Biblical Archaeology Review 29:4, July/August 2003

Literacy in the Time of Jesus

Could His Words Have Been Recorded in His Lifetime?

By Alan R. Millard

How likely is it that someone would have written down and collected Jesus’ sayings into a book in Jesus’ lifetime? Several lines of evidence converge to suggest it is quite probable.

The first factor to consider is how prevalent literacy was in Jesus’ time. Full literacy means being able to read and write proficiently, but degrees of literacy vary; people who can read, for example, may not be able to write. A common view is that of W.H. Kelber, who claims that, in first-century A.D. Palestine, “writing was in the hands of an élite of trained specialists, and reading required an advanced education available only to a few.”1 It is often asserted that writing was restricted to government and religious circles and would have had no place among the peasantry of Galilee, where Jesus did much of his teaching. If this statement were true, there would be more validity to the widely-held opinion that knowledge of Jesus’ words and deeds depended on oral tradition—people passed on what they saw and heard by word of mouth—until about 70 A.D., when the earliest of the Gospels, the Gospel of Mark, was composed.

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