Allison endorsed the back of that book and really enjoyed that one chapter in particular on the lack of attention given in many works on literacy to what we can learn from ancient graffiti and documents like those at Vindolanda. Interesting stuff! Another thing to think about which you rightly pointed out…How we think about literacy today is too simplistic. Some people could write (not very well)…like Paul signing is own name in big letters, while having a pro scribe write the rest of the document so it would be easy to read. I have a feeling many people could read in the ancient world (like Paul), but they couldn’t write very well at all. Also, some people could read at a basic level, but not in a technical manner. Sort of like today we have professional academics (like you) who can write at a high level (like a scribe), but the average person, or the average person who could write would be able to write at a very basic level. Things aren’t so simple as you well know!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2013

      Great question about graffiti! I’ll have to think about it. But in the meantime, I don’t be *too* sure that “many” people could read in the ancient world. Have you read the studies of ancient literacy by classical scholars? It’s pretty convincing stuff…. (And remember: most people “read” books by having books read to them)

      • TWood
        TWood  September 28, 2016

        Have you thought about the graffiti since? That actually is a really good point. The Alexamenos graffito comes to mind… I never thought about that having implications on literacy rates… but that seems like a lower class kind of thing to do… and who would be able to read it? IDK.

        Also, what’s your view on the 7th century findings in Arad? Does this have any effect on ideas about ancient literacy? http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/210694

        P.s. On my offer to come on the podcast… I hope that was okay to post… obv don’t approve it if it wasn’t… I only posted it there because you said you prefer that over being emailed… if you can’t do it no worries. I’ll live… for a while (Braveheart quote).

        • Bart
          Bart  September 28, 2016

          The existence of writing does not prove high levels of literacy. The way most people in antiquity “read” something was by hearing it read out loud by someone else.

          • TWood
            TWood  September 28, 2016

            I get that… but the claim by even legit archeologists is that the findings of the Arad discovery does prove high levels of literacy within the military including its low level members during the pre Second Temple era… is your point that only shows the military was literate? And the same question for the graffiti… we assume that there was an educated person who created such graffiti?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 29, 2016

            A piece of graffiti cannot demonstrated how many people could read it!

          • TWood
            TWood  September 29, 2016

            True… but it makes the “artist’s” motivation strange if he knows no one will be able to read it… but you’re right… it doesn’t *prove* anything per se.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 30, 2016

            It’s a mistake to think that if 95% of the people can’t read it, then *no one* can read it.

  3. Jim  July 12, 2013

    I noticed that I haven’t used my favorite place Sepphoris (it’s such a cool sounding name) in a comment for a while now. Since Sepphoris was supposedly less than 4 miles from Galilee, maybe Jesus learned some level of reading from a mentor at a synagogue in Sepphoris? Suppose we will never know, but at least I got a chance to use the name of this cool sounding town in a comment for the first time in a few months.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2013

      Yeah, it’s striking that Sepphoris is never mentioned in the NT and that Jesus never ever visits the large cities at all. I doubt if he ever went there! Or if he did, I’m sure he didn’t spend much time there….

      • gregmonette  July 15, 2013

        You really doubt Jesus went to Sepphoris (Zippori)? Surely he visited lots of places not referenced in the NT? That would have been a pretty influential city. Also, considering the fact that it was a very Jewish city during Jesus’ day (see James Strange, Mark Chancey et al). I don’t think it would have been a very far walk. What makes you think Jesus never visited cities like Sepphoris?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

          I don’t think it’s being influential or Jewish has any bearing on whether Jesus went there. And yes, I think he must have visited lots of places not mentioned in the NT. But I don’t see any evidence that Jesus spent *time* in a big city like Sepphoris, or that he was interested in or comfortable in big cities.

      • Steefen  July 16, 2013

        Hi. My minister said that Hypocrite is a Greek word from theater. Sepphoris had a theater during the time of Jesus.

        Jesus spoke Greek. In Did Jesus Exist, Bart Ehrman said the Nicodemus-Jesus conversation about being born again doesn’t make sense in Hebrew or Aramaic. It only works in Greek. Jesus and Nicodemus spoke Greek.

        Second, Stephen (the martyr) was a Hellenist. He died saying exactly the same thing that Jesus said to upset the Jewish authorities: Son of Man at the right hand of the Power.

