A divine ambivalence toward recorded history?

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.


5 thoughts on “A divine ambivalence toward recorded history?

  1. Pingback: Preface to a theological turn « next theology

  2. Pingback: Why did the Word of God refuse to leave anything in text? « next theology

  3. I have always believed that Jesus could both read and write. Furthermore I think that Joseph and Mary could too. I don’t have any Biblical references for Mary and Joseph. Joseph was a carpenter who was evidentially able to make a good enough of a living to support his family in Egypt as well as Judea. He certainly would have had an understanding of mathematics. Considering Mary’s family history, I have always believed that she could too. Perhaps less usual than boys being taught but not unheard of.

    As to why Jesus didn’t leave a written record, well, perhaps he did write some things and they were not preserved, or haven’t been found. Or perhaps God decided that giving us the Holy Spirit to “lead us into all truth” was enough. Since we are saved by faith and faith is believing in what we have not seen, perhaps a written record was too much proof. People seem to want more and more proof before they will believe. If they would just meet Jesus, the proof would be in them.

  4. Rebecca, sorry to be so late in responding.

    I have an interest in two points which you bring up:

    (1) The relation between the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter, in the march toward “all truth.”

    (2) The nature of written records as alleged proofs, and the question of what faith is and what would constitute too much proof for faith.

    And there are other problems out there as well. A believer in Jesus’ “eschatological consciousness” might suggest that Jesus was himself mistakenly looking for his own immediate return or for some other imminent justification of his mission by God, which would render any writing superfluous. This would be a serious confusion of Jewish hopes with promises meant to signify the coming Spirit of Truth, in my opinion, but I will have to address it.

  5. Pingback: Jesus was not illiterate, and he had reasons for not writing « Next Theology

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