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Jesus and Literacy

How did Jesus obtain his knowledge of Jewish history and theology?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Q. How did Jesus obtain his knowledge of Jewish history as displayed by his theological exchanges? Did he have a mentor within the temple?

A. Nothing in early Christianity indicates to us that Jesus had a mentor in the temple.  Only one text from the first century C.E. places Jesus in the temple before his public ministry as an adult—Luke 2:41-51—and it emphasizes that Jesus was on the same level of the teachers even as a twelve year-old (Luke 2:46-47). Even this portrayal of Jesus in the temple impressing educated teachers at twelve cannot automatically be taken at face value, however. It contrasts with the earlier portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as someone who is rejected as a synagogue teacher by his fellow villagers in Nazareth because he is in the manual labor class (Mark 6:1-6; also Matt 13:54-58). Scholars debate whether Jesus received a literate education. 

I argue in my book Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (T&T Clark, 2011) that it is highly unlikely that Jesus was educated, while Craig A. Evans in Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (SPCK, 2013, pp. 63–88) argues for the possibility of a literate Jesus.  Both of us agree that there is no hard evidence for a literate education for Jesus, however.  Most likely, Jesus, like most Jews of the first century C.E., obtained most of his knowledge of Jewish history by listening to the sacred texts read weekly at synagogue.  Interestingly, the question of Jesus’ education and mentorship was intriguing to Christians in the late second century.  One of the main themes of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (circa 185 C.E.) is that Jesus remained uneducated but was also well beyond the education that any of his would-be teachers could provide him.

  • Chris Keith

    Chris Keith is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s University where he also serves as Director of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible.  His publications include Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic, 2014), Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (co-edited with Larry W. Hurtado, Baker Academic, 2011), and Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (co-edited with Anthony Le Donne, T&T Clark, 2012).