Spend an hour with any Christian apologist and a single, non-scripted word will penetrate, pervade and ultimately describe everything they say or do: EXCUSE. From the hastily tailored explanations made for why their Middle Eastern god is invisible, inaudible and impotent to the petitions presented for why the character, Jesus, didn’t say anything new or even marginally useful a defensive plea will shadow every subject of every discussion… and for very good reason: there isn’t a single facet of Christianity that is free from serious question hanging over it. The gospels are a mess of outrageous contradictions, the Jesus described in one book is consistently at odds to the one described in the next, and no two (anonymous) authors of any of the canonical, gnostic, or so-named apocryphal books seemed even capable of getting Christianity’s triumphant and climatic ending correct. The oldest of the synoptic works, Mark, didn’t originally mention a resurrection, and in the gnostic gospel of Thomas the character isn’t even executed. In the Gospel of Peter Jesus is sentenced by Herod Antipas, not Pontius Pilate, and in the Gospel of Truth the hero is nailed to a living tree, not a Roman cross, which then spews forth fruit like an exploding piñata. It is a bizarre script bungle only bested by the (anonymous) author of Matthew who went completely off the reservation when he detailed his post-crucifixion Zombie Apocalypse; a jaw-dropping, brain-haemorrhaging, eye-popping event so astonishing that it was missed by absolutely everyone in all of Roman occupied Palestine.
Something else that was missed by absolutely everyone in all of Roman occupied Palestine was, it appears, Jesus himself.
In a word, there is no word, not even a simple artistic rendering, and the excuse proffered as to why no one along the entire eastern Mediterranean seaboard bothered to jot down a single line about Christianity’s miracle-performing hero during his allegedly remarkable life is as comical as it is appallingly unsatisfactory: Prudent economic practices. To the fleet-footed apologist short-pocketed, tight-fisted, penny-pinching stinginess best explains the total absence of a solitary word until well over two generations after the exploding piñata event. That is to say, paper was allegedly so expensive that the day-to-day economics favoured an oral, not written tradition which (by extension) implies almost everyone in 1st Century Palestine was functionally illiterate, and all those who could write didn’t bother because they couldn’t afford to… even if they’d just seen a man raised from the dead.
Ignoring the deafening silence from professional historians and social commentators like Philo, Pliny (the elder), Seneca, or even Gaius Licinius Mucianus (men who were in the business of noticing small things like the heavens rearranging themselves to herald a virgin birth), the mechanics of the widespread illiteracy argument simply don’t match reality.
1st Century BCE graffiti written in Safaitic and Nabataean found in southern Syria and eastern Jordan is proof people were certainly jotting down their thoughts, and warning signs posted on Herod’s Temple (9BCE) are a clear indication that reading and writing was common among ordinary folk. If this were not the case then surely a town crier, not a mute stone sign, would have been more in order, particularly when the punishment for disobeying the warning was death. Perhaps even more telling is that before the Jewish revolt the high priest Yehoshua ben Gamla (cir. 64 C.E.) appointed teachers in every town and village of every province throughout Palestine to provide an education for boys aged six and up. Regarded as the founder of formal Jewish education for children Gamla’s sweeping policy directive assumes a vast stock of professionally literate laypeople ready to fill classrooms in every miniscule, deadbeat, backend, go-nowhere village across Palestine which, in-turn, presupposes that major regional centers already had well established education systems dating back decades, if not well into the 1st Century BCE. A single classroom without a qualified teacher is, after all, about as useful as a car without petrol. Hundreds of classrooms without qualified teachers is simple madness.
Even the gospels contradict the illiteracy excuse. In the Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas there’s a school in Nazareth where the teacher, Zacchaeus, teaches reading and writing to the children. Jesus himself (the lowly son, we’re told, of a carpenter in a pimple-sized village) read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, quoted from Jewish holy books, and was forever yelling at his accusers: “Have you not read!?!” (Luke 6:3, Matthew 12:3, Matthew 12:5, Matthew 19:4, Matthew 21:16, Matthew 21:42, Matthew 22:29, Matthew 22:31, John 5:39). This not only screams literacy to his opponents, but also to himself and to his apostles; a point that is reflected in the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13) where Jesus orders a whole slew of simpleminded debtors to physically write down what he tells them.
A written tradition was evidently very much alive and well across 1st Century Palestine, and although papyrus imported from Egypt might indeed have been considered expensive (monopolised products typically are) a quick search through the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Papyrus Collection, reveals numerous contemporary examples of the medium in wide use across the eastern Mediterranean for such mundane purposes as receipts, lists, lease agreements, marriage and divorce documents, and even run-of-the-mill business letters. The cost however of papyrus is entirely irrelevant. Far cheaper and more readily available parchment fashioned from lime treated animal hides (vellum) was the medium of choice and although subject to rot when exposed to humidity documents considered important enough were repeatedly reproduced, as exampled in the library of Qumran. Unearthed in 1946 the libraries 972 handwritten (mostly) leather documents (which date from as early as 408 BCE) represent the continual copying of scriptures, the creation of new ones, ordinances, apocalyptic visions, commentaries, liturgical works, and even accounts of contemporary events as expressed in the Jeselsohn Stone; an ink on stone work discovered near Qumran and believed to denote the early 1st Century CE messianic Jewish rebel leader, Simon of Peraea. If Simon had warranted a contemporary stone record a generation before Jesus, why then not Christianity’s central hero figure; a man-god who we’re told inhabited an entirely new category of awesome.
Indeed, according to Christians, Jesus was the greatest person ever; a god born of a virgin who as a two year-old toddler slaughtered an entire gaggle of hideous fire-breathing DRAGONS, performed mass exorcisms, breathed life into clay statues, brought eight very dead people (two of whom he murdered) back to life, blew snakes apart with a word, transformed into a ball of light and met with spirits, controlled the weather with a wave, walked on water, fed 5,000 awestruck people with next to nothing (not once but twice), healed the blind, reanimated limbs, defied chemistry by turning water into wine, and performed so many other miracles that John (21:25) said “If every one of them were written down the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” All this and more was done, we’re told, and yet no one in all of Palestine was apparently moved enough by any of it to scribble down a single word… not even Lazarus; a man who one might naturally assume would’ve been inspired to pen (or simply commission) a cheap-as-chips Jeselsohn-like Stone to commemorate his unusually good turn of luck.
Simply put, literacy levels don’t support the ear-spitting silence, and the price of paper can only be considered a mildly feasible explanation if the Christian apologist first concedes that something as trivial as a pedestrian business letter was tremendously more important and massively more meaningful (and therefore significantly more worthy of the expense) than absolutely E V E R Y T H I N G the character, Jesus, did or said in his entire life. And even if the cost of paper was an issue and papyrus, vellum, stone and wood slabs were so preposterously priced that even Emperors couldn’t afford a single sheet then the 24hr Cash-Machine Jesus descrbed in Matthew 17:24-27 could surely have magically conjured up enough gold coins to cover any bill, no matter how outlandish: “Go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin.”
Voilà! Enough paper to fill eight Alexandria Libraries… and that’s before we even begin to ask why Jesus himself didn’t jot down a word of two.