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Was Jesus literate? Jesus speaking with The Twelve Apostles             Source: Domenico Ghirlandaio / Public domain

Ancient Texts Strongly Suggest Jesus was Literate and Multilingual

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The gospels do not provide definitive evidence of the language spoken by the historical Jesus of Nazareth . There is evidence in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:41-51) that suggests Jesus, despite having a humble upbringing, did have a good education and even at a young age had an excellent understanding of Jewish scripture. Jesus lived in the Roman Province of Judea during the early first century A.D. when it was already an ethnically and linguistically diverse area. It is estimated that only 5-10% of Judea's population in the first century was literate (Holmén and Porter, 2011: pp.221). And while evidence suggest Jesus was literate it is highly unlikely that any of Jesus's disciples were literate.

The lingua franca of Judea and the surrounding areas was Aramaic, a Semitic language still spoken by small communities in Israel today. Most historians and Biblical scholars agree that Jesus and his disciples spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Aramaic words are even present in English translations of the New Testament , adding to the assumption that they were Aramaic in origin.

There is also evidence from the gospels that Jesus was bilingual. The Gospel of Luke (4:16-24) recounts how Christ visited a synagogue and read a passage from the Torah. The verse below implies that Jesus could read and understand Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, which is not mutually intelligible with Aramaic. Some scholars have also argued that he could even speak some Greek (e.g. Barr, 1970). An understanding of Greek would also explain the lengthy conversations Jesus had with Pontius Pilate. Greek (along with Latin) was the administrative and legal language in the eastern provinces of the empire.

16Then Jesus came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. As was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. And when He stood up to read, 17the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it was written: 18 " The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor…

-Gospel of Luke (4:16-24)

Biblical illustration of Gospel of Luke Chapter 4, which suggests Jesus was literate (Jim Padgett / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Biblical illustration of Gospel of Luke Chapter 4, which suggests Jesus was literate (Jim Padgett / CC-BY-SA 3.0 )

New Testament Passages Imply Jesus Could Write

Passages from the New Testament also suggest that Jesus could write. For example, in John 8: 3-9, a group of Jewish priests dragged a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asked if they should stone her for such a crime as commanded by Moses. This was a very clever trap. If Jesus agreed, then he will be contradicting his teachings of love and forgiveness. Likewise, if he disagreed, then he would be violating the Jewish law and contradicting one of God's prophets. To avoid the trap, Jesus calmly wrote something on the ground before saying the famous line " he who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." After hearing this, the priests and the crowd realised that they were all equally sinful and left the woman alone.

3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the centre of the court, 4they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?"… But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground … "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." 8Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.

Gospel of John (8: 3-9)

It is not recorded in the Gospels or even in Gnostic texts what Jesus wrote on the ground. Because the gospels did not record what Jesus wrote implies that the disciples were illiterate or at the very least could not read the language Jesus was using.

Although this story is one of the most popular in the New Testament, even appearing as a flashback in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, where the unnamed woman is incorrectly identified as Mary Magdalene . However, this passage is not useful in the reconstruction of the historical Jesus, as many scholars have questioned the authenticity of the verses.

Christ taking leave of the Apostles from the Gospel of John (Public domain)

Christ taking leave of the Apostles from the Gospel of John ( Public domain )

This story is not found in our oldest copies of the Gospel of John and is absent from Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75 (both written around 200 A.D.). The story is also not found in the Codex Sinaiticus or Codex Vaticanus (written in the 300s AD). To date, the oldest copy of this story comes from the Codex Bezae written in the fifth century AD.

Evidence From Outside the Bible Also Indicates Jesus was Literate

A third example which may imply that Jesus was literate comes from outside the Bible and may even have been written by Jesus himself. The correspondence between Abgar V of Edessa and Jesus of Nazareth is amongst the most interesting areas of early Christian scholarship. Abgar was King of Osroene in the early first century AD. Abgar is remembered as one of the first Christian kings, perhaps even during Jesus's lifetime, after being converted by Thaddeus of Edessa, one of the Seventy Disciples. The letter of reply from Jesus to Abgar is hugely important to biblical scholars as, if it is authentic, it would be the only document written by the historical Jesus that has survived to the present.

"Abgar, ruler of Edessa, to Jesus the good physician who has appeared in the country of Jerusalem, greeting. I have heard the reports of you and of your cures as performed by you without medicines or herbs. For it is said that you make the blind to see and the lame to walk, that you cleanse lepers and cast out impure spirits and demons, and that you heal those afflicted with lingering disease, and raise the dead. And having heard all these things concerning you, I have concluded that one of two things must be true: either you are God, and having come down from heaven you do these things, or else you, who does these things, are the son of God…

Letter by King Adgar V

To this Jesus replied:

"Blessed are you who hast believed in me without having seen me. For it is written concerning me, that they who have seen me will not believe in me, and that they who have not seen me will believe and be saved. But in regard to what you have written me, that I should come to you, it is necessary for me to fulfil all things here for which I have been sent, and after I have fulfilled them thus to be taken up again to him that sent me. But after I have been taken up, I will send to you one of my disciples, that he may heal your disease and give life to you and yours."

