Reading and Writing in Herodian Israel– Was Jesus an Illiterate Peasant? Part One

There is an awful lot of loose talk, and pontificating on the basis of loose talk when it comes to the issue of Jesus’ social level, and his ability to read or write or whether he could have been multi-lingual. Sometimes the discussion is even based on irrelevant data— for example the fact that Galilee was not inhabited by scads of Gentiles (see Mark Chancey’s fine monograph on how Gentile was Galilee). The ethnic makeup of Galilee is frankly irrelevant to the issue of whether Greek was used in the first century in Galilee or not for the very good reason that all of the Holy Land had long since been Hellenized for centuries.

The proper and only question is— the degree to which Greek was used in Galilee and in what contexts in Jesus’ day. For example, could Jesus himself have known and used some Greek. The answer to this is yes, and yes, he could have done so, and there were occasions when he would have needed to do so— when speaking to a Roman officials for example, such as a centurion, or say especially Pontius Pilate.

And then too we have the evidence of Jesus using loan words like ‘hypocrites’ a term taken from Greek theater which literally means an actor, but came to be a pejorative term meaning a poser, a person who appears to be one thing, and actually is another— i.e. a ‘hypocrite’. Most people in the occupied territory we call the Holy Land, had to be to some degree multi-lingual to deal with Greeks, Romans, Jews on a very regular basis, including especially for business purposes. The lingua franca in such a mixed language milieu was Greek, the language of commerce, trade, tax discussions etc. but the chief spoken language of Galilean and Judean Jews was Aramaic, a Semitic cousin of Hebrew.

Of course it is true that a person may be able to speak more than one language and not be able to read or write any of them. So what Jesus could have spoken is one issue, his literacy, as we would call it, is another. Unfortunately, the question of Jesus’ literacy is clouded by modern definitions. Literacy in antiquity could involve just the ability to read a language, without also being able to write it. Writing was a specialty skill, and usually scribes were the ones who undertook it. I am not particularly concerned with whether Jesus could have written anything, though I suspect he could have done, but what I am concerned with is his ability to read things. And here we are on firmer grounds.

Let us first eliminate the old canard, which suggests ‘since Jesus was a peasant, he was very likely to be illiterate’. First of all, Jesus was not a peasant. He was an artisan, a ‘tekton’ which means one who carves and molds stone and wood, more often stone than wood in many cases in the Holy Land. Jesus’ family had a trade. They had a home in Nazareth, and in the town just over the next hill, Sepphoris, you have a ton of building going on.

Jesus’ family were engaged in a trade, had a home, and so far as we can tell should not be classified with landless peasants, or tenant farmers. But there is another reason not to call Jesus a peasant. His family was not merely pious, they were devout, and the evidence we have suggests that devout Jews especially insisted that their sons learn to read so they could take their turn reading Torah in the synagogue. Here’s where we are helped by Alan Milliard’s recent study on Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus . It will take a few posts to consider all the factors in assessing the issue, but let’s make a start.

Let’s start with a few facts. The first has to do with climate. The reason we have found lots of papyri at the Dead Sea and in the deserts of Egypt is climate. These are dry desert regions. Hardly any rain. This must be contrasted with Galilee both south and north. Papyri are made of vegetable matter. They do not survive well in wet climates, indeed for the most part they do not survive at all for long in such climates. Did you wonder why museums have climate controlled cases for papyri??? This is the reason.

Therefore, arguments like “we have no evidence of literary Greek in Galilee” are arguments from silence, not arguments from evidence. Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence in such a matter. But even so, we DO actually have evidence of Greek in many forms in the region in which Jesus walked and talked.

For example there is a whole cave at Qumran, Cave 7 that was full of nothing but fragments of Greek scrolls! My point is, that we should not assume either monolinguality or illiteracy on the part of Jews who live in Galilee. In fact we should assume the opposite knowing what we know about the social setting, and the linguistic ans religious history of the region. Jews were a people who focused on a sacred text— Torah. You needed to be able to read to do that. But lest we go too far in the direction of imbalance and assume nothing but Aramaic and Hebrew and Jewish ways were going on in the region, consider the following.

