The Gospel accounts in the New Testament present Jesus as being familiar and well-versed with Scripture. Did Jesus read Scripture? And to what extent did this reading help him to familiarise and know Scripture?
The public reading of Scripture
Luke records Jesus’ public reading of the scroll of prophet Isaiah in a Synagogue during one of his visits to Nazareth (4: 17 – 21). Such public reading of Scripture by people other than priests and Levites in the Synagogue was common in Israel at the time of Jesus.
We are informed that it was “his custom” to make synagogue visits on Sabbath day. On this particular occasion, the scroll of Isaiah was given to him, and he stood up to read.
Jesus’ familiarity with Scripture
There are interesting details that can be gleaned from this passage.
One finds Jesus’ ability to:
- unroll the scroll of Isaiah
- choose a select passage for reading
- identify the select passage within the scroll
- read it aloud and
- roll back the scroll before handing it over to an attendant.
This is remarkable considering Jesus’ lack of formal scribal learning and being Joseph’ son (a carpenter’s son)
- The fact that the scroll was given to Jesus, a visitor at this instance, seems to suggest at least some prior knowledge about Jesus’ ability to read and his availability for a public reading of Scriptures.
- There is even a subtle hint regarding Jesus’ exceptional oratory skills as we are told that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Lk. 4:20).
Scholarly Debate: Divergent views
There are divergent views regarding Jesus’ literacy. While Chris Keith [Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (T&T Clark, 2011)] argues that it is highly unlikely that Jesus was educated, Craig A. Evans [Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (SPCK, 2013)] argues for the possibility of a literate Jesus.
I find Craig A. Evans’ argument and conclusion in Jesus and His World compelling. He contends: “there is considerable contextual and circumstantial evidence that suggests that in all probability he was literate”.
Despite the lack of formal Scribal learning and being Joseph’s son, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus could read (based on Luke’s testimony). Jesus regularly (or perhaps frequently) read Scripture at this Synagogue in Nazareth, where he was brought up (Lk 4:16). It is possible that much of his familiarity with Scripture was due to the regular reading of Scripture at the Synagogue.