Was Jesus Literate?

This entire reflection on the star of Bethlehem seems to be based on a concordant readings of Matthew’s infancy narrative. From a historical lens, it is most likely that Matthew and Luke attempt to get Jesus of Nazareth to Bethlehem via conflicting stories. There is very little in the Birth narratives of Jesus that look like historical narration.

This is why so many conservatives have trouble with an old earth. They read Genesis 1 -11 the same way this article is reading Mathew’s infancy narrative. Experts tell conservatives both readings are wrong. They dismiss both experts. It seems many Christian evolutionists will cherry pick what is historical and what is not. Conservatives see right through this. Now sure, scientific consensus is stronger than historical consensus but it’s still there. And sure there are potential astronomical candidates in the most commonly suggested decade for Jesus’s birth but none that accurately fit the Bible’s descriptions and we now know stars can’t settle over a house and they don’t behave as described. They can’t fall to the earth either. The earth isn’t immutable and thoughts don’t originate in our kidneys. Etc.,etc etc. We know now, just as we do about Genesis1-3, this story is based on mistaken cosmogony.

Matthew is looking backwards and ascribing a most wonderful birth to Jesus almost a century after the fact. Whatever actually happened we cannot know. We have two highly supernatural stories that contradict on details, are filled his astronomical and historical errors, entire streams of NT thought are entirely oblivious to this most wonderful miracle (even demons call him Jesus of Nazareth and Mark may very well have Jesus adopted at baptism), that shows up very late in the tradition with competing (highly theological) genealogies through Joseph, Luke describes Mary’s purification rituals poorly despite conservatives claiming he is using her story, history is silent on the massacre of the innocents despite Josephus parading the insanity of Herod, many other figures were given virgin births—some while alive and I’m assuming, like me, other Christian’s reject these out of hand—just as they do the other birth stories about Jesus outside the Canon). I’m sure someone can try a divide and conquer harmonization. Eusebius did so long ago. It’s all “baby dinosaurs on the ark.”

This might be hard, especially at Christmas time but imagine what conservatives think when told the Bible is not correct in how it describes creation. I personally accept the virgin birth of Jesus based on Church testimony and creed. Μuch the same way I do some form of inspiration. It is a faith based position.

Christmas is a time to celebrate the incarnation. We can read Matthew and Luke and wonder how a baby born in a backwater hamlet of Galilee, where idiom suggests nothing good could come from, a baby who grew into an inconsequential and probably illiterate woodworker that was crucified as a criminal by Rome was given the honor of such wondrous birth tales. How? Why? How indeed! Easter helps with the answer.

Wondering about the star of Bethlehem is like wondering what type of snake was in Eden.


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Mightn’t this suggest otherwise: The Boy Jesus at the Temple?

That is part of the infancy narrative. Doesn’t another story tell us of the boy Jesus killing a bird? Jesus reads Isaiah from a scroll somewhere as well. That can form a stronger argument but is inconclusive.

There is nothing outlandish about Jesus having some functional literacy but Christians shouldn’t be mortified if their Lord and Savior couldn’t read and write or barely could do so. In that culture and honestly, throughout most of world history, that was the norm. We are a society stepped in literacy and writing. As Walton points out so well, the ancient world was an oral, hearing dominant world filled with mostly illiterate people. Jesus engaged in Torah discussion with the best of them. Illiterate does not mean ignorant like the connotation it carries today. Literacy would not have served Jesus back then the way it would today.

He lowered himself to be a human: that doesn’t mean he had to be the tallest, strongest, most athletic and most intelligent ever. He is like us in every way but sin.

Christians can, of course, point to him being portrayed as reading from a scroll as evidence of this. I think that’s about the extent of the case.

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“It is written…”

An illiterate person can know what is written in the Bible. That is an absurd response.

Edited to add, not to mention that is another account not lending itself to a wooden literalism as there is an ancient and incorrect cosmogony behind it. Earth is round. You can’t see all its kingdoms if you go up high.

So absurd when he quotes it verbatim, Isaiah and Deuteronomy. It makes absolutely no sense at all – you must be right.

As noted, an illiterate person can be well versed in the Bible. That is as most of world history. People couldn’t afford “complete bibles” nor could they read them. They didn’t have 5 different versions or the ability to access them on their phones. They knew what was written in their sacred scripture without being able to read it.

