Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Was Jesus literate? (or his followers?)

An ongoing debate in academia, this one. Was Jesus literate? Were any of his twelve disciples? What about the wider circle of his followers? Were they among the large percentage of people in ancient populations who could write their name? Probably some of them, at least, yes. But were any of them among the smaller percentage who could read at least basic official documents? Were any of them among the smaller percentage still who could read religious texts? Were any of them among the smaller percentage still who could write literature of a more than basic standard, such as the texts in the New Testament? In short, were these people above average for their time and place, that is, as Israelites in first century Jerusalem and Galilee and the region?

This is one of those questions assessed on the balance of probabilities, based on historical context and scraps of information. And what goes for one group might not go for another – each case has to be judged on its own merits on a case by case basis.

One of the points that I will be making is that Jesus especially, but also his disciples, are portrayed in the gospels (and Acts) as highly motivated people, and this in itself is not average performance, so we are not studying average people. This has a bearing on a number of individual points. 

Here are a generous ten points which might mean Jesus and/or the wider group of his disciples included some who were above average in their literacy.

1) One reason for being above average is that Jesus’ family had royal pretensions. This royal claim is attested in multiple sources. That Jesus was executed for claiming to be the ‘King of the Jews’ is virtually undisputed among scholars of antiquity. As such, actively claiming to be royalty, this family had a motive for maintaining higher standards, for being more literate than their average fellow Jews.

2) Luke claims that Jesus’ wider family – away from his home town of Nazareth - included a priest. If any weight is given to this, then that would increase the possibility of some literacy in the wider family – someone from whom knowledge could be acquired.

3) Jesus’ family in Nazareth, on the other hand, were not known for being learned. And Jesus had somehow acquired learning that differentiated him from his family and townsfolk. This means he had become above average compared to them. This didn’t just happen – there were reasons, but we don’t have direct access to know what they were. Here is the basis for thinking the Nazareth family was more humble - Mark 6:2-4 has Jesus’ townsfolk surprised at his religious teaching:

“And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” So they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.”

(There is a separate account in Luke's Gospel but I won't go into that now - I'm trying to keep this simple.)
Jesus was clearly exceeding their expectations, with verbal skills which surpassed the achievements of his family in Nazareth. Indeed, by calling himself a prophet, Jesus was himself claiming to be above average. This invites a possibility that his newly acquired skills included not only preaching the Jewish religion but also literacy. But how had Jesus come to be a teacher of religion and one that surpassed his townsfolk without local people knowing how he had done it? Since the gospels are silent on the years in-between Jesus’ childhood years and his ministry years, then we can only speculate, but it seems most probably that these years were the time in which he acquired his learning that so caused surprise. The Nazareth family’s uneducated background doesn’t explain it, even if they claimed to be royalty, but someone in the wider family of this aspirational group might – perhaps there is something in Luke’s claim that there was a priest in the family away from Nazareth. (Bart Ehrman suggests that the most likely person to have taught Jesus to read would be ‘the local leader of the local synagogue’, but that would leave the surprised reaction of the townsfolk unexplained. A teacher away from his own town therefore seems more likely.)

4) One of Jesus’ favourite sayings when debating with scribes was ‘have you not read?’ This is not in itself a claim by Jesus that he could read, but it invites the possibility. Otherwise, he made himself too vulnerable to the embarrassing rejoinder, “Well, we know you haven’t read, ignorant illiterate peasant!” every single time he used this saying. I think this point is insufficiently addressed in Chris Keith's book Jesus Against the Scribal Elite (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014). (Keith's argument is that with such statements, Jesus left an ambiguity about his ability, such that those of low education could have assumed Jesus was literate, and those of high education could have suspected that he was not. Keith leans towards the opinion that he was not.)

