Could Jesus Read? Part 3

In the current string of posts we have been considering whether Jesus was literate—more precisely, whether Jesus could read at some basic level. The significance of this question will be considered in the next post, but for now we will continue to consider the evidence to come to a conclusion about Jesus’ literacy.

The next several evidences are taken from the New Testament itself. It is interesting that many who are currently investigating the literacy of Jesus appear not to take too seriously the NT as evidence. Often the NT is viewed as “guilty until proven innocent” when it comes to what it claims. There may be (and are) various reasons for this, but it appears to me that they are arbitrary and prejudicial. It seems more rational to submit into evidence the very text which claims to be a record of what Jesus said and did. The only assumption in such a case is that the NT text is generally trustworthy, which the majority of biblical scholars take to be the case. For those who desire more “proof” of this requires an exercise in apologetics, which would take us far outside the scope of our present concern. So, we shall press forward with our investigation with the assumption that the NT is generally trustworthy in what it records.

The first piece of evidence to be considered from the NT is taken from Mark 6:3 where Jesus is referred to as a “carpenter” (Greek “tekton”). Some have understood this term to mean that Jesus was a peasant, one who was of a lower class and thus would not have been educated to read at all. Ben Witherington, however, points out that this is not the case for a couple of reasons.[1]

First, “tekton” means “one who carves and molds stone and wood,” and hence the translation “carpenter.” As carpenters, Jesus’ family had a trade and even a home. Thus they should not be classified as “landless peasants” or “tenant farmers” who would not have had much education.

Second, as a person who carved and molded stone and wood, Jesus would need to know how to read and write at some basic level. The reason is because measurements would need to be made in order to build things. Interestingly, evidence has been found to support this claim. Referring to the work of Allan Millard (Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus), Witherington comments that “stone columns found at Masada and elsewhere were marked by masons with letters of the alphabet in Aramaic or in Greek script to ensure they were erected in the right place and in the right order. One can well imagine Jesus’ family, working in stone and wood, in Nazareth or Sepphoris doing precisely this.”[2]

Another piece of evidence to consider from the NT that seems to indicate that Jesus could read is when Jesus said the phrase “Have you not read?” when disputing with the religious leaders of his time. Consider, for example, when the Pharisees became angry with Jesus and his disciples when they picked grain on the Sabbath day. Jesus replied, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry…?” (Matt. 12:3; NASB). When Jesus was questioned about divorce, he rejoined, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female…?” (Matt. 19:4). Again, when the scribes and chief priests became angry with Jesus when some children attributed praise to him, Jesus asked, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have prepared praise for youself?’” (Matt. 21:16). In fact, this is a very common reply Jesus gives to his educated scribal and priestly questioners (see also Matt. 21:42; 22:31; Mark 12:26; Luke 10:26).

From such replies, a few observations can be made. First, when Jesus questions, “Have you not read?” no one in the biblical text questions the idea that he could read. It is merely assumed that what he is saying has some weight, i.e., Jesus knew what he was talking about because he had read the Law himself. This is significant in light of the fact that Jesus’ questioners—the scribes, Pharisees, and priests—were undoubtedly literate. If Jesus had been illiterate, certainly the religious leaders would have chided him, saying something like, “What are you talking about? You can’t even read. How dare you lecture us! How do you know that’s what the Law says?” In other words, as Craig Evans and Paul Foster point out, Jesus’ reading ability appears to be a given, not something even remotely regarded as astonishing or something in need of defending.[3]

Second, if Jesus had been unable to read, his replies that included “Have you never read?” would have been entirely undermined. Jesus’ disputations with the religious leaders had as part of its foundations the assumption that he could read, and if he could not, then no respectful dialogue would have been possible. Witherington comments,

Now all of these folks [i.e., Jewish leaders] could read, and it would have been singularly inept, ineffective, and inappropriate for Jesus to upbraid them for not reading, if he himself had never read these texts, and they knew he was illiterate. Indeed, the very fact that Jesus is approached by respectable educated folk like a Nicodemus involves the assumption that both parties have read the Scriptural texts in detail and can discuss them. In short, all these texts either directly or indirectly make clear Jesus had to be able to read the Scriptures to be respected, to dialogue with the literate, and to speak in the synagogue after the Scripture reading.[4]

If Jesus did not have the ability to read, then his appeal to whether the Jewish leaders read a passage of Scripture would have had no force.[5]

A third piece of evidence to consider from the NT that seems to indicate that Jesus could read is when Jesus refers to and quotes OT passages. Jesus quotes or alludes to no less than 23 of the 36 books of the Hebrew Scripture. [6] To know the OT well enough to quote and refer to it with such ease illustrates that Jesus had to have some basic reading skills and education in the Law. He was “on par” with the educated scribes, Pharisees, and high priests of the time.

