For Christians it seems almost obvious that Jesus was literate. After all, an incarnate deity who can raise people from the dead, walk on water, and multiply foodstuffs could surely do something more pedestrian like read and write. But the Bible itself is not as clear on the matter and recent research suggests that things aren’t as straightforward as they seem.
The Gospels present conflicting evidence on the subject. In a story in both Mark and Matthew Jesus is rejected as a synagogue teacher in Nazareth by the people from his home town because they know that he isn’t qualified for the task. Their rejection hinges on the fact that he (or in Matthew’s version, his father Joseph) was a carpenter and, thus, wasn’t from the educated class that would have learned these skills.
In Luke 4:16-20, which is based on the Gospel of Mark, Luke sharpens the portrait of Jesus as educated reader. A scroll is handed to Jesus; Jesus is able to locate the specific passage, reads it, and returns the scroll. In other words, Luke is making the point that Jesus can do more than simply repeat a story he knows verbatim (anyone who remembers learning to read or has taught their own child to read knows that this can be done.) He can actually read. Interestingly, Luke makes sure to omit the reference to carpenters, thereby removing evidence that would raise the question "how did he learn to read?"
Chris Keith, research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s University, London and author of several books on the subject including Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee told me that, “What we have in the first-century tradition is a variety of opinions on whether Jesus was the kind of teacher who could read in the synagogue.” John 7:15 offers evidence of this kind of confusion when the audience ask themselves, “How does this man know letters since he was never taught?”
Keith told me that the reason that most 20th-century readers of these stories assumed that Jesus could read was “that people who care about Jesus and his life often think about him on their terms. So, especially in the 20th century, biblical scholars simply assumed that Jesus attended an elementary school (usually described as the Nazareth synagogue, and so similar to Catholic and Anglican elementary education in the 20th century) in his youth, where he learned to read and write. The notion that Jesus learned to read and write in synagogue as a child, and ‘like other Jewish boys,’ is rampant in scholarly works on Jesus.”
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people in the ancient world were illiterate (most estimates put the number between 85 percent and 95 percent). Those who could read were from wealthy, elite, upper class families. And every piece of the biblical evidence we have about his social status suggests that Jesus was a craftsman. Jewish literature that was composed around the same time explicitly mentions that carpenters were not part of the scribal elite and thus would not have been able to read in great detail (Sir. 38:27). Of course there was a scale of literacy. Some of these people might have been able to sign their name, for example, but this didn’t mean that they could write or read long textually difficult documents like the Bible. At the time of Jesus, most people were functionally illiterate and could not read or write at all.
In his work on the subject Keith recognizes that, “Just because the majority was illiterate doesn't necessarily mean that Jesus would have been.” In conversation with The Daily Beast he cited Frederick Douglass as an example of this phenomenon. “History is full of exceptions,” he said, but these kinds of exceptions demand an explanation. To accept that Jesus was literate “we would need clear evidence for why and how Jesus was an exception, how he attained an education that was generally not available to people in his class.”
And the Bible doesn’t provide us with this. The story in the Gospel of Luke 4 does not count, Keith says, because it is a clear attempt to fix the implications of the same story in Mark. Other than an appeal to supernatural powers, there’s no way to account for why Jesus would have been able to read.
That said, Keith does not think that the Gospels are "lying" about Jesus. Keith explained that part of the misunderstanding about Jesus’s skill set stemmed from the variety of forms of literacy in the ancient world and the ways in which Jesus’s actions would have been understood by people who occupied different positions on the literacy scale. The Gospels recount instances when Jesus debated the Pharisees on the interpretation of Jewish law. Someone who saw this taking place and was illiterate might easily assume that Jesus was an educated teacher. A member of the scribal elite, on the other hand, could watch exactly the same thing and recognize that— while Jesus was holding his own—he was no expert.
As Keith summarizes “I think Jesus was actually scribal-illiterate, but I equally think that lots of people who saw him teach probably thought he was scribal-literate.” He was the kind of teacher whose charisma and innate talents could confuse people.
Helen Bond, a professor of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, agreed and told The Daily Beast “If Jesus was a carpenter/mason, as we generally suppose, then it's not impossible that he had some rudimentary grasp of letters and/or numbers for the purposes of his trade, but I think it very unlikely that Jesus could read or write.”
The method Keith is employing here is broadly known as social memory theory. He is among a cluster of New Testament scholars who, following the lead of German academic Jens Schröter, use the theory to try and account for the sometimes conflicting traditions about Jesus that we find in the New Testament. In many ways this is the newest form of scholarship into who Jesus was, historically speaking. Whereas earlier generations of scholars interested in this question used to dismiss parts of the Bible as inaccurate, scholars like Keith try to “to propose a scenario that explains why we have the images of the past that we have.” It’s not about "getting to the truth behind the Gospels," but about theorizing the past on the basis of the Gospels.
One of the problems with this methodology is that some scholars try to use it to claim that the Gospels preserve the accurate memories of the apostles themselves and, furthermore, that the stories in the New Testament are true and historically correct. As a result they have been vigorously criticized. These kinds of religiously motivated arguments, Keith told me, “miss the point” of social memory theory because they don’t recognize that some things in the New Testament are “historically inaccurate, but nevertheless in continuity with what many people around Jesus probably thought about him.”
Regardless of the methodology employed here, there are many people who are deeply opposed to the idea that Jesus wasn’t as well educated as the scribes. The reason for this is because in our modern first-world context in which the vast majority of people receive an education, literacy and intelligence are virtual synonyms. Calling Jesus illiterate sounds to some like an accusation of stupidity. In response, Keith notes that “This is a thoroughly first-world perspective, though, and an ethnocentric insistence to hold Jesus to our cultural standards. In antiquity, as well as outside the first world today, intelligence and literacy are not tied together.”
In fact, we could choose to interpret Jesus’s literacy positively: there’s something particularly impressive about a man who was not scribal-literate but nevertheless could hold his own among those who were. As Keith put it, “I have no doubt that Jesus was a powerful and effective teacher; he was, in fact, so effective that he managed to convince some people that he was a scribal-literate teacher even though he likely wasn't!”