Could Jesus Read? Part 4: The Implications of an Illiterate Jesus

In the previous three posts, we have considered whether Jesus could read at some basic level. We have concluded from a brief historical investigation and from the Old and New Testaments that Jesus could in fact read. In this post, however, I would like to draw out some implications of the view that Jesus was actually illiterate as opposed to literate.

First, it seems to me that if Jesus could not read and the Jewish leaders knew this, then the leaders whom Jesus often challenged missed numerous opportunities to undermine Jesus’ authority, and thus were mere fools. As noted in the previous post, Jesus often asked the Pharisees, “Have you never read?” If Jesus could not read, this would have been a great opportunity for the Pharisees to point this out. They were, after all, the educated religious elite of their time and would have enjoyed undermining Jesus’ authority. But they never called his bluff; it was taken for granted that Jesus knew what he was talking about because he had read Scripture.

Interestingly, the NT records that the Pharisees actually took it as a fact that Jesus was educated (which would include reading): “How has this man become learned, having never been educated?” they asked (John 7:15). This question reveals that the Pharisees recognized Jesus was indeed educated in scriptural matters in a way that was quite above the typical training. (It also shows that they were unaware of who his teacher—rabbi—was.) In light of this, it follows that if Jesus was illiterate, then the Pharisees had actually been deceived—Jesus only appeared to be educated in some way but was not. This makes Jesus a good deceiver; he simply put on a good show of literacy. Jesus was so sly as to deceive well educated Pharisees that he, too, could read. But to attribute deception to Jesus is unconscionable.

Second, if Jesus could not read, then the NT writers made false claims, Luke in particular. Luke specifically says that Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:16). If this claim is false, then only two possibilities may be considered in regard to Luke’s claim: either Luke intentionally lied or Luke simply made a mistake.  In the first case, Luke’s integrity would be severely compromised. As such, he cannot be trusted to give a reputable account of Jesus and his life.  But we know from other considerations that Luke’s written works (Luke and Acts) are very accurate historically. For example, Luke records numerous details that have been confirmed by other historical sources, like the names of local politicians (e.g., Luke 3:1-2), local weather patterns (Acts 17:14-17), and even the correct depth of water about a quarter mile off Malta (Acts 27:27-28). These things reflect that Luke was a good historian, concerned about getting things correctly and accurately. He was not a deceptive man, one who would intentionally lie.

The only explanation that remains is that Luke simply made a mistake about Jesus reading the scroll. But this does not appear to be the case for a few reasons. As already mentioned, Luke records numerous details that have been confirmed historically. He was a man who took great care in his research. As even Luke said himself, “it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order” (Luke 1:2). In fact, historian Colin Hemer delineates no less than 84 facts in the last sixteen chapters of Acts alone that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological research (see his book The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History).

More importantly, however, is that the claim that Luke “just made a mistake” severely undermines the theological teaching of inerrancy, or the inspiration of Scripture. Inerrancy is the idea that Scripture has not erred in what it purports, i.e., the Bible is correct in everything it says. What is relevant in the current discussion is that Luke, because he was the writer of Scripture (Luke and Acts), did not err when he claimed that Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah. Those who claim that Luke made a mistake, therefore, would be denying the Christian doctrine of inerrancy. When this doctrine is denied, the very foundation for the Christian’s knowledge of God and his work becomes suspect, with no certainty with what is true or false in Scripture. The best one could do to determine what is true in Scripture is a fallible educated guess. At worst, mere subjective opinion would be the measuring rod for what is true. Ultimately, what results is doctrinal relativism, existential or mystical faith, or even agnosticism. It seems, therefore, that Luke told the truth when he wrote that Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah.

There is one final important point to be made before leaving this discussion about the literacy of Jesus. The idea that Jesus was illiterate is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to undermining the authority of Scripture. The argument that 97% of first-century Palestinian Jews were illiterate is not only used to argue that Jesus was illiterate but also that the writers of the New Testament were illiterate (except for Paul, of course, since it’s a little too obvious that he was educated). It logically follows, then, that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and others most probably did not actually write the books associated with their names in the NT (because they would have also been illiterate). We are thus at a loss as to who wrote much of the NT. Were they contrived documents from the minds of con-artists? How do we know?

In fact, following this line of thought, it is possible (and it has been argued) that the NT documents have no correlation at all to history and that whoever wrote the NT documents did not have the goal of recording the words and actions of the Jesus of history. For example, one writer actually argues that John did not write his gospel to convey the actual words and actions of Jesus because no one would have been able to read anyway. So, the book of John was written for an entirely different purpose. Such ideas as these do violence to the veracity and trustworthiness of Scripture, not to mention undermining its divine authority.

In closing, it seems clear that the argument for an illiterate Jesus has grave implications for the doctrine of Scripture. The trustworthiness of Scripture is undermined by attacking the literacy of Jesus (and others by implication). By ascribing error to the NT text, especially Luke 4:16, the NT becomes a mere human fallible document, susceptible to all human frailties, such as errors, misunderstandings, bad memory, and biases like all other documents. But Scripture is not like all other documents that may have some truth mixed with error. It purports and other historical evidence shows that Scripture is indeed an infallible witness to God and his work. Therefore, the hypothesis of an illiterate Jesus must be denied.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

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