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Could Peter Have “Written” 1 and 2 Peter Some Other Way?

Here is the last of my three posts digging down deeper into the question of whether Peter would have, or could have, written the books we now call 1 and 2 Peter, composed in highly literate Greek by someone skilled in Greek composition.

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It should come as no surprise that Peter could not write Greek (or Aramaic, for that matter).  As it turns out, there is New Testament evidence about Peter’s education level.  According to Acts 4:13, both Peter and his companion John, also a fisherman, were agrammatoi , a Greek word that literally means “unlettered,” that is, “illiterate.”

And so, is it possible that Peter wrote 1 and 2 Peter?  We have seen good reasons for him not writing 2 Peter, and some reason for thinking he didn’t write 1 Peter.  But it is highly probable that in fact he could not write at all.  I should point out that the book of 1 Peter is written by a highly educated, Greek-speaking Christian who is intimately familiar with the Jewish Scriptures in their Greek translation, the Septuagint.  This is not Peter.

It is theoretically possible, of course, that Peter decided to …

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Seriously. How Many People in Antiquity Could Write?

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Comments

  1. anthonygale  November 30, 2018

    How reliably can you tell that a text has been translated from another language versus originally written in a language? For example, if any of the New Testament books were written in Aramaic or Hebrew (as some people claim), the originals were lost and the translation well done, would you necessarily be able to tell? It makes sense to me that you might be able to, but how easily and reliably?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      There are linguists who specialize in this kind of question, who work to determine whether, say, an ancient Greek writing is an original Greek composition or “Translation-Greek.” It’s a complex and highly erudite field, that requires sophisticated linquistic/philological skills. It’s not easy!

      • Hormiga  December 2, 2018

        Well, it isn’t *that* hard to do, at least to some extent. I’m no expert, but can spot typical anglicisms in Russian and vice versa without much trouble. And those are both Indo-European languages.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 2, 2018

          Yes indeed! That’s exactly the sort of thing linguists do (e..g, look for Semiticisms in Greek compositions). The problem is detecting it when there aren’t anglicisms! (Even Brits can recgonize US authors when they are inclined — like me — to use Americanisms!)

          • anthonygale  December 2, 2018

            Are these things that even highly skilled multilingual people tend to do? Suppose someone was attempting to translate something from Aramaic to Greek without leaving a trace. I’m not sure someone would necessarily be concerned about leaving the trace, but what if? Could a highly skilled person pull that off or would it be a nearly impossible feat for anyone? I realize when people write they may do certain things unconsciously and sometimes words or phrases simply don’t translate well from one language to another.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 3, 2018

            Yes, that’s right. If someone is truly bilingual and works hard to make sure no one can tell, it is absolutely possible and happens all the time. When dealing with “translation documents” from antiquity though, the authors who are translating texts into another language were simply doing their best to put it into the other language: they weren’t concerned to cover up the tracks of what they were doing, and so simply expressed things as well as they could. As a result, they almost always left tell-tale signs of what they were trying to do. That’s why you get “semiticisms” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament: the authors expressed the Hebrew literally in ways that normally would not be found in Greek (e.g., a translation might say “the ways of righteousness” instead of “the right ways” — the former would be more like you would say it in Hebrew).

      • brenmcg  December 2, 2018

        But also might not always be possible – supposedly there’s no obvious signs in The Jewish War that its a translation.
        Is that true?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 3, 2018

          Great question. I don’t remember off hand. As I pointed out to someone else just now, if someone is truly bilingual and works hard to make sure no one can tell, it is absolutely possible and happens all the time. When dealing with “translation documents” from antiquity though, the authors who are translating texts into another language were simply doing their best to put it into the other language: they weren’t concerned to cover up the tracks of what they were doing, and so simply expressed things as well as they could. As a result, they almost always left tell-tale signs of what they were trying to do. That’s why you get “semiticisms” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament: the authors expressed the Hebrew literally in ways that normally would not be found in Greek (e.g., a translation might say “the ways of righteousness” instead of “the right ways” — the former would be more like you would say it in Hebrew).

