Dear Fr. Leo:
My sister sent me something published by a Jesuit magazine that suggested Mary was illiterate. As I had not thought about that before, it occurred to me that perhaps Mary is the second smartest person ever in the world, the first of course being her Son. If Mary studied scripture, she would have been able to read. I just never thought of Mary, the Mother of God, as illiterate. – J
That is an excellent observation. There are a couple of things to keep in mind as we seek insight. First, it is important to remember that intelligence and literacy are not synonymous. Second, it is very important to note that the way we study and learn today is very different from the way they studied and learned in biblical times. These days, just about everybody can read and write at some level. The written word is still the primary means of communication of information; not so in the ancient world. In those days, the primary means of communication was the spoken word.
Unlike today, books and scrolls were extremely rare in the ancient world. Thus, the oral transmission of knowledge was the primary way information was passed on. You will recall how John the Baptist sent two messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you ‘he who is to come’ or do we look for another?” (Matt 11:3, Luke 17:19). And don’t forget the centurion also sends a messenger to Jesus to plead for his servant’s well-being (Matt 8:8). It was a very efficient and fairly economical means of communication.
So, could Mary read and write? Quite frankly, the sacred text is silent on the matter, and we are left to extrapolate from the historical situation of northern Palestine in the first century. Given what we know about the period, it would indeed have been very rare for a peasant woman, or even a middle-class woman, to be literate. As any biblical scholar would affirm, by no means would this mean that they would be ignorant of the Jewish scriptures or traditions—quite the contrary.
When a synagogue was founded, a single copy of the scriptures would be reproduced by hand at great expense, usually on scrolls, and kept safely in the synagogue. On the sabbath, the people would assemble, and certain parts of the scriptures were read. A teaching authority or elder then gave commentary. (See Luke 4:16ff. The proclamation of the scriptures and the homily during the Mass have their origins in this synagogal practice.) But the process did not stop there. What was proclaimed and taught in the assembly was repeated throughout the week at home. Mothers had a particular role in the religious education of the children in this regard. That being the case, it is very likely that Mary was extremely well-versed in the scriptures and traditions of her people. While it is quite possible that, like most others in her social class, Mary may not have been able to read and write, by no means does that mean that she did not know and study the scriptures.
Finally, some comments on the intelligence of Mary. As I mentioned, literacy is more about access and instruction and does not necessarily correlate with intelligence. History is full of examples of men and women of great intelligence who could not read or write. Surprisingly, many of the royal class were in this situation. That’s why they had clerics and scribes to read and write for them. Imagine that! It makes you appreciate the age and place in which we live where literacy is almost universal.
But in the final analysis, it is not so much Mary’s intellect that sets her apart as her faithfulness and her openness to the will of God in her life. She was the first to believe that God was working powerfully for the salvation of the world and that she had an essential part in that plan. Her cooperation with grace and ascent of faith to God’s invitation shows us that in the Kingdom, action within relationship comes first. Knowledge comes after. Faith seeks understanding. It is primarily her will, not her intellect, that makes her special.
That is a good lesson for us all. God is still working powerfully for the salvation of the world and we each have an essential part in that plan. When our will and God’s will are in harmony, it truly brings that peace of mind, body and spirit that cannot be achieved in any other way. We are, as St. Augustine says, “the human person fully alive!” The last recorded words of the Blessed Mother in scripture, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5), are still the best advice for any Christian.
Got a question about the Church or the Faith? Fr. Leo Walsh, JCL, STD, is your local canon lawyer and theologian. He currently serves in the Archdiocese as Judicial Vicar and Pastor of St. Patrick’s in Anchorage. Email your question to: email@example.com.