How Did Jesus Learn to Read and Write? | Understanding Jesus
Was Jesus educated did he not know how to read and write? How was he educated and what proof is there if he was? Jesus grew up in the village of Nazareth, an obscure village not mentioned in the Old Testament. It is difficult to imagine any standard of formal education in such an underprivileged and meagre environment. So the question now is: did Jesus know how to read and write? Well just because Jesus was called a teacher didn’t necessarily mean he knew how to read and write, since, in such communities, which relied heavily on oral tradition as the means for transmitting knowledge, anyone could theoretically have become a teacher, as well as influential (even without prior education). Nevertheless, the question presses, “Was Jesus educated or illiterate?”
To fully answer this question, we will examine internal as well as external evidence, to understand the Jewish educational system at the time of Jesus. The internal evidence is retrieved from passages and statements from the New Testament while external evidence rely on extra-biblical sources or sources from outside the bible.
First: Internal Evidence:
Three texts from the Gospels indirectly indicate that Jesus was an educated man:
Jn 8:6 The Scene of the Adulterous Woman,
John 7:15 the Jews asking about Jesus’ knowledge of the Scriptures,
Luke 4:16-30 the Scene of the expulsion of Jesus from the synagogue of Nazareth.
We will examine each scene individually in a systematic and precise manner. Those texts need to be read wisely in order to understand the messages hidden in-between the lines.
Scene 1, Jn 8: 6 – The Scene of the Adulterous Woman
Jesus comes to the temple in the morning and sits with the people, teaching and preaching the kingdom of God. Some of the scribes and Pharisees bring to him a woman in their midst who committed adultery, and they tested and asked Jesus what they should do with her given that the Law of Moses commands that she must be stoned as a punishment. Jesus did nothing except stooped down to the earth and with his finger began to write on the ground. When they persisted in asking him, he stood up and responded with clemency and said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, NRSV translation). This phrase which proclaims the law of humanity and the law of truth, which touches the oppressed, and is uttered by the one who utters the law. And, again, He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Thus, each one of them was dismissed and only the one without sin remained with her whose sin was known. (St Papias of the second century is the first known instance to have likely referred to this story in his book on the sayings and life of Jesus where he tried to gather as many oral traditions as possible, and he is known to have conversed and been closely associated with the school of John the Theologian and his disciples in Asia Minor).
This story is absent from the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of John, such as Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75, and the most renowned manuscripts of the third and fourth centuries. However, St. Jerome includes the story in his Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate. The story is also mentioned in older manuscripts such as the Memphitic version of the Bible included this story (Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Northern Dialect or Bohairic Coptic), along with the Ethiopic and Armenian versions of the bible.
It is suggested that the East did not know this text for a while since there were some reservations on this passage’s use, and not on its authenticity (I find this dubious; there are many other more questionable passages to be left out, I cannot imagine them dabbling in Scriptural texts based on what sounds iffy). Some might have misunderstood Christ’s forgiveness as a justification for committing adultery (i.e. one can easily commit adultery and then repent because Jesus would forgive). There were objections to the use of the text by a few Church Fathers (recall that scriptures were to be read at liturgical gatherings so every scriptural passage has this connotation with it, they may have never organized for it to be read in the Liturgy and this part is known to be certainly true) so that it would not be misunderstood by the people. Amongst those who objected to its use for various reasons were Origen, John Chrysostom, and Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. For example, Origen refused sex (You mean he was a celibate?), in general, and St. John Chrysostom was accused of prostitution and immorality by Queen Eudokia, but he rebuked her vehemently, justifying himself by saying his bodily organs were dead because of his senility. (I’m not following the logic here) It was preferred that this text would not be circulated so that it wouldn’t be misunderstood by the public as a means of justifying adultery until afterwards, when church matters were settled and doctrines were set in stone. (I find this argument unfounded and dubious if I am honest – If you go deep enough into the manuscript evidence you will see that it was not part of the Gospel originally but it was copied in later (at a regional level) and then became subsumed by the larger body of texts when those texts became standardized. It was a strong oral tradition present in the school of John and the Church there put it into his gospel (and very likely the story is originally from him).
The second book of the Apostolic Constitutions verifies the authenticity of the pericope adulterae in its 24thpassage, in its injunction of accepting repentant sinners (in the church), which was opposed by some puritanical factions. The Apostolic Constitutions thus, references the entire story:
“And when the elders had set another woman which had sinned before Him, and had left the sentence to Him, and had gone out, our Lord, the Searcher of the hearts, inquiring of her whether the elders had condemned her, and being answered No, He said to her: Go your way therefore, for neither do I condemn you. John 8:11” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, passage 24)
Thus, we can see that the story of the adulterous woman in John 8 was popular amongst those who accepted repented sinners and was unpopular amongst those who censured the act of adultery (as in the East). – I find this argument so hard to believe but maybe I am wrong, or at least it sounds oversimplified.
