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Could Most People Write in Antiquity?

I am ready now to discuss in a couple of posts the issue of whether Jesus’ brother James actually wrote the book of James, or if it was someone else wanting his readers to *think* it was him.   To make sense of what I want to say about it at the outset (it will take a couple of posts), I’ve decided I need to re-post an old post on a broader and even more interesting question: who actually *could* write back then?  Today most anyone can (just, well, check out the Internet!).  But who could in, say, first-century Palestine.  It seems so counter-intuitive that many people simply, without looking at any of the evidence, intuitively don’t believe it.  But the answer is, very, very few people indeed.  A tiny slice of a minority.  Here is what I said about the matter in the original post (devoted specifically to the question of whether Jesus’ disciple Peter could have written 1 Peter).

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In his now-classic study of ancient literacy, William Harris gave compelling reasons for thinking that at the best of times in antiquity only 10% or so of the population was able to read [Ancient Literacy; Harvard University Press, 1989]. By far the highest portion of readers was located in urban settings. Widespread literacy like that enjoyed throughout modern societies requires certain cultural and historical forces to enact policies of near universal, or at least extensive, education of the masses. Prior to the industrial revolution, such a thing was neither imagined nor desired. As Meir Bar Ilan notes: “literacy does not emerge in a vacuum but rather from social and historical circumstances.”

Moreover, far fewer people in antiquity could compose a writing than could read, as shown by the investigations of Raffaella Cribiore, who stresses that reading and composition were taught as two different skills and at different points of the ancient curriculum. Learning even the basics of reading was a slow and arduous process, typically taking some three years and involving repeating “endless drills” over “long hours.” “In sum, a student became accustomed to an incessant gymnastics of the mind.” These kinds of “gymnastics” obviously required extensive leisure and money, neither of which could be afforded by any but the wealthy classes. Most students did not progress beyond learning the basics of reading, to the second level of grammar. Training in composition came only after these early stages, and most students did not get to that point: “the ability to articulate one’s thoughts in writing was achieved only when much literature had been digested.” Especially difficult, and requiring additional training, was acquiring literacy in a second language. Indeed, as, Cribiore points out, “bilingualism did not correspond to biliteracy.”

All of these points  bear closely on the question of whether an Aramaic-speaking fisherman from rural Galilee could produce a refined Greek composition such as 1 Peter.  But before pressing that question, we should …

To access the rest of this post, you don’t need to be able to write, but you do need to be able to read.  And to read it, you will need to belong to the blog.  Joining is easy and cheap and provides funds for charity.  So, if you’ve read so far, join up and keep reading!

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The Brother of Jesus and the Book of James
Did James Write James?

89

Comments

  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 22, 2019

    So how does Peter Williams get around this? If Acts says that Peter was illiterate and the Peter letters imply he could write, what do you do? I suppose a miracle can get around anything, but it seems like a very lazy way to do history.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      He’s not lazy. He probably claims that the word for “illiterate” doesn’t literally mean “illiterate.”

      2
      • Avatar
        AstaKask  July 23, 2019

        Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply he was lazy. But it all reminds me of Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  July 23, 2019

        I usually hear comments that he later became educated and learned to read and write…fluent Greek, no less! Yeah, I don’t buy it either. Once past a certain age it is nearly impossible to become truly fluent in another language much less read and write it!

  2. Lev
    Lev  July 22, 2019

    I’ve heard that in antiquity it was customary to hire a scribe to write letters on behalf of another. It seems Pauls letters were written that way (e.g. Romans 16:22 and Galatians 6:11), so whilst I agree Peter and John were probably illiterate, it wouldn’t naturally follow they were not the sources behind 1Peter and 1John. Surely they could have hired a scribe like most people did back then?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      I’ve talked about that several times on the blog before, to show that actually that didn’t happen (even though people, without looking at the evidence, claim that it did). Do a blog search for “secretary” or “secretaries”

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      • Lev
        Lev  July 23, 2019

        I suspect I wasn’t accurate enough in my question. I’m thinking of how illiterate Christian leaders in the 1st-century would write to others. I suspect it happened in the same way Paul wrote his letters – by dictation. I don’t know how an Aramaic speaker would dictate a letter in Greek – perhaps he would dictate his letter to a bilingual Aramaic / Greek scribe who would note down the dictation in Aramaic before translating it into Greek? You have said dictating letters was commonplace in antiquity:

