Modified from original published on January 22, 2010
I do from time to time read some of what Bart Ehrman writes as I enjoy studying early church history. His latest book “Jesus Interrupted” is on the list. I have not read this entire book but have read some of it in the book store and online.
In chapter 4, Dr. Ehrman claims that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses because the disciples of Jesus could not read or write.
From the Gospels we learn that the disciples of Jesus, like him, were lower-class peasants from rural Galilee. … We have some information about what it meant to be a lower-class peasant in rural areas of Palestine in the first century. One thing it meant is that you were almost certainly illiterate. Jesus himself was highly exceptional, in that he could evidently read (Luke 4:16-20), but there is nothing to indicate that he could write. In antiquity these were two separate skills, and many people who could read were unable to write.
At the best of times maybe 10 percent of the population was roughly literate. And that 10 percent would be the leisured classes – upper class people who had the time and money to get an education (and their slaves and servants taught to read for the benefit of such services to their masters). Everyone else worked from an early age and was unable to afford the time or expense of an education.
Ehrman goes on to say that even the Bible affirms that the apostles were illiterate and unable to write since Peter and John are described as being “unlettered” in Acts 4:13 by the Council of religious leaders using the Greek word agrammatos. Next he asserts that the disciples would have known Aramaic and not Greek. Thus concluding that the disciples were “[l]ower-class, illiterate, Aramaic speaking peasants from Galilee” who could not have written the Greek Gospels that we have today.
Now, Bart Ehrman knows a lot more than I do regarding ancient history and the Greek language. However, he does seem prone to taking facts and possibilities and accentuating them in the most negative light (see Daniel Wallace relating his debate experience with him regarding textual variants here and here). The claims he makes regarding the education and literacy of Peter and John based on Acts 4:13 are not accepted by others with expertise in the Greek language (see NET Bible translation notes on that verse as an example). All good readers know that the context should dictate how a word should be interpreted. In this passage the Council which consisted of experts in the Scriptures (Acts 4:5) could have been amazed at the ability of fishermen to expound on the meaning of the Scriptures because they were untrained in such matters. This certainly fits with the overall passage and does not require Peter or John to be illiterate (unable to read/write). The Council had spent years studying the Scriptures and were the experts in interpreting and applying the Mosaic Law. So they may have been amazed at how Peter and John could be so confident in what they were teaching. In fact this confidence may have been what reminded them of Jesus.
Compare the reaction of the experts in Acts:
When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13 NET)
with the people who knew Jesus:
The people there were amazed by [Jesus’] teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law.(Mark 1:22)
Let’s assume that everything I said regarding the context is wrong. Let us also assume that Dr. Ehrman’s claims are correct. Can we defend the authorship of the Gospel of Mark and the Petrine writings? I am focusing on these writings since I have been studying the Gospel of Mark. As we have seen the Gospel of Mark has a long history of being written by a man named Mark who worked with Peter and recorded his teachings. Mark himself was a cousin of Barnabus (Col 4:10) and part of the tribe of Levi (Acts 4:36). Barnabus having owned land (Acts 4:37) would have been educated and able to read and write based on the criteria laid out in “Jesus Interrupted”. It is therefore likely that Mark, his cousin would have these skills as well. Mark is mentioned as being with Peter in one of Peter’s epistles (1 Peter 5:13) as well as by numerous early church accounts. Now, if Peter could not write (as claimed) then it makes sense that he needed someone like Mark to travel with him. And since the Gospel of Mark contains the recollections of Peter but was actually written down by Mark who likely could read and write then we have no real problem with dealing with the authorship and authenticity of this document.
Expanding our topic a bit, the epistle known as 1 Peter is explicitly noted as being written by Silvanus (1 Peter 5:12) an amanuensis so again we would have no problem here regarding the document being authentic. Silvanus would have recorded the thoughts of Peter.
The epistle known as 2 Peter is considered to be written in rough, unpolished Greek – see Wallace’s article for details. This could allow for Peter having learned enough Greek to write it himself since no amanuenses is mentioned, though it still could have been written by an amanuenses without the attribution.
The main point is even if the disciples of Jesus were unable to write this does not force us to reject the writings attributed to them. The two epistles by Peter and the Gospel of Mark can contain the thoughts and recollections of Peter – an eyewitness of Jesus (Acts 4:13; Mark 1:16, 14:66) – but still be physically written down by two other men – Silvanus and Mark.