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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

Was any of what is written in the New Testament written when Jesus was alive, and if so by whom?

Vivian

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