Friday, May 19, 2017

Was Jesus Illiterate (II)?

It has become popular, among skeptics who admit he existed, to claim that Jesus could neither read nor write.  After all, they say, Jesus was a lower-class peasant or worker in an era in which 95% of Jews were illiterate.  Christians sometimes too easily go along.

I answer this objection on pages 12 to 14 of Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.  I had already posted an answer on this site, offering thirteen problems with the argument.

But here is the form recently given this argument by David Chumney, a former Presbyterian ministry and author of a new book, Jesus Eclipsed.  He was interviewed by the often gullible Valerie Tarico here, then wrote the following insulting response to an always-polite poster by the name of Don Camp on John Loftus' site in a thread responding to that article:

"Don, when one looks up the word 'obfuscation' in the dictionary, one finds your picture by the word. The gospel writers were obviously literate--after all, they wrote the gospels. However, research indicates that 95-97% of the Jewish people were illiterate at the time of Jesus, so that suggests that Jesus and his followers couldn't read or write. When Mark wrote his gospel some 40 years after the death of Jesus, he wrote stories that depicted Jesus fulfilling Scripture, but such stories had no connection to memories of actual events in the life of Jesus.
"Even if you don't read my book, you should read more than you apparently have so far."
Given the tone, I felt justified in responding with a perceptible tone of reproof:
"David: That's poor logic. First, males were more likely to be literate than females. Secondly, those who migrate to cities were more likely to be literate than peasants. Thirdly, those who attempt to transform a nation by challenging its standard interpretation of its most sacred texts are more likely still to take the few hours it takes to learn their letters. Four and most important, direct claims within the gospels that Jesus read, and his masterful familiarity with the written tradition of his people, constitute strong positive evidence for the literacy of Jesus, at least. You don't throw out positive historical evidence on such vague and weak a priori grounds.
"Fifth, Mark may have written his gospel earlier than that, as many scholars suppose. Sixth, since Jesus died young, and his followers would be younger (you don't run around the countryside following a young preacher if you're 85), 40 years is well within the bounds of direct memory for many aging, but still middle-aged, followers. (My father-in-law remembers the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, 72 years ago.)
"I am continually amazed at how many skeptical NT scholars manage to overlook such obvious facts -- even people like Paula Fredriksen at Harvard.  But those are only a few of many, many telling facts you guys tend to overlook."

Ex-Pastor Chumney "answered" as follows: 

"David Marshall, you talk about logic when you ought to be talking about evidence. I am astounded by how uninformed you are concerning literacy in the ancient world. I realize I'm wasting my time providing a reference that you will likely never read, but I'll do it anyway. Take a look at Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (2001), which is the definitive study on this issue. What you describe as Jesus' "masterful familiarity with the written tradition of his people" is nothing more than a pious fiction created by the gospel writers who projected skills they possessed onto an illiterate peasant.
"Historical Jesus scholars such as Fredriksen don't overlook "obvious facts;" instead, they read and interpret the biblical text independently of the religious norms of various faith traditions--as opposed to accepting them uncritically as you do. If you (as a believer) want to waste your time and energy preaching to skeptics, knock yourself out, but don't come here thinking you can spout your unsupported faith claims and pretend they're based on credible historical research. Critical thinkers will not be swayed by your naïve devotional reading of the gospels."

My response to that is the final post in the series, so far -- but I'll expand on these points a bit below.  

"David: You are wasting your time indeed, until you learn to read yourself better than you appear able to now. I made no comment whatsoever on your estimate of literacy in the ancient world. I took your estimates for granted (I've seen such before), then explained a series of facts which you overlooked that would set Jesus into a more specific reference class with far higher literacy. You ignore all those points, along with the fact that I don't challenge your overall estimate, apparently for no other reason (unless it is that literacy problem) that you can't answer my real arguments.
I just described six obvious facts that you and Fredriksen, and your like, overlook. What, do you deny that Jesus was male? Do you deny that males were more likely to be literate than females? And still you dare talk about "dealing with (the facts) critically!" Putting your head in the sand and saying "I see NUUUTHEEENG!" is your idea of dealing with facts critically? Unbelievable.
And "unsupported faith claims" is completely shameless. Every fact I mentioned above is supported with strong evidence. Or show me a country with a low literacy rate in which the lite."

Let us now consider these six points is a bit more detail.  

