Was the historical Jesus able to read? Were you to ask most evangelicals this question, the answer would invariably be in the affirmative. For many of them, there is little distinction to be made between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history. If the Lukan author affirms Jesus’ literacy (Luke 4:16) then that is good enough. Moreover, since for the vast majority of evangelicals Jesus was God, how could it not be the case that he was literate?
But it is not only evangelicals who might answer this question affirmatively. For example, in the first volume of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, John Meier offers a historical argument that Jesus was, in fact, literate. He concludes that
in at least one aspect Jesus was atypical of most men and women at the Greco-Roman world in the 1st century A.D.: he was literate, and his literacy probably extended beyond the mere ability to sign one’s name or to conduct business transactions (“trademan’s literacy”) to the ability to read sophisticated theological and literary works and comment on them (“scribal literacy”). Jesus comes out of a peasant background, but he is not an ordinary peasant.
The merits of Meier’s argument are debatable, but it suffices to say that the question of Jesus’ literacy is for many scholars up in the air. For my own part, I find it to be unlikely Jesus could read or write for the very reasons summarized by Helen Bond in her book The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed: lack of good evidence for his literacy, low literacy rates in the Greco-Roman world generally, etc. I also agree with her that if he was illiterate it in no way detracts “from the fact that Jesus was clearly a gifted communicator with a particular ability to tell stories and to hold people’s attention.”
Another brief assessment of this topic comes from Spencer McDaniel, creator of the website Tales of Times Forgotten, who in November of last year published a piece simply titled “Was Jesus Literate?” For those unacquainted with McDaniel and his work, he is a young man with a keen mind, poignant pen, and inquisitive spirit. Though not a scholar (yet), his work has all the earmarks of scholarship, including the willingness to buck the status quo when he feels the evidence warrants it. In this piece on Jesus’ literacy, he does exactly that.
Spencer’s treatment of the issue begins with our own assumptions about the world. Since we take for granted modern literacy rates, we are tempted to project this back into the ancient world of first-century Galilee. But if Jesus was literate, why didn’t he write anything down? Acknowledging this problem, McDaniel contends that if Jesus was literate then “there are several good reasons why he might have decided not to write down his teachings.” But before he can get to those reasons, McDaniel has to address the fundamental question of Jesus’ literacy.
He starts with the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark which we will table for the moment. He then moves on to the portrayal of Jesus in the Lukan Gospel, particularly Luke 4:16-21 which “unambiguously describes Jesus as reading.” The final text he addresses is the Pericope Adulterae (i.e., John 7:53-8:11) and its description of Jesus writing something on the ground. Moving beyond the Gospels, acknowledging how complicated they are to use as sources due to their often-unreliable nature, McDaniel briefly addresses the claim of John Dominic Crossan who contended that ninety-five to ninety-seven percent of Palestine was illiterate in the first century CE. (I don’t have this particular volume by Crossan and am unable to find any such claim in his The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).) McDaniel finds these numbers dubious and “probably a bit exaggerated.” Space does not permit me to address this issue, but I should note that Crossan isn’t alone in his view. For example, L. Michael White observes that “[s]cholarly estimates for the level of literacy in Roman Palestine vary from as little as 3 to just over 10 percent, with the numbers decreasing in more recent work.” In any event, what McDaniel finds particularly problematic with Crossan’s view on Jesus is that “he assumes that Jesus must have been like the majority of people who lived in the same time and place as him and he does not allow for the entirely reasonable possibility that Jesus might have been better educated than most people of that time and place.” McDaniel thinks that at the very least Jesus was “functionally literate,” a view that he knows is against the grain of much of NT scholarship but one that he finds coherent in light of the evidence.
Let’s circle back to McDaniel’s treatment of the Markan Jesus as he is depicted in Mark 2:23-28. I’ve discussed this text in another “Musings on Mark” post but it would do us well to revisit it. In context, Jesus’ disciples have plucked heads of grain in a field on the sabbath (v. 23), offending the Pharisees who ask Jesus, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (v. 24) To this question, Jesus asks his own: “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?” (v. 25) As Jesus explains it, when Abiathar was the high priest, David entered the “house of God” and ate from the bread of the Presence which was normally reserved only for the priests. He also gave some of the bread to his companions. At the conclusion of this retelling, Jesus explains to the Pharisees that “[t]he sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (vv. 27-28).