        Jesus, in his lifetime, addressed the Hellenists and made a lasting impression. At least one of the 12 disciples was a Hellenist.

        We don’t have any of Jesus’ writings because his Son of Man movement got his works censored.

        Do you really think Jesus was less educated than Paul? Compare the sermons of Jesus to the sermons of Paul. Compare the arguments and rhetoric of Jesus to that of Paul. Jesus beats out Paul and Paul got beat up by more audiences than Jesus did. Jesus appeared to Paul and the power of Jesus’ message (education, intellect, mystical education) was mastery to Paul that converted Paul from persecutor of the Jesus movement to advocate of the Jesus movement.

        We have to set the stage of Jesus making an impression on the Hellenists. Hellenists must have been at the Sermon on the Mount. Who’s to say whether or not the Nazarene, Queen Helen of the Osrhoenes heard Jesus speak? Hellenists (including Stephen) must have been informed by a Greek speaking Nicodemus or by someone about Jesus’ last words before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:62).

        Thinking out loud,
        Steve

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

          No, I don’t think there’s good evidence that Jesus spoke Greek. He almost certainly spoke Aramaic, just as all other rural lower-class Jews in Palestine did.

          • Steefen  July 17, 2013

            The reference being made at “My minister said that “hypocrite” is a Greek word from theater” is Jesus calling the pharisees hypocrites.

            Another point about Jesus’ literacy is his study of the Son of Man. Were they really teaching this in the synagogue or was Jesus independently researching and digging into this subject matter, crystallizing it for a leadership position? Apparently, he read the scriptures on this topic including Enoch. The Temple establishment definitely was not teaching the people Son of Man revolutionary theology. How did Jesus even get the many scriptural references that he had without a good library?

            The richness of the content of Jesus’ body of knowledge is that of a well-read leader and one who could not only write, conduct discourse, defend himself in argument with other leaders, but one who could crystallize his body of knowledge to impress one John the Baptist, pick up some of John’s disciples, lead 12 men, send out 70 more.

            Jesus was a successful public speaker. The biblical Jesus proved himself to be a master student of any Mystery School.

            Have you made a claim against Jesus and the King of Edessa exchanging written correspondence? If so, how is it that the kingdom of Edessa is known for following the teachings of Jesus? Why is it in later wars between Christians and Muslims, Edessa was highly valued as a holy city of Christianity? There is certainly more to Jesus’ literacy than him moving his finger through sand.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 17, 2013

            Jesus certainly didn’t have a library and did not do what we think of as “research.” If you’d like to read up on ancient libraries, you might start with Harry Gamble’s book: Books and REaders in the Early Church. Only very wealthy people could have had them; that would include no one in Nazareth.

  4. RonaldTaska  July 13, 2013

    Terrific review. This question and answer format is working very well.

    It does surprise me that both the author of Matthew and Jesus quote scripture, maybe not perfectly, but capably.

  5. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  July 13, 2013

    You have mentioned before that archeology has found the communities existence in Nazareth going back to the first century C.E. Did they find any writings? This wouldn’t prove much, but it might help a bit in knowing that the community of Jesus did have writings. Thanks.

  6. bobnaumann  July 14, 2013

    For my fundy friends who insist Jesus was God, this would be a no brainier; he had infinite knowledge, he could not only read or write in any language, he also understood general relativity, quantum electrodynamics, string theory, and probably had already found the Higgs Boson, or at least knew where it was.

    However on a more serious note, we have no idea how Jesus spent his first thirty or so years other than he spent some time being tempted in the wilderness. Obviously he was very familiar with Jewish law ant the scriptures, so it would be a good guess that he spent a great deal of ime in the synagogues talking with Priests and Pharisies, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think he may have picked up a rudimentary ability to read and maybe even write. But in his apocalyptic year or years, he may never have had the opportunity or the need to demonstrate such skills.

  7. JoeWallack  July 14, 2013

    JW:
    The above would help explain why we have nothing written by Jesus. He couldn’t write (or at least not in his home country).