Inscribed letters of Abgarus V and Jesus, Ashmolean Museum reproduction, suggests Jesus was literate (Gts-tg / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Inscribed letters of Abgarus V and Jesus, Ashmolean Museum reproduction, suggests Jesus was literate (Gts-tg / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The account of this correspondence enjoyed great popularity during the Middle Ages . However, the authenticity of the letter is debatable. The earliest known example comes from the writing of the bishop Eusebius in the fourth century AD. He only claimed to have seen a copy and the Catholic church (except for the Syrian and Armenian Apostolic churches) has never considered it authentic. The letters, according to Bart Ehrman (2013: pp. 455), may have arisen during an anti-Manichaen campaign (Manicaeism was a Persian dualist religion in the third century AD) by orthodox Christians in Edessa. The Church could have used the Abgar correspondence as a counter forgery designed to undercut the claims of the Manichaen religion.

If Jesus Was Literate, Why Didn’t He Write More?

Two of the three pieces of evidence (John 8:3-9 and the letter to Abgar) that suggest Jesus was literate are thought to be later traditions dating to the fourth and fifth centuries AD. The only source that can be used to reconstruct a picture of the historical Jesus is Luke 4: 16-24. Therefore, based on evidence from the Bible, Jesus probably was literate. He could read and write.

But one question remains. If Jesus of Nazareth, the son of a carpenter, was part of the elite literate population of Judea, then why didn’t he write anything down? The answer is simple: he did not need to. He may have been one of the 5-10% who could read and write, but he was preaching to the 95%. Jesus spoke through his actions as well as his voice, whether it be overturning tables in the temple or dying on the cross, his audience – at least in the early days of Christianity – did not need written prose to believe in him.

Top image: Was Jesus literate? Jesus speaking with The Twelve Apostles             Source: Domenico Ghirlandaio / Public domain

By Jack Wilkin

References

Barr, J. (1970). Which Language Did Jesus Speak? -Some Remark of a Semitist. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 53(1): 9-29.

Ehrman, B. D. (2005). Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperCollins: New York.

Ehrman, B. D. (2012). Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth . HarperOne: New York.

Ehrman, B. D. (2013). Forgery and Counter-forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics . Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Holmén, T. & Porter, S.E. (2011). Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus . Brill: Boston. ( Available Here )

TREY the Explainer (2020). 10 Changes Made to the Bible (Part 2 of 2). Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX62bRIG-OI&t=163s

Uncovered (2018). Did Jesus' Writings Survive? Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kja9SF3pqGk&t=113s

Comments

Hello Mr. Wilkin,

All I can say on this Biblical Subject is the Gospel of John In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God He was in the Beginning with God All Thing's were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was Life, and the Life was the Light of Men. And the Light Shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.

That Bible verse reminds me of Genesis Chapter 11 in the days After the Great Flood the children of Ham, Shem, and Japheth came together to build this Great Tower (actually this is the first recording of mass OCD) people were so consumed with the building of this Tower that they forgot to eat they forgot to sleep if people died while adding more stone more bricks and pillars people wouldn't bury the dead.

That's when God and the Word comes down comes down to observe the building process of the Tower and that's when God changes the only language spoken on Earth which was Hebrew by the way became Many Languages the Tower of Babel was then left undone because the people could not finish the Tower of Babel.

Since Christ in the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God; then Christ able to speak everybodies language, is no surprise to me.

Although, I don't agree with your assessment about the Education of Christ's Disciples. The thing to remember at that time in Bible History everybody was waiting for the Messiah to come they knew He would come from the Line of David but who in the line David was it wasn't exactly known.

What follows is then The Teachers of the Law Pharisees and Sadducess to whom John the Baptists referred to in The Gospel of Matthew as Brood of Vipers were teaching a rather distorted view of what the Messiah would be like it took Christ 3 in a half years to un-teach his Disciples everything that the Pharisees had taught the Disciples. The Disciples on their part didn't get all of it until Christ Ascended in to Heaven what his Mission truly was for the People of the Earth.

Christ Disciples were educated Levi Matthew was a Tax Collector for the Roman Empire He made a fortunate being a Tax Collector but he was unhappy with all his wealth so when Christ comes to Him and says Follow Me without hesitation Matthew gets up and follows Christ through Matthew we have what The Gospel of Matthew.

Then there's the Son's of Thunder James and John the Son's of Zebedee when Jesus says Follow Me and I will make you Fishers of Men they leave the fishing business with their father and Servants their own mother angers the rest of the Disciples when she asks of Christ if her son's could sit in the Kingdom with Christ on his left and right hand.

My point is that they were all educated Christ's Disciples education even today is still very important in Jewish Orthodox families even today. Nicodemus high education Joseph of Aramathea highly educated and of course Apostle Paul a Rhoades Scholar and Roman Citizenship He was Born in Tararus, Turkey, the only tool at Apostle Paul's disposal.