        “Richards maintains that secretaries in antiquity could function in four different ways: as recorders of dictation… The first category is both abundantly attested in the sources and completely non-problematic.” https://ehrmanblog.org/how-did-ancient-writers-use-secretaries-a-blast-from-the-past/

        I understand in early Christianity there was a mix of Jewish and Gentile churches, and they probably corresponded with one another. If 90-95% of the leaders of those churches were illiterate, how did they communicate with one another? As you have noted elsewhere, they probably did and even a conservative estimate amounts to 10’000 letters in the first century of Christianity:

        “That would mean that over the course of a century – say from 50 CE to 150 CE – there were 10,000 Christian letters being sent around.” https://ehrmanblog.org/how-many-churches-how-many-letters/

        That’s a lot of letters for an illiterate population! My point is that if mostly illiterate Churches in antiquity did correspond with one another using bilingual scribes, then wouldn’t the illiterate church leaders have used the same method?

        I note that Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians ends with “These things I have written to you by Crescens.”

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2019

          Yes, indeed, dictation happened a lot. But that’s another form of Greek composition — still not possible without many years of education and training.

          • Lev
            Lev  July 24, 2019

            I don’t think you read my response properly when I wrote:

            “I don’t know how an Aramaic speaker would dictate a letter in Greek – perhaps he would dictate his letter to a bilingual Aramaic / Greek scribe who would note down the dictation in Aramaic before translating it into Greek?”

            What I was asking is how an Aramaic speaker would communicate to a Greek audience. So if someone like Peter, James or John wanted to send a letter to a Greek-speaking Christian community, how would they go about it?

            I’m guessing they would hire a bi-lingual scribe who would note down what they dictate in Aramaic, then use those notes to compose a letter in Greek. Is that how it worked in antiquity?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 26, 2019

            Ah, sorry. I don’t know any documented instance of this happening, so I’m not sure how to answer. I’ve never heard of bilingual scribes translating dictation on the spot. My view is that to establish that this is probably what happened we would need evidence that it ever did happen (otherwise there aren’t grounds for saying “probably”) (or even “possibly”???)

            1
          • Lev
            Lev  July 27, 2019

            You appear to have created your own straw man to argue against there Bart. If you read my question more carefully you will notice I never suggested on the spot translation.

            Instead I proposed / guessed / speculated the letter to be noted down (presumably on wax tablets) in Aramaic before then being translated into Greek.

            Maybe that happened on the same day? Maybe the next? Who knows when, but I’m guessing it would be easier for the scribe to jot down the dictation in note form and then use those notes as a basis for the translation and compostion of the letter.

            As for evidence of bilingual scribes – weren’t there 50 of them who translated the Hebrew bible into Greek – the LXX?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 28, 2019

            OK, sorry. I don’t know of any evidence of *that* either. And given the highly refined rhetorical structures I don’t see how it’s possible. James and Peter wouldn’t have those skills in Aramaic, and if the scribe were doing it at th epoint of translation, then he’s the one writing the letter, not them.

        • Lev
          Lev  July 28, 2019

          I think you’re right that James did not dictate his letter, but I’m not so sure about Peter. I could imagine a situation where Peter wished to write to the “exiles of the Dispersion” in northern Galatia and had an Aramatic dictation composed into a Greek letter by way of Silvanus (as Polycarp wrote through Crescens, but it’s unclear if a translation was required).

          I think that letter (1 Peter) owed a fair amount to Silvanus, but the major themes and messages of Peter were preserved. Silvanus probably “improved” in places, but would have tried to retain the main gist of what Peter wanted to communicate – even if it meant adding an extra flourish or two.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 29, 2019

            When it says it was written through Silvanus, that is technical language to mean that Silvanus was the one who carried the letter to the recipients; it does not mean he participated in the writing of the letter. Peter would not have had the training to be able to deliver the kind of rhetoric found in the letter, any more than my students who have 15 years more education than Peter had could possibly deliver such a rhetorically effective dictation in their own language.

          • Lev
            Lev  July 29, 2019

            I think this is where I get out of my depth, as I understand that rhetoric in antiquity was an accomplished skill and literary craft – and I don’t understand what that skill is or even how to define what literary rhetoric in antiquity is.

            I would be very interested to learn more about literary rhetoric in antiquity if you had the time to explain?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 30, 2019

            Simplest to put it like this. Charles Dickens could write David Copperfield. Could your next door neighbor?

