Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Was Jesus illiterate? Part II of II

August 26th, 2017, Promulgated by Diane Harris

In Part I of this two part post, we looked at the scriptural references to Christ’s reading and writing to defend against the accusation that He was illiterate. In this Part II we look at the broader picture of literacy in the culture at the time of Christ, especially as reflected through Sacred Scripture, and ask if it is even ‘logical’ that the Son of God would be unable to read and write. How might Jesus have achieved that learning?

Is it ‘logical’ that the Son of God was unable to read and write?

While the scriptural references cited in Part I may well quell allegations that Christ could not read or write, there is also a certain logic to be examined. Do the most prominent writings of the time (Sacred Scripture in particular) imply that illiteracy was widespread, or not? Even given exceptions for government and religious elite, are there implications (or not) of a wider ability to read and write? While oral teaching was the most common, and people seemed to be better able to memorize in those times, should a wide population be painted with a brush of illiteracy, and Christ placed in that context? And, even if the population were illiterate, why might Christ have been an exception to any such prevailing cultural limitation? Is it logical that the Son of God, able to raise the dead, would be unable to read and write?

We will limit the discussion to three points:  1) What else might we learn from Scripture about the milieu of the times regarding literacy? 2) What unique opportunity might Christ have had to learn to read and write, and 3) Is there evidence that Jesus might have been “home-schooled?”

Was the ability to “read” at the time of Christ so rare as to suggest it was very unlikely that Christ would have been able to read?

Historically, we can look at just a few recorded fragments, such as Moses’ writing the Pentateuch many centuries earlier. The time-frame for the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is also centuries before Christ. Part of the famed Library at Alexandria was burned by the Romans in 48 BC. (One doesn’t have a library without something to ‘house’ in it!) What about the preservation and study of the scriptural scrolls by the Essenes?

Heinrich Hofmann, 1881

Heinrich Hofmann, 1881

Studying the Hebrew Scriptures was common among Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes, and study of the Talmud in preparation for becoming ‘adult’ in the faith (today – Bar Mitzvah) was usually required of the young men. Christ, Himself, who astounded the scholars when He remained behind in the Temple at the age of 12, probably read Hebrew in order to demonstrate His knowledge of the Scriptures, not for a moment or two but apparently over three days, as described in Luke Chapter 2: 46-47: “After three days they found Him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.”  The surprise of the teachers of the law indicates a much higher level than expected of learning shown by Christ, compared to other boys His age.

There are also seven New Testament quotations by Christ, asking: “Have you not read….?”  While such comment is often addressed to the religious leaders, who should be expected to have read, would Christ have made such accusations were He only ‘acting’ as if He could read? Would the religious leaders have missed an opportunity to embarrass Christ by revealing an inability to read on His part?

In the Gospel of John we learn that Pilate had a sign written and placed on the Cross, in three languages. The text (John 19:19-20) points out that it was read by many of the Jews: “Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.”  Thus, one may argue, that for “many” of the Jews to have read this, implies that “many” could read, unless we were to make the illogical argument that only well-educated people attended crucifixions!

Even the Ethiopian eunuch could read (Acts 8: 27-28) although he did not fully understand the sacred text. And still within the century of Christ, reading and writing was essential to communications in the early Church, typified by the letter from the Council of Jerusalem regarding circumcision, and the many letters to which we owe the teaching in the epistles. Those evangelized to Christianity came from all sectors of society. I would conclude that reading was not so rare that it suggests illiteracy on the part of all, including Jesus Christ. The better question would be “Why would Christ NOT have been literate?”

Did Christ have a unique opportunity to learn to read and write?

Perhaps the question revolves more about access to learning, than about not being a norm of the times. How does a poor foster son of a carpenter from Nazareth get educated? Luke leaves completely out of his infancy narrative the story which Matthew includes; i.e. the visit by the pagan kings (or perhaps of some Hebrew descent, given their interest in the birth of a king of the Hebrews.) That Mary and Joseph are poor is evidenced in Luke by the offering of a pair of turtledoves when Christ is presented at the Temple. But apparently they did “come into some money” soon thereafter, a development which seems not to often attract further focus.

"...and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh."

“…and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Art: Eastern Orthodox)

Given the appearance of the star at the time of Jesus’ birth, and the time it would take for a caravan to progress (Babylon to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem) we should remember that, in spite of crèche scenes, when the Magi arrived the Holy Family is no longer in a stable, but in a house (oikia)Christ is no longer an infant (brephos), but a toddler (paidion). And after the departure of the Magi, the Holy Family likely was no longer poor, having received gold, frankincense and myrrh. Thus, when the Holy Family arrives in Egypt, they have the means (in addition to Joseph’s carpentry) that God has provided to care for them. Egypt might also have yielded a place for some early education, and gold the means to provide for it.

We don’t know explicitly how long the Holy Family was in Egypt, but why should we ignore the 1260 days mentioned in Revelation 12:5-6: “… she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to His throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.”  If, indeed, this may be applied to the Flight to Egypt, it would appear that the 1260 days (3 ½ years) added to about 1 ½ years in Bethlehem, would make Jesus at least 5 years old when the Holy Family returns to Nazareth, even older if significant travel time or delay is accounted. Therefore, it seems at least some education was possible in Egypt, reading and writing being most basic, perhaps even languages. It is interesting to muse how Moses also received education as a child in the House of Pharaoh, and the parallelism to God’s calling His Son(s) out of Egypt.

Was Jesus “Home-schooled?

ScreenShot699There is one other point, outside of the Canon of Scripture, which may still point to an education for the young Jesus. In the Protoevangelium of James (not part of the approved Canon, perhaps being unnecessary or perhaps containing some unidentified error), Mary is reported to have received education living in the Temple at Jerusalem, from age 3 to age 12, when (following the priestly directives) she was betrothed to Joseph, a widower with children of undisclosed age, and she left the Temple.

