Were Jesus’ Disciples Illiterate Peasants?

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Were Jesus’ Disciples Illiterate Peasants?

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. But some skeptics say this shows many New Testament books must have been forged–that the people who wrote them probably weren’t Jesus’ disciples. Why? Because most 1st century Jews living where Jesus lived couldn’t read or write at all. Since Jesus’ disciples spoke Aramaic, how could these guys write any New Testament books, in Greek, if they couldn’t even read or write in their own language?

In this post, I’ll show you to respond to the idea that the Gospels are forgeries because Jesus’ disciples were all illiterate peasants. 

Did Jews in Galilee Know Greek?

Skeptics like Bart Ehrman think Jesus’ disciples couldn’t have known Greek, much less written any of the New Testament books in Greek. In Forged, he writes: “We know for certain of only two (1st century) authors in Palestine who produced literary works (in Greek)…Josephus…and a man named Justus (p 73).” He even says “it is highly probable that [Peter] could not write at all” (p.75).

Others, like Mark Chancey, in Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus, assert there’s no evidence that most Jews in Galilee knew Greek (p 124). Additionally, Catherine Hezser suggests, “in some rural towns and settlements the literacy rate will have been below one percent and some villages may not have even had one single individual who could read” (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, p 35).

But what about this? Does this mean all Jesus’ disciples were illiterate peasants? Let’s take a look at the rest of the story.

Were All Jews Illiterate peasants?

disciples-illiterateWere all Jews living in the time of Jesus illiterate peasants? What skeptics don’t often acknowledge is that The Mishnah and Dead Sea Scrolls show some Jews taught their kids to read. In fact, the Mishnah shows us they even encouraged girls to learn Greek! After the war with Rome, the Mishnah records some directions saying not to teach kids Greek. But this tips us off to the fact that some people were in fact teaching Jewish kids Greek.

This seems to square with the Gospels. Over 60 times, Jesus asks the Pharisees and Sadducees and others “haven’t you read?” not “haven’t you heard?” Clearly, Jewish scribes could read and write, too! So it isn’t true that all the Jews in Galilee were illiterate. But what about Jesus’ disciples?

Were All Jesus’ Disciples Illiterate Peasants?

Nope. Some of Jesus’ disciples could probably read and write. Think about Zebedee (the father of James and John). He owned a fishing fleet and hired employees to work for him. That doesn’t sound like he was an illiterate peasant. It’s not a stretch to think his kids could probably read and write, too.

Also, consider Peter. His large home was discovered and excavated in 2011. Someone with a place like this was probably not an illiterate peasant! What about Matthew, the tax-collector? He had to be able to read since he worked with tax documents. Beyond this, he was probably bilingual since he worked with Romans and Jews from all over the diaspora. Not only were these disciples not illiterate peasants, but at least those who were fishermen, craftsmen, and tax-collectors probably knew Greek, too!

Could Jesus’ Disciples Speak Greek, too?

jesus-disciples-illiterateInterestingly, four of Jesus’ disciples had Greek names: Philip, Andrew (Peter’s brother), Thaddeus and Bartholomew. Why would their parents give them Greek names if Greek didn’t have some kind of influence in their families? Whether or not you’re Jewish, you would’ve picked up some Greek from living near native Greek speakers. Since people called Jesus’ area “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt 4:15), there were probably Gentiles there interacting with Jews.

Also, Nazareth was close to a major Roman trade route. A sign written in Greek, called “The Nazareth Inscription,” was discovered here. It warns people not to rob graves. But why would it be written in Greek if no one could read Greek in Nazareth? Even though Nazareth was a tiny place for about 1,500 residents, it’s only about five miles from a major Gentile city, Sepphoris. Jesus and Joseph likely went into town and interacted with Greek-speaking people there while doing carpentry work.

According to the Gospels, Jesus also ministered in Gentile places where many people spoke Greek: Decapolis, Gergesa, Tyre and Sidon, and Caesarea Philippi. Even Judea had people who spoke Greek. It’s not unlikely that some of the disciples and Jesus himself would have known Greek as well. If at least some of Jesus’ disciples knew Greek, it wouldn’t be surprising to find them writing about Jesus in Greek.

At Least Some of Jesus’ Disciples were Not Illiterate

Dan Wallace says probably all the disciples were bilingual and probably half or more could read and write. Further, even if they didn’t know Greek when they first followed Jesus, he thinks “they must have wanted to learn it for the sake of the Gospel.” What he’s talking about here is the Great Commission in Matt 28:19: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Like Paul, who said “ I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor 9:22), many of Jesus’ disciples would have done whatever it took to get the gospel to the nations, and that includes learning Greek.

It’s true that The New Testament was originally written in Greek. But just because most Jews in Galilee were illiterate, it doesn’t follow that many New Testament books must have been forged. Even though Jesus’ disciples spoke Aramaic, they weren’t all illiterate peasants. At least some of them could probably read or write in Greek.

Special thanks to Dan Wallace for helping me think through this challenge to the authorship of the New Testament books.

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