John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v. 1, ch. 9: In the Interim... Part I: Language, Education, and Socioeconomic Status,
pp 253-315

(Detailed summary)

Can anything be said about the education and formation of Jesus?

  • Actually, we have no information on the education and formation of Jesus. All we have is the knowledge of Judaism at the time of Jesus and what we know about the adult Jesus that allows us to make certain extrapolations. Or, in a negative way, there is nothing to contradict the general fact that Jesus, like every human being, had to go through all the stages of physical, sexual, intellectual and religious development. Like any adolescent, he had to experience the jolts of the struggle to define himself.

  • First of all, what languages did he speak, what languages could he read and in what languages could he write? The question is all the more difficult to answer because we are not certain about the details of daily life in Palestine at the time. For knowing how to read and write was rare and reserved for the intellectual elite. In the same way, we cannot rely on the inscriptions of the time, because they also came from the elite who made it an instrument of their domination. For example, a Latin plaque from Pontius Pilate was found in 1961 at Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, which was to be attached to a building and dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius: it is legitimate to doubt that the majority of Jews could read this inscription. All that is known is that four languages were in use in the region: Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. Let's take a look at them one by one.

  • Latin is only found on some inscriptions in the region of Caesarea Maritima, the capital of Roman power, and in Jerusalem, where Roman legions could be stationed. No wonder there is no trace of it in Galilee. There is no reason to believe that Jesus could speak Latin, or even read it.

  • It's a very different thing for Greek. Because since the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, Greek had become the international language, just like English today. In addition, there was a strong political push to Hellenize the entire Middle East. Even in Palestine Greek cities were built, including in Galilee. Herod the Great will be one of the promoters of Hellenization by building many Greek-Roman style buildings in Jerusalem. About one-third of the inscriptions of the time found in Jerusalem were Greek. However, all this is only a partial picture of the situation which risks distorting the overall picture. Let us not forget that in parallel with Hellenization there was a strong Jewish nationalist movement, beginning with the revolt of the Maccabean brothers in the third century BC. In Qumran, around the time of Jesus, in this famous library on the shores of the Dead Sea, there are very few documents in Greek. What is even more interesting is to learn that the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who is almost contemporary of Jesus and part of the intellectual elite, had to learn Greek, thanks above all to a prolonged stay in Rome, that his first book on the Jewish war had to be translated into Greek, having been written first in his mother tongue (probably Aramaic), and that, despite several years of frequenting Greek, he still spoke with an accent. When the Roman general Titus with his army laid siege to Jerusalem around the year 70, he, who spoke Greek well, nevertheless appealed to Flavius Josephus to speak to the population in his mother tongue (probably Aramaic) and invite them to abandon a useless struggle. All this shows that the majority of people were not comfortable with Greek. It is easy to imagine that, even more so, the rather conservative and rather nationalistic peasants of Galilee had to stay away from the Greek language. Yet none of this gives us any certainty about Jesus' understanding of Greek. For because of his trade as a carpenter, it is possible that he was called upon to learn a few phrases, as all those who do business and trade do, in order to write bills or receipts, but not enough to speak fluently or to preach. It is known that many of the Jews of the diaspora who were in Jerusalem spoke Greek, but there is no evidence that Jesus could have spoken to them in their language; on the contrary, his disciples Andrew and Philip, who have Greek names, seem to have acted as interpreters (Jn 12:20-22).

  • Hebrew is obviously the national language of the Jews, the language in which the majority of the books of the Old Testament were written. However, following their deportation to Babylon in the 6th century BC, Hebrew lost its popularity to Aramaic, the international language spoken in the Near East during the Neo-Assyrian and Persian period, from the 6th to the 4th century BC. Thus the books of the prophets Ezra (4th century) and Daniel (2nd century) were written partly in Aramaic. However, we should not believe that Hebrew was dead, since it is the first language of the books found in this famous library in Qumran. Later, Hebrew was also the language of rabbinic writings, such as the Mishna (3rd century C.E.). It is easy to imagine that certain fiercely religious and nationalist groups spoke Hebrew above all. However, Hebrew does not seem to be a language spoken and understood by the majority of people at the time of Jesus. The greatest proof is the existence of the Targums, i.e. Aramaic translations of the biblical text into Hebrew where the translator did not hesitate to paraphrase and give his own interpretation of the text. Now, when people gathered in the synagogue, these Targums were read because even the most pious people did not understand Hebrew sufficiently. Was this also the case with Jesus? Because of his debates with the scribes and Pharisees on very specific points of the Bible, we can think that he must have had some knowledge of Biblical Hebrew. But we have no proof that he could speak it normally.