Six Deadly Arrows into the heart of the Illiteracy Argument

(1)  "First, males were more likely to be literate than females." 
In the modern world, the Wikipedia article on literacy notes: 
"On a worldwide scale, illiteracy disproportionately impacts women.[24] According to 2015 UIS data collected by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, about two-thirds (63%) of the world's illiterate adults are women. This disparity was even starker in previous decades: from 1970 to 2000, the global gender gap in literacy decreased by roughly 50%."
As late as 1982, 40% of men in China over the age of 60 were literate, but less than 5% of women.  
Like early modern China, the Roman Empire was extremely sexist.  Furthermore, most girls married at a very young age -- Stark calculates that 44% were married by their 15th birthday. (Rise of Christianity, 107).  Men dominated the priesthood, military, and politics, in which literacy would have been at a premium, especially in leadership roles.  
It is therefore a safe bet that if 3% of the general population was literate, then some 5% of males were literate.  If 5%, then perhaps 8%.  
(2) "Secondly, those who migrate to cities were more likely to be literate than peasants."
Farmers have had neither need nor leisure to read in most agricultural societies.  Cities were centers of economic, cultural and administrative life: great philosophers and scientists were concentrated in Athens and (later) Alexandria, theologians in Jerusalem, administrators in Rome and every important town.  A UNESCO report explains, in a chapter entitled "The Making of Literate Societies:" 
"As Graff (1987b) notes: ‘In earliest times, literacy was highly restricted and a relatively unprestigious craft; it carried little of the association with wealth, power, status and knowledge that it later acquired. It was a tool, useful firstly to the needs of state and bureaucracy, church and trade.’ In short, the spread of literacy skills was, until the eighteenth century, primarily limited to religious leaders, state servants, far-travelling traders, members of specialized guilds and certain nobility."
All of those functions are, of course ,concentrated in the city, not in the village or peasant home.  And on men.  Young men migrating to the city would have been far more likely, then, to gain literacy in the process -- indeed ambitious young people still migrate to the cities for education, I can attest as a teacher in East Asia. 
These first two points seem quite beyond dispute.   And given that the urban population was probably no more than 10% of the total, this implies that urban literacy would probably have been much higher for men than 5-8%: maybe a quarter.  
(3) "Thirdly, those who attempt to transform a nation by challenging its standard interpretation of its most sacred texts are more likely still to take the few hours it takes to learn their letters."
I learned the Greek letters, initially, in about 45 minutes of study, though I had to review later.  Of course, I didn't know Greek words at that point.  But someone surrounded by the Greek or Aramaic language, once having conquered their letters, would have had little further barrier but practice to mastering reading.  He would have known the grammar already, even if roughly at first, and most of the vocabulary.  (Though ambition, if we are talking about an ambitious person, would drive him to expand that vocabulary.)  
The founder of Christianity was either an exceedingly ambitious young man, or the most ambitious mortal to touch down on this planet yet.  He certainly wished to effect a revolution -- even Reza Aslan and John Crossan acknowledge that.  And the key to revolution, in Jewish culture, is mastery of a set of written texts -- the Septuagint.  
Jesus may have read the Jewish Scriptures in Greek, or he may have aimed to learn them in Hebrew.
Consider a parallel.  In the 19th Century, an age of widespread illiteracy in China, the most influential new religious leader was a revolutionary named Hong Xiuquan.  By modern skeptical logic, one must assume that by all odds, Hong was illiterate, since most Chinese were in the late Qing Dynasty.  
But in fact, Hong was highly literate, which is what allowed him to attempt the dramatic reinterpretation of Chinese tradition that lent his movement its ideological force.  Hong was a frustrated scholar, in fact, who had a nervous breakdown after failing the Confucian exams for the third time.  Vincent Shih describes in detail the mix of Confucian, folk, and Christian teachings which inspired his movement.      
(4) "Four and most important, direct claims within the gospels that Jesus read, and his masterful familiarity with the written tradition of his people, constitute strong positive evidence for the literacy of Jesus, at least. You don't throw out positive historical evidence on such vague and weak a priori grounds."
There are at least two direct claims to Jesus' literacy in the gospels.  One, of course, may be disputed -- the description of Jesus writing on the ground in what is now John 8.  The story probably came from elsewhere originally, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.  It matches Jesus' concern for those on the margins, and his tendency to draw down the arrogant in their favor, for instance.  It matches Jesus frequent kindness to women, and the desire of the authorities to trap Jesus. 
Jesus is also depicted as reading from the Scriptures in a synagogue.  
There is nothing implausible about either story.  Jesus hoped to announce the fulfillment of God's long-proclaimed kingdom, as I show numerous complex and mutually-supporting threads of Scripture describe Jesus as doing (Jesus is No Myth, 182-195)-- you can't purge this element from the gospels, anymore than you can pick the quartz out of a granite boulder.  Given that ambition, how could Jesus not learn to read and write, at a minimum? 
Having studied them both, in the context of their traditions, I find Jesus a vastly greater genius with Jewish tradition than Hong Xiuquan was with the Chinese.  By comparison, Hong was a crude bumbler, picking and choosing what he liked and confusing such distinct concepts as, say, the Jade Emperor and the Shang Di of the classical Chinese.  You will not find anyone with a greater genius for reinterpreting his tradition than Jesus showed: more like an Olympic skateboarder on his favorite board than like a man on a runaway horse.  The idea that Jesus could not read the original sources for the tradition which he so masterfully reinterpreted (read NT Wright!), seems absurd.  
Chumney replies that all this scriptural tweaking was the early Christians' doing.  Sorry, that won't work.  Mark may have been clever in some ways, but he was not that kind of genius.  And much of the most brilliant such interpretations come in Matthew and in John.  The simplest, the only credible solution, is that there is one genius behind all of this and more, the one whom these writers invested their lives to follow.  
 (5) "Fifth, Mark may have written his gospel earlier than that, as many scholars suppose."
This is true, but a relatively unimportant point.  Whether Mark wrote in 70 AD or in 60 AD, Jesus would have only been gone for 30-40 years by then.  I hope to carry memories which are already that old for many years, yet.  
(6) Sixth, since Jesus died young, and his followers would be younger (you don't run around the countryside following a young preacher if you're 85), 40 years is well within the bounds of direct memory for many aging, but still middle-aged, followers.  (My father-in-law remembers the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, 72 years ago.)
I often wonder how such elementary mathematics can fail to occur to so many skeptical NT scholars.  I deal with this point, and objections (such as that people died at a younger age in the ancient world), on pages 115-119 of Jesus is No Myth.  
These six points are, I think, more than enough to shatter the myth of Jesus' illiteracy, and also make one wonder "what they teach them in these (biblical deconstructionist) schools."  


