Don't Believe Everything You Hear: The Privilege (and Burden) of Reading

What Jesus expects of those who can read.

Johannes Krupinski

If you were a Jewish person living in the first century, there's a good chance you wouldn't know how to read.

Or at least not know how to read well.

It's hard to say for sure, but literacy estimates I've encountered range from 3 to 30 percent. Catherine Hezser, professor of Jewish studies at the University of London, concludes that only 10 percent of Jewish people in first century Israel could do more than write his or her own name.[1] Jewish culture valued reading and writing, perhaps more than any ancient culture, but it reserved such tasks for the scribes and other elites like the Sanhedrin.

With this context in mind, it is interesting to examine some of Jesus's own words when teaching or rebuking his fellow countrymen.

When giving his most famous lecture, the Sermon on the Mount, he said multiple times, "You have heard." For example:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matthew 5:27-28  

He used these words, "You have heard" because he knew his primary audience didn't or couldn't read the Scriptures. Even those who could read likely didn't have daily access to the Scriptures. In want of a machine like the printing press, scrolls had to be copied by hand, a painstaking process for a work as massive as the Tanakh. Therefore synagogues and the Temple were among the few places scrolls existed.

Instead of reading, the people relied on a strong oral tradition dating all the way back to Moses and even beyond. As author Timothy Michael Law wrote, "For most first-century Palestinian and Diaspora Jews contact with the scriptures would have been through hearing them read aloud."[2] It was customary for public reading of the Scriptures to take place, such as in Luke 4 when Jesus stood up and read from the Isaiah scroll.

So when Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount to a crowd of people who had most likely never read the Scriptures, he said, "You have heard." He was, in essence, saying, You have heard this law and its interpretation, but here's the full meaning.

In contrast, Jesus, when speaking to the religious upper crusts, frequently would ask, "Have you never read?" or "Have you not read?" when rebuking or correcting their errors. Jesus said these words to an audience who could read and write so he held them to a higher standard. For example, to the Sadducees (who did not believe in resurrection) Jesus said, "As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt. 22:31-32, emphasis mine).

As privileged religious elites, Jesus held the Sadducees to a higher standard. He expected them to know and understand the Scriptures because of their ability to read and because of their unfettered access to the Tanakh.

Another time Jesus said to the religious leaders, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). The Lord cut them no slack for refusing to acknowledge the truth about himself as revealed by the prophets.

What's interesting is that these questions about reading the Scriptures were always in the negative: "Have you never read?" and "Have you not read?" That's because the queries were rhetorical. He knew they had read them, but they had never applied the content properly.

Why You Can't Gather Sticks on the Sabbath

I've written this elsewhere but it bears repeating here. I believe God judges in proportion to the revelation one has at his or her disposal. It is for this reason God seems so harsh in the Old Testament.

Take, for instance, the case of the guy who gathered sticks on the Sabbath in Numbers 15. The sentence? Death, as delivered from God himself.

Seems a little harsh, doesn't it?

But don't forget that this guy was witness to countless miraculous signs and wonders at the hand of God. In other words, if the almighty reveals himself with miracles and an audible voice, he demands more than from one who has not received those revelations. 

Think of it this way: Imagine you have a son whose job it is to mow the yard every Friday. The night before you remind him that you want him to mow the yard in the morning. You wake up, get ready for work. Your son is still asleep so you write him a note reminding him to cut the grass and affix it to the one place he's sure to see it, the television. Once at work, you send him a text message with yet another reminder. But when you get home that evening, the grass is taller than ever.

Now imagine a scenario in which you did not remind your son at all and he neglects to mow the yard.

In which scenario are you going to judge more harshly? In neither case did the son have an excuse for doing his regularly scheduled chore, but in the former he had many more reminders to do his job.

God revealed himself in big ways to the Israelites--we're talking plagues, parting the sea, audible voices, and many other supernatural phenomena--and therefore held them to a much higher standard.

Maybe you can tell where I'm going with this.

Jesus cut no slack to those who could read. The Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees had the Scriptures at their fingertips daily, so therefore they were held at a higher standard.

Obviously, unless someone is reading this to you, you too can read. That means the responsibility to read the Scriptures lies with you. And even if you can't read, innumerable audio versions of the Bible exist today for your listening pleasure. (One of my go tos is the Daily Audio Bible podcast.)

While I know we take it for granted at times, the Bible is one form of God's revelation to the world. To those of us who have the Scriptures available to us at all times, we have no excuse for failing to read them.

If you've ever struggled (like I have) to engage the Bible on a regular basis, might I suggest you download my free guide to establishing a quiet time habit?

The guide spells out the process I used to create and maintain a daily habit of prayer and reading the Bible. Just enter your email address and click the button to get it:

Those who come to know Christ but fail to read the Word are kind of like sheep in Jesus's parable:

The sheep follow [the shepherd], for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. 
John 10:4-5

But instead of knowing the shepherd's voice, those who don't engage with the Scriptures struggle to recognize it. So when the wolves come, they are easily deceived and devoured.

Wolves abound in the world today. These are false teachers who love to lead people astray for their own personal gain. And if you don't have a good handle on the Bible, you might buy what their selling, leading to your own destruction. I won't name any names, but you can probably think of a few of these wolves.

And even your own pastor, while probably not a wolf, is not infallible. It is your responsibility to read, know, and understand the Bible. What if I'm lying to you? What if I'm a wolf? Please don't blindly trust fallen and imperfect humans for religious advice. Instead take ownership in your spiritual life.

So my question to you today is, Have you not read?


1. Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 503.
2. Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 90, Kindle Edition.


  1. I like how you said to "take ownership in your spiritual life." We in America are privileged to so many advantages, yet are quick to make excuses. We must take our eternal destiny seriously and make the most of the time we have been given in this life as to how it impacts the next.