5) John 7-8 has Jesus making marks in the ground with his finger. To quote Bart Ehrman on this: “The oldest form of the text does read KATAGRAPHO, and that does appear to refer typically to actual writing (not doodling or drawing, e.g.,)” (Source: http://ehrmanblog.org/jesus-literacy-for-members/)

6) Jesus knew religious texts from memory. This means at a minimum that he had heard them and memorised them while listening – a common practice of learning in the ancient world. The person he was listening to had either memorised the texts, or was possibly reading them. That invites the possibility that Jesus – like anyone else who listened to texts being read in the ancient world – had access to one or more people who could read. As such, the potential for a person to learn to read existed – especially a highly motivated person in a family with royal pretensions, particularly a leader with aspirations to be ‘King of the Jews’ and planning to have disciples administering such a kingdom (see next point). This is not an average situation, and opportunities such as learning from someone who could read were unlikely to be overlooked by such as him.

7) Given that he was highly motivated and high royal aspirations, it is unlikely that Jesus, in choosing those closest to him, was looking for 'average'. For some time, Jesus’ followers believed that they would have prominent roles in the leadership and management of a reformed kingdom of Israel. As such, they would have been highly motivated to recruit into their group people who were literate enough to be able to play an active part in the new administration they expected to happen. Such aspirations were unimaginably silly if the group did not think of recruiting people with reasonable literacy. This was not a group with merely average expectations!

  • Such recruitment is attested to by Acts 6:7 which claims that “Even a large number of priests became obedient to the faith”.
  • A more famous example comes in Acts 15:22-23, which claims literacy by some present in the Jerusalem church in the 40s of the first century – disciples who were literate enough to write a letter (to be taken to churches where someone had the ability to read the letter): “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter…” Content of the letter is then set out in Acts 15.

8) It is widely attested that Jesus was regarded as a teacher, which means his group had an interest in learning – these were disciples actively, not passively so. Therefore some form of education was of interest to them. This was in particular religious teaching, which was informed by religious texts. This could have been informed by texts being heard by the group, but it does invite the possibility that some in the group could read religious texts themselves.

9) The known practice of scribal note-taking by followers of a rabbi is reflected in Jesus' saying in Matthew 13:52: "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old." Jesus thus equates scribes with his disciples (not that all disciples were scribes, but that some were, otherwise it would be redundant to speak of scribes who had become disciples). So, in the language of Jesus’ saying, a scribe’s treasure is his scribblings. Scribes, literate followers of Jesus, would have kept notes, their 'new treasure', of what their rabbi said. This is evidence of literacy among the wider group of Jesus’ disciples rather than among the twelve in particular. That would be in the 30s of the first century, according to the gospel text.

10) One of Jesus’ followers was a tax collector according to the gospels, and as such would have had at least enough basic literacy to do his job.

So from early on, this movement of family and disciples, with Jesus at their head, was highly motivated to have a measure of literacy in their group, and early textual sources attest to this being lived out in the wider group.

This in itself would not mean that any particular person in the group had the ability to write a document as sophisticated as one of the biblical gospels, but it does mean that some in the group surely had above average literacy, and could possibly include someone who could write something sophisticated.

Overall, what we have is a number of indicators of probabilities, with a little bit of evidence, mainly about the wider group, that some in this circle were highly motivated, certainly above average in their aspirations and, very possibly, in their literacy.

It is worth mentioning that Jesus will have set out to select apostles who would be capable of going out and preaching his message effectively. So he will definitely have hand-picked people whom he regarded as good communicators. This does not mean they were literate, but it does mean they were probably articulate. 

In addition, and this is difficult to measure and therefore unattractive to scholars, some people just have natural talent for communicating that exceeds whatever limited education they may have had. The same thing is remarked, but obviously to different degrees in the case of the peerless writing of Shakespeare (who likely had shortened schooling), the Beatles (they could not read or write music), or indeed the author of John's gospel (likely to have had very limited opportunities as a Galilean fisherman). We can't from this factor make a case for special pleading, but it does caution us to keep reasonably open minds. 

