Could Jesus Read? Part 2

In the previous post, we left with the question, “Could Jesus read or not read?” It is true that making an argument for a literate Jesus is somewhat difficult, considering that no literature explicitly states, “Jesus could read and write,” “Jesus learned to read and write,” or something along these lines. As Craig Evans puts it, “There is no unambiguous evidence for the literacy of Jesus” [1]. The immediate question before us, then, is whether any evidence exists that lends support to the idea that the Jewish population in first-century Palestine was literate in a basic way and therefore Jesus, too, most likely was literate.

Those who argue “no” often point out the fact that no Jewish historical text explicitly says that Jews were actually taught how to read or write. But to argue in this fashion is problematic for two reasons. First, it is an argument from silence; just because a text does not specifically mention that Jews were taught reading and writing does not mean they were not taught how to read and write. Second, to say that a text must clearly state that Jews were taught how to read and write is a presupposed requirement forced onto the texts under consideration. In hermeneutics (the science of interpretation), this is often referred to eisegesis, i.e., when one reads into the text one’s own preferred interpretation.

In light of these problems of approach to the textual evidence, it seems more reasonable to understand what is actually being said in Jewish texts and not to require some arbitrary or superficial standard(s). What does the evidence actually say? And what is the best explanation of the evidence?

The first piece of evidence to consider is the Jewish history of instruction. The common, traditional understanding is that the Jews were a “people of the book.” By implication this means that they could read (and possibly even write) at some basic level.

There is good reason why this has been the traditional view. The Old Testament gives ample references that God instructed Moses and Israel to teach their children Torah (the Law). For example, in Deut. 6:4-9 God specifically commands Israel to teach the Law “diligently to your sons” and “talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (v.7; NASB). It should be noted that instruction of the Law specifically includes making signs and writing: “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (v.8-9). (See also Deut. 4:9;11:19-20.) In light of these commands, it seems reasonable to understand that the foundation of religious instruction included some kind of reading and writing.

It is also noteworthy that much of the OT seems to indicate that some type of official schooling was implemented to teach the Law. Deut. 31:12-13 relates Moses’ instruction to “assemble the people, the men and women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God.” 2 Chron. 17:7-9 even indicates that King Jehoshaphat appointed many men to go throughout Israel to teach the Law. It is true that much of the instruction was probably oral, but it was also written instruction. Scholar Joseph Naveh points out that Hebrew writing has been found in papyrus letters, graffiti, ostraca, jars, and seal inscriptions [2]. All this points to a Jewish culture that could read and write in some basic way.

So far, the evidence we have looked at has been from ancient Israel. What about Jewish literacy at the time of Jesus? The evidence from this period appears to point to a Jewish culture that continued to emphasize the reading and learning of the Law. The Jewish Alexandrian Philo (ca. 30 BC – AD 50) speaks of Jews being instructed in the Law as infants (De Legatione, 31.210). Especially interesting is that Philo mentions that the Jews “bear in their souls the images of the commandments” and “continually behold the visible shapes and forms of them.” The fact that the Jews bear the “images,” “visible shapes,” and “forms” of the Law seems to imply that the commands were written and thus Jews would have been able to at least read them.

The Jewish historian Josephus (ca. AD 37-100) appears to bear witness to a literate Jewish culture as well, saying that “our principle care of all [as Jews] is this, to educate our children well; and we think it to be the most necessary business of our whole life to observe the laws that have been given to us” (Against Apion, 1.12). Some argue that Josephus does not explicitly say that reading and writing were taught, only that Jews were “educated.” But again, this forces a superficial requirement upon the text, and in light of the foregoing and following evidence, Josephus is best understood to be including reading and writing in the “education” he mentions.

Finally, there is evidence from the Mishnah (and the Talmud) that the Jewish culture was literate. The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish oral teaching, dating back to the time of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time and was completed about AD 200. It indicates in numerous places that Jewish children, especially boys, were taught from a young age and that numerous teachers existed to give such instruction. (See, for example, Abot 1:16-17; 5:21.)

Now, if the foregoing evidence was all we had, it certainly could be argued to some degree that the Jewish culture in general may have been illiterate—that only the “elite” among the Jews (like scribes) had the ability to read or write (see the Apostle Paul and Pharisees of the NT for example). This is in fact what many argue who believe Jesus was illiterate. They argue that, apart from Josephus and Philo, little or no evidence exists at all that Jewish culture was literate apart from the scribes. One main reason for this argument is the evidently non-existence of other Jewish texts whatever from the first century.

Several responses can be made to such an argument. First, Craig Evans has pointed out that the non-canonical Jewish historical books of 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees indicate that literacy was not just for the upper-class scribes (e.g., 2 Macc. 7; 4 Macc. 18:10-19) [3]. Second, such an argument is, again, an argument from silence. Just because there may be no current unambiguous evidence for a literate Jewish culture does not mean that, therefore, the Jewish culture was illiterate.

Third, and quite significantly, Ben Witherington has pointed out a good reason why many Jewish texts have not been found in the Palestinian region from the first century: the climate is not conductive to preserving papyri [4]. Galilee, where Jesus spent much of his ministry, has a more wet climate than where ancient, first-century texts are typically found, such as in the Dead Sea region and in Egypt. Papyri simply cannot withstand a wet climate, and thus we do not find many extant Jewish texts. Therefore, the argument that once Josephus and Philo are put aside we have no ancient Jewish texts that indicate a literate Jewish population, is, again, an argument from silence. And in fact, as Witherington notes, we now have a lot of evidence that Greek was written, read, and spoken in the first-century Jewish culture, as Alan Millard’s most recent study, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, recounts. Witherington discusses much of Millard’s argument here and here.

What we find, then, is evidence that Jesus was embedded in a Jewish culture that had a rich tradition of teaching how to read and write in a basic way for the purpose of knowing the Law. Witherington summarizes the Jewish literacy context of the first century well when he states,

Millard (p. 157) reminds us that the literacy situation in Jewish society differed from that in the Greco-Roman world in a notable way. Firstly, there was a strong tradition of the education of males (see e.g. Proverbs or Sirach), so they would be able when called upon to take their turn reading the Hebrew and Aramaic of the OT. In theory all Jewish males were supposed to do this. The Jerusalem Talmud even says that the rule of Simeon ben Schetach (100 B.C.) was that all Jewish children should go to school (J.T. Ket. 8.32c). While this is perhaps something of a wish rather than a fact, nonetheless there was this tradition of education because Jews were increasingly a people of a holy scripture— Torah and the canon itself was nearly fully complete and closed by the time of Jesus (a book like Esther was still being debated). According to both Philo and Josephus education began early in Torah (Leg. Gai. 210; Apion 2.178) and importantly it was not just for the upper class elites. Whatever may have been the case with Romans or even Greeks, Jews were not elitists when it came to education in the Torah. Millard speculates that many who learned to read the Scriptures never learned any other book. This may be so, which gives new meaning to the phrase John Wesley used to use— ‘homo unius libri’, a man of one book.[5]

In the next post, we will consider another piece of evidence for the literacy of Jesus: that Jesus was a “carpenter” (Greek: “tekton”).


Peter Jay Rasor II


[1] 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), 44.

[2] Joseph Naveh, “A Palaeographic Note on the Distribution of the Hebrew Script.” HTR 61 (1968), 68-74.

[3] Evans, “Jewish Scripture,” 45.

[4] Ben Witherington, “Reading and Writing in Herodian Israel– Was Jesus an Illiterate Peasant? Part One.”

[5] Witherington, “Was Jesus Illiterate? Part Three”

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