You have offered nothing in response. Maybe you could try having a proof-text hunt battle with our resident yec. It does nothing for me.

Of course I did. I stand by my point. Jesus could refer to what is written in Torah like anyone. Or it’s also possible the Greek writers writing about Jesus projected literacy back on to him because they were embarrassed by it like some today. I’m not and have no stake in this game. Literate or not He is Lord. Just like Mark suggests Jesus talks about wives divorcing their husbands which makes very little sense in a 30s Jewish milieu. If Mark adapts or assumes Jesus’s teaching to his audience’s context it makes more sense.

I would suggest that carpenters were upper middle class, that Mary could read and that both Mary and Joseph could do business accounts and could read Roman proclamations.

I am wrong about many things and open to evidence always. I also can’t explain millions of things. I have already professed ignorance as to what actually happened at the time of Jesus’s birth. If anyone is unopen to change or evidence, it’s the person I am talking to. Why can’t a person in an oral dominant culture that hears scripture spoken over and over again refer to what is written in a text without being able to read? Grace me with your argument.


That is good enough for me.

Which is why I noted th

Now the whole family can read? Based on what evidence? Does upper middle class (whatever that is in antiquity) require reading? All that would be needed for a carpenter are a few functional skills.


Which is the verse I referenced 20 posts ago. And this doesn’t explain how or why the whole family is now literate and upper middle class. Jesus is starting to look a lot like me. Was he white as well?

Jesus could find the place in the scroll and read it. That is the point, and as reported by Luke, no dummy himself apparently.

If he trained under a rabbi, which would not be unusual, he might well have been able to read the Hebrew Torah but not Greek. I suspect most tradesmen could read and write enough Greek to make simple lists or keep accounts but little else. Of course, there was really nothing else to read back then for the common people.


And of course Isaiah was not in the Torah but the Tanakh.

Which is why after you mentioned the boy Jesus in the temple I immediately went and pointed to that verse. I said I do not find it conclusive. It is the strongest single piece of evidence outside of his general “exegetical prowess” evinced throughout the Gospel record.

Meier writes (V1 Marginal)

If Jesus had been raised as an aristocratic intellectual in Rome or Ath- ens, or even in Jerusalem, it would be easier to speculate on the nature of his education and the level of literacy he achieved. However, he grew up in Nazareth, an insignificant village in the hills of Lower Galilee, a village so obscure that it is never mentioned in the OT, Josephus, Philo, or the early literature of the rabbis or the OT pseudepigrapha." Hence it is hard to decide what, if any, formal education would have been available to Jesus in such an environment. To put the question more bluntly: Could Jesus read or write? That he was an effective teacher is clear. But in an oral culture, one could theoretically be an effective teacher, especially of ordinary peasants, without engaging in reading or writing. So the question remains: Was Jesus literate or illiterate?

He then discusses three texts: John 8:6; John 7:15; and Luke 4:16-30.

John 8:6 is and inconclusive and tells us little. We have no idea what Jesus wrote or drew in the ground. Meier continues:

The second text proposed as proof of Jesus’ literacy is at least an original part of John’s Gospel. It presents “the Jews” who are gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of tabernacles marveling at Jesus and asking: “How does this fellow know Scripture when he has not studied?” (John 7:15). Actually, the phrase translated here as “know Scripture” could simply mean “know how to read” (grammata oiden). But the general context of the Jews’ question-Jesus’ disputing with the Jewish authori- ties (e.g., Chapters 5 and IO)-involves not his basic literacy but rather his use of Scripture in theological argumentation." Hence the demean- ing reference in 7:15 is not to Jesus’ failure to learn his ABCs but to his lack of formal education in Scripture under the guidance of some noted scholar-no doubt in Jerusalem! Interestingly, the comment, though hostile in the context of John 7, does reflect the general state of affairs presented throughout the Four Gospels: although Jesus never studied formally under any great rabbi, he was adept in the use of Scripture- which would seem to argue for more than a beginner’s knowledge of reading. Of the three NT texts proposed, this one at least provides some indirect basis for supposing that Jesus could read and comment on the Hebrew Scriptures.