    Joseph

  8. lbehrendt  July 15, 2013

    Bart, as you are familiar with Keith’s work, and presumably Dale Allison’s as well, perhaps you could devote a column to two themes important to both of these authors: (1) rejection of the “criteria of authenticity” as a guide to understanding the historical Jesus, and (2) reliance on memory studies and theories of social memory as ways to understand the gospel materials.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2013

      Yeah, that would be a long series of posts! I’ll think about it for down the line. It’s something I want to work on for a future book.

  9. stephena  July 15, 2013

    As always, interesting and thought-provoking. I’ve read that the thing Jesus was said to have written in the sand (in that disputed passage about the woman taken in adultery) was either a word or a “symbol,” which seems inconclusive anyway, even if the verse wasn’t of disputed authenticity. The passage in Luke does indeed show him reading (quoting from Isaiah) at the beginning of his ministry.

    But even if we take the NT as stories ABOUT Jesus, and we understand that they cannot be literal history, it’s likely that any Rabbi that taught others would have been able to read the Hebrew Scriptures. The rather legendary accounts of his childhood in the Synoptics show him studying in the Temple at a young age, and this seems plausible, especially if he ended up being a Rabbi and teacher of some repute within Galilee and later throughout Judea.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2013

      I think what is being challenged is whether we know much about how rabbis worked at this time and place, before there was anything like an official title “rabbi” and 200 years before the Mishnah as produced.

  10. SJB  July 15, 2013

    If the tradition is true that Joseph died when Jesus was fairly young then the family would have been destitute without a breadwinner. Maybe the leader of the local synagogue felt sympathy for the boy or detected some aptitude and took him under his wing?

    A testimony to the importance of good teacher!

  11. Billy Geddes  July 15, 2013

    Hello Prof.

    I don’t know how relevant this little nugget of information may be, but I’ll post it anyway:

    I have just come back from a 2 week jaunt around Morocco – Great place, well worth a visit. But that is an aside.

    One of the guides we had was from the South and fiercely proud of his Berber Heritage, One parent was from the north, one from the south and because they had different dialects he was proud to say he understood both dialects fluently, a rare occurrence apparently.

    He was well educated and his French and Classical Arabic were spot on. At School, those were the only languages he was taught. Berber was deemed inferior and not taught to children in his day.

    He also understands spoken Moroccan Arabic, which is apparently slightly different to the classical and can read it at a push. Now he was collage trained and passed sociology and another related degree with good grades.

    To his great shame he told us that to this day, even though he understood the spoken word in his native tongues, [Berber] he cannot read or write them. It was not taught at School and it’s only recently that the Moroccan government allowed it to become part of the curriculum…. but now that he can see it written down it makes no sense to him.

    If that can happen today then it surely must have happened in antiquity?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

      Interesting!

      • Billy Geddes  July 16, 2013

        The thing that interested me the most was; where there was signs in the Berber language, it looked all Greek to me and him!!

        I was going to add a Google search to show you the Berber written language – but I released you are more than capable of doing such yourself.. LOL

        But this guide simply could read everything in Moroccan, expect his own language – and for some reason I thought of you..

        😉

  12. joshua  July 15, 2013

    Somewhat unrelated questions:
    1) OK, so the “throw the first stone thing” is a later addition, but what does it mean, i.e. Why is Jesus writing in the ground and more than once? You have to wonder if the whole Pharisee “oral law” idea is literal- what was the literacy % among them?
    2) Assyrian Church believes that their Aramaic version of the NT is the original. According to them this is the original language that the evangelists wrote it in and they have preserved it . Possible? Would answer some of your issues you’ve raised, e.g. how for example Peter, poor fishermen from Galilee wrote literary GK. Could it be? Please?

    Thanks so much, loving this blog!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

      1) It’s debated. He appears to be buying time. Sucessfully.
      2) Nope: NT was written in Greek. And not by Peter and his companions.

      • Steefen  July 17, 2013

        Luke, in Acts of the Apostles, introduces us to the Hellenists.
        We read about donations not being given to Hellenist widows…

        The first martyr, Stephen, wasn’t a Hebrew disciple but a Hellenist follower.

        We have to look to the Hellenists as writers of the NT in Greek.

        Why would the Hebrew leaders write about Jesus who was censored and executed?
        The Hebrews did not like Jesus because the Son of Man movement was fuel for rebellion against Rome which led to the destruction of quite a Temple, let alone the human cost taxed on the Jewish capitol.
        The Romans did not like Jesus because the Son of Man movement definitely did not keep the Roman peace in Jerusalem, especially when Rome pulled the offices of king in the region.