Equity in Infrastructure said...

1."And they found Jesus teaching in the temple". If the audience is tolerating him teaching, he almost certainly began with a reading of the Torah, or at least quoting it.
Jesus claimed that he came to fulfill the scriptures and the prophecies. He had knowledge of some pretty obscure stuff. Things that likely would not have been the subject of the Saturday morning synagogue sermons.
2. Contrary to popular belief, carpenters can actually read. Check the advertisements on Craigslist. Strong written and verbal communications required.
3. Jerusalem was at the crossroads of many countries, and was quite cosmopolitan at the time. An education would pay off.
4. The Jewish tradition requires the 12 year old to read from the Torah for his bar mitzvah. Not sure how far this goes back. But Jesus was teaching in the temple on his twelfth birthday.
Again, he came to fulfill the prophecies, each and every one. Gotta read to know what they are.

Ps, it's Steve's birthday

David B Marshall said...

LOL. Yes, I knew a carpenter once who read quite a bit.

David B Marshall said...

Here's DC's response:

"David Marshall, let me run through your "series of facts" one by one. (1) No one disputes that Jesus was male or that males were "more likely" to be literate than females; however, unless Jesus was trained as a scribe, he was no more likely to be literate than his female counterparts. (2) Here you cite a "fact" that may be true in modern cultural settings but that has no relevance to first-century peasants who moved to urban areas desperately seeking work; they had neither time to read nor access to written materials because they were scrounging to survive. (3) Your suggestion that it would have taken Jesus only a "few hours" to "learn [his] letters" demonstrates that you have no understanding of what was involved in acquiring scribal literacy. (4) Claims in the gospel that contradict what research has shown about the first-century milieu in which Jesus lived do not constitute "strong positive evidence" for anything--except, perhaps, the vivid imagination of the evangelists. There are claims that Jesus walked on water, miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes, and raised people from the dead, and no serious historian thinks those claims constitute strong positive evidence of the events described. (5) When you say, "Mark may have ________," you can fill in the blank with anything you like, because you're engaging in nothing more than idle speculation. (6) Here you suggest that the gospels present the "direct memories" of various people involved in the events described. Literary analysis of the gospels suggests something quite different. For example, many details mentioned in the scene of Jesus' crucifixion appear to have been drawn not from eyewitness testimony but from the testimony of the OT Scriptures. As historical Jesus research has now demonstrated, the gospels are not journalistic reports written to provide eyewitness testimony but pious literature intended to cultivate faith.

