In a previous post I hinted at the tremendous theological depth I saw in a single very simple assumption about Jesus of Nazareth – a very pedestrian, un-theological assumption – that he was able to read and write his mother tongue.
The assumption of a basic functional literacy for Jesus makes a very unspectacular human claim – one which requires no miracle, no mysterious wisdom, no superhuman power. Literacy was a skill set that was a credible attainment for any first-born Jew of the age (as professor Craig A. Evans has shown – see the earlier post).
The historian might ask, “If Jesus could read and write, why don’t we have any of his writing?” And I think too many historians hold this question to be an unanswerable proof that Jesus was illiterate. However, it is just this lack of writing by Jesus that I find so theologically deep when taken in conjunction with a supposition that he could both read and write: What if the Word of God, when incarnate, had been perfectly able to render his purpose, his idea, his gift, his teaching, his gospel, under the discursive form of an authoritative text – but determined not to do so? Would this tell us anything about the divine attitude toward textual authority?
Nothing requires us to follow the historians who account for Jesus’ lack of writing by suggesting an illiterate ‘rustic’ teacher (of astonishing wisdom). For if we choose to see instead a deliberate decision against leaving such a sensitive artifact as an actual text, we may still join the historians in asking, Well indeed, why didn’t such a man leave any writings? However, by laying aside the picturesque assumption of illiteracy, we open up possibilities which tend to move the discussion away from dependence upon alleged Galilean literacy rates and in the direction of dependence upon divine will and divine wisdom.