            Rhetoric was taught at a high level of education; it is the science of constructing speech in ways that are not just grammatically correct but highly effective.

          • Lev
            Lev  July 30, 2019

            I think I read somewhere (maybe this blog? one of your books?) that some of the sayings of Jesus that are probably authentic used wordplay and rhetoric to emphasize a point. If Jesus could speak rhetorically, couldn’t his disciples dictate rhetorically also?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 31, 2019

            Jesus doesn’t use Greek rhetorical style like the letters do (nothing close to it, actually). It’s not a matter of wordplay, which the untrained can do, but of literary style that requires years of training. (I’m trying to think of an analogy. Most anyone could make a word play on sun and son; or sea and see off the top of their head; but not everyone could write a Petrarchan sonnet)

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 22, 2019

    Great post! Thanks

  4. Avatar
    fishician  July 22, 2019

    I’m sure you’ve heard this: it was the work of the Holy Spirit! Like, writing in tongues! I’ve always thought it odd that the divine Son of God spent 30+ years on earth and never bothered to write anything down for his disciples, although it makes perfect sense if he was in fact a Galilean peasant, even a very astute one. I’m trying to recall: are there any early Christian writings that claim to be written by Jesus himself?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      Yup — I probably talk about a couple on the blog. The free-standing one we have is the letter to Abgar (search for that.)

  5. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  July 22, 2019

    From my current understanding, after the Second Temple was destroyed, there were Jews writing the for Rabbinic Judaism and Jews writing for Christianity. These must-have been educated people. It appears they knew each other but Rabbinic Judaism had to separate from Christian Jews to avoid punishment by Romans. Christianity was banned in Ancient Rome.
    The languages could reflect who the books were being written for.
    I thought Josephus originals were mainly written in Greek and that there was one Aramaic version of a book that has not been found. Josephus also claimed to have taken a suicide pact but had the last straw and did not commit physical suicide after everyone else did.

    I don’t think that the Old and New Testaments are historically accurate. They may reflect what the writers (religious leaders) were teaching at the times the books were written (which may be different than the time they say they were written).
    Even though we have higher literacy rates now, many may not know the history of the Bible or of the times and places the books were written in.
    “Peter built the Church…” Illiteracy built the church?

  6. Avatar
    NTDeist  July 22, 2019

    Was then Paul wealthy to allow him to be educated to compose letters in Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      We’d love to know how he got an education, but he clearly did!

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  7. Avatar
    brenmcg  July 22, 2019

    Peter John and James werent fisherman while living in jerusalem – were they not then supported financially through the church?
    They wouldnt have needed money to get an education just someone willing to sit down and help them learn to read – could they not have got that through the church as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      Interesting idea. I looked into it. There were no institutions in antiquity that provided education in literacy for adults.

      2
      • Avatar
        brenmcg  July 24, 2019

        But if josephus could pay somebody to teach him greek as an adult couldnt the apostles have found someone to teach them for free?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2019

          We don’t have a single instance of this known from the ancient world. Josephus was in the very top tier of the top 1% of Jews in Palestine, and could afford all sorts of things no one else could, including the very lower class working poor. I’m not being facetious, but it would be kind of like saying that if Donald Trump could afford to buy Mar-a-Lago, couldn’t my plumber be given a huge Florida resort to entertain millionaires?

          1
          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 25, 2019

            If jewish wars and antiquities is the mar-a-lago, 1st Peter and James would just be free one bed condos.

            We know from Paul that Peter and James were pillars of a new church centered in jerusalem which was receiving financial contributions from greek speaking cities a thousand miles away. And we know from josephus that they had dealings with men from the top echelons of jewish society.

            Shoudnt we sooner doubt that these two began life as galilean labourers than doubt they had the opportunity to learn to read and write greek?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 26, 2019

            Why would we doubt what all the evidence indicates and accept a view that has no analogue in all of ancient history? Does evidence matter or not? If not, then yes, it’s fine to believe anything you want….