Galilee was surrounded by ten Greek cities (the Decapolis), including one within the region itself— Scythopolis. Bethsaida was a border town. Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi aka Banyas to reveal his identity. There is no reason at all why the stories of Jesus, and the sayings of Jesus could not have been written up in Greek not long after Jesus spoke them, at the least for Diaspora Jews to peruse.

Let’s look at some particulars from Galilee. Tel Dan is traditionally the northern limits of the Holy Land. It is in the northern part of lower Galilee, not very far north of Bethsaida. At tel Dan the archaeological work has produced some remarkable results. For example there is there a dedicatory inscription. The main text is in Greek with an Aramaic version below, witness to the bilingual character of the region. It says ‘to the gods in Dan’ (see Millard, p. 87).

Now this is in no way surprising because multi-lingual inscriptions existed for centuries in this region. Take for example the coins of a Jewish ruler, Alexander Janneus. In 78 B.C. he struck coins with both Greek and Aramaic inscriptions. In fact, you find evidence of this sort of thing from all over the Holy Land— in Galilee and in Judea. For example take the town of Gezer. There on stone blocks around the town was carved in the first century B.C. an inscription indicating the boundaries of an estate. The inscription is in both Aramaic and Greek, and the interesting thing is that it is half and half. To read the whole thing, you need to know both languages— in Aramaic it says ‘Boundary of Gezer’ and in Greek it says ‘authority of Alkios’ (see Millard p. 88). We find the same sort of stuff in inscriptions, in dedications, on potsherds, in literary texts from the south to the north, even in sectarian places like Qumran and Masada. Are you getting the picture that the culture was permeated with things written in both Aramaic and Greek? You should be.

Forward Thinking on Reading Backwards’– Part Six
Man Shoveling Snow in Lexington while Break Dancing
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part One
  • PeterM

    It’s obvious to anyone really thinking matters through that 1st Century Palestine was multilingual. A major trade route and intersection between Empires, part of the Roman Empire, within an area formerly conquered by different Empires including Alexander’s. Additionally, there are various funerary and ossuary inscriptions from the area and time that have been found in multiple languages – Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic. Anyone wishing to flourish economically in such a multicultural society would have to have at least some conversational fluency in 2 or 3 languages.

    The Romans knew that Latin was the superior language (!!), as does any conquering nation know that its own culture is superior, so it would hardly fit that the peoples they conquered would be allowed to continue not occasionally speaking Latin with their enforcers.

    That erroneous assumption that people of the day could not have been so fluent is usually based on the experiences of people living in monocultural/monolinguistic societies. The Germanic scholars of the mid-Renaissance period started to purvey this theory and it has been perpetuated by scholars since. Anyone who lives in Europe knows that if you travel, knowing a couple of languages is more than handy and not at all uncommon (so many of our English-speaking peoples today do not experience that). Jesus’ family travelled.

    Witness also the events at Pentecost after Jesus’ death, when people came to Jerusalem from many different cultures, speaking many different languages. How would they communicate and trade if there was not multilingualism?

    Unfortunately, this hubris and prejudice towards ancient peoples which basically presents them as stupid and superstitious is not based on the reality that those cultures produced maths, science, architecture, dwellings, art, literature and so on that still astounds today. Modern people think that having a computer is the only indication of intelligence. Not so. (CS Lewis debunked some of the dubious conceptions of medieval times through his own research.)

    Now, that’s the historical/cultural reality. If one takes a theological point of view, as a Christian, that Jesus was God, then the answer as to whether he could be literate in other tongues is obvious …

    Look forward to more of your posts Ben!

  • Anonymous

    Since reading many of the criticisms of the bible like this people make, I have realized that their quality is similar to ‘scholarly arguments’ you would find on a blog or in a high school term paper. Who in their right mind would claim that Greek wasn’t spoken in Galilee? That would be like saying English isn’t spoken in China. Or claiming that this person or that must not have been literate, based on no evidence than a gut feeling.

  • Anonymous

    Exactly. People today love to criticize people in the past as being stupid and superstitious. Yet they invented civilization, government, culture, art, math, science, etc. What have we created? iPhones? Cinnabuns? They might be nice, but they simply can’t compare. What person who lived in the last century will people remember 2000 years from now? Maybe no one, but they will still remember Caesar, Plato, Jesus, etc.

  • Mark

    Thank you, Ben.

