**How did Jesus’ disciples write the New Testament if they were illiterate fishermen? How could a poor carpenter be as knowledgeable about Scripture as Jesus? **
SERIES INTRO: Have the right narrator and ominous music and anything can sound scandalous. Recently, I watched several episodes of the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed TV show. It was amusing but troubling at the same time since these sort of sensationalist shows aren’t about history or education, but preying on people’s lack of knowledge. The sort of one-sided, half-information thrown around on these TV shows is sure to resurface. So, here are some quick responses to some questions that might arise from such quality TV programing.
Could Jesus & his Disciples Read & Write?
So, the idea goes, Jesus’ disciples were a bunch of uneducated, working-class dudes, so there’s no way they could’ve written the New Testament. In fact, Jesus was just a poor carpenter, so he probably couldn’t read or write either. This isn’t much of an argument against the validity of the New Testament, but — if nothing else — it’s an interesting thing to consider: Is it possible that Jesus and his disciples knew how to read and write?
The style and skill level of the original ancient Greek of the different books of the New Testament show us that, though as Christians we believe the Scriptures are divinely inspired, God didn’t dictate word-for-word to the writers. Likewise, the New Testament writers didn’t go into some sort of trance where God moved their hands as they wrote. The unique writing styles of the New Testament books and letters show us that the writers’ own style and education level influenced the writing as the Holy Spirit guided them.
WERE ONLY THE RICH EDUCATED?
Often people today assume only the rich in ancient times could afford the privilege of education, so only the rich (and often urban) population had the privilege of learning to read and write. Yet, in fact, evidence points in the opposite direction. For example, a second-century clay tablet was discovered with a memo written on it in Latin by an assistant of a bricklayer. This shows that even poor, working class people could read and write. We also know that public notices were posted in rural villages throughout the Roman Empire, and a “vast amount of personal letters, legal deeds, divorce certificates, writings on coins, and ossuary inscriptions” show that writing was not just reserved for the elite few, but the common people. Like today, there were varying degrees of literacy in the ancient world.
LEVELS OF LITERACY
Today, there are more than just two opposite extremes of literacy. Between literate (able to read and write) and illiterate (unable to read and write), there is a wide range of literary levels. Today, those who graduate college are considered highly literate, but this is a small percentage of the world. Many of the literate world wouldn’t be labeled “highly literate,” though they’re far from illiterate. Many people can read and write basic sentences, but wouldn’t be able to read and summarize a college-level article. Likewise, in the ancient world, many people were “semiliterate.”
WHAT DOES HISTORY (OUTSIDE THE BIBLE) TELL US?
Furthermore, it’s very likely that the Jews were much more literate than the Romans since the Jewish faith is centered around a collection of writings: what Christians call the Old Testament. To be able to read and explain the Jewish Scriptures was a “revered goal” to Jews. Thus, the importance of reading in the Jewish world was “unparalleled” in the Roman and pagan world. Evidence shows that synagogues often functioned as schools for Jewish boys, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that Nazareth had a synagogue where the young Jesus could learn to read and write.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TELL US?
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus is literate. Jesus illustrates that he has closely studied the Jewish Scripture in his many debates with the scribes and Pharisees. For instance, in Matthew 22:32, Jesus refers to Exodus 3:6 to argue for the future resurrection of the dead, and his argument is based on a very close reading of Scripture. Jesus quotes God in Exodus 3:6 as saying, “‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’” Jesus then says God is “not the God of the dead but of the living.” Jesus’ whole argument here is based on the use of one word: “am.” Since God said “I am,” not “I was,” (present tense vs. past tense), Jesus concludes God is still the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though they’re long dead.
Further, Jesus was also viewed as a teacher, which would imply literacy in his culture; he amazed crowds with his “learning,” the Greek word used in the original texts usually included reading skills (John 7:15); and we clearly see Jesus reading from the Book of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-30).
Skeptics may say these details were simply invented by the Gospel writers, but if so, this only further proves that the idea of a literate Jew from a working class family from a small, backwater town of Judea could be literate. If this idea had been absurd to the Jews of Jesus’ day, why would the Gospel writers make up such a thing that others would find utterly implausible?
If we can safely conclude that it’s certainly plausible that Jesus – the son of a carpenter, and a carpenter himself before his ministry – was literate, then it’s not a stretch to believe his disciples were literate too. Even if we doubt the high literacy of Peter and John, both fishermen before following Jesus and described as “uneducated and ordinary” (Acts 4:13), Matthew was a tax collector, Paul was a Pharisee, and Luke (not one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples, but a Gospel writer) was an ancient physician — all positions which would require a certain level of education.
Also, who is to say Peter and John didn’t sharpen their literary skills after deciding to follow Jesus? After all, John didn’t write his Gospel and letters until about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s a good amount of time! Interestingly, one of my professors, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones, in his book Misquoting Truth writes, “…the simplest Greek in the New Testament is found in the Gospel According to John and the Gospel According to Mark, the two Gospels whose traditional authors might have been less than literate. In fact — even after translating hundreds of Greek epigraphs, papyri and writings from prominent second- and third-century Christians — I still haven’t found a document written as simply as the Gospel According to John.”
Finally, we also know from historical records that it was common in the ancient world for people to dictate their thoughts to a professional scribe or secretary who would do the writing for them. The evidence even shows that the scribes or secretaries would often record the speakers’ thoughts in their own style, even using their own words to rephrase ideas, and the speaker would then approve the writing and sign off on it. There is even evidence that the Apostle Paul used a secretary in this way when writing some of his letters (that are now in the New Testament; See Romans 16:22), even though Paul, being a Pharisee, would’ve been highly educated and literate and he was able to write Greek (Gal. 6:11; Phil. 1:19-21). There is also evidence that Peter used a profession scribe or secretary in 1 Peter 5:12, which reads, “Through Silvanus, our faithful brother (for so I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it!”
Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd. The Jesus Legend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
Timothy Paul Jones. Misquoting Truth. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.