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 27, 2019

            But the most solid evidence about them is from Paul and josephus – they are leaders of a church spanning a thousand miles, the high-priest takes advantage of a momentary lapse in direct roman rule to have one of the killed – peter is dining with gentiles in greek speaking antioch.

            josephus is evidence that men like this could learn to speak greek later in life -there’s nothing to say he needed his enormous wealth to learn greek – just that he had a lot of time on his hands.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 28, 2019

            Yes, that’s right. A man like Josephus — with many, many years of education and virtually boundless personal resources (money) — could indeed to it. He’s the only one known to have done it in the entire first century, but it was certainly possible for someone like that, in the top 1% of the top 1% of the intellectuals in the land.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 28, 2019

            I think though if josephus was in the 1% of the 1%, peter and james got pushed up to the 1% – and its only a five page letter they need to learn to compose, not literary masterpieces.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 29, 2019

            OK, you’re certainly welcome to think that. But I would say you’re not doing so for any historical reasons. For historical *evidence* you would need to find instances where anything like that ever happened. I can’t think of any. If it’s not known ever to have happened, why should we think it probably happened in these two cases in particular, *unless* it is to support a religious (not a historical) view we have about the authorship of letters in the NT?

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 29, 2019

            But I think you mean historical evidence that two galilean day laborers could learn to readd/write greek, whereas I think its should be historical evidence that two leaders of a church with wealthy patrons and highly literal greek speaking members could learn greek.
            i think that should be possible in any era – but in 1st c judea josephus would be evidence of the possibility to learn greek in later life. the status of josphus and peter/james might still not be comparable but neither is antiquities to the epistles.
            Dont we need evidence that josephus required his enormous wealth to learn greek or shouldnt we just conclude that an education was available to people with means if they desired it.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 30, 2019

            What evidence are you thinking of from, say, the first two Christian centuries? (You do realize that you’re sticking to your guns on this because you want to think that several of the books of the New Testament really were written by the people who claim to be their authors, don’t you? As opposed to really wanting to see if this is the sort of thing that happened? That’s fine, but it’s not really being interested in history but theology. Not a problem with that, so long as you agree that’s what you’re doing. If you *do* want to do history, then it can’t be to prove a theological view: it needs to be in order to try to figure out what actually happened, and then going with the evidence.)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 30, 2019

            Josphus tells us the reason most of his fellow jews didnt learn a foreign language was because it was seen as common not only to all sorts of freemen but to any slave they wanted to teach. Can we not take it from this that the opportunity to learn greek was available to the rich or those with wealthy connections, if they had motivation to do so?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 31, 2019

            That’s what I’m saying: the top 1% who could afford it could afford it! (But he is the only one of that 1% that we know of who did it, to my knowledge — learned Greek to the point that he could write sophisticated literature in it.)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 31, 2019

            But the opportunity was there for anyone who got pushed up into the 1% – all thats left is the motivation. How good might peter or james’ greek have gotten after twenty or thirty years? Good enough to write a five page letter?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 2, 2019

            It’s like asking what would someone who is living in abject poverty in Delhi inherited a billion dollars could he afford an apartment on Fifth Avenue. The answer is yes.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  August 3, 2019

            It would be a very rare event but the inheritance of a billion dollars would be the explanation for it.
            Galilean laborers learning to read/write greek is a very rare event but being thrust into leadership roles of a jerusalem centered church would be an explanation for it.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 4, 2019

            OK, can you name a single person from 200 BCE to 200 CE in Palestine for whom this happened? (I’m asking because I know you can’t; and that’s not because I think you haven’t read all the literature surviving from the period, but because in fact the literature never does mention anyone like that, period. And my point is that you can’t say that the best historical explanation for something involves what never happened.)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  August 4, 2019

            But there’s two 1stC letters that claim a galilean laborer learned to compose in greek, and given that we know these two became church leaders in jerusalem this claim cant be dismissed.
            If it was claimed that someone living in abject poverty in delhi bought an apartment on fifth avenue and we knew this person had just inherited a billion dollars we couldnt dismiss the claim.
            In josephus’ description, being a church leader in jerusalem is the right sort of social status to be able to learn greek.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 5, 2019

            Which two letters claim that? Neither letter we talk about says anything about the author’s educational history. It is very common for someone to write a book in a foreign language unknown to the alleged author — e.g., modern Gospels “discovered” in the 19th century, but written in, say, English; but no one would claim that the best explanation is that the ancient author went to school to learn English. So we know *THAT* happens, because we have clear instances of it. And so the question is: what clear instance is there of a lower-class, uneducated speaker of Aramaic in first century Israel learning compositional Greek? There isn’t any.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  August 6, 2019

            The letters dont directly say it but they claim peter and james wrote them and we know them to have begun as galilean laborers.
            Theres only one instance of galilean laborers becoming established 30 year church leaders in jerusalem. This extremely rare event should then becomes a valid explanation for other extremely rare one off events like two galilean laborers learning to compose in greek.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 6, 2019