Keeping in mind that this book is not part of the Canon of Scripture, nevertheless, one notices references to what we already know in details surrounding the birth of Christ, such as the prominent role of Zachariah, but adding details, especially of Mary’s parentage, Anna and Joachim, figures named in a long tradition.

If, then, Mary received education during nine years living in the Temple (and why would she not?), it is hard to imagine that she would not have provided at least a basic education to Jesus, as well as spiritual training. Let the case rest here. Much that is hidden will someday be revealed.

Click to read further the excerpts from the Protoevangelium of James.

Excerpts from the Protoevangelium of James (Note: this is not part of the Canon of Holy Scripture):

Chapter 4: 1-2: “Then an angel of the Lord stood by her and said, Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer; you will conceive and bring forth, and your progeny shall be spoken of in all the world. And Anna answered, as the Lord my God lives, whatever I bring forth, whether it be male or female, I will devote it to the Lord my God, and it shall minister to him in holy things, during its whole life.”

Chapter 5: 6-7, 9: “And when nine months were fulfilled to Anna, she brought forth, and said to the midwife, what have I brought forth? And she told her, a girl…. And when the days of her purification were accomplished, she nursed the child and called her name Mary.”

Chapter 6: 4-6:  “But when the child was a year old, Joachim made a great feast, and invited the priests, scribes, elders, and all the people of Israel; and Joachim then made an offering of the girl to the chief priests, and they blessed her, saying, ‘The God of our fathers bless this girl, and give her a name famous and lasting throughout all generations. And all the people replied, So be it. Amen’. Then Joachim a second time offered her to the priests, and they blessed her, saying, ‘O most high God, regard this girl and bless her with an everlasting blessing.’”

Chapter 7: 3 “And when the child was three years old, Joachim said, ‘Let us invite the daughters of the Hebrews, who are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them be lighted, that the child may not turn back again, and her mind be set against the temple of the Lord.”

Chapter 8: 3, 6, 12, 13, 16: “And when she was twelve years of age, the priests met in a council, and said, ‘Behold, Mary is twelve years of age; what will we do with her, for fear that the holy place of the Lord our God should be defiled?’ … And behold the angel of the Lord came to him, and said, ‘Zacharias, Zacharias, go forth and call together all the widowers among the people, and let every one of them bring his rod, and he by whom the Lord will show a sign will be the husband of Mary’. And the high-priest said, ‘Joseph, you are the person chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord, to keep her for Him’ .… But Joseph refused, saying, ‘I am an old man, and have children, but she is young, and I fear, for fear that I should appear ridiculous in Israel’. … Joseph, then being afraid, took her to his house and said to Mary, ‘Behold I have taken you from the temple of the Lord, and now I will leave you in my house; I must go to attend to my trade of building. The Lord be with you.’”

Chapter 9, 1-7: “And it came to pass, in a council of the priests, it was said, ‘Let us make a new veil for the temple.’ And the high-priest said, ‘Call together to me seven undefiled virgins of the tribe of David.’ And the servants went and brought them into the temple of the Lord, and the high-priest said to them, ‘Cast lots before me now, who of you will spin the golden thread, who the blue, who the scarlet, who the fine linen, and who the true purple’. Then the high-priest, knowing that Mary was of the tribe of David, called her, and the true purple fell to her lot to spin, and she went away to her own house. But from that time Zacharias the high-priest became mute, and Samuel was placed in his stead until Zacharias spoke again. But Mary took the true purple, and did spin it. [New paragraph in the oldest extant manuscripts] And she took a pot, and went out to draw water, and heard a voice saying to her, Hail you who are full of grace the Lord is with you; you are blessed among women.”

See also:

Notes: “That Joseph was old and a widower with children before his marriage with the Virgin has been doubted by some. However, Thephylact, Occumenius, and indeed all the Latin Fathers till Ambrose, and the Greek Fathers afterwards, maintained these opinions of Joseph’s age and family, founded upon their belief in the authenticity of this book.”


2 Responses to “Was Jesus illiterate? Part II of II”

  1. raymondfrice says:

    It is interesting to muse how Moses also received education as a child in the House of Pharaoh, and the parallelism to God’s calling His Son(s) out of Egypt.

    Is there really a parallelism here or was it created by an early Christian writer to try to reinforce the divinity of Jesus when the divinity was not yet fully accepted by the early church ?

  2. Diane Harris says:

    Yes, there really is a parallelism here.

    I used to think that the ‘explaining away’ of Christ, His Words, His Works was due to a sincere lack of knowledge on the part of the critic. I used to think that lack of grasping the whole was the cause of misunderstanding the meaning of the parts. And I used to think that our times and ways were a veil cast over our discernment.

    But now I think that such alleged interference is actually the work of the evil one, bent on deforming souls and undermining Christ’s Teaching. For example, there are those who believe or would teach that Christ’s frequent mentions of hell are just to scare us into being good; i.e. that no one really goes there! Wrong! To blithely accuse Truth Himself of using untruth to violate human free will is illogical and insulting to Him. But some so-called religionists do it anyway.

    Similarly, those who basically deny the miracle of the loaves and fish as just public speaking ability by Christ to get them to open their picnic baskets demean Him and the public witness of the miracle’s foreshadowing the Eucharist.

    And, so, for those who accuse writers of the sacred word, inspired by the Holy Spirit and canonized by the Church, of nefarious motives of untruth in order to do P.R. for Christ, only admit of their own lack of belief. For such committed early writers could not help but know of Christ’s own words to add nothing and take nothing from the Good News, not a jot or tittle, not one dot or iota. If they believed in Christ then they’d believe in His words of warning as well about any alteration to Holy Scripture.

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