One of the hot topics of the historical Jesus debate is whether or not Jesus had something called “scribal literacy.”
For our purposes this is just the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth could read and write. And while for most Christians, the answer may seem immediately obvious, the issue is actually a little more complex.
You may think, perhaps, of the account where Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah, but many scholars are unsure of how helpful stories like that are in light of the rampant illiteracy in ancient Palestine. In fact, almost no one coming from the peasant class—as Jesus was—would have undergone the years of training to study the unpointed Hebrew Scriptures or Greek translations. Rather, they learned them orally and by memory.
Still, this question goes even deeper and is related to an even bigger concern: the Knowledge of Christ. We take for granted a lot of the time that Jesus was smart, but we often fail to ask, how smart was he? Did Jesus, for instance, know everything there was to know about carpentry and the math involved in that particular skill—was he the greatest carpenter alive? What about other knowledge available at the time? Presumably he knew Aramaic and Greek, but did he know Latin? Did he know whatever they were speaking in China? And what about religious knowledge? Did he have the whole Bible memorized? Did he have in his mind all truth—people’s sins, their thoughts, or the day and hour of the Lord’s return?
Christians have historically focused on the deity of Christ, but often at the expense of his humanity. What many Christians believe in essence is that Jesus merely seemed like a human male. He was, in this approximation, immune to sexual impulses, weariness, lapses in judgement (the non-ethical sort), and any other failure of the mind not leading to sin.
But there can be no salvation in a docetic Spirit nor sympathy from a transcendent Savior. True Christology holds that Jesus was not omniscient, just as he was not omnipresent. If Christ’s mind is not like our own, then his death is hardly gospel.
What then did Jesus know?
It’s hard to say. There is clearly something different about the prophet from Nazareth, but as Christians we must insist that his knowledge was not perfect. Was Jesus wise? Undoubtedly. Was he studied? Perhaps. But like all humans, he had nothing beyond his natural ability except what the Father gave him. Just as with the Apostles and other disciples, everything miraculous was from above. Jesus relied on the strength of God to enact the divine plan for creation. And that is what makes him just like us.