  2. Pegill7  November 30, 2018

    You’ve already said that your mentor, Bruce Metzger, believed to his dying day that Peter wrote the first letter bearing his name. I believe you also said that you never discussed the matter with him. In the introduction to the letter in the NRSV the debate is referred to but no conclusion is stated as to authorship. Do you think that Metzger based his position on faith alone? Could there be any other basis?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      He assumed that since it was the tradition that went all the way back in early Christianity, there would need to be compelling evidence against it, and he didn’t find the evidence compelling. I don’t think he considered seriously the problems of first-century literacy, though; those problems were not identified until long after he had very firm views on the matter. (I was his teaching assistant one semester for a class he taught on 1 Peter!)

  3. Leovigild  November 30, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about what, if anything, we can know about Peter apart from the references in the Gospels. Are there any later traditions that you think have historical validity?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      Very few. I go into a good deal of length about the matter in the six chapters I devote to Peter in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, if you want to pursue it seriously.

  4. cheito
    cheito  November 30, 2018

    DR EHRMAN:

    Your Comment:

    As it turns out, there is New Testament evidence about Peter’s education level. According to Acts 4:13, both Peter and his companion John, also a fisherman, were agrammatoi , a Greek word that literally means “unlettered,” that is, “illiterate.”

    My Comment:

    Considering that Acts 9 and Galatians 1 record contradictory accounts of what Paul did after his conversion, I’d say that Acts 4:13 can not, and should not be presented as reliable evidence to prove that Peter and John were illiterate..

    Do you really believe that the book of Acts is an indisputably reliable historical source from which we can ascertain and confirm that Acts 4:13 is the incontrovertible truth?

    So how is Acts 4:13 EVIDENCE that Peter and John were illiterate?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      I’m not sayng it is reliable evidence. I’m saying there is other compelling evidence and this other evidence is supported by the fact that ealry Christians themselves recognized that Peter would have been illiterate.

      • cheito
        cheito  December 3, 2018

        Perhaps SOME ‘early Christians’ who had not met Peter and John believed they were illiterate. There were many sects of ‘believers in Jesus’ that erroneously taught and believed many different things about Jesus and the disciples that were not factually true. Paul in Galatians warns about those who were distorting the Gospel of Christ, before the synoptic gospels were published and circulated…

  5. JohnKesler  November 30, 2018

    1) Did any early patristic writers attribute authorship of 1 Peter or 2 Peter to someone other than Simon Peter? 2) Do you have any candidates in mind who could have written either epistle?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      1) No one else was named as a possible author, no. Peter was assumed everywhere to have written 1 Peter; 2 Peter was often thought to be forged, but no one named a possible author. He was anonynmous 2) No, we don’t know the names of well over 99% of the Christians at the time…

  6. fishician  November 30, 2018

    1 Peter 4:7 “But the end of all things is at hand…” 2 Peter 3:8, 9 “But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
    Clearly the author of 2 Peter has a different perspective on when the end is coming compared to the author of 1 Peter, does he not?
    Also, 2 Peter 3:4 people were losing hope because “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.”
    If Peter and other 1st generation Christians were still alive, why not just say, “Be patient! We’re still alive and waiting on him!” Clearly the letter was written after Peter and the other early Christians had died, and yet no return of Jesus, which was causing some disciples to question his return.

  7. doug  November 30, 2018

    One would think that given the soon-coming Kingdom of God, Peter would have been extremely busy spreading Jesus’ message as quickly as he could, rather than spending the large amount of time required to learn to read and write well in Greek, and then composing letters that the great majority of people were incapable of reading.

  8. skeptik  November 30, 2018

    I am curios. With literacy being extremely rare, did common folk communicate at all beyond the bounds which they could physically travel? Surely finding and hiring a scribe to help compose and write a letter would have been difficult and expensive for people living in the small communities. But even you could find a scribe and have someone carry the letter, who could read it when it arrived?
    The extreme literary isolation of these communities is worth pondering. It even seems a bit unsettling to me as I think about it.