        Bart Ehrman says Hebrew writers would not entitle their books The Gospel according to [themselves]. This leaves non-Hebrew authors writing message-biographies according to Hebrew companion eye-witnesses.

        If the 12 disciples can be divided into Hebrew and Hellenist disciples, it would be interesting to identify a Hellenist Gospel in contrast to a Gospel according to a Hebrew disciple.

        Apparently, Paul, who lets readers know he is a Jew did not fear Jesus’ censorship. However, Paul, a Roman, did not put the Son of Man before Caesar, at the right hand of God. He got beat up for a lot of things but I don’t recall him having a vision of the Son of Man at the right hand of God.

        Second, Paul did not allude to the destruction of the Temple or say the Temple was irrelevant as Jesus and Stephen did. (Apparently Jesus supped with taxpayers and Hellenists.)

  13. Steefen  July 17, 2013

    If you could prove Jesus stuck in Nazareth from age 13 to age 27, you might have a point.

  14. gavm  July 21, 2013

    i was listening to one of yr lectures on historical jesus from the teaching company and in lec 9 you say that jesus predicting the destruction of the temple is probably historical because its multiply attested. wouldn’t it still be more likely a later development written after the temple was destroyed? would it not fail the criteria of dissimilarity because it is something Christians might make up?
    thank you again

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2013

      Yes, one has to take all the criteria into account. But there are some aspects of the destruction that appear to pass even dissimilarity (such as Mark’s claim that not one stone will be left on another — which wasn’t actually true).

      • Peter  June 5, 2014

        Bart.

        As happens so often, I came across your comment on this matter while I was looking for information on something else! Anyway, I’ll happily allow myself to be sidetracked….

        Re. Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple: virtually all the scholars I’ve heard or read discussing the dating of the gospels, particularly the dating of Mark, use this passage as the main plank of evidence in arguing that the gospels were written after the Romans had sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE ( or, in the case of Mark, perhaps during the war). I always assumed, therefore, that the prophecy Jesus made wasn’t historical, but was put on his lips by the gospel writers to show his prescience or to teach something about the inevitable destruction of the corrupt or sinful political arrangements of the time….or something like that. I’m surprised to read that you think the prophecy may, in fact, be historical, and I’ll explain why (bear with me, please!).

        From time to time, I’ve read tendentious claims made by Christian apologists with regard to the dating of the gospels. They’re obviously inclined towards early datings ( to bring the compositions of the gospels back as close to the life of Jesus as possible), so they posit a dating of, say, the 50s CE for Mark or whomever. Now I know this goes against the views of virtually all “mainstream” scholars, but it seems to me that they make one fair point: if the gospels were “late”, i.e. written after the Temple was destroyed, why are the Evangelists not shouting from the rooftops that this prophecy made by Jesus was fulfilled?! Why are the references so oblique?
        The Evangelists, particularly Matthew, go out of their way to show that Jesus, through his person, deeds, or sayings, fulfilled countless other prophecies, yet the Temple’s destruction isn’t emphasized by them at all.

        Apologies for a very long comment…and if I’m missing something obvious!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 5, 2014

          The reason for thinking the comment is historical is that it is multiply attested on numerous layers of the tradition and sometimes the views expressed in these comments is contrary to the views of the authors who preserve them (e.g., the “opposition” to the temple is contrary to the views of the author of Luke-Acts)

          • Peter  June 6, 2014

            Bart.

            But that doesn’t explain why scholars believe the inclusion of the ‘prophecy’ in the gospels indicates their being written after 70 CE.

            In other words: why couldn’t Mark have been written in, say, 60 CE, long before the war began? It seems odd to me that one would believe the prophecy to be the actual words of Jesus yet also believe that its inclusion in the gospels is evidence that they were written after the event the prophecy described took place.