Obviously it was the only shield that all the other Disciples did not have but God still protected them as they preached the Gospel of the Risen Savior and his Promise to Us that He would Soon Return.

Hello Mr. Wilkin,

All I can say on this Biblical Subject is the Gospel of John In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God He was in the Beginning with God All Thing's were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was Life, and the Life was the Light of Men. And the Light Shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.

That Bible verse reminds me of Genesis Chapter 11 in the days After the Great Flood the children of Ham, Shem, and Japheth came together to build this Great Tower (actually this is the first recording of mass OCD) people were so consumed with the building of this Tower that they forgot to eat they forgot to sleep if people died while adding more stone more bricks and pillars people wouldn't bury the dead.

That's when God and the Word comes down comes down to observe the building process of the Tower and that's when God changes the only language spoken on Earth which was Hebrew by the way became Many Languages the Tower of Babel was then left undone because the people could not finish the Tower of Babel.

Since Christ in the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God; then Christ able to speak everybodies language, is no surprise to me.

Although, I don't agree with your assessment about the Education of Christ's Disciples. The thing to remember at that time in Bible History everybody was waiting for the Messiah to come they knew He would come from the Line of David but who in the line David was it wasn't exactly known.

What follows is then The Teachers of the Law Pharisees and Sadducess to whom John the Baptists referred to in The Gospel of Matthew as Brood of Vipers were teaching a rather distorted view of what the Messiah would be like it took Christ 3 in a half years to un-teach his Disciples everything that the Pharisees had taught the Disciples. The Disciples on their part didn't get all of it until Christ Ascended in to Heaven what his Mission truly was for the People of the Earth.

Christ Disciples were educated Levi Matthew was a Tax Collector for the Roman Empire He made a fortunate being a Tax Collector but he was unhappy with all his wealth so when Christ comes to Him and says Follow Me without hesitation Matthew gets up and follows Christ through Matthew we have what The Gospel of Matthew.

Then there's the Son's of Thunder James and John the Son's of Zebedee when Jesus says Follow Me and I will make you Fishers of Men they leave the fishing business with their father and Servants their own mother angers the rest of the Disciples when she asks of Christ if her son's could sit in the Kingdom with Christ on his left and right hand.

My point is that they were all educated Christ's Disciples education even today is still very important in Jewish Orthodox families even today. Nicodemus high education Joseph of Aramathea highly educated and of course Apostle Paul a Rhoades Scholar and Roman Citizenship He was Born in Tararus, Turkey, the only tool at Apostle Paul's disposal.

Obviously it was the only shield that all the other Disciples did not have but God still protected them as they preached the Gospel of the Risen Savior and his Promise to Us that He would Soon Return.

Thoth101's picture

The NT stories were written atleast 80 years after the supposed life of Jesus. It can be questioned whether the Bible Jesus even ever existed at all. There is still much debate on it. The fact is that it has been over 2,000 years and he has never returned. I think the NT story is mostly fictional. He didn’t write anything because he didn’t exist in the first place in my opinion.

Hello Curiouscat,

As a Bible Student I can say that majority of the writings in the New Testament including the Gnostic Gospels were written after the Ascension of Christ into Heaven Followed by his promise that He'll Return again.

Apostle Peter, John, Saul of Tartarus later Apostle Paul all wrote their Gospels and Epistles when they were in Prison and soon to be executed but, love ones of the Apostles visited the Prisoners it was then that the Gospels would be given to them who would continue on preaching The Gospel of the Risen Savior Jesus Christ and the promise of his Soon Return.

All honestly the only Bible Book apart of the Gnostic Gospels, I'm really skeptical about is Judas Iscariot.

Why? All of the Apostles as I said didn't write the Gospels and Epistles, until, after Christ ascended into Heaven; in the Book of Acts written by the beloved Physician, Luke yes author of the Gospel of Luke.

Christ Disciples met to discuss who would replace Judas as a twelfth Disciple and so chose Stephen the Martyr to replace Judas unlike Judas Stephen died for Truth of the Gospel in 34 A.D. due to the Fact that Judas after Christ was arrested the Teachers of the Law and their temple guards with His Assistance committed Suicide.

Judas body by the way Separated from Judas' Head when he hung himself. On the other hand if Judas had written something it might have been a Suicide note and the Teachers of the Law might have expanded on the suicide note to suit their interest.

Which is why The teachers of the Law the Pharisees bought that field with the 30 pieces of Silver to bury Foreigners there.

I'm a Bible Student and I've both been read to, preached to, during Bible Study and have read the Bible all by myself going back to when I was 3 years old and now.

I know that the New Testament Writings didn't happen until after Christ Ascended into Heaven because it is right in the Bible after The Book of Acts there's the Book of Romans by Apostle Paul, The Epistle of 1st and 2nd Corinthians and so forth and so on you can see everybody addressing new believers in the Faith of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

I hope I answered your question right Curiouscat.

No, earliest writings in current new testament are ascribed to Paul.

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