The Illiterate Christian “God”

The Biblical Jesus was illiterate

by Ibn Anwar

Having a laugh at the expense of the Prophet Muhammad’s s.a.w. inability to read or write is a favourite Christian pastime. Having read the Bible from cover to cover several times (and many more times in different languages), I have not once encountered an instance where the veracity of a person’s prophetic office is conditional upon his literacy. But the manner by which the Christians jibe at our beloved prophet s.a.w. makes it sound as if to be a prophet, a person has to be able to have, among many things, the ability to read and write. Although such a condition is obviously non-biblical, let us entertain it for a moment and pretend that to be illiterate means to be a non-prophet.

Was their lord and saviour Jesus literate? Before we answer this question, let us be very clear on a few things:

1. Islam has the highest and greatest respect for the true historical Jesus (whose name was not Jesus but was actually Ishho, i.e., ‘Isa, as I have explained at length here .

2. In this article, in speaking of Jesus, we are referring to that version of Jesus that is found in Christian minds and in their scriptures, neither of which are really the historical Jesus.

3. Literacy is not a condition of prophethood

Insofar the New Testament record is concerned, there is not a single instance where Jesus is demonstrated or recorded to have actually read or written anything with the exception of the favourite pericope adulterae. Although it is true that the pericope* in question does mention Jesus doodling in the sand, the story itself has been almost universally rejected as a fraud. Textual critics have long dismissed the passage, the famous story of the adultress, as being a forgery that was forced into John’s gospel, the fourth gospel in the New Testament. Now is not the time to elaborate on the inauthenticity of said Johannine text. Suffice for us at this juncture is to know that Christian scholars are almost unanimous on the fakery of the story as it appears in John. Doubly compounding for the Christian is that even that fake story does not actually tell us what was being doodled by Jesus in the sand. Without the passage, we are left with absolutely no record of Jesus ever having read or written anything. The four versions of Jesus’ earthly ministry are supposed to be different snapshots of Jesus’ approximately 3-year long ministry of preaching and healing. Are we to believe that in all those three years, Jesus never demonstrated himself reading or writing so that the “witnesses” could have seen and recorded about it? Or are we to assume that because he was actually God Himself, that must mean that He was able to read? That would not gell with the fact that Jesus, admittedly so, did not know the day or the hour of the last day (Matthew 24:36) and knowing everything is supposed to be one of God’s attributes. But if Jesus could have been ignorant of the time of the last hour, which according to the verse cited he clearly did not know, then, how can anyone assume that he must have known how to read and how to write? If he could have been ignorant of one thing, then logically, he could have been ignorant of many other things, unless proven otherwise. Further, Second Temple Judaism was generally an oral society and the overwhelming majority of its people were illiterate (it must be mentioned that the reason why the oldest documents of the New Testament are in Greek is because that was the only target audience that had some modicum of literacy in the ancient world and Jesus was not Greek!). Testifying to the prevalent illiteracy of New Testament times, the eminent British New Testament scholar James Dunn writes:

“Second Temple Judaism was predominantly an oral society. That is to say, the great majority of the people were technically illiterate.” [1]

The fact that no reliable record of Jesus ever having read or written anything probably means, as far as the New Testament and Christianity are concerned, he was illiterate. Noting this good point, Dunn writes:

“But the only other profession or trade that we hear of in connection with the other disciples of Jesus was fishing. And if Jesus’ disciples were typical of the peasants, tradesmen and fishermen of Galilee, we can safely assume that the great majority of the disciples were functionally illiterate. WE CANNOT EXCLUDE THE POSSIBILITY THAT JESUS HIMSELF WAS ILLITERATE, or semiliterate…” [2] (capitalised emphasis added)

Dunn’s scholarly conclusion has gone a step further than what we have initially suggested: Not only was Jesus illiterate, his immediate disciples were probably equally so!

Until and unless Christians can demonstrate to a reasonable historical certainty that Jesus actually knew how to read and write, they must now bow down in shame and apologise to Muslims for having dishonored not only the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. but also their Jesus, whom we have seen must have been equally illiterate.

Christians find it hard to stomach the idea of their god not knowing the time of the last day for which they have offered contradictory and colourful explanations. But to now face with the prospect of a god that was illiterate, too? They must be overwhelmed.


Does Luke 4:16 detract from what we have written above? No, it does not. Although Luke 4:16 does interestingly describe Jesus as standing up “to read,” in our humble estimation, that remains an ambiguous example of Jesus’ alleged literacy. Firstly, it must be clear that the text does not actually say, in any clear fashion, that Jesus was reading out of the Isaiah scroll that he had in his hand. The text cites the Isaiah passage that Jesus is made to refer to, but it conspicuously does not say that Jesus was actually reading the cited Isaiah text out of the scroll in his hand.It simply says that “he found” the location of the passage and scrolled back the document. The actual Isaiah passage that is cited in Luke 4 is the annotation of the author of that passage and not Jesus’ actual quotation. To read a text from a known book does not necessitate actual reading. One may say, “I am reading from Harry Potter, the Chamber of Secrets” upon quoting a sentence or two from that book without actually looking at any written or typed text. Reading in that instance is taken to mean “recite” which does not necessitate actual reading from a written text at the moment of quotation. Simply knowing the location of a quoted text in any given text does not necessarily imply that the person actually knows how to read. It is possible that, in advance, upon consulting others that have some literacy, the illiterate individual is informed of the location of the desired text.