            Yes, I’d say an event that is never documented as having happened is certainly “extremely rare.” Look, we just aren’t going to agree on this. You can’t see why I don’t see the logic of your position and I don’t see why you don’t see the logic of mine. I used to hold your position, so I understand it full well. I just don’t think there’s evidence for it, but am happy to see the evidence if you ever run across any. I personally have almost *nothing* at stake in the matter, and would be happy to change my view.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  August 7, 2019

            Ok – thanks for the replies

  8. Avatar
    robgrayson  July 22, 2019

    In his 2014 book Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict, Chris Keith (St Mary’s University, London) makes a pretty convincing case that Jesus, along with most of the population of C1 Palestine, would most likely have been illiterate. That will probably come as a mighty shock to most western Christians, but as a conclusion it seems almost inescapable.

  9. Avatar
    Apocryphile  July 22, 2019

    Is it possible that Jesus might have learned a few phrases in spoken Greek? Sometimes one hears this hypothesis in connection with the possibility that he may have worked in Sepphoris as a day laborer before becoming a follower of John the Baptist.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      Yes, that’s commonly said. My view is that since there is zero evidence for it, it’s unlikely.

  10. Avatar
    James Chalmers  July 22, 2019

    For obscure reasons, I’m trying to figure out what Jesus was called by his mother, father, siblings, and, later, by Peter, Mary Magdalene, and other companions–what name he went by and how it was pronounced. I know all concerned spoke Aramaic. As near as I can google it, he was Yeshua, pronounced, roughly, Yes-wah. So possibly Joshua is closer to the Aramaic than is the Greek Jesus??? But anyway, Mary et al called him Yeshua?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      Yes indeed, that would be closer to how his name was pronounced. And yes it is much closer to Hebrew. They are related, Semitic languages; Greek is Indo-european. Completely different language.

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      • Rick
        Rick  July 23, 2019

        Isn’t it also likely who he was named for? Joshua of Jericho fame?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2019

          Possibly, yes. But not necessarily. Today when someone is named Peter, it is not usually because their parents have decided to name them after the disciple of Jesus. It’s just a good name.

  11. Avatar
    Mark  July 22, 2019

    Off topic: I’d love to hear your insights on 1 Cor: 11:23 et seq–Paul’s account of the Last Supper. Paul has so few stories about the life of Jesus, and this one predates the Gospels by, what, 20-30 years? It this the earliest surviving written account of Jesus’ life? Does this early snapshot tell scholars anything unique about how Jesus’ story was developing? Paul says he got this from the Lord. Is there any chance Paul himself was a source for the later gospel writers? That would be wild! Thanks!

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      Yes, it was written in the 50s, probalby 15 years or so before the account in Mark. Interestingly, if you compare them, Paul’s account is much closer to the way the event is narrated in Luke, written 10-15 years after Mark. It’s the only episode in Jesus’ life (apart from a couple of sayings that he quotes without narrative context) found in Paul’s writing. It’s hard to know what he means that he got it “from the Lord.” Does he mean that a prophet in one of his churches declared it? That he heard it from apostles who were there at the event (if so, why does he say it’s from “the Lord” instead of from the apostles?)? That he himself was given a revelation? At least it means that he doesn’t *think* he’s just makin’ it up…

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      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  July 24, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        I’ve been wondering the same, as I’ve seen it argued both ways – (a) that the verb “received” (in Greek) is typically used by Paul to indicate its object as a (humanly) received tradition, and (b) “from the Lord” in Paul’s typical usage points instead to a (divine) revelation.

        Questions:
        – Curious your thoughts on the above (narrow) linguistic points (namely, that Paul’s typical usage is such that “received” means human in source, “from the Lord” means divine source)?
        – Is there a good compendium or otherwise that summarizes the best arguments around this aspect of the Last Supper topic that you might recommend?

        Thanks much as always!

        • Bart
          Bart  July 26, 2019

          1. Yes, I suppose so; 2. I’d suggest a good commentary on 1 Corinthians. The problem is finding one that is scholarly (instead of devotional) but not requiring Greek. Maybe the one by Richard Hays would be one to try?

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          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  July 28, 2019

            Many thanks!

        • Robert
          Robert  July 30, 2019

          Hi, Hngerhman.

