Jesus was not illiterate, and he had reasons for not writing

[Revised 06 Mar 2011]

A year ago I mentioned that I thought arguments supporting the literacy of Jesus offered some surprising theological insights.  I touched on it again in May.  To me it is still a question with fascinating implications for the doctrines of faith, of spirit, of divine and secular history, and of the Word of God:

Granted a probability exists that Jesus was able to read and write – what might have been his reasons for deciding not to leave his own teachings, memoirs, etc., in written form?

My position has been that a literate Jesus could only have judged that the consequences of leaving such artifacts were potentially unfavorable for the spread of his Gospel.  That sounds paradoxical and counter-intuitive, but I think it is very interesting to ponder the negatives.

1.  Jesus was reluctant to quench the Spirit

What could possibly be wrong with sponsoring a permanently fossilized, absolute specimen of truth, to be revered by the surviving community even before his death (and resurrection)?  I hope you see my point.  I think Jesus is always looking ahead to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.  A permanent and authoritative text in his name would be the one immovable historical force most capable of frustrating the higher mission of the great truth-seeking Spirit which was to come.

Jesus might even have seen at first hand the power of supposedly inerrant ‘scriptures’ to frustrate new life – in the negative effects of prevailing Jewish attitudes toward their scriptures upon his own mission.

2. Jesus was unwilling to risk corruption of the text

We might also postulate self-censorship for Jesus on the grounds that he recognized that no writing of the period could actually be safe from corruption over time.  Here Jesus would be making a very canny move to frustrate any chance that a document carrying the absolute weight of his personal authority might nevertheless be edited, manipulated, or falsified by later copyists and well-meaning editors.


Two things may be inferred from this one very non-miraculous feature in the life of Christ – that he could read and write his native tongue.

(1) Jesus was depending on the Holy Spirit for a kind of assistance that would be compromised by perfect character portraits and a verbatim transmission of doctrine.

(2) Jesus took a negative view of the suitability of ‘historical’ records (even scripture) to be direct purveyors of his transcendent Truth.

NOTE:  I’m celebrating the blog’s 1-year anniversary by starting a policy of revisiting topics from year-ago posts.  I think attachment of a ‘second chapter’ to some of those topics will allow me to develop my thoughts in the light of a year’s growth.  It will also keep me honest in some of those cases where I promised a ‘continuation’ which never materialized.


7 thoughts on “Jesus was not illiterate, and he had reasons for not writing

  1. This is a very fun topic to explore.

    It also makes me think of the book of Enoch. I know, that’s random. But whether you view it as allegory, fiction, whatever, there’s one angel in the story who is cast out of God’s presence for introducing the art of writing and recording to men.

    We’re (men in general) terrible with stuff like this. We love having ‘God on our side’ and believing we’re the right.

    It’s an interesting thought- Christ really wants us alive- living a life, together… not bound. Oh man, I’m grateful He didn’t write himself.

    Can you imagine the messes?

    • John, thanks for dropping by, and for the comment.

      I was reading about the whole question of authority in religion this morning, a book by a great past thinker of the Church of Scotland, Joseph H. Leckie:

      “The human, fallible element in revelation does not rob it of authority, for it does not rob it of strength. Although the words of prophets come to us through a broken, imperfect medium; although the story and teaching of Christ are reported by fallible witnesses… although the Church is rent with schism and burdened with errors; although the divine voice in our hearts is heard through the clamours of sense and care: yet all these have, each in its own measure, grace to enlighten and strengthen and guide and redeem, and are therefore, in varying degrees, our masters and lords.” -Authority in religion, 1909

      I think you voiced sentiments not too dissimilar in your great post this morning.

  2. “Jesus was not illiterate, and he had reasons for not writing”

    “1. Jesus was reluctant to quench the Spirit”

    Whereas Acts says the apostles received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost with all that hoopla of “a mighty rushing wind”, John says that Jesus breathed it on the disciples much earlier with a whisper “receive ye the Holy Spirit.” Since no agreement exists on how they received it, why should we accept that they did receive the Spirit in any overtly miraculous way? The speaking in tongues that the Spirit brings is also diversely interpreted by our authors, by that of Acts as meaning the apostles could speak all actual human languages, and by Paul as if tongues are nonsensical jibberish that cannot be interpreted by anyone other than a person endowed with a second miraculous gift of the Spirit, the gift of interpreting nonsensical tongues. Should we then believe either story about tongues? Or is the fascination with tongues not a product of Marcus the Magician, the Gnostic teacher who Ireneaus speaks of in Against Heresies 1.13, saying he mixed a hallucinogen he calls ‘Charis’ into the wine of the Eucharist, thus enabling his converts to speak in tongues and prophecy?