On the third and most definitive text if true, Meier writes:

However, the sources and the historicity of the narrative in this pe-ricope are disputed. Some exegetes consider Luke’s scene a tradition from his special “L” source and hence an independent verification of
what the other Gospel traditions tell us about Jesus’ return to and preaching in Nazareth." However, it is also possible that Luke 4:16-30 simply represents Luke’s imaginative and colorful reworking of Jesus’ preaching and rejection at Nazareth as recounted in Mark 6:1-6a. A middle ground is also possible: the pericope shows Luke’s acquaintance with Mark, but some important elements come from Luke’s special source." Certainly the Lucan pericope is loaded with Lucan motifs; the highly symbolic scene functions as a programmatic preview of the course of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, resulting in the proc- lamation of the good news to the Gentiles." The clear presence of Luke’s redactional hand makes one wary.

Which is why I said in my first response to you: “Jesus reads Isaiah from a scroll somewhere as well. That can form a stronger argument but is inconclusive.”

Meier thinks Jesus possessed some form of literacy:

Being the firstborn son,“9 Jesus would have been the special object of Joseph’s attention, not only in the practical matter of teaching the son the father’s trade!” but also in teaching the son the religious traditions and texts of Judaism.13I To be sure, in a strongly oral culture,‘" a great deal could have been conveyed by word-of-mouth catechesis and memo- rization. Yet Jesus’ reported skill in debating interpretations of Scrip- ture and halaka with pious Pharisees, professional scribes, and Jerusa- lem authorities in both synagogue and temple would argue for some reading knowledge of the sacred texts, a reading knowledge imparted either directly by Joseph or by some more learned Jew procured for the purpose. Apart from Joseph, the most likely conduit of an education would be the synagogue at Nazareth, which could also have served as a sort of religious “elementary school.”'" If indeed Jesus did receive his first scriptural formation in the Nazareth synagogue, one can well un- derstand the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the return of the adult Jesus to that same synagogue to teach his peers and elders (Mark 6:1-00 parr.). The reaction of “Who does he think he is?” becomes quite understandable.134

Meier continues:

To sum up: individual texts from the Gospels prove very little about the literacy of Jesus. Instead, it is an indirect argument from converging lines of probability that inclines us to think that Jesus was in fact liter- ate. As we have seen, general considerations about 1st-century Palestin- ian Judaism, plus the consistent witness of many different streams of Gospel tradition about Jesus’ teaching activity, plus the indirect evi- dence from John 7;15 make it likely that Jesus could both read the He- brew Scriptures and engage in disputes about their meaning. He there- fore enjoyed a fair degree of literacy in Hebrew and-a fortiori- Aramaic, the language he usually spoke.'" Thus, even if Luke 4;16-30 were totally a redactional reworking of Mark 6;I-6a, it would still be “true” in the sense that it depicts accurately the “sort of thing” Jesus did during his public ministry. It is sobering to realize, though, how here, as so often in Jesus research, we reach our conclusions not by direct, clear· cnt, indisputable texts, but rather by indirect arguments, inference, and converging lines of probability.

The natural conclusion from all this is that, sometime during his childhood or early adulthood, Jesus was taught how to read and ex- pound the Hebrew Scriptures. This most likely happened–or at least began-in the synagogue at Nazareth. Yet there is no indication of higher studies at some urban center such as Jerusalem, and indeed this seems explicitly denied in John 7;15. One therefore has to allow for a high degree of natural talent-perhaps even genius-that more than compensated for the low level of Jesus’ formal education.'"

He may be right but I don’t find his case convincing. Blind historical probability pushes us in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary to think he probably could not read but offers no way of demonstrating such. It does not have the tools needed to dissect history so finely.

Have a good afternoon,


It sounds like Jesus deceived a lot of people into thinking he was literate.

Have a good afternoon,



Dale :grin:

They called him ‘Rabbi’ didn’t they? Or were those who did necessarily illiterate?

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Such may be the logical conclusion of treating the gospels with a wooden literalism as concordant historical narration. Or it may not. I am not following you and I don’t read them that way. The argument is Luke rewrote a part of Mark presenting a literate Jesus. I already said earlier this is a genuine possibility. The only people Jesus ever deceived were his brothers in John 7 when he lied to them.

The Unbelief of Jesus’s Brothers

7 After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. 2 Now the Jewish Festival of Booths[a] was near. 3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing, 4 for no one who wants[b] to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 (For not even his brothers believed in him.) 6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. 8 Go to the festival yourselves. I am not[c] going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee.

Jesus at the Festival of Booths

10 But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but, as it were,[d] in secret.

Of course, that is not a problem for me because John’s redactional hand is all over it.