But the question now is, what was Jesus writing with his finger on the ground? Raymond E. Brown answers this question with five possibilities:
- The first possibility dates back to the time of St. Jerome along with an Aramaic manuscript of the gospel which was unearthed in the tenth century, which indicated that Jesus was writing the sins of the scribes and Pharisees, but this is possibly based on a meditation rather than on a systematic academic basis.
- The second possibility is that Jesus did as a judge would have in the imperial courts of the Roman empire, writing his verdict before pronouncing it. However, if this is what happened the first time and what was written was what Jesus announced to them as it is written. With that being said, what did Jesus write the second time? Unfortunately this possibility is lacks precision. “They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” (John 8: 6-8, NRSV)
- The third possibility is that some believe that what Jesus did is according to Jeremiah 17:13: “O hope of Israel! O Lord! All who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the underworld, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the Lord.” (NRSV)
- The fourth possibility is that what Jesus wrote, according to John 8:6 (“They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” (John 8:6) (NRSV)) is the command that came in Exodus 23:1, “You shall not join hands with the wicked (to act as a malicious witness).” (NRSV) The italicized words, according to Raymond Brown fit the number of words that Jesus could have wrote in his stooped stance without shifting his position. This possibility, however, is illogical.
- The fifth possibility is that Jesus was exhibiting disdain and disapproval towards their actions while they drowned in their sins by tracing lines on the ground while he was thinking. This possibility is logical and straightforward and is the most likely realistic situation. (You need to explain your reasoning for rejecting the first four and accepting the last).
In conclusion, we cannot infer simply based on this scene on whether Jesus knew how to read and write since it does not indicate the nature of what Jesus was writing on earth, nor can we determine Jesus’ level of education.
Scene 2, John 7:15 asks the Jews about Jesus’ knowledge of the Scriptures:
On the fourth day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus ascended to the temple and then began to teach the crowds. The Jews were amazed and asked how this Galilean from Nazareth can know the books? How does he teach without proper training under the hands of a Rabbi?
“The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning (or in other translations, “knows the letters/writings”), when he has never been taught?”” (John 7:15)
Although this is not implied in this verse, but the phrase “knows the writings” means that Jesus knew how to read. The question posed by the Jews to Jesus on his knowledge of the writings, however, is more than just a question about his literacy since one could become a rabbi after being a disciple to one of the great and well-known Rabbis. But in the case of Jesus he was not a rabbi because of his discipleship to a well-known Rabbi, but he was a rabbi out of his own authority. Remember, a Rabbi, in Judaism was a teacher of the Torah. Thus, the question the Jews posed here was concerned with the credibility of Jesus’ knowledge of the writings and his teachings since he was not taught by one of the great rabbis.
Scene 3, Luke 4: 16-30 Scene of Jesus’ Expulsion from the Synagogue of Nazareth:
Second: External Evidence:
How was the Jewish education system in Jesus’ time? This is the question that we will try to answer now, and through this we will be able to form a picture regarding the mode and method by which Jesus received basic education, and his ability to read and write.
To provide a clearer picture on the nature of education during Jesus’ time, we will examine the Rabbinic texts between the 1st century and 5th century AD which the scholar Shmuel Safrai inspected and refers to the Jewish education system in the 1st century and perhaps a little earlier. In that system, the child was educated at the City School, where he learned to read the Hebrew Scriptures, and the school was called bet ha-sēfer (the house of the book). Such schools existed in the cities of Palestine, even the small ones, where the child began to learn the Scriptures from the age of five, and at the age of ten began to learn the Mishnah (also known as the “Oral Torah”, which is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known). The child finishes his basic education at the age of eleven or twelve. The schools were a building or a room attached to the Jewish Synagogue, and in small towns the school was the backyard of the teacher’s home. The Talmud instructs that the teacher should be financially supported so that poor children would not be deprived of education in such school systems.
What makes this scene more evident is what was mentioned in the Gospels regarding Jesus’ strong education in the Halakha (collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah. Halakha is based on biblical commandments (mitzvot), subsequent Talmudic and rabbinic law, and the customs and traditions compiled in the many books) and the Jewish law. Because Jesus was the first-born amongst his family relatives, he was expected to learn the Law, besides learning his father’s occupation. This education took place in the synagogue of Nazareth where primary religious instruction took place. This helps explain why when Jesus was handed the book of Isaiah to read from that the people asked, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3).
In summary, the Gospels do not delve deeply into Jesus’ literacy. How competent was he in reading and writing? Was he as educated as the scribes and Pharisees? The Gospels do not provide us with enough evidence to make any conclusive answers. However, we have ample implicit evidence that Jesus knew Hebrew and Aramaic, and his knowledge of the law and books as mentioned in John 7:15, and even what was mentioned in Luke 4:16-30 is implicit evidence of Jesus’ knowledge of the law and books. Finally, we know Jesus learned to read and write as a child at the Synagogue of Nazareth, where he was raised. Although Jesus came from a rural and poor background, he was not a simple (or an illiterate) Galilean villager.