Could Jesus read or write?
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus took the scroll, unrolled it, found the passage and read it. That passage was identical with our own upcoming lectionary reading from the prophet Isaiah for this Sunday.
So could Jesus read and write? It is highly unlikely. Literacy was counted at under twenty percent even in the most educated parts of the ancient world, and a Galilean village was not one of them. Literacy is a continuum. It can be categorized by the complexity of different texts. Level one is an ability to read a short message, a shopping list or a business receipt. The next level is the reading of a letter or a newspaper article. Unrolling the scroll, finding the desired text and reading complex prophetic poetry asks for the highest level of literacy.
By the way, how many of our “highly religious” American compatriots would be able to find the prophet Isaiah in their Bible without referring to the index? I personally saw evangelical fundamentalists struggling to find Jonah, not to mention the prophet Habakkuk.;-) Can you imagine looking for a specific text on a scroll, without pages, without an index and without numbered chapters and verses, and doing it in a language which had not been commonly spoken for generations? Just imagine doing it in any other language than your own!
In all likelihood, Jesus was hardly literate. When we hear about Jesus who unrolled a scroll and found a particular text, Luke might not have intended to speak about Jesus’ literacy, but instead he might have been hinting at divine providence. From the labyrinth of a scroll filled with highly complex prophetic Hebrew, Jesus read the passage about the joy of general amnesty for political prisoners, and the pardon of un-repayable loans. He proclaimed a new vision for the world. Come listen to Jesus’ preaching on this old prophetic text. From the prophetic text he preaches into our context today. Come to be surprised with Jesus’ radically new and timely reinterpretation of advent joy.
And for those who read as far as this:
On the matter of the emerging literacy, many of you might remember that Socrates (In Plato’s Phaedrus) spoke powerfully against that “new” invention of writing. He was worried that the event of dialogue and searching for ideas would become objectivised in the physical form of a written text (thus anticipating dangers of literalism, scriptualism and fundamentalism). And secondly he was worried that people would start trusting the written record and stop remembering the true essence of events thus losing an important hermeneutic function of tradition.
From an anthropological perspective it is interesting to note that almost all major world religions emerged around that boundary between oral, rhetorical and literary cultures. Non-literate people were not dumb, they only preserved their knowledge and wisdom differently. At the time of the emergence of writing the scene was set for centuries to come. The time is clearly coming when we move beyond this strictly literalistic world. It is a highly interesting process in which the written (tweets, blogs, wall-statuses) is becoming equivalent to the spoken, creating fast moving and developing chains of significations and re-interpretations. After centuries when "THE WRITTEN" was almost holy, it now becomes ephemeral in large segments of life. What interesting times!