A fourth piece of evidence from the NT that supports the idea that Jesus could read is the fact that Jesus is considered a “rabbi,” “teacher,” and “master.” These terms are frequently attributed to Jesus throughout the Gospels, e.g., Mark 9:5; 10:21; 14:45; Luke 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13; John 20:16. Evans points out that as a Hebrew rabbi, teacher, and master, some kind of literacy would have been expected, especially since a rabbi would have disciples who learn from their master. A Jewish teacher in first century Palestine with disciples and no level of literacy would have had no credibility.[7] “Moreover,” argues Evans, “the numerous parallels between Jesus’ teaching and the rabbinic tradition, as well as the many points of agreement between Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture and the rabbinic tradition, only add to this conviction.  Jesus’ teaching in the synagogues is not easily explained if Jesus were unable to read and had not undertaken study of Scripture that involved at least some training in literacy.”[8]

The final and probably most convincing piece of evidence that Jesus was literate is the NT claim that Jesus actually read. Luke 4:16-17 states, “And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath,and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written. . . .” (NASB). Here is an explicit claim that Jesus read. Shall we accept Luke’s claim that Jesus in fact read from the scroll of Isaiah? It seems to me that in light of all the evidence already considered we must take it to be true. In addition, we must take it to be true in light of the Christian understanding of the inspiration of Scripture (more on this in the next–and final–segment).

Some have argued, however, that Luke 4:16-17 parallels Mark 6:1-6, and Mark says nothing about Jesus reading, and so Luke’s claim that Jesus read is an embellishment. Two remarks may be made. First, Luke 4:16-17 may not be a parallel to Mark 6:1-6. Mark says nothing about Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah, how the people in the synagogue “fixed their eyes” on Jesus, and there is no mention of Jesus telling the people that they would quote the proverb to heal himself. There are a few other details, too, that do not line up with Mark 6, which will not be discussed here. It is possible that the Mark passage is simply another instance in which Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown (with the Luke passage being a different instance). But, for the sake of argument, let’s consider that the Luke 4 passage is a parallel of Mark 4. Would the absence of the claim that Jesus read in Mark 4 necessarily mean that Jesus did not know how to read, that somehow Luke and Mark are disagreeing on this point? No, it does not. Difference in description does not entail disagreement, i.e., just because Mark does not say Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah, it does not mean he did not.

In conclusion, it seems that all the evidence actually points to the fact that Jesus was literate at some basic level, that he could read. This, of course, does not mean that Jesus was among the educated elite necessarily. It just means that he had enough training to be able to read the OT Law and prophets and even expound upon them as many rabbis of the time. In the end, the arguments that Jesus could not read end up being an argument from silence or ignorance. In the next and final post, I will consider the implications for the view that Jesus was illiterate.


Peter Jay Rasor II

[1] Ben Witherington elaborates on these points I briefly discuss here in his article “Was Jesus Literate? Part Three” found here

[2] Witherington, “What Jesus Literate? Part Three.”

[3] 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), 50; Paul Foster, “Educating Jesus: The Search for a Plausible Context,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 4 (2006): 32.

[4] Witherington, “What Jesus Literate? Part Three.”

[5] Evans, “Jewish Scripture,” 50; J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 314.

[6] Evans, “Jewish Scripture,” 50. Note that the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles of the Hebrew text are three books, not six. Evans refers to R.T. France’s work Jesus and the Old Testament for a complete listing of Jesus’ quotations and references to the OT. See R.T France, Jesus and the Old Testament: His Application of Old Testament Passages to Himself and His Mission (London: Tyndale, 1971), 259-63.

[7] Evans, “Jewish Scripture,” 48.

[8] Ibid.

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