          You may find some of the posts in thus thread helpful:

          https://ehrmanblog.org/forum/paul-and-pauline-christianity/did-paul-institute-the-last-supper-tradition/

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  August 1, 2019

            Hi Robert – thanks a ton! I appreciate the link and look forward to pouring over the thread. And thank you for your contributions to the blog community (such as this amongst the many places of generosity of knowledge)!

  12. Avatar
    forthfading  July 22, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Two questions related to your post: First, does Hezser not recognize Paul as a 1st. Century Palestinian Jew from whom we have several writings? Second, does the argument that Matthew could have composed a gospel because of his occupation hold historical water? Thanks, Jay

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      No, Paul was not a first century Palestinian Jew. And no, being a “tax collector” did not require literacy. Most tax collectors were the guys knockin’ on your door telling you to pay up or lose your knee caps.

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      • Avatar
        steffandvs  July 23, 2019

        This is very interesting to me!

        Is this because he was not from Palestine? I.e he is just a first century jew.

        The blog is great and I really admire your commitment to it!

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2019

          Yes, he is not a Jew from Israel, but from elsewhere. Her study deals only with the Jewish homeland.

      • Avatar
        forthfading  July 23, 2019

        Will you help me with my ignorance on this particular issue? In what way was Paul not a 1st century Palestinian Jew? He wrote in the first century and he was Jewish, so he must not have been Palestinian, is that correct?

        Thanks, Jay .

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2019

          Right — he was from somewhere else. Her study deals only with Palestine. But it’s building on studies of literacy elsewhere in the Roman world more broadly, which also present some stark statistics (such as the study of Harris that I mentioned)

  13. Avatar
    meltuck  July 22, 2019

    While I do not know anything about how reading was taught and learned in the ancient world, I know that in the modern world there is great variation in the extent to which individuals are able to learn to read. We occasionally hear of children who are barely beyond infancy who are reading, while others after years of trying can never learn. As a retired teacher, I remember that for some of my students, reading was as natural as breathing while for others it was always a struggle. For this reason, I wouldn’t find it hard to believe that Jesus, or James, or Peter, or any of many Galilean peasants could have had the gift of being readily able to learn to read. The greatest limiting factor before the invention of the printing press would have been the lack of written material with which to practise, and I really don’t know how much they would have had the opportunity to see.

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  14. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  July 23, 2019

    Dear Bart, To be fair, these arguments for 1st century Galillean illiteracy, sound highly speculative and based on ‘expert opnion’ and circumstantial evidence. This seems to me to be a weak foundation from which to launch any argument to challenge the authorship of either 1 Peter or James.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2019

      Really? I’d suggest you read the scholarship and then let me know if you think it’s speculative and based on opinion. And possibly indicate what better evidence exists. (I’m not aware of any that Hezser doesn’t consider.)

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      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  July 23, 2019

        I’m only commenting on your relating of the evidence. I”m not a history scholar, nor a theologian (despite my togue-in-cheek avatar name), so I’m afraid I haven’t got time read Hezser and certainly not to research the historical evidence myself. I wouldn’t expect you to read the source scientific papers, if you doubted the strength of evidence I was using to make a neuro-scientific point (though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you did) .

        Let’s just say that you will need to do a better job of presenting the evidence, in order to change my impression that the argument for 1st century Gallillean iliteracy and hence pseudo-epigraphy of 1 Peter & James is less than compellling.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2019

          Got it! But in a thousand-word post it’s not possible to present all the evidence. If someone writes a thousand-word article on the state of upcoming 2020 election, you can’t complain that they left a lot of things out!

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          • Avatar
            Neurotheologian  July 24, 2019

            Fair point.

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  15. Avatar
    John  July 23, 2019

    Yes but wasn’t Peter and the other apostles, given these special abilities during Pentecost?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2019

      Yup, if it’s a miracle than historical argument has nothing to do with it!

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  16. Rick
    Rick  July 23, 2019

    Professor, some what along the same lines, how do you assess the likely accuracy of Jesus’ knowledge of scripture as per his references to it in the NT? Memory of oral recitation, if repeated enough, certainly seems possible but again how would an impoverished Galilean common laborer ( I think the more likely meaning of techton) find first someone reading scripture often enough and also have the time to Listen?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2019

      Well, in the NT he certainly knows Scripture well. I think it’s impossible to get behind that to know what his actual historical abilities at recollection were, at least in detail.

