Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Was Jesus Literate?

Craig Evans has published another study online discussing the issue of Jesus' literacy. See: Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus - C. A. Evans and W. H. Brackney (eds.), From Biblical Criticism to Biblical Faith (Mercer University Press, 2007) 41-54.
Skimming through it, it's a helpful response to the work of P. F. Craffert and P. J. J. Botha, “Why Jesus Could Walk on the Sea but He Could Not Read and Write,” Neot 39 (2005): 5-35. Botha argue for the illiteracy of Jesus in the fourth part of his paper, under the heading “Was Jesus Literate?” (pp. 21-32). Evans response, is to that section of the paper.
As usual, Evans doesn't waste time and his familiarity with the material and the context in which Jesus was raised, lived and what the determining factors are, remain almost unmatched. The article assumes a knowledge of Greek, so either brush up or learn it, or just skip over. Another excellent offering from the mind of one of the greatest NT scholars alive.


Josh McManaway said...

I think it makes a good deal of sense that Jesus could read. Not being an expert (so I may very well be wrong), I believe literacy rates in Jewish culture were considerably higher than than those of their peers, simply because written Scripture played such a pivotal point in the Jewish life.

Also, Jesus reads from Isaiah in Luke 4:17. Jesus' ability to read is there, but not overstated (as we would expect if it were legendary).

Eric said...

How did Jesus read from a text written after he died?

All of the discussions about the Real Historical Jesus, looked at from 2010 years later, miss the point of his upbringing, as best we know it from a technical and scholarly point of view, which places an emphasis on verifiable evidence.

The forensics to date, unacknowledged by the commentators I have read, miss that Jesus is acknowledged to have been the son of a carpenter. He was not raised from virgin birth to his crucifiction without existential experience, and at the center of that would have been his exposure to a carpenter's life, and his workshoo. If that is true, then he would have, as I did, absorb from direct experience the importance os measurement with all the tools and equipment available. He would have discussed, as I did with my father, a master carpenter, the processes of measurement and marking objects for cutting, planing and sawing. He would have learned to write certain words related to carpentry, which Joseph would have done as part of his craft.

While there is no direct evidence for anyone of this -- thus reinforcing the general assumption of paucity of forensic evidence -- it seems clear to me that the significant pool of comment about Jesus' literacy requires reconsideration in light of his evident early life as baby, child, boy and teenager and then young adult and full adult.

To say he suffered none of these stages is to make an extreme statement. That statement would not, at least in my view, stand up to examination.

Jesus was literate, no doubt about it. His father would have made sure, as discussion with his mother in the kitchen/living room/bedroom reality of existence would reinforce, as he was read to and started reading and writing, that he was literature. In fact, he would have been, by the time he began as a preacher of any kind, well educated in the basic arguments of existence. He would be literate and able to read. He would have known about 'retoric' -- the use of language for purpose.

Eric Ross Green

Anonymous said...

Literacy in the Time of Jesus - Could His Words Have Been Recorded in His Lifetime? by Professor Alan Ralph Millard & Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus by Professor Craig A. Evans

My onw work on Apologetics and Biblical Research has thrown up some interesting Articles of which "Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus by Professor Craig A. Evans" is only one. The second Artticle (found here; http://web.archive.org/web/20070824082814/http://www.basarchive.org/sample/bswbBrowse.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=29&Issue=4&ArticleID=4)
provides evidence that it is not implausible that our Lord's words as recorded in the Gospels could have been recorded in his lifetime, (challenging the assumption that oral tradition was the only way of transmitting our Lord's ipsa verba [very words] in the beginning of the Church).

Finding these Articles came out of my questioning the claim by Timothy Beal in his Book "The Rise and Fall of the Bible" Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2011, page 99, where the author cites the statistic that between 10% and 20% in the Greco-Roman population were literate, illustrating "an oral scriptural culture". There are of course many other issues I have with this book, but my interest was initially over this particular claim.

An academic essay (M. Bar-Ilan, 'Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries C.E.', S. Fishbane, S. Schoenfeld and A. Goldschlaeger (eds.), Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society, II, New York: Ktav, 1992, pp. 46-61. found here: http://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/illitera.html) puts the rate of literacy as less than 3%. However the authors relied upon Rabbinic sources; "rabbinic sources support evidence that the literacy rate was less than 3%." - There is a problem in that these sources are post the destruction of Jerusalem, and the dislocation to national life. Also the injunction to study the Law is ignored by the Authors. The authors do acknowledge that their given percentage might be raised - by examining male literacy only, as girls were not educated to the same level as boys, and take into account pragmatic literacy - learn to read only the words you need to know - see footnote 29. Of course other studies take issue with their findings, such as Professor Maurice Casey who questions the 3% in his book "Jesus of Nazareth, An independent historian's account of his life and teaching" T & T Clark International 2010, page 159, where he calls the essay "a regrettable article". Casey outlines the requirement within Judaism to learn and recite passages from the Torah (page 160).

My own feelings (in line with Casey's well argued case) were that for Jews and Christian Jews of the first century the injunction to learn and meditate upon the Law, promoted literacy. The Testimony of both Josephus and Philo, is that the education of children was part and parcel of Judaism. Therefore literacy would be high. My feelings (based on a reading of the OT, and such as Josephus and Philo) are one thing, but to have other academic corroboration is another (such as Casey's book and the Articles attached). Dr Michael Foster FRSM, MCIJ.