"I haven't "overlooked" your "series of facts," and you've made no "real arguments" worthy of refutation. As I noted in my previous post, you are simply spouting unsupported faith claims. What is truly "shameless" is your willingness to suggest that you've offered relevant "facts" about the first-century milieu of Jesus. Like all religious apologists, you try to defend your faith, but you're only fooling yourself (and, of course, others like you who are unwilling to face reality).

"What is truly "unbelievable" is the Christian faith. What is truly "unbelievable" is the Bible. What is truly "unbelievable" is anyone who wastes his time trying to defend fairy tales."

David B Marshall said...

And here's mine:

(1) Are you seriously claiming that males (aside from scribes) were no more likely to be literate than females in ancient Israel? That flies in the face of every survey I have yet found on gender and literacy, and all we know about ancient ME civilization.

(2) You're just guessing, again in the face of all we know about the difference between rural and urban populations. I explain in more detail in that thread, including quotes from UNESCO. The idea that peasants farming the land would be as likely to be literate as urban dwellings -- some of whom clearly had time on their hands, or the whole rise of Christianity is totally inexplicable -- is absurd on the face of it. Peasants are NEVER as literate as city-dwellers. Some of Jesus' followers were involved in the bureaucracy, or ran businesses, as is quite credible among urban followers of a new set. (See Rodney Stark on the sociology of high-tension sects.)

(3) It is possible that I know more about learning scripts than you do, having attained basic literacy in a fair number of scripts myself. (Including two, modern and classical Chinese, which involve vastly more work than does learning an alphabet.) Greek took practically no time, and as I explain, when you hear Aramaic or Greek every day, literacy doesn't take as much time as it would for someone learning a foreign written language, as I have done several times. And no, I'm not half as smart as Jesus.

(4) You seem to assume that "all serious historians" are atheists, which is patently untrue. NT Wright has been described by one secular philosopher as the most sophisticated NT historian of our time, and he wrote an entire book describing evidence for Jesus' resurrection. "Miracles happen in the gospels, so their stories can't be true" only persuades people who hold to dogmatic skepticism.

David B Marshall said...

(5) Huh? You made a claim about when Mark was written. I point out that some scholars disagree with your claim. Now you admit that the question you raised is meaningless, or "idle speculation?" So then why did you raise it?

(6) I'm talking about chronology, here. YOU emphasized the length of time to Mark's authorship in order to claim that Mark's story had nothing to do with memory. My only point here is that even allowing your own dates, time provides you no such service. It doesn't help your case at all. Do stay on point, please.

And no, I don't find that line of argument convincing. What amazes me are how many and diverse are the "sources" skeptics have to draw on, to crib together the raw materials for the gospels. Read a new skeptic, and you often get ten or twenty new "sources." This only proves how flimsy the argument really is.

Some of these facts are entirely beyond dispute. For instance, male literacy is ALWAYS higher than female literacy, and not just among one particular occupation. You appear to be one of those "skeptics" whose whole construct is a house of cards, who knows that if one card is removed, the whole edifice will come crashing down, and therefore is unwilling to admit even the most blatant and obvious oversight on his own part.

And it's just a lie to describe my citation of UNESCO figures, or ancient Roman gender biases, or secular philosophers, as "unsupported faith claims." I support each of my points with evidence, largely from secular and unimpeachable sources, in the article linked above, and to a lesser extent in this thread. How do you dare to look at that evidence and, without addressing or contradicting it (I don't think you can), claim that all I'm offering are unsupported "faith claims?" This is shameless, and it confirms what I often say about most DC denizens: you really don't seem to care about the truth you once defended.

I think you know, at some level, how far you have wandered from genuine concern for truth.

I often speak in PC-USA churches. I'll try to remember you next time I do.

BTW, in calling the gospels "fairy tales," you either show that you don't know what a fairy tale is, or that you don't know what a gospel is. (Or, again, that you are a little careless about what truth is.) See JRR Tolkien's On Fairy Stories, or his friend the great literary scholar C. S. Lewis, for a primer.

Doug said...

I recently finished my (now-deceased) father-in-law's memoirs. He writes with remarkable clarity and precision about events that took place when he was in High School (in the early 1940s). To suggest that a delay of forty years from the event precludes the accurate transmission of history is bizarre. Particularly when that transmission almost certainly involved an oral tradition (kerygma) whose content and dissemination was clearly significant to those participating in it.

David B Marshall said...

Yes, it is bizarre, but that kind of reasoning is remarkably ubiquitous, including from leading scholars at top universities. I have seen it from Paula Fredriksen at Harvard, for instance.