Monday, August 05, 2013

The claim that Jesus of Nazareth was illiterate: A snide assertion that flies in the face of the evidence

Blog note:  I’ll be taking a break from blogging this week, including the Tuesday Word Magazine and the Thursday Vision article, so this will be the lone post for the week.  Stylos will resume next week (starting August 11).

Was Jesus “an illiterate Jewish peasant from the hill country of Galilee”?  This is the evaluation put forward by Reza Aslan in interviews and in his book Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, reviving a less that flattering view of the intellectual background of Jesus and correspondingly arguing that the sophisticated doctrinal aspects of the Christian faith were fabricated by later Christian preachers and apologists (like Paul).

Aslan’s assessment of Jesus as “illiterate,” however, is extremely suspect if the Gospels hold any historical credibility at all.  Here is the frank assessment of “Jesus as illiterate” theory from Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, in his book The Triumph of Christianity:  How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (Harper One , 2011):

Finally comes the persistent claim that Jesus was illiterate:  This snide assertion flies in the face of immense familiarity with Jewish Scriptures displayed by Jesus throughout the Gospels and the near certainty that he was a well trained rabbi.  It also ignores statements such as in Luke 4:16-17:  “and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day.  And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.  He opened the book and found the place where it was written.”  In addition is the frequency with which Jesus prefaces an exchange with the rhetorical question, “have you not read?”  Granted this evidence comes only from the Gospels; but this is true of everything we know about Jesus (pp. 99-100).

What about evaluating the evidence of the likelihood of Jesus’ literacy purely on the basis of what scholars know about the first century Palestinian Jewish environment, an approach which Aslan claims he prefers to do rather than starting with the Gospels.  Here is the assessment offered in the college level textbook The New Testament in Antiquity (Zondervan, 2009) edited by Gary M. Burge of Wheaton University (from pp. 128-129):

Jesus was probably educated in the local synagogue each morning from age five or six and each afternoon worked at his father’s trade [JTR note:  by referring to Joseph as Jesus’ “father” Burge is not necessarily denying the virginal conception but addressing Joseph as a custodial parent of Jesus]…..

Like other boys in his village, from the age of six to ten Jesus became literate in Hebrew through the study of the Torah in the Nazareth synagogue, and he memorized vast quantities of Scripture.  From ages ten to twelve he became acquainted with the oral laws under the direction of the synagogue teacher and custodian, the hazzan.  At this point he ended his schooling and began working full time with his father…..

From the age of thirteen until the beginning of his public ministry (about thirty), Jesus worked in Nazareth and joined the village men at the synagogue for discussion and debate.  These exclusively male gatherings sharpened understanding of the law and were as raucous as they were inspiring.  Thus, Jesus had almost twenty years experience debating in the local synagogue before teaching in the synagogues of Galilee.  By the time he was an adult, he was a skilled craftsman, literate, knowledgeable in the traditions and history of his people, and adept at public discourse.

Thus, based on both the Gospel evidence and our knowledge of the first century Palestinian Jewish environment, we must conclude that the charge that Jesus was “illiterate” is a snide assertion that flies in the face of the evidence.



Phil Brown said...

I have not read this book, but have heard about it. I hear the author also claims Jesus was stirring up political strife, and that the Roman government wanted Jesus crucified. This flies in the face of the gospel accounts that state Pilot didn't really find any fault in Jesus. I heard about it on the radio. What I don't understand is that the commentator who was telling the audience about the book, supported Aslan's claims about the Roman government and Jesus trying to make a case that Christians need to be more involved in politics. Totally ignoring the gospel account. What is worse is that the radio host does a Bible study at the beginning of his program and claims to be an Evangelical.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

There is indeed a lot of wild stuff out there in the name of "evangelical."