Space does not permit a detailed look at the source for Jesus’ story about David. It can be found in 1 Samuel 21 and a cursory reading reveals that Jesus’ version of the story and the one told by the Deuteronomistic Historian are not exactly congruent. The central issue concerns who was the high priest during the event described: Abiathar (Mark 2:26) or Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1)? Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech according to 2 Samuel 22:20 but apparently came to prominence after his father was killed by Saul (1 Samuel 22:6-19). Despite clever attempts by apologists to rescue Jesus from being in error, we must face facts: if the historical Jesus claimed Abiathar was high priest when David took from the bread of the Presence then he was flat out wrong. Interestingly enough, in their redaction of Mark both Matthew and Luke remove any reference to Abiathar (Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), suggesting that they recognized the problem with the Markan account and made appropriate revisions.
In discussing the Markan account, McDaniel says the following:
The Greek word in verse twenty-five that the NRSV translates as “read” is ἀνέγνωτε (anégnōte), which definitely means “read.” The way this question is phrased very much makes it sound as though the author of the gospel believed that Jesus had read the story from the Tanakh on his own or, at the very least, that he had had someone else read it to him. There are multiple other passages in the Gospel of Mark that also seem to suggest that the author of the gospel believed that Jesus was literate.
McDaniel, it should be noted, is not alone in connecting this passage to the subject of literacy. For example, in their commentary on Mark, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington comment on v. 25 by writing that Jesus’ question “is an argument in favor of a rather high level of literacy in Palestine and in the Greco-Roman world.”
While McDaniel is undoubtedly correct that anegnōte refers to reading, I think he may be reading it too literally. To put it another way, Jesus’ question isn’t so much about reading as it is about understanding. When he asks the Pharisees, “Have you never read…?” he isn’t asking them if they’ve actually read the text in question. Not only were the Pharisees likely well educated, they were well acquainted with the Jewish scriptures. Had they read this story from 1 Samuel? Surely! So then, what Jesus is really doing is calling into question their understanding of it. They’ve read it but have they really read it? 
What is ironic about this passage is that given the error Jesus makes in referring to Abiathar rather than Ahimelech, the Pharisees could have easily retorted with the question Jesus posed to them: “Abiathar the priest?!? Have you never read, Jesus?” In fact, Jesus’ error is one we might expect if he had only heard the story. As Bart Ehrman notes, in antiquity a person often “read” a book by having it read to them. Jesus’ acquaintance with the scriptures, then, could be easily attributed to his having heard them throughout his life in the synagogues he attended. This, too, is a possibility that McDaniel acknowledges with regards to the text in Mark.
So, I don’t think that this text, nor other passages like Mark 12:10 or 12:26, are suggestive of Jesus’ literacy. Nor do I think that they must speak to Jesus’ illiteracy. Instead, I don’t think it was a question that Mark either had the answer to or even cared about. Later Christian authors like Luke obviously were interested in the subject. But Mark, for whatever reason, wasn’t.
While I don’t find compelling McDaniel’s take on Mark or agree with his view on Jesus’ literacy, I nevertheless have a great deal of respect for him. His willingness to broach these subjects is a testament to his inquisitiveness, and his ability to lay out his case so well speaks to his intelligence. If you’re not a reader of McDaniel’s blog, you should probably go ahead and rectify that.
 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1 – The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 278.
 See Candida Moss, “Could Jesus Read or Write?” (9.16.19), thedailybeast.com. Moss discusses Chris Keith’s Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (T&T Clark, 2011).
 Helen K. Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark 2012), 79.
 Bond, The Historical Jesus, 79. Meier (A Marginal Jew, vol. 1, 278) argues in part for Jesus’ literacy by appealing to “a high degree of natural talent – perhaps even genius – that more than compensated for the low level of Jesus’ formal education.”
 Spencer Alexander McDaniel, “Was Jesus Literate?” (11.27.2020), talesoftimesforgotten.com.
 Curse those books that lack a good subject index!
 L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 95; cf. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 80..
 See “Musings on Mark: Abiathar the High Priest” (2.4.18), amateurexegete.com.
 John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 111.
 Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 116; Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 127.
 Charles A. Kimball, Jesus’ Exposition of the Old Testament in Luke’s Gospel (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 52n19.
 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 87.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.