  • Kelly Carter

    Ben, I really appreciate such information. I cannot read everything, so to get a taste of what you think is important work in NT studies is always beneficial to me.

  • PB

    Very nice article. But how does this relate to Jesus’ regular teachings and discourses? For instance, I’ve always assumed that the Sermon on the Mount was given in Aramaic.

    I say this because I heard a skeptic argue recently that English readers of the Bible aren’t just two languages removed from Jesus – Greek to English. But that since Jesus spoke Aramaic, they are three removed – Aramaic, to Greek, to English. Since some things in Aramaic are untranslatable into Greek and some things in Greek untranslatable into English, English readers don’t have original clarity on what Jesus said, which is a flaw in the religion, and on and on.

  • Anonymous

    Hi PB: It is indeed true that we are two languages removed from Jesus’ mother tongue. However it is not true, if enough words are used, that we cannot offer a good approximation of what Jesus meant. The issue is more the meaning that the ipsissima verba, the exact words.

  • Mr-A

    Aramaic is the language of the folks from Aram, which is present day Syria for all practical purposes. Israel; Israel/Judea; post exilic Judea; Hellenic Judea; Hasmonean Judea; Roman-ruled Judea all were peopled with Jews who, as you say, spoke several language most likely. They were Jews, and their language was Hebrew. All these other languages were tongues of the occupational enemies of the Jews. The heart of a Jew is to remain Jewish, hence speak their language nothwithstanding those of other nations as necessary.

  • Lcwhatley

    Latin was a written language…it was not commonly spoken…

  • Anonymous

    Mr Whatley you are incorrect. Romans from Italy all spoke Latin, and did so wherever they went. It was absolutely a spoken language— spoken in the Senate, on the battle field, in the forum, at home, in the market place etc.

  • Amos

    I’ve felt the same way from my studies. Phillip of Macedon and Alexander the Great left an enduring legacy of Greek as the basic international language for the entire region, but especially for anyone involved in trade or travel. Growing up as an expat in Egypt likely exposed the young Jesus to that international language and perhaps to others.

    That Jesus was able to read in the Synagogue clearly indicates a level of literacy. His sermons and other discourses imply a thorough understanding of the Psalms, the Torah and the prophets. Scriptural Hebrew would have been “church language” for the synagogue.

    His words from the cross are preserved in Aramaic, probably the street language of his community.

    It is possible Jesus was also able to converse with the Roman officials in something other than Greek. If so, Latin would have been a fourth language he might have regularly used.

    His disciples included business owners (fishermen owned boats and hired employees to manage the nets), a tax collector (for Rome – likely fluent in Latin) and a physician (Luke’s medical training may well have been in Greek). I find it unlikely these professional men with sometimes strong personalities would have granted their respect and service to an illiterate and uneducated teacher.

    For me, the evidence is much stronger that Jesus was educated than that he was not.

  • Anonymous

    Amos Jesus did not grow up in Egypt. He grew up in Nazareth so far as we know. Herod the Great died within a year or so of Jesus’ birth, and they went home.

  • Amos

    @ Ben – fair enough. The timing of the birth narrative leaves significant voids between the birth, the flight to Egypt (perhaps when he was two years old) and the family’s return to Nazareth. The first solid indication of his presence in the area is his experience of staying behind in the Temple, perhaps 12-13 years old. There seems room for more than a year in Egypt and a longer residence in Nazareth. I concede most of his growing up time was in Nazareth.

    Still, we both sense the common language for the larger mixing community would have been Greek. The Holy Land was at the political, economic and cultural crossroads of three continents and their many cultures. Water as transportation seems to have hugged the coastlines and been used more for supplementing trade and government that was going on overland.

  • Mkholmes 25

    it was the lingua franca for any place Rome conquered amongst the Roman people…

  • Anonymous

    Latin was of course the language of Romans, but it was not ever the common language of those they conquered, not even in Roman colony cities. Take Corinth for example. The language of jurisprudence was of course Latin, but in this cosmopolitan town with peoples of many races and native tongues, only Greek united them all, and was the language of commerce. There are more Greek inscriptions and graffiti in Corinth than any other sort from the first centuries B.C. through the 2nd century A.D.

  • Deane Galbraith

    Congratulations! This post was included in the November 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival. This is quite an achievement. My word, yes.