Could Jesus Read? Part 1

“And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord'” (Luke 4:17-19; NASB).

In some academic circles, it has become in vogue to question whether Jesus was actually literate.  (“Literate” is taken here to mean having the ability to read or write at some basic level.)  Robert Funk and John Crossan of the notorious Jesus Seminar as well as Pieter Craffert and Pieter Botha are notable advocates of this view.[1]

The argument for the illiteracy of Jesus in essence says that no evidence exists that shows Jesus, along with other first century Jews, could read or write at any level. The argument typically concludes that about 97% of people who lived in first-century Palestine were illiterate. By implication, then, the Luke 4 passage quoted above which strongly implies that Jesus read from the book of Isaiah is a “lofty claim,” i.e., an embellishment.

Is it true that Jesus was illiterate? Is there no evidence that Jesus or the majority (97%) of Jews of the first century could read or write? In this blog and subsequent ones, I will look at some historical evidence that indicates that Jesus could in fact read at some basic level, and I will show some problematic theological implications of the claim that Jesus was illiterate.

Before looking at the evidence for literacy in the first century, however, a note on the method of investigation is in order. It is interesting to note that many of the objections to a literate Jesus are largely (but not entirely) based upon the popular work Ancient Literacy written by William V. Harris. Harris’ work is almost always quoted and referred to by those who deny that Jesus could read or write. Harris’ work as well as others that rely upon his work are where many get the figure that 97% of first-century people living in Palestine were illiterate.

But there are two major problems with basing the illiteracy of Jesus upon Harris’ work.  The first is that Harris’ work is a socio-anthropological inquiry. This means that Harris looks at certain factors that he believes were not existent in the first century that would provide an environment conducive to literacy, e.g., urbanization, availability of written materials, economic systems, and the existence of an extensive education system.  Harris does not consider the actual Jewish or Christian texts and literature of the first century that speak to the instruction of reading and writing.

Second, Harris’ work deals with the entire Mediterranean world of the first century, not the Jewish and Christian culture specifically. Scholar Craig Evans asks a poignant question here: “The conclusions 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?”[2] All who argue for Jesus’ illiteracy assume that Jesus and the Jews in general were like everyone else in regard to literacy. But this is not the case as we will see. As such, those who argue from Harris’ work that Jesus was illiterate commit the fallacy of division, which means that it is fallacious to argue that since the Mediterranean world in general was largely illiterate so too a specific group of people (in this case, Jews) were also illiterate. Just because the “whole” of something has a particular characteristic does not mean that the parts that make up the whole have that same characteristic.

The case for a literate (or illiterate for that matter) Jesus ought to be based upon the best explanation of the available evidence. What kind of evidence would be relevant here? In this case, it is imperative to look at Jewish texts and what we know historically about the Jewish culture in regard to literacy. What one must do, then, is gather all the evidence that exists that has any reference to the instruction of first-centuryJews in reading or writing (and any background information), and then ask, “what is the best explanation of this evidence—that Jesus could read or not read?” We will begin looking at the evidence in the next post.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

Footnotes:

[1] Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millenium (New York: Harper, 1996), 158; John D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Fransisco: Harper, 1994), 25-26; Pieter F. Craffert and Pieter J. J. Botha, “Why Jesus Could Walk on the Sea but He Could not Read and Write,” Neotestamenica 39 (2005): 5-35. More recently, NT scholar Chris Keith leaves the impression that Jesus could not read in his presentation “The Synoptic Debate Over the Synagogue Teacher,” presented at the 2011 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference, Saturday, April 9th.

[2] Craig Evans, “Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus” in From Biblical Criticism to Biblical Faith: Essays in Honor of Lee Martin McDonald, ed. William H. Brackney and Craig A. Evans (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007), 53. Emphasis added.

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