Although very much aware of Luke 4:16, the biblical scholar Professor P. J. J. Botha (Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, University of South Africa) insists that Jesus was illiterate and that the Lukan text in question does not “technically claim Jesus read”:

“Botha argues that scholars must view Jesus’ activities in the Nazareth synagogue as a “cultural event” and interpret them in terms of Galilean peasants, for the majority of whom “literacy was of little concern” — “To be Jewish and literate are demands of a different time and not of the first century.” As with Crossan, for example, Botha emphasizes Jesus’ historical context as a Galilean Jewish peasant in order to assert, “The historical Jesus could not read or write.” Botha, however, does not discount Luke 4:16 entirely and insists, “There is an association with reading which can plausibly be ascribed to him. According to Botha, Jesus’ “reading” in the synagogue(he apparently notes that THE TEXT TECHNICALLY NEVER CLAIMS JESUS READ) was actually a performance–“a highly rhetorical verbal presentation of stories and oral interpretations”–rather than a literal reading from the text. Luke is, for Botha, showing an expert interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures at work. Therefore, although Jesus was illiterate from ur perspective, “Seen as a report of a cultural event, Luke 4:16 should be related to Jesus’ authoritative and demon-conquering activities. He is the son of God who can employ various techniques, including ‘reading’.” In thos heavily qualified sense, for Botha, Luke 4:16 presents an illiterate Jesus.” [3]

Although the text seemingly suggests that Jesus “stood up to read,” upon careful examination, it actually teaches that Jesus was illiterate. In addition, the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus teaching in the synagogue is highly suspect. Realising that Luke was in the habit of concocting ahistorical data to elevate Jesus’ depiction (See the historical fraud that the author of Luke imposes on Jesus in the blunder surrounding Quirinius:…/historical-inaccuracy…/), one must treat Lukan narratives with extra caution. One must be even more wary of the veracity of Jesus’ synagogue episode as related in Luke 4 when one compares it to the parallel Markan account. In Mark, it is conspicuously obvious that Jesus did not read anything. If he did read something, Mark would have surely mentioned it. Rather, Mark’s account shows that Jesus was not recognised at all as a teacher of the synagogue which is in stark contrast to the Lukan depiction that describes the scribes and Pharisees as being awed by Jesus’ “reading” of the Isaiah scroll. Biblical scholar Chris Keith notes the evident contradiction and demands the abandonment of Luke’s account for the more historical Markan account:

“…in Luke 4:17 after the text claims he stood up “in order to read” (ἀναγνῶναι) in Luke 4:16. I have argued elsewhere that this account of Jesus in Nazareth purposefully contradicts the Markan version, wherein Jesus is rejected as a synagogue teacher as a τέκτων (Mark 6:3), and that Mark’s account is more historically likely (Keith, Jesus’ Literacy, 124-88).” [4]

Because Mark’s account weakens the credibility of Luke’s version of the same incident, one must treat Luke, being the later gospel, cautiously. This attitude towards the reliability of Luke 4:16 is well noted by Mitchell G. Reddish, O.L. Professor of Christian Studies, Chair of Religious Studies at Stetson University:

“If this passage is historically authentic, then we certainly have evidence of Jesus’ ability to read. Many scholars, however, have raised questions about the historical reliability of what is described in this passage. Luke 4:16-30 seems to be an expansion of Mark 6:1-6. The Markan text tells of Jesus teaching in the synagogue in his hometown and the ensuing astonishment of his listeners. Mark does not mention, though, that Jesus read in the synagogue. One must, therefore, use the Lukan passage with caution as evidence of Jesus’ literacy.” [5]

Craig Evans writes that most scholars do not view Luke’s account as credible:

“…Luke 4:16-30, which describes Jesus reading from Isaiah and then preaching a homily. Most scholars hesitate to draw any conclusions from this passage because of its relationship to the parallel passage in Mark 6:1-6, which says nothing about reading Scripture.” [6]

Far from being an incontrovertible evidence, Luke 4:16 does little to help the Christian missionary’s daydream. Suspicious and unclear, the text does not prove Jesus’ literacy. We must affirm our conclusion that insofar reliable New Testament record is concerned, there is no reliable evidence of satisfactory clarity that the biblical Jesus knew how to read.


* Pericope: a term used for excised extracts from the text of the Bible.

[1] Dunn, J. D. G. (2011). Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 22

[2] Ibid.

[3] Keith, C. (2011). Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee. New York: T & T Clark International. p. 22

[4] Keith, C. (2017). Urbanization and Literate Status in Early Christian Rome: Hermas and Justin Martyr as Examples. In Steve Walton, Paul R. Trebilco & David W. J. Gill (eds.), The Urban World and the First Christians. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. p. 195, fn. 31

[5] Reddish, M. G. (1997). An Introduction to The Gospels. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press. p. 14

[6] Evans, C. A. (2007). Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus. In William H. Brackney & Craig A. Evans (eds), From Biblical Criticism to Biblical Faith: Essays in Honor of Lee Martin McDonald. p. 41

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