I found a good argument for a reading and writing Jesus by Prof. Craig Evans in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (“Context, Family, and Formation,” 2001, pp.11-24).
I was interested in scholarly views of the literacy of Jesus because I see a surprising theological depth in the possibility that Jesus was a voluntary non-participant in “history” at this level of written records. In later posts I want to look at the theological implications of a Jesus who is perfectly able to leave a record for history, but who makes a conscious decision to leave absolutely nothing behind in the form of written teachings or memoirs.
Meanwhile I was not surprised to learn the following:
“Some members of the North American Jesus Seminar do not think Jesus could read. The seminar also tends to think that quotations of and allusions to scripture are the work of the early church, not of Jesus.” (Evans, p.15, citing Funk, 1998, p.274).
Evans outlines the standard critical objections to the two most obvious Gospel accounts depicting a literate Jesus:
Luke 4:16ff records Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth actually finding and reading a passage from the book of Isaiah. Our historians tend to brand this text “not Jesus” simply because it finds no corroboration in the alleged parallel of Mark (6:1-6), where mention is made of his teaching without establishing whether or not Jesus himself introduced his words with the usual practice of reading from the scroll.
John 8:6, depicting Jesus writing in the sand, is proclaimed “not Jesus” because its location in the Gospel changes in a few of the ancient texts, suggesting lateness. That’s not to mention the unrealistic critical attitude toward John in general. And if this is not enough, the suggestion is out there that, after all, our Lord may have been only doodling!
I have a pretty low estimate of the grounds on which a Jesus scholar would reject the likelihood that his subject was able to read and write his mother tongue. Evans is more even-tempered, offering no overt challenge to these critical roadblocks. Instead his case for a literate Jesus rests upon an exploration of the context of household and community education and Torah instruction in the Judaism of that period (especially for an eldest son). The result is a suitable picture of an ‘unlearned’ Master or Rabbi who is not without education.
In fact, however, my point does not depend on a proof of literacy for Jesus. It would not be unusual for a teacher of that day to utilize an amanuensis or secretary if he were motivated to do so. And if Jesus had believed that his teachings, committed to contemporary scrolls or tablets, might have saved one poor doubting scholar in this later day and age, what power on Earth or in Heaven could have prevented him from leaving such a personal record? The issue of literacy here rightfully gives way to the higher issues of divine wisdom and divine will.
To be continued.