Baker Academic

Monday, September 23, 2013

Have You Not Read...?--Chris Keith

Perusing the blog of my Doktorvater, Larry Hurtado, I came across a discussion that I'd earlier missed back in August.  In discussing Reza Aslan's book, the issue of Jesus' literacy came up.  I was surprised in the comments (not from Hurtado) to see my own work characterized as "rather dismissive" of the idea that Jesus gained literacy.  It's true that I have argued that Jesus did not attain scribal literacy, but I don't think for a second that I'm simply "dismissive."  In several studies, I discuss at length the evidence for literate abilities in the time of Jesus and the various abilities that "literacy" entailed.  I could be wrong in my conclusions, of course, but to my knowledge I've given the topic more detailed attention than anyone else.  I was thus also surprised to see another commenter (also not Hurtado) claim that Mark 6 implies that Jesus read in a synagogue (just as Luke 4 states it explicitly) and that critics of that idea aren't right just because they "scoff confidently."  This commenter, a certain "squeaky2," doesn't name me, but it seems that his comment is aimed at me.  I can only say in response that I don't think I've ever "scoffed confidently" at this idea.  I've argued it at length in light of all the early Christian evidence (of which I'm aware) and the sea of studies of ancient literacy.  I can also only disagree entirely with his assessment of Mark 6 and note that it doesn't account for the fact that Jesus is rejected as a synagogue teacher in Mark 6.  There's no mention of him reading in this text, whereas Luke does attribute public reading to him and has him rejected for a reason altogether unrelated to his class (Luke, in fact, identifies him as Joseph's son with no reference to carpentry).  I've argued in my Jesus' Literacy that Mark and Luke here have a different assessment of Jesus' social class, a difference that shows up throughout their respective Gospels and particularly in places where Luke modifies Mark.

I still think, too, that some need to come to grips with the fact that there is absolutely no evidence of a widespread literate  education occurring in Jesus' socio-historical context.  There's no evidence of synagogue schools in the first century.  William Harris and Catherine Hezser have demonstrated conclusively, in my mind, that there was absolutely no public system of education that would have educated the majority of the population in the ancient world in general and Roman Palestine in particular.  I don't think Jesus was the poorest of the poor.  And I don't refer to him as a peasant.  But you didn't have to be the poorest of the poor or a peasant to be illiterate in Second Temple Judaism--almost everybody in that context was.  

Apart from all this, however, there's this old chestnut that keeps showing up about Jesus' frequent question to the scribal leadership, "Have you never read...?"  In this thread on Larry's blog they mention Craig Evans' article, but James Dunn also reads this question of Jesus as implying his literacy.  I respect both of these scholars greatly, but demur on this issue.  To me, Jesus' sarcastic question assumes only the Jewish leadership's capacity to read the texts themselves:  Have you never read?  The question assumes that Jesus knows the text but that his opponents can read it, and thus attacks them at their very source of authority--the fact that they were among the few literate elite who held control over access to the holy texts.  "Surely," mocks Jesus, "you of all people know the story about David eating bread he shouldn't have been eating....."  Jesus is here shown to best the scribal elite at their own game.  In a forthcoming book (see below), I actually give much historical credence to such claims for Jesus and flesh out a claim that I made briefly in Jesus' Literacy:  that many people observing Jesus (i.e., eyewitnesses) could have--on the basis of events like this and other factors--concluded that Jesus was a scribal-literate teacher despite the fact that he was not.  In other words, like his status as a prophet or messiah, Jesus' scribal-literate status was also a debated issue.

The results of this research will appear in a more accessible form in my forthcoming Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic 2014), where I take my arguments for the scribal-literate status of Jesus to the controversy narratives and address fully their interpretation, historicity, and origin.


  1. Chris, I wonder if any of your critics have ever considered the question of literacy from the standpoint of a modern synagogue. If you came to my synagogue, you'd run into various gradations of literacy. Some folks read the Hebrew solely from the transliteration. They sound just fine (perhaps like a slightly foreign accent). Some (like me) can read Hebrew in the sense that we can sound out the words, but only know what a few of them mean. When I read a prayer in Hebrew, I know the general sense of what it means, having read the same prayer in English, but I may not be able to do a word-for-word translation. Like me, most of my fellow congregants are not fluent in Hebrew.

    And like most American non-Orthodox Jews, I need the vowels added to read the Hebrew. I'm in trouble when I visit Israel, where (mostly) Hebrew text appears without vowels.

    One of our synagogue's best Haftorah readers is in my Intro to Hebrew class, and his Hebrew is only a little better than mine. It's possible to read Torah and Haftorah Hebrew text beautifully, with a bit of learning and a lot of practice in the text, without being what we'd think of as literate.

    My guess is that Jesus would be near the top of the class at my synagogue when it comes to Hebrew "literacy". I don't think this would make him "literate" in the way English speakers think of English literacy. But I think Jesus would know a heckuva lot of Torah, and be able to make a good accounting of himself in our congregation, and on our bimah.

    I've wondered whether a first century Palestinian Jew would know some Hebrew merely by being fluent in Aramaic. Is the Hebrew-Aramaic relationship like Yiddish and German, or more like English and Arabic?

    I look forward to your new book.

    1. Larry, thanks for this response. Your examples are good. I agree with you about Jesus and his knowledge of Torah. And I think that the relationship between Hebrew and Aramaic is much like you suppose, not like English and Arabic. So many Jews would have had some familiarity with Hebrew, even if not able to read documents.

  2. Plenty of people look at the evidence and come to different conclusions. No need to be over-sensitive about it. Perhaps it would be useful to write on a different topic so as not to over-invest in this one.

    1. Anonymous, I had a really whimsical reply about how much I appreciate career advice from people who don't put their own names on their comments. But, I'll concede that the post is a bit defensive and that I have much invested in the topic. And, although I've published plenty of things that have nothing to do with Jesus' literacy, I'll even concede that to people whose primary familiarity with my and Anthony's scholarship is this blog, it could seem that I focus on this issue a lot. To address the core of your comment, though, my complaint in the post is not that people come to different conclusions. I think we're all aware of this fact. My complaint is that some conclusions are less grounded in the evidence than others. Not all conclusions are created equal.