    “2. Jesus was unwilling to risk corruption of the text”

    Oh please. Better to let the doctrine be corrupted at the first stage, by being written by a false apostle like Paul than to write it personally and have it corrupted at a later stage. Yeah right.

    Honestly, Jesus should have written something. Because he didn’t, Christianity is a circus.

  3. rey, I think the alleged tongues stories are only legendary, sufficiently explained by the simultaneous resort to Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin (which 4 were conceivably all spoken by disciples and also pretty much cover the nations described as ‘hearing’ the teaching in Acts 2).

    But I believe something went down that day (whereas the idea that it was ‘breathed’ from the mouth of Jesus seems more suspect since it sounds more like a standard holy-man story).

    Meanwhile all current phenomena of tongue-speaking in church are ludicrous and phony in my opinion. But all your reasoning from that point is strange to me. Maybe in person you’re more persuasive.

    You can’t diss the spirit for long on this blog (unless you’re just dissing ‘tongues’). In my view the coming of a new spirit (without ‘tongues’) after the Incarnation was and still is in fact the whole mechanism of the Atonement (i.e. more important even than sacrifice and crucifixion). The bestowal of a living spirit on the whole world is the reason why Christianity cannot be destroyed (only improved) by text criticism and comparative religion studies. It’s controversial, but I’ll be getting to it soon I hope.

  4. I’m just talking about miraculous manifestations not the Spirit itself.

    “The bestowal of a living spirit on the whole world is the reason why Christianity cannot be destroyed (only improved) by text criticism and comparative religion studies. It’s controversial, but I’ll be getting to it soon I hope.”

    Christianity will never be destroyed, in the sense of completely ceasing to exist, but I doubt its for the reasons you suppose. Yet, I think, it can be proven by analyzing the misuse of Old Testament Scripture in the New Testament, that Christianity is by and large a fraud, and what Jesus himself actually taught was a form of Judaism less interested in ceremony, much like the prophets themselves in their dismissals of ceremony in preference to morality and benevolence, not a new religion so completely different from the old. If Christianity had remained that way, rather than being co-opted by Paul’s faithonlyism and the charismatic movement of fake tonguespeaking and miracles, and had not been infiltrated with imported pagan ceremonies (the so-called Lord’s Supper being a copy of the initiatory supper in Mithraism) then Christianity would be a purer religion. Smaller perhaps, but purer. Christianity’s appeal, unfortunately, is not the Spirit, but the easybelievism of Paul’s occasional faithonlyist teachings.

    • To explain my comments, I am tending in the direction away from Christianity and towards Judaism, because I don’t find the Christian interpretations of OT prophecy at all reasonable.

      Jer 31 is not about Herod killing babies, but contextually is about Rachel’s children being in Babylonian captivity for when she weeps, God says “do not weep; there is hope for your children to return from the enemies land to their own borders.”

      Micah 5 does not promise a birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem, but one whose lineage can be traced back to Bethlehem, who will bear the government on his shoulders right after the Babylonian captivity ends, and will defend the land against Assyria. This is clearly Zorobabel.

      Isaiah 7 promises the virgin-born child as a sign to Ahaz of when his two enemy kings will be defeated, the child being born while the two kings are still alive, and the time of the child’s learning the difference between good and evil being the sign of WHEN the two kings will be defeated by Assyria and chased off their thrones. Isaiah even records in chapter 8 that the Lord himself proclaimed a child born in that time, Mahershalalhashbaz, to be the promised child.

      On and one we can go showing what the Old Testament prophecies mean in their native contexts, as opposed to how the New Testament writers misuse and abuse them to FORCE them to be about Jesus.

      We can also look at how Paul misuses the Old Testament to teach faithonlyism and predestination. For example, in Romans 4 claiming that David “describes the blessedness of the man to whom the Lord imputes righteousness without works” and using a partial quotation of Psalm 32:1-2 to prove this, whereas David says not such thing even in the part of those verses that Paul quotes, nor does the rest of the Psalm bear out Paul’s claim. Paul is simply throwing out a quotation hoping you won’t actually think about it.

      These sorts of mindless and dishonest tactics by the New Testament writers have convinced me that the document called the “New Testament” is not the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah, but is a fraud and imposture masquerading as what it clearly is not.

      Rather, the New Covenant, is a form of Judaism that puts its emphasis on Morality rather than ceremony. Jesus taught such a form of Judaism, but Paul and company buried it under a mountain of superstition.

    • rey, I don’t buy the ‘ethical Judaism’ interpretation of Jesus’ mission (which should be obvious to a reader of this blog).

      And we don’t see nearly the same ‘misuse’ of the OT in Mark and Luke and John as we see in Matthew (and perhaps Paul).

      You have a surface knowledge of Christianity, in my opinion, and stand too much in awe of the Old Testament, which has long been shown to be a tissue of post-exilic redaction which needs to be very carefully navigated.

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