Jesus the Literate, Slavery, Had Adam and Eve Done It Right

1. M. Bar-Ilan, “Writing in Ancient Israel. Part Two: Scribes and Books in the Late Second Commonwealth and Rabbinic Period,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 33-34.

“A high percentage of the population did not know how to read and it seems evident that in rural areas and in small towns only one man could read from the Tora. We might conclude that in such settlements there were more than 90% illiteracy (T. Megilla 3:12).”

Bar-Ilan is talking about the rabbinic period, but I’ve heard the same thing about New Testament times in Palestine. Bar-Ilan gives a quotation from an ancient source, the Tosefta, so let’s see what it has to say:

“A synagogue which has only one person who can read–he stands and reads [in the Torah] and sits down…even seven times” (Jacob Neusner’s translation).

Okay, I guess literacy wasn’t widespread in Palestine back then, if there were towns in which only one person could read. When rabbinic literature talks about kids learning the Bible and the Mishnah, therefore, it may either be setting forth its ideal of Palestinian life, or discussing an elite.

We read in Luke 4:16-19 that Jesus could read. There, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in a Nazareth synagogue. How could Jesus read, if most people back then were illiterate?

This is where some believe that Luke is wrong, historically-speaking. At DePauw, I knew an atheist who made that very point. “How is Jesus reading? Most people couldn’t read back then?,” he asked. I also vaguely recall that John Dominic Crossan regards Jesus as an illiterate peasant.

But maybe Jesus somewhere learned how to read. I once had a conversation with a colleague at Harvard Divinity School. He wasn’t aiming to go into academia, but rather into a Korean Christian ministry. But he took a New Testament class, in which he had to read John Dominic Crossan’s book on Jesus the peasant. His class got into a debate about whether or not Jesus could read. My friend remarked that Martin Luther King in his context probably shouldn’t have been literate either! For him, great men are great precisely because they are able to rise above the limitations of their context.

I’m not sure how right my friend was about Martin Luther King. Schools were segregated in King’s day, but at least African-Americans had schools to go to, and I’m sure they taught reading. At the same time, the South tried to trip African-Americans up with literacy tests. So maybe there were lots of people in the South who could read, and lots who could not, and this probably applied to both races: black and white.

But, if even illiterate towns had at least one literate person in the synagogue, then why couldn’t Jesus have been one of those literate people? Perhaps God set things up so that Jesus would learn how to read.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 349.

“In the period before us, however, the abolition of slavery, save in isolated cases of manumission, was utterly out of question, considering only the enormous number of the slaves. The world was far from ripe for such a step. The church, in her persecuted condition, had as yet no influence at all over the machinery of the state and the civil legislation. And she was at that time so absorbed in the transcendent importance of the higher world and in her longing for the speedy return of the Lord, that she cared little for earthly freedom or temporal happiness. Hence Ignatius, in his epistle to Polycarp, counsels servants to serve only the more zealously for the glory of the Lord, that they may receive from God the higher freedom; and not to attempt to be redeemed at the expense of their Christian brethren, lest they be found slaves of their own caprice. From this we see that slaves, in whom faith awoke the sense of manly dignity and the desire of freedom, were accustomed to demand their redemption at the expense of the church, as a right, and were thus liable to value the earthly freedom more than the spiritual.”

Schaff includes a similar quote from Tertullian, and he also refers to a fourth century statement by Chrysostom that slaves should be gradually emancipated. In pages 350-352, Schaff cites some interesting facts: that Christian tradition “makes Onesimus, the slave of Philemon, a bishop[;]” that the slave Callistus “rose to the chair of St. Peter in Rome” in the third century C.E.; that Clement calls slaves “men like ourselves;” and that Lactantius (third-fourth century C.E.) proclaims slaves and masters to be equal.

I picked this quote to write about because Ignatius’ statement about slavery stuck out to me, but I never got around to discussing it on my blog. Ignatius essentially says that slaves shouldn’t try to become free. What was Paul’s position? That depends on how one translates I Corinthians 7:21. The NRSV has the following:

“Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.”

This seems to imply that the Christian slave should make us of his state of slavery rather than seeking to become free. As Titus 2:9-10 says, “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.” By being good slaves, Christian servants could lead their masters to Christ.

The NIV, however, has something different:

“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you– although if you can gain your freedom, do so.”

For the NIV, a Christian slave should become free if he is able to do so.

