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Jesus’ Literacy


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.



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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  1. Avatar
    Coimbra1982  June 25, 2020

    These estimates come from William Harris and Catherine Hetzer, correct?

    For me, I’m not sure literacy is quite all that important … but I do wonder how reliable this estimate is. I haven’t read this work, but my general understanding is that Harris based his estimate on criteria he thought would need to be in place for literacy to be high, and then estimated literacy according to how that criteria was satisfied.

    What is the strongest piece of evidence for the 1-10% estimate?

    Also, weren’t there something like 500 different hands involved in the composing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I’m trying to wrap my head around how there could be a 1% literacy rate among First Century Jews, but like a 90% composition rate among the Essences.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      Ah, it takes a long argument. If you’re interested, you should definitely read their work. His argument is not 1-10% but 10-15% at the best of times, allowing tht this is not an estimate to be considered *precise*.

  2. Avatar
    Coimbra1982  June 25, 2020

    The “500 hands” number comes from this NY Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/arts/design/07scrol.html

    What I’ve read, I thought the Essences were communal in nature, took something akin to a vow of poverty, and had existed for several generations. Is there a reason you think they were mostly among the upper classes? Asking sincerely.

    Do you happen to know what the best piece of evidence that Harris and Hezser have for their estimates?

    Again, I don’t think it’s all that important, but I do wonder if these estimates should really be given any weight.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      The scrolls were written at many different times and in different places. I don’t know that anyone claims that 90% of the community at Qumran was literate, do they?

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