  17. Avatar
    Matt2239  July 24, 2019

    Acts 4:13 says others “perceived” Peter to be unschooled, but that doesn’t mean he was. Besides, “unschooled” could mean that they were not drilled in high Hebrew rhetoric, and could in fact mean they spoke Greek. One thing we can all agree upon — Jesus and his disciples are the most unlikely, improbable historical figures in all of history. What their education and skills “probably” were ignores the very real fact that they beat all the odds. If it wasn’t a miracle, then it must have been because Peter, who led the original church in Rome, the world’s most cosmopolitan city of the day, could speak, read, and write — Greek.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2019

      I’d say there’s no evidence of that. The reason they would have “perceived” that is because they could tell by the way he spoke that he wasn’t educated.

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    GeoffClifton  July 25, 2019

    Fascinating. I guess the higher rates of literacy in an urban environment are evidenced by the numerous inscriptions that Greek and Roman civic authorities loved to erect (on temples, public buildings etc). There would have been no point doing that if very few people could read. The graffiti on the walls of the Roman town of Pompeii has sometimes been used to argue that literacy rates (at least in Pompeii and Herculaneum) were pretty high. The crude references often contained in the graffiti might suggest that ordinary people were writing (and reading) them. Nevertheless, that does not necessarily detract from the very convincing evidence set out above relating to the predominantly rural culture of Palestine. Incidentally, I remember reading somewhere that when the Greeks and Romans read something (a manuscript or whatever) they tended to read out loud, unlike us today.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2019

      the thing about inscriptions and graffiti is that they did not need to be “read” in order to be “read.” They would have been read out loud by people who were literate so that people who were not (most of the people) could know what they said.

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        GeoffClifton  August 6, 2019

        That is right, but it is interesting that a Roman-era stylus was found recently in London, dating to the early part of the Roman occupation, which was inscribed with a witticism – something along the lines of ‘Now I have given you this stylus, you have no excuse not to write to me.’ This does suggest some degree of literacy among the ordinary people.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 7, 2019

          I”m not familiar with the stylus. Is there some indication that it did not belong to someone who was wealthy and educated?

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    Thespologian  July 26, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, if there’s high literacy and elegance in say, 1 Peter, at a time when hardly anyone could produce such a literary work, where is the shortlist of possible authors? According to these literacy stats, it seems someone could feasibly come up with one.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      We don’t have a shortlist, because we don’t have any list at all of highly educated Christians from the first century. They are just as anonymous as every other sort of Christain from the period.

  20. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 28, 2019

    “Hezser evaluates the extent to which Palestinian Jews may have been able to converse in Greek more generously than other more recent studies devoted to the question, as we will see in a moment.”

    “The most persuasive studies of the use of Greek in Galilee in particular have been produced by Mark Chancey, who shows that scholars who maintain that Greek was widely spoken in the first century have based their views on very slim evidence, in which Palestinian data from over a number of centuries have been generalized into claims about the use of Greek in Galilee in the first half of the first century.”

    Hezser and Chancey’s work were produced around the same time from what I can tell, so I don’t see how Chancey could say that Hezser made generalizations about who could speak in Greek and who could not. She acknowledges that those who lived in rural communities had less contact with Greek-speaking peoples but also points out that anthropological and sociological studies state that language acquisition depends on a number of factors: the need to learn Greek for work, religion, and/or culture; families ties, social contact, etc,… She also states there’s a need for a separate study for language acquisition, so I don’t think Hezser makes generalizations at all.

    Paul says in Galatians that he met Peter, James, and John privately and makes no mention for the use of an interpreter. He did have Barnabas and Titus with him, but he doesn’t say they spoke for him. He also states that he opposed Peter to his face which suggests no one else was involved in the conversation.

    “Was Peter, a lower-class fisherman from rural Galilee, among that minuscule fraction of the Palestinian population who could compose books in elegant Greek? He was not wealthy. He would have had no time or resources for an education. Let alone an education in reading a foreign language. Let alone education in Greek composition. Acts 4:13 is probably right – Peter was illiterate.”

    If we use Luke to say that Peter was illiterate (Acts 4:13), then we have to also say that Jesus could read (Luke 4:16-19). It becomes quite a tangle to say that Luke is making things up here—Luke 4; telling the truth here—Acts 4; while leaving out information here—Acts 9, 10…..

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      I don’t think Chancey was reacting specifically to Hezser, but was doing his own analysis.

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