The Greek looks rather ambiguous: it says something like “but if you are able to be free, rather use.” The debate concerns what the word translated “use” means.

But the New Testament is not always anti-slavery. I Timothy 6:2 instructs Christian slaves to submit to their Christian masters, so apparently the church didn’t require masters to free their slaves once they joined up.

At the same time, the New Testament requires masters to treat their slaves with kindness (Ephesians 6:9). Paul even tells Philemon to regard his servant not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ (Philemon 1:16).

The New Testament and early Christian record on slavery is rather checkered. There isn’t really a wholesale condemnation of the institution, yet masters and slaves were treated as equals. Does the latter part absolve Christianity of being pro-slavery? Some will say “yes,” and some will say “no.” I had a professor at DePauw who said that Southern slave-owners in pre-Civil War days acknowledged that their slaves were spiritual equals, yet, in their eyes, spiritual equality did not mean social equality. At the same time, shouldn’t spiritual equality lead to social equality? John Wesley certainly thought so, for he believed that a master wouldn’t beat a slave whom he saw as a brother in Christ. And Ephesians 6:9 is clear that masters shouldn’t mistreat their slaves.

One more point: God can use a person even in slavery. Many of us are seeking to change our circumstances, but should that be our sole focus? Maybe God can use us in an unpleasant situation. That’s not to say that slaves shouldn’t have sought their freedom, since freedom is a good thing, and slavery could be really horrible. But it’s one more thing to think about as we consider the issue of the Bible and slavery.

3. Jacob Neusner, Judaism’s Story of Creation: Scripture, Halakhah, Aggadah (Boston: Brill, 2000) 117.

“Adam picked and ate. But here too there is a detail that cannot be missed. Even after three years, Israel may not eat the fruit wherever it chooses. Rather, in the fourth year from planting, Israel will still show restraint, bringing the fruit only ‘for jubilation before the Lord’ in Jerusalem. That signals that the once forbidden fruit is now eaten in public, not in secret, before the Lord, as a moment of celebration. That detail too recalls the Fall and makes its comment upon the horror of the fall. That is, when Adam ate the fruit, he shamefully hid from God for having eaten the fruit. But when Israel eats the fruit, it does so proudly, joyfully, before the Lord. The contrast is not to be missed, so too the message. Faithful Israel refrains when it is supposed to, and so it has every reason to refrain and to eat ‘before the Lord.’ It has nothing to hide, and everything to show.”

Neusner is discussing Leviticus 19:23-25: “When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the LORD. But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you: I am the LORD your God” (NRSV).

Suppose that Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the forbidden fruit? Would they have stayed in their state of ignorance and simplicity? Or would God have allowed them to eat it once they became more mature? After all, the knowledge of good and evil is not necessarily a bad thing in Scripture. The Book of Proverbs is largely about distinguishing good from evil! Maybe Adam and Eve weren’t quite ready to do that yet. Or God wanted them to learn to obey him first, before they got into the realm of complex decision-making. Madeleine L’Engle once wrote that Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve was like offering a martini to a child!

C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra is about what would have happened had Adam and Eve obeyed God. It’s not Adam and Eve staying naked and simple for the rest of their natural lives! Adam and Eve actually receive glory in Lewis’ scenario.

I like the way that Neusner presents the issue: the Israelites learn to obey God when they refrain from eating the fruit for three years. Eventually, they eat as they rejoice before the Lord. Maybe that could have happened for Adam and Eve, and God wasn’t trying to withhold anything good from them.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Books, Comps, Daily Quiet Time, History, Ignatius, Leviticus, Life, Madeleine L'Engle, Rabbinics, School. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Jesus the Literate, Slavery, Had Adam and Eve Done It Right

  1. steph says:

    Crossan is often wrong and he is wrong here. Jesus would have been literate and so would some of his disciples who wrote things down. Jesus knew his scriptures (while he sometimes took liberties with them (which was not uncommon practice in oral performance) like Mark 1.2-6, and there is rabbinic evidence that young Jewish boys were taught to read. The proportion of the population who could read were generally Jews. Here is another book to read which is often cited by respected scholarship: Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. It won’t take long to skim through for the evidence.


  2. James Pate says:

    Actually, whether I look at the Millard’s book immediately or not, it’s a good resource to know about. Thanks for recommending it to me.


  3. Pingback: Church Write-Up: Reagan on Memorial Day; Keswick Lives; Jewish Literacy in the Time of Jesus | James' Ramblings

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