|Mapping the US book deserts. |
A percentage of homes with at least 100 books.
Interactive map can be found here.
Scholars and theologian are all but unanimous that Jesus and his Galilean disciples were almost certainly unable to read or write. But please, note that I did not call them illiterate! That would be a gross misrepresentation of their reality. Modern scholarship calls such people nonliterate.
There is an important distinction between illiterate and nonliterate. Illiterate are people who had opportunity to learn reading and writing and yet had never done so. Meanwhile nonliterate persons are those who never had the chance to learn these skills because they lived in a society where hardly anyone could read or write. Such a setting is being described as preliterate society.
In our world and time illiteracy often comes with a stigma, a value judgement about the person’s mental acuity. In the preliterate society inability to read and write was common and did not come with such a stigma.
Literacy all around the Ancient Mediterranean world was about 5%. And our best estimates of literacy among the Jews living in Palestine (from Judea to Galilee) was hardly any larger. And those literate were members of an elite class, who almost certainly did not live in a Galilean rural hamlet like Nazareth. The setting of Jesus’ movement was indeed an oral, preliterate society. And Jesus and his disciples’ inability to read did not mean they were stupid.
On the contrary, anthropologists tell us that nonliteracy gave people some unique and special faculties. Preliterate oral cultures had a phenomenally better narrative memory. From my study of Hawaiian history and culture I am aware of early missionaries in Hawai’i reporting with astonishment the ability of nonliterate locals to reliably memorize entire biblical books. And that has been reported all over the world. Mental capacities of nonliteral peoples are not hindered by literacy. Their intellect is not under the spell of the written. They have a different, intuitive, and broader, more holistic, perception of reality.
In addition and interestingly, to my best knowledge, all the main world religions were born in this twilight zone of literacy, inspired by nonliterate founders, and only later scriptualized - written down. In fact if Jesus and his first Galilean disciples were literate, it would had been a highly irregular and hence suspicious.
The very fact that Jesus and his first disciples were nonliterate, the fact that there was a period of oral transmission, the fact that the Bible was written only about a generation or two later, all of it is an important factor which we normally do not fully appreciate but which was a contributing reason that we have Christianity and our New Testament Bible. And that is something you might not know about the Bible.
Join us this Sunday when we will discern and contemplate the only one New Testament story about reading Jesus (Luke 4:16ff). It might be a wishful projection of a highly educated evangelist, but exactly as a projection it still contains a beautiful and powerful message of divine love and respect for everyone, and especially for those left out and forgotten.