  • Most of the data we have on the period of Jesus, such as inscriptions on ossuaries or tombs, show that Aramaic was the popular language of the time. Similarly, the presence in Qumran of many Targums, these Aramaic translations of the Bible, testify to the same. It is Aramaic that can be found in the commercial writings of the time, such as debt acknowledgment documents. Aramaic was so present that it even appears in the Greek of the New Testament where we find some Aramaicisms, such as this passage from the Our Father in Matthew (6:12): Forgive us our debts, an expression which has no meaning in Greek, but which was used in Aramaic since sin was perceived as a debt to God. The evangelist Mark does not hesitate to keep several Aramaic expressions as they are: Talitha koum ("young girl, arise", 5: 41), ’abbā’ ("daddy", 14: 36), ephphatha ("Be opene", 7: 34), elōi, elōi, lema sabachthani ("my God, my God, why have you forsaken me", 15: 34). There is a consensus among biblical scholars that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and an expression like ’abbā’, daddy, to speak of God, an expression that we will also find in St. Paul (Gal 4:6), can only come from him. It can even be said that he spoke the western version of Aramaic used in Galilee, rather than the Aramaic of Judea, since during his trial in Jerusalem, people will be able to identify Peter as a disciple of Jesus by his accent: "...your language betrays you" (Mt 26:73).

  • Let us go so far as to ask ourselves: Was Jesus illiterate? The question arises all the more since Jesus was born in an obscure peasant village in Galilee. Only one text helps us a little, Jn 7:15: "How did he know the letters without having studied?" The studies we are talking about here concern the frequenting of the chief rabbis in Jerusalem. This text indirectly indicates that Jesus was able to read by himself and to comment on the Hebrew text of the Bible. Two other New Testament texts cannot enlighten us: Jn 8:6 where Jesus draws lines in the sand to show that the question posed boredom, and Lk 4:16-30 which recounts the scene where Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah in the synagogue, a scene which would probably be a late addition by Luke himself to support his theological vision of the universal openness of the Gospel.

  • To shed light on the question, we can broaden our investigation and ask ourselves about the situation of education in the time of Jesus. It is only in the 2nd century of the Christian era that we can speak of elementary school and more advanced school as something normal for each community. Note that the literacy rate in the Roman Empire was very low. At the time of Jesus, education was mainly a family affair and concerned above all the introduction to a trade. But what was unique in the Jewish world was the existence of this body of Scripture which gave it a national consciousness. So literacy for a pious Jew became important in order to have access to this body of Scripture. It will therefore come as no surprise to find inscriptions on ordinary objects, such as crockery or tools. As for Jesus, since he is the eldest son of the family, it is probable that he received special attention from Joseph not only in the transmission of his trade, but also in the teaching of religious traditions and certain texts of Judaism. Moreover, Nazareth, which must have had a population of 1,600 to 2,000, had its own synagogue (which has been found by archaeological excavations) and it was customary for the synagogue to serve as an elementary school for religious education. Finally, given the presence of a strong nationalist movement in Galilee, one can imagine that education served to strengthen their identity. Thus, based on John 7:15 and our knowledge of Galilee at the time, we can say that Jesus probably learned to read the Hebrew text of the Scriptures, but there is no indication for further study.

  • One last question: Was Jesus a carpenter and poor? Let us note that it was normal for a family, no matter what the trade, to also have a small piece of land to cultivate for its subsistence, especially in a fertile region like Galilee. This helps us understand certain images of Jesus, such as the image of the seed. He was part of a peasant society. As for his trade, we have only two references, Mk 6:3 and Mt 13:55, which mention that he was a carpenter, a trade that included a wide range of tasks: the laying of beams for the roofs of stone houses, the making of doors and door frames, as well as window lattices, furniture such as beds, tables, stools, as well as cupboards, chests or boxes. Justin the Martyr states that Jesus also made ploughs and the yoke for the animal. The exercise of this craft required a certain dexterity and physical strength, which takes us away from the image of the innocent, weakling that the pious images present to us of Jesus. We can therefore say that Jesus belonged to the group of the poor who had to work hard to earn a living. However, we cannot apply our modern social categories. First of all, rich people like senators, knights, Herod Antipas' entourage, owners of large estates were extremely rare. A good part of the people belonged to the middle class such as traders, craftsmen, farmers owning sufficiently large lands. It should be noted, however, that this middle class, not very far from the simple subsistence level, does not correspond to our middle class of today much better protected against the vagaries of events. Further down the social ladder we find day labourers, maids, itinerant craftsmen and landless farmers recycled into bandits. Finally, at the bottom of the ladder are the slaves forced to farm on large estates. Thus, Jesus is in the lower middle class group, but a middle class whose conditions would be considered unacceptable by our middle classes today. But at that time, Jesus was no poorer or less respectable than the majority of the people of Nazareth or Galilee. Finally, even though there are some Hellenistic cities around Nazareth, such as Sephoris and Tiberias, there is no indication that Jesus frequented them; he seems to have confined himself to his small town, peacefully exercising his trade as a carpenter.

Next chapter: Did Jesus have brothers and sisters, was he married?

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