    The fact that Paul sent letters clearly implies that he knew there was some level of literacy in the churches. If the churches were fairly small (how big were they?) then might that imply a relatively high amount of literacy within those churches? If that is the case, would that imply that the early churches were attracting upper class converts?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      Yes, if they wanted to write a letter, they would hire someone to take the dictation for them. Letters like this were very short (a page or less). And they would require, of course, money to hire a scribe. But also, if you knew someone who could write, you could ask him to do it for you, almost always at dictation of the contents. (So the scribe doesn’t actually compose the letter; you would do that and he would write it down)

  9. nichael  November 30, 2018

    As aside (concerning an issue briefly touched on before):

    In an outlying eastern imperial Roman center (say, in the court of Pilate), what actually would have been the “standard, day-to-day” language?

    The popular/default answer is usually “Latin” (I.e “they were Romans, after all”, pace Mel Gibson). But is this actually correct? Might the use of Greek been more common?

    (For that matter, how about the court of Herod? Greek? Aramaic?)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      No, the daily language of administration in the provinces was Greek, not Latin.

  10. godspell  November 30, 2018

    Again, I think some people find it upsetting that somebody so important to early Christianity produced no written works of any kind, even though Jesus himself clearly didn’t write anything down. Having had 1 Peter presented to them as his work, they dislike letting go of it. There’s no need to let go of it. It is a valuable early document of that era. But even educated people of that era who could read and write well often didn’t leave any works that survived.

    Hell, I’ve been able to read and write since childhood, and I still haven’t published anything away from the internet. It’s a lot of work! 😉

    • nichael  December 2, 2018

      Also, I think part of the problem is that many people tend (without thinking about it too much) to view things from an anachronistic, modern point of view. For example, 1] viewing Jesus as being as important (to his contemporaries) as we think of him, and 2] that many “cultural” things were basically the same as they are now (e.g. widespread literacy and education).

      For example, a big topic of conversation way back in Sunday School was: Why don’t we have _any_ contemporary pictures of Jesus? I mean, he was the most important man in history! Surely _someone_ would have painted his portrait!

  11. Matt2239  November 30, 2018

    The verse that says Peter was illiterate doesn’t actually say that (Acts 4:13). It says he was perceived to be unschooled and untrained. If you look at the original Greek, it says they concluded or observed or realized, but it does not say he actually was. Often when something is, the Bible just says it is. In this case, someone added a more complex structure instead of the simpler declaration (and more words when books were copied by hand!).

    As for the unschooled part, the adjective “agrammatos” can mean both illiterate and simply “uneducated in Rabbinic teachings” (biblehub.com/greek/62.htm). Which definition fits Acts 4:13? Well, since it was all the high priests that were observing Peter’s public teachings, it probably means the high priests concluded Peter had no schooling in their form of Judaism. It doesn’t say they administered any sort of standardized test with Number 2 pencils. They could tell just by watching him speak, to the illiterate crowd. Later that century at the Council of Jamnia, Jewish leaders all agreed that Greek translations of the Old Testament (with which the writer of 1 Peter was well acquainted), had no place in Judaism. The Septuagint became the Christian version of the Old Testament.

    Acts 4:13 doesn’t say Peter was illiterate in anything, but to the extent that those observing him concluded he was unschooled, the context of “agrammatos” ‘s use shows they meant he was uneducated in their form of Judaism.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      No, agrammatos does not mean “uneducated in Rabbinic teachings.” I would challenge anyone who claims it does to give examples where it means that. It is not at *all* what the etymology of the word means. It means “unlettered” — that is “not knowing the alphabet”

      I’m afraid you’re getting your information from out-of-date sources that have been discredited. That includes your information on the Council of Jamnia. The Greek translation of the Bible continued to be a centeral part of Judaism throughout the Diaspora.

      I would strongly recommend — if you are seriously interested — that yo uread the scholarship on first century Judaism. Two good places to start are Shaye Cohen, From teh Maccabees to the Mishnah, or E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief.

      • Sixtus  December 9, 2018

        I’d also recommend Cohen’s online videos for his Harvard course. Right up there with Dale Martin’s Yale online course on the NT.

  12. JulieGraff  November 30, 2018

    Isen’t this premise taken as overated fact? … Illeterate disciples… because it’s written somehere!

    The gospels talk about the underground levels of the Torah (as I’ve talk before about the number 14)

    The Talmud talks about a discussion between a disciple of who seems to be Jesus, and Rabbi Eliezer, a grand Rabbi of the time, and he was please about it!

