“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger” (John 8:6).

Here, in the story of the adulteress, we learn that Jesus knew how to write. But Jesus was a teacher, not a writer—it was left to others to write down what he said. Yet literacy was something Jesus could take for granted. The ability to write fluently and intelligibly was widespread in ancient Israel, almost as widespread as the ability to memorize long and complicated texts.

In other words, Jesus could count on this: among his followers there would be a number of people capable not only of memorizing what he said, but also of writing it down.

Furthermore, Jesus and the people around him could use more than one language. Aramaic was commonly used in daily life, Hebrew in religious life, particularly in worship and the reading of Scripture (e.g., Luke 4:16–30).

But people were aware of a third language, that of the eastern Roman Empire: Greek. Recent investigations have shown that even orthodox Jews used Greek in everyday dealings with each other—we see it, for instance, in tombstone inscriptions and in handwritten notes passed between defenders of the Masada fortress.

Jesus himself used Greek: in the dialogue with the Greek-speaking Syrian Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30), and in the dispute about paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13–17), which relies on a wordplay that works only in Greek.

But (and this is a fairly recent insight of scholarship) the first stages of a literary tradition may have been instantaneous with Jesus’ ministry—and they could have been surprisingly precise. Shorthand writing (“tachygraphy”) was known in Israel and in the Greco-Roman world. We find a first trace of it in the Greek translation of Psalm 45:1 (third century B.C.): ...

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