An interesting article was posted yesterday on The Daily Beast by historians Candida Moss and Joel Baden. In it, they take down an argument by author Michael Paulkovich from his recently published book, No Meek Messiah in which he attempts to present evidence that Jesus never existed. Moss and Baden summarize Paulkovich’s argument this way:
Paulkovich’s case rests on three main pillars. First, the discovery that no ancient writers from the first few centuries CE mention Jesus. Second, the assumption that most writers should have mentioned Jesus, since he was the Son of God and all that. Third, the keen observation that Jesus never wrote anything himself. Although an undeniably compelling trinity of argumentation, it is not without its logical problems.
For the most part, Moss and Baden deliver an excellent rebuttal of these claims. I found myself in total agreement with them, until I read this:
The pièce de résistance in Paulkovich’s argument is that Jesus himself never wrote anything about himself. Scholarly estimates place literacy in the ancient world at around 5 percent. It’s not surprising that a carpenter from Galilee didn’t have the education or resources to put stylus to papyrus. This is a question of education, not non-existence.
Many Christians may respond to this by saying, “Of course Jesus could read and write. He’s God!” After all, we have the Bible, which Christians believe with unanimity to be the written word of God.
This is a fine argument if you already believe Jesus is divine. For the uninitiated, however, a little more evidence may be required.
Jesus read in the Synagogues
There is evidence in the New Testament that Jesus was capable of reading. For example, Luke 4:16-21 tell us:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was able to write
There is also New Testament evidence that Jesus was able to write. In John 8:3-9 we read:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
There is ample evidence in the New Testament that Jesus was well educated, beginning with his childhood experience in the temple (Lk 2:41-51), and his continuing interactions with the educated Jews of his time. But he lived in a primarily oral culture, so we should not be surprised that he may not have written anything. If he did, then it is most certainly lost to us.
No Writings from Jesus: A Catholic Answer
The fact that we don’t have any writings from Jesus, or that he didn’t handwrite the Bible on his own is not a big problem for Catholics. While the Bible is essential, it is not the only means of transmitting the Faith from one generation to the next.
For this, Jesus established his Church, which St. Paul calls “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). This is why Jesus chose his disciples and groomed them. They would be the method of transmission.
I believe Moss and Baden are mistaken in thinking that illiteracy might be one reason why we don’t possess any writings from Jesus. The available evidence paints a different picture.