Sometimes cited as evidence against the literacy of some or all of Jesus' core group of disciples is Acts 4:13. Here, much ink is spilled over whether the Greek word used to describe them - ἀγράμματοί - should be translate as 'illiterate' (Douay-Rheims Bible), 'unschooled' (NIV) or to be interpreted as 'no special training in the Scriptures' (New Living Translation), and there are other suggestions. There is legitimate support for each of these possibilities. But actually, what is easily missed is that Acts could well be deliberately downplaying their degree of literacy as a tactic to imply, "Look, this movement must have its legitimate origin from God because nothing else but help from heaven can explain under-educated people speaking like educated people." This very tactic is used within Islamic apologetics to ascribe divine authority to Mohammed's words by claiming they are the educated-sounding utterances of an uneducated man, and thus surely from heaven. We should be a little bit wary of how keen Luke is to highlight the downplaying of the disciple's education, because Luke's agenda in so doing is to prove that God was on the disciples' side. The impression given by Luke's Acts is that the higher degrees of literacy are in the wider group of early Christians, not the core group. That is not to say that Luke is being untruthful, but that his choice of wording is ambiguous enough to leave us unsure. This is another point that I think is insufficiently addressed by Chris Keith's Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, although there is much in his book that very usefully sets out the data on this subject. So how literate where the disciples? The answer is that it is difficult to say!


To keep this short, I have left out questions such as what we mean by authorship in the case of the gospels. For example, would traditional authorship of, say, the apostle Matthew mean that Matthew wrote the text, or more or less dictated it, or rather supervised some or all of its writing by some literate followers? Each of these options would require higher or lower levels of sophistication of Matthew, but any of these would fit the traditional view. Whereas in the case of Luke's Gospel, where Luke is not one of the core group, it is easier to see him as one of the literate ones in the wider group. 

Appendix: average literary rates

Catherine Hezser has written about average literacy rates in the time and place:

“Although the exact literacy rate amongst ancient Jews cannot be determined, Meir Bar-Ilan’s suggestion that the Jewish literacy rate must have been lower than the literacy rate amongst Romans in the first centuries C.E. seems very plausible.

Whether the average literacy rate amongst Palestinian Jews was only 3 percent, as Bar-Ilan has reckoned,(footnote 1) or slightly higher, must ultimately remain open.

The question naturally depends on what one understands by “literacy.” If “literacy is determined as the ability to read documents, letters and “simple” literary texts in at least one language and to write more than one’s signature itself, it is quite reasonable to assume that the Jewish literacy rate was well below the 10-15 percent (of the entire population, including women) which Harris has estimated for Roman society in imperial times.(footnote 2)

If by “literacy” we mean the ability to read a few words and sentences and to write one’s own signature only, Jews probably came closer to the Roman average rate.

Whereas exact numbers can neither be verified nor falsified and are therefore of little historical value, for the following reasons the average Jewish literacy rate (of whatever degree) must be considered to have been lower than the average Roman rate.”

(Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001, 496). Taken from: http://www.strangenotions.com/bart-ehrmans-botched-source/

Three per cent of course means thousands of people in a populous region like first century Roman Judea and Galilee. 10-15% many more thousands still, but Hezser leans towards the smaller percentage in this case.

Part of the problem with the evidence is that there is so little to go on. This would be for at least two reasons: low literacy levels don’t produce abundant literary remains; and most ancient writings don’t survive to modern times. The survival rate for documents in first century Judea is particularly bad, not least because of the war there which destroyed Jerusalem in 70AD.

The question is whether any of Jesus' group numbered among the thousands, and some of the factors which may make this group exceptional have been set out.

1 comment:

  1. Was Jesus literate? On one occasion we read about Jesus being in the synagogue and being handed the scroll of Isaiah. He then "read" from it. Debate over. ^^the kings were required to write the law out by hand, and to read and study it. A tradition handed down from generation to generation. Hope this helped you. :)