Baker Academic

Thursday, September 6, 2012

You trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball?

One of my favorite lines from the movie Major League involves a locker room dispute between two faith caricatures. Both caricatures are equally offensive, but it’s a movie about baseball, not Das Boot. Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) says, “Jesús, I like him very much; but he no help with curveball.” His interlocutor replies, “You trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball?”

Despite our many, many differences, Professor Keith and I are both fond of this line as it represents a very quaint heresy.  More on that in a moment.

As you might expect, the above link points you to Keith’s recently published monograph.  I could say a few words about its importance, originality, and general awesomeness, but nothing I could say would have more clout than Dale Allison’s foreword.  Allison writes:
"...all subsequent discussions will inevitably take their bearings from Jesus' Literacy. The work is comprehensive, well-informed, and well-argued, and time and time again it reveals that almost everybody who has addressed the pertinent issues has come to premature conclusions... Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that this book renders everything else written on this subject well-nigh irrelevant."
But not every person in the world was as excited as Dale about this project.  I happen to know that Chris weathered a great deal of guff over his thesis.  Indeed, it was a veritable guffstorm.  Folks had a problem with Chris’ thesis that Luke systematically places Jesus in a social class that was marked by scribal literacy, while Mark does not. Folks had a problem with Chris’ thesis that Jesus probably did not read the text from Isaiah (cf. Luke 4:16-30) in Mark's account.  But the biggest guff-disturbing issue was that Chris had the audacity to ask a question concerning Jesus’ literacy and that he was willing to go wherever his research took him.
After all, asking the question assumes that you don’t already have an answer.  Of course Jesus could read!  He was the smartest man who ever lived!  If you want to be saved, you have to ask Jesus into your heart and believe that he was the smartest man who ever lived.  Everybody knows this.  Please forgive my sarcasm as I belittle a very old heresy.

Christians who believe that Jesus read as well as any modern, enlightened person because "he was God" fail to take seriously the orthodox position that Jesus was fully human.  Moreover, if you follow the Gospel portraits of Jesus, his complete humanity included limits to his general knowledge.  In other words, even if one assumes his divinity, there were things he knew and things he did not know (cf. Matt 24:36).

For example, Jesus Christ didn’t know how to play baseball.  Am I saying that he can’t hit a curveball?  Yes, this is exactly what I’m saying.  Hitting a curveball simply isn’t something common to the human experience.  It's not something he would have learned as a first-century, Jewish artisan.  Even if he had been thrown a curveball (let’s imagine that James could throw a wicked curveball), there is no reason to believe that he would have been able to hit it with a boat paddle.  Curveballs are fantastically difficult to hit.  Most people simply can’t do it.  Michael Jordan, ESPN’s vote for the greatest athlete in history, couldn’t hit a curveball with any success (thus Candy Cummings > Michael Jordan).  Perhaps Jesus could have commanded the atmospheric pressure around the baseball to part like the Red Sea, but in that case, it wouldn’t have curved and thus would not have been a curveball.

Jesus did not have access to the education required to learn how to hit a curveball.  There is a greater possibility that Jesus was educated toward scribal literacy.  It’s just not all that probable.  Now, I have not made up my mind on this matter.  I am open to the possibility of Jesus being a social outlier.  He was certainly remarkable in a number of ways. But the thesis of the book is sound and (once you’ve read the book) it is really difficult to argue against it.  While I might not be completely convinced, I have a greater problem with people who live in fear of historical questioning and honest research.

In sum, Jesus’ divinity is not proven or disproven by such anachronistic triviality.  Also, basketball is for suckers.


Read my next two installments of this series here:
and here:


  1. What I find interesting is that in so many other traditions--and even in parts of the Christian tradition (I'm thinking of desert monasticism)--for a great person (or, here, one considered more than a person) to be considered illiterate made the great things they did all the more miraculous. So when scholars now claim that some of these people COULD read they also get a lot of guff from traditionalists.

  2. Jared, you're right. I'm relatively convinced that what stood behind much of the opposition that Anthony mentioned was simply an inherently ego-centric view of Jesus. Try as I did, and despite addressing the issue explicitly in the foreword, I simply could not get some folks to hear anything other than "Was Jesus stupid?" when I asked "Was Jesus illiterate?" Anyone who's been outside the first world today, though, knows that literacy and intelligence are not the same thing.

  3. I teach many undergraduate students who were raised in fundamentalist traditions throughout eastern North Carolina. When I am introducing the gospels (and specifically elements such as the sophisticated Greek double entendres in the Fourth Gospel), some of these students are aghast when I explain that Jesus spoke primarily in Aramaic and probably did not know much Greek. I take it further and suggest that Mel Gibson's depiction of Jesus and Pilate conversing in Latin is a complete fiction. These students look at me as if to say, "Doesn't Jesus know EVERY language?" I think this post helpfully points to that common misunderstanding.

    Now go reward yourself with some of Jobu's rum!