Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Was Jesus Illiterate?

In Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Muslim scholar Reza Aslan argues that Jesus was illiterate: 

"It is estimated that nearly 97% of the Jewish peasantry could neither read nor write . . . Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to think he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic.   Luke's (accounts) . . . are fabulous concoctions of the evangelist's own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke's account even remotely credible." (34)

In addition, Aslan claims that Jesus belonged to "the lowest class of peasants" of the time, "just above the indigent, the beggar, and the slave."  He adds that there were "no schools in Nazareth" for peasant children, and surmises that Jesus' only education would have been in his trade.

To this I responded earlier, on this site, on Amazon, and in an article for Radix Magazine.  Here's the version from this site

Here are thirteen reasons why Aslan's argument fails, and it is far more reasonable to believe that Jesus was fully literate in one or more languages:

(1) The claim that only 3% of Jews at the time were illiterate has been disputed. 

(2) It is illegitimate to dismiss specific historical reports, such as that Jesus could read, based on broad demographic generalizations, such as that most people at the time could not read, therefore any given person could not read.  There are several such passages in the gospels, our earliest sources for the life of Jesus.  If any one of them is accurate, then Jesus must have been literate. 

(3) Aslan's main argument  (A) against Jesus' literacy goes like this: (a) X belonged to Category N.  (b) People in N usually possessed quality Q.  (c) Since X belonged to N, X probably also possessed Q. 

How much confidence can we place in such an argument?  When there are contrary historical reports, almost none. 

If we accepted arguments of type A, the claim that I was born in Seattle would have to be dismissed, since only one maybe ten thousand human beings are born in that city.  (A far smaller percentage than 3%.)  So would the claim that William Carey taught himself ancient languages while cobbling shoes, then introduced modern agriculture, printing, botany and other science to India, transforming that nation.  After all, no other cobbler did all that, so the prior probability against the story would seem to be vast, "not even remotely credible," in Aslan's words, but not 30 to 1, 300 billion to one. 

For an example from India where we have actual figures, less than 1% of Indian women could read before the early 20th Century.  Does that render biographies of female reformer Pandita Ramabai, which say she was educated in Hindu texts, incredible?

(4) Learning Greek letters is easy. 

(5) Aramaic does not appear difficult, either.  (I say that, having studied far more complex writing systems.) 

(6) Jesus was ambitious.  An ambitious young man who makes his living from the Hebrew Scriptures, would have strong motivation to learn to read them, or to read in general.  (And of course a young man who had gained mastery in the Hebrew texts, would be far more likely to make a big splash in Jewish religious society.) 

(7) His parents may also have wanted him to learn to read.  Luke reports that there were educated people in the family.  Surely it was more common for people with educated relatives, to learn to read, than for people without such relatives. 

(8) Other famous people come from humble backgrounds, and expended a great deal of energy in acquiring an education.  For example, almost no one read books in the town where Abraham Lincoln acquired his education.   Yet no one doubts reports that he could read, and indeed write with great mastery. 

(9) Jesus would have been able to speak Aramaic, and probably Greek.  This would give him a great advantage over those of us who study Greek without ever hearing it spoken. 

(10) Greek sounds the way it is spelled, unlike English.  Perhaps the same is true of Aramaic, as it seems to be of most languages more than English.  (This is true of all the languages I have studied enough to know that have alphabets or syllabaries, including Dai, French, German, Koine Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Spanish.) 

(11) The article Aslan appeared to be relying upon to show that few people in Jesus' day could read, admitted that more men than women learned to read.  Jesus was, of course, male. 

(12) It also admitted that more people who left the village life also learned to read. 

(13)  In addition to being ambitious in a field that required literacy, Jesus was also smart, perhaps the smartest person who even lived.  (M. Scott Peck)  That of course makes it almost inevitable that he would have learned to read and write, even aside from the positive evidence in the NT that he did (of which I have only touched the fringes.)   

All these factors combined make it probable a priori that an ambitious and brilliant male who moved from the country to the city and sought to reform Jewish tradition, and may have had well-educated relatives, would in the process of preparing to minister, have taken the elementary and fairly easy precaution of learning how to read. 

That is speaking strictly of prior probability.  But as we have seen, sane historians recognize that prior probability must usually yield to actual reports of what happened.  And even aside from a few direct reports of Jesus reading, his whole complex and brilliant interaction with the Old Testament Scriptures, which so inspired his followers and ultimately changed history, is not easily understood on the hypothesis that Jesus could not read the Jewish Scriptures for himself. 

Therefore, the claim that Jesus was illiterate, is vanishingly improbable, and can only be held against the weight of both reason and evidence. 

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