            Sorry If I’m not properly explaining why I’m confused.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  June 6, 2014

            Ah, I see what you’re saying now. It isn’t the prediction of the Temple’s destruction so much as the related things that Jesus says in the Gospels — e.g. about Jerusalem being surrounded by troops and burned and trampled on by Gentiles and all that sort of thing, the combination of all the parts that makes it look like the Gospels must come from after 70CE. Mark does seem to see that war is at least on the horizon (e.g., ch. 13)

  15. FrankofBoulder  January 23, 2014

    L. Michael White points out in “Scripting Jesus” (p. 327) that the story in Luke about Jesus reading isn’t credible. White says that the scripture that Jesus reads “is actually a composite of two different passages from the Septuagint… Because the two passage are so far apart in the actual text of Isaiah, there is no way a person could see or read both of them at the same time if holding a scroll.” In addition, parts of the Isaiah text have been omitted, inserted and moved around. Jesus’ supposed reading doesn’t follow the progression of the text.

    White observes: “What kind of ‘reading’ is this that skips some phrases and adds in others?… the Lukan author has carefully crafted the scene so that *by chance* Jesus is given this precisely phrased text to read” — which just HAPPENS to be “a prophetic sign that applies to him.” The story is fake, made up so that Jesus could appear to read a prophecy that supposedly applied to him.

    This episode doesn’t show that Jesus could read. It’s a fabrication. There’s no good reason to think that Jesus could read. As you say, the rural people were illiterate. He and his disciples were illiterate, too.

  16. Xyloplax  October 8, 2015

    Sorry for the necropost on this old thread, but I’m reading Hezser’s book, and it is indeed excellent, and your comments line up with what she says: that a Rabbi would have varying degrees in the ability to read the Hebrew Torah. On the subject of John 7-8, I see that some manuscripts have καταγράφω and some have γράφω. To me, this doesn’t prove literacy, it shows that he scratched something into the ground. Neither word (from the LSJ definition at any rate) *necessarily* means “write” as in words, and καταγράφω seems to be leaning primarily towards scratching. He could be just scratching a picture. He could also have been writing his name or the alphabet. And regardless, assuming he could write, it would be in Hebrew, most likely, of course. Does this argument about the definitions of καταγράφω and γράφω hold water?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2015

      Yes, it appears to. The oldest form of the text does read KATAGRAPHO, and that does appear to refer typically to actual writing (not doodling or drawing, e.g.,)

  17. tlhm94  September 12, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I was wondering if you could give a brief overview of the sort of methodology utilized with the scholarship you noted; Hezner, Harris and Bar-Ilan. I am considering buying some of these works but Hezner’s is especially pricey so I was hoping to get some insight into broad stroke factors she (or the others) considered before buying anything.

    -tavish

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      I would recommend buying a used, cheap copy of Harris and starting there. (BAr-Ilan is simply an article, not a book) They utilize a rigorous historical method, citing extensive literary sources and non-literary when available.

  18. ColinG  January 13, 2017

    hello, Bart – I’m late to seeing this thread. Fascinating as ever.

    Would you agree that any conclusions that Jesus could not read and his Galilean disciples must be provisional conclusions for the reason of the dearth of evidence in the time and place. Common ground is that apart from the unusual exceptions of the DSS, the NT and Josephus, there’s barely a scrap of data from the time and place. Of the learned Sadduccees, we have not one of their documents. The fall of Jerusalem and the war at the time was but one of the things that will have erased local evidence – and not just of Sadduccees. So literacy rates may or may not have been higher there, if only we had evidence to tell us.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      Probably the reason for the dearth of evidence in the first place is that lack of literacy. But we do have good grounds for thinking most people couldn’t read — it isn’t only because of hte lack of surviving materials. (It’s a long story, but the best place to turn is William Harris, Ancient Literacy)

  19. ColinG  January 14, 2017

    Thank you for replying, Bart. I suppose this specific case may turn on whether and why and how some in Jesus’ circle could have been above average for their time and place.

    On another note, in your comment above of June 6, 2014, you wrote: “It isn’t the prediction of the Temple’s destruction so much as the related things that Jesus says in the Gospels — e.g. about Jerusalem being surrounded by troops and burned…” Actually, Josephus tells us that the temple was burned, but the gospels are oblivious to the possibility of it being burned.

    Colin

  20. ColinG  January 18, 2017

    Bart, just looking at where you wrote, “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.”

    I’m not disputing that, but if you could cite a source for that not being true, it would be much appreciated.

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