Ben Witherington has written a short series of blog posts (part 1, 2, and 3) on the question of literacy in first-century Israel. He makes an important point that is often overlooked in these discussions: There is a difference between being able to converse in a language, read a language, and write a language. By today’s standards, literacy in a language refers to the ability to both read and write a language. But if we apply this standard to antiquity—particularly to the Jewish people— we will minimize the number of people who were truly literate since many could read, but few could write.
Could Jesus read? Yes. The Jewish literacy rates were higher than the Greco-Roman world because of the Jews’ strong emphasis on male education for purposes of Torah-reading. Furthermore, Jesus was not a peasant. His family were artisans, and they owned land. Evidence that Jesus could read is as follows:
- Luke 4 records Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue at Nazareth.
- Jesus upbraids the scribes and Pharisees, asking them, “Have you not read…” (Mt 12:3,5; Mk 2:25; Lk 6:3). He does the same in Mt 19:4 when discussing divorce, and in Mt 22:31 and Mk 12:26 when discussing the resurrection, and in Lk 10:26 when discussing eternal life, and to priests and scribes in the Temple (Mt 21:16,42; Mk12:10). Jesus assumes that these people could read these texts. And it would be inappropriate for Jesus to upbraid them for not reading something they were unable to read, and that even He Himself had never read.
He also addresses the question of whether Jesus or any of His disciples would have known Greek. He argues:
- Greek was so pervasive in segments of Jewish society from years of Hellenization and Roman occupation that most Jews were familiar with the language.
— Cave 7 at Qumran will filled with nothing but scrolls written in Greek, proving that the Qumran community of Jews were familiar with, and could read and write in Greek. Another cave had a Greek copy of the Minor Prophets.
— A cave south of Qumran contained an archive of 35 papyri (letters, deeds, marriage contracts, etc.) belonging to a lady named Babatha, dating between AD 93-132. Two dozen of these documents are composed in Greek.
— A dedicatory inscription at Tel Dan in northern Israel was composed in Greek with an Aramaic translation below, demonstrating the bi-lingual nature of the region.
— The Jewish leader, Alexander Janneus, struck coins in 78 BC that contain both Greek and Aramaic inscriptions on them. Herod the Great only used Greek for his name and title on the coins he struck. When the Romans took over administration of Judea, the Roman governors struck all bronze coins in Greek. “The coins the priests in Jerusalem required every Jew to pay the annual temple tax with, the Tyrian shekel and half shekel had the Greek inscription–’of Tyre, the holy place and sanctuary’. Even the weights used by Jews in Jerusalem were marked in Greek– one reads ‘Year 32 of Herod the King, pious and loyal to Caesar. Inspector of markets, 3 minas’…. The same sort of thing was found near Tiberias reading ‘under Herod the tetrarch, 34 Gaius Julius the inspector of markets, 5 talents’.”
— Ossuaries have inscriptions on them written in Greek, Aramaic, or both.
— In the town of Gezer in the first century BC an inscription was carved in a stone block to indicate the borders of an estate. Part of the inscription is in Greek, and part of it is in Aramaic. One would have to know both languages to read the entire inscription.
— There are many other inscriptions, potsherds, and literary texts from this time that are written in Greek, Aramaic, or both.
— The Theodotus Inscription is a first century AD inscription written in Greek, commemorating Theodotus bar Vettenus’ rebuilding of a synagogue and its adjoining rooms.
— At Masada potsherds have been discovered with both Greek and Aramaic writing on them.
- Jesus most likely would have spoken to Romans (such as Pilate and centurions) and other Gentiles (such as the Syrophonecian woman, the residents in the region of Gerasene) in Greek.
- Jesus’ spoke of hypocrites. This was a Greek loan word taken from the Greek theatre.
- As a tax collector, Matthew surely had to know some Greek to carry out his business with the Romans.
- Peter may have needed to know some Greek (at least conversant Greek) to do business with the border-regions.
Any argument leveled against the NT which says the authors could not have possibly known Greek is ignorant of the facts. It is highly likely that some, if not all of Jesus’ disciples knew conversational Greek. Some would have known how to read Greek, and perhaps a few could even write in Greek. For those who could not write in Greek, they could employ a scribal secretary to dictate their words as they spoke in Greek (as we know Paul did for the book of Galatians and Romans, even though Paul could probably write in Greek).