Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Was Jesus illiterate? Part I of II

August 22nd, 2017, Promulgated by Diane Harris

First of a two-part post on whether or not Christ could read and write.

Recently, at a local garden party, I met a somewhat well-known Rochestarian who, within five minutes of introduction, had strongly asserted to me that Jesus had been “illiterate.” I have no idea why I was singled out to receive that missive, other than I’ve been facilitating a neighborhood bible study since 2014. The comment first provoked my surprise, and then my opposition to the premise. While I didn’t get the opportunity to list all my objections, it still seems worthwhile to archive the objections, and to give others the opportunity to respond. The Bible is a good place to start, where we have incidents of Jesus’ reading and writing.

Refutation from Sacred Scripture: Reading

According to Luke 4, 16-19, at the beginning of His public ministry, Christ went to Nazareth and read from the scroll in the synagogue. The New American Bible (NAB) uses the term “scroll” and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) uses “book” in the translation. In the Greek, the word is “Biblion”.

He came to Nazareth, where He had grown up, and went according to His custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.’ Rolling up the scroll, He handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at Him.” (NAB) 

ScreenShot689The person premising the illiteracy to me argued that Christ had either memorized the passage, or was given the text phonetically (which would still require some kind of reading!) I am of the opinion that neither of these explanations refutes the argument that Christ could indeed read, and did read from the scroll, just as the text is presented to us, without deception. The pains Luke took in writing his Gospel to have Christ unroll the Biblion, to find the passage, to read it, to roll it up again, and to hand it back to the attendant all argue in favor of actual reading and not merely delivering a memorized excerpt. To fake reading would require deception not attributable to Him, Who is “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.”


Further, Luke identifies his own task (Chapter 1, 1-4) “to compile a narrative … just as …  delivered to us by … eyewitnesses … to write an orderly account … that you may know the truth.” There would seem to be no reason for Luke, having committed to such a challenge, to be unfaithful to his mission three chapters later.

Refutation from Sacred Scripture: Writing

Jesus wrote when He was presented with the woman caught in the act of adultery. In John, Chapter 8: 3-9, we read:

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do You say about her?” This they said to test Him, that they might have some charge to bring against Him. Jesus bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask Him, He stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more He bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before Him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again’.” (RSV)

ScreenShot690What possible reason could there be to “contrive” Christ’s writing if He did not do so? Could not He have verbalized whatever He supposedly wrote, rather than writing it? Why would He choose to write?  There is some ‘understanding’ beyond the Scripture that He was writing sins, and by reminding them of their sins, the leaders who advocated stoning the woman left “one by one, beginning with the eldest (presumably with more lifetime sins.)”  Perhaps what we are seeing here is a gentleness of Christ, in not calling sins aloud, and embarrassing each person who left, but giving each the opportunity to leave quietly. Such an explanation (a kind of ‘seal of confession’) contributes even more to the opinions of those who believe He was writing down sins. Thus, the writing of sins might have been to protect even the accusers from individual identification of their sinfulness. The larger meaning, of course, brought home by the fear of being judged oneself, is that we are all sinners, and none of us should judge the other.

A Hidden Meaning?

Yet there is more to discover in Christ’s writing, than whatever it was He wrote, something which generally seems to be missed in preaching on the text. Was not Jesus also pointing to His own divinity and right to judge under the Law? Was He more than pointing? Was He actually manifesting His Sonship of His Father, the Almighty Lawgiver?  Doing what He sees His Father do (John 5:19)? There is an argument to be made in this regard; a possible potential hidden meaning.

Christ was “in the temple area teaching” when the Pharisees brought the woman to Him. Christ bends down to write. The text leads one to think that Christ is writing into sand, yet the ground in Israel is very hard. The Greek word for sand is ’ammos, and it does not appear in this text. Sand in the public areas also would inevitably be dragged from the more public places into the holier places, in a sense defiling the Temple by bringing what the Gentiles walked through into the inner courts. Rather, it seems likely that the ground within the temple area was hard, like stone or coral. The translation of the passages regarding Christ’s writing say He was writing ‘on’ the ground. The “ground” onto which Christ is said to write is ge in Greek, carrying the meaning most often of earth, and then of land. But how did Christ write “on” the ground? (Not with a magic marker!)

The Greek Scripture says He wrote:  “eis ton ge”  or “into the ground”. The first word, “eis”, appears 1774x in the New Testament, and in its most frequent use (573x) means “into.” It only means “on” 58x. Moreover, in the Gospel of John, it almost always means “into,” so why not in the verses about Christ’s writing “on” the ground? What seems to be missing may well be that Christ was actually writing “into” the ground, into the very hard ground that no solely human finger could penetrate. However, caught in their own concerns, to trap Jesus, to deliver the woman to stoning, and then for their own sins, the Pharisees once again missed the most obvious.

The first set of tablets of the 10 Commandments, given on Mt. Sinai, was carved in words by the finger of God. So it makes some sense to think that Christ’s writing was either specific sins or the commandment ScreenShot691transgressed, even though we do not know exactly what Christ wrote. Whatever the words, the finger of God cutting into stone is a hard image to ignore, a striking manifestation to miss of God’s own law-giving:

John 8:6a: “…Jesus bent down and wrote with His finger [into?] the ground.”

John 8:8:  “And once more He bent down and wrote with His finger [into?] the ground.”

Exodus 31:18: “And He gave to Moses, when He had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”

Deut 9:10: And the LORD gave me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.”

In Part II, we will look at whether or not it is even “logical” that the Son of God was unable to read and write.


One Response to “Was Jesus illiterate? Part I of II”

  1. avatar raymondfrice says:

    Many people of Christ’s generation were grandparents. They would all have been exposed to the scrolls and men took turns doing the readings. Many women in those days would memorize the psalms as Mary probably did so she could teach Jesus from a very young age.


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