    Today I was listening to one of the Rav’s teachings I study, and he was mentionning regarding Hanouka that the Torah Masters and the Helenist Masters of the time had great discussions… as they both enjoyed that kind of thing.. until it all blew up.

    Maybe that’s when the lines blured…

    • JulieGraff  November 30, 2018

      Sorry I should have mentionned that this questionning is also about Peter… which story about the first meeting is so obviously (well at least to me) a methaphore!

      Bottom line, the Torah’s underground meanings are all over the place, and that’s not a place for illeterates!

      • Bart
        Bart  December 2, 2018

        In a largely non-literate society, there are all sorts of interpreters of texts who have views of their meaning even though they can’t read the texts themselves.

        • JulieGraff  December 3, 2018

          They may interpret the texts at the Pshath and Remez level… but digging deeper into the Sod level you have at least to know the hebrew letters underground meanings, and how they all tie in… and that is pretty literate to me.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 4, 2018

            Being highly intelligent is not hte same as being literate. The latter involves being able to read, not to think.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      No, I’m not arguing that he was illiterate *because* Acts 4:13 says so. I’m saying there is overwhelming evidence that he was illiterate, and as it turns out this is recognized even in the New Testament itself.

      • JulieGraff  December 3, 2018

        “I’m saying there is overwhelming evidence that he was illiterate”

        What evidence?

        Overwhelming evidence… or deductions?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 4, 2018

          Yes, lots of evidence about what a rural fisherman in remote Galilee would be linguistically capable of. If you’re really interested, I’d suggest you look at the book by Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. This kind of judgment is not simply guess work, or based on “common sense,” but involves detailed examination of historical data. Worth a look!

          • JulieGraff  December 4, 2018

            Thank you for the info about the book.

            But your premise is that Peter would have been just like any rural fisherman in remote Galilee, and I dont think we have evidence of that, do we?

            “Being highly intelligent is not hte same as being literate. The latter involves being able to read, not to think.”

            That’s my point, you may be highly intelligent, and look at a letter in any language and not know how it is pronounced. If you do look a letters and know the underground meanings of them (your way pass pronunciation there), and know how put together they form roots in a word (which is one part of Sod exegesis), then that’s not just intelligence, that’s knowledge, and it is pretty much looking like literate knowledge.

  13. mikezamjara  December 1, 2018

    Dear Dr Ehrman:

    I am in the middle of a debate so I would like some help with a few doubts I have.
    1. ¿What is the correct translation of “Immanuel” in Μεθ’ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός in MAtthew 1:23? Is it “god with us” or “god IS with us”
    2. In Mark 1:2 what woud be a more correct interpretation of Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ Υἱοῦ Θεοῦ would it be “the good news about Jesus” or “the good news of (meaning possesion) Jesus.”
    3. Is the tetragrammaton YWHW the same as “I am who I am”?

    Thank you for your help

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      1. Both translations are correct; 2. The genitive could be construed in various ways. These are matters of interpretation; the Greek grammar allows for various possibilities. Just as today, if you say “The love of God makes me do this” — do you mean your love of God or God’s love of you? It could be either one, and it would depend on the context.

      • mikezamjara  December 2, 2018

        thank you, Very interesting. and do you believe that YHWH and “I am that am” are related somehow?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 3, 2018

          Yes, the name YHWH appears to be related, etymologically, to the Hebrew verb “I am”

          • brenmcg  December 3, 2018

            Do you think the writer of Exodus 3 is claiming YHWH means HE WHO IS?

            God says “I am the God of your father … ”
            Moses says “If I tell the the God of you fathers … they will ask me What is his name?”
            God says “Tell them HE WHO IS (YHWH) the God of your fathers … “

          • Bart
            Bart  December 4, 2018

            Something like that, thought without the Greek philosophical overtones that we tend to bring to the idea.

  14. RonaldTaska  December 1, 2018

    For those new to the blog, I recommend Dr. Ehrman’s “Forged.”

  15. mkahn1977  December 1, 2018

    why did they include these as cannon if they weren’t written by Peter- did they not know he didn’t write them or did they consider they “inspired” by him?

  16. meohanlon  December 2, 2018

    Dr Ehrman, a couple questions I hope you can answer- the second regarding sort of an elephant in the room (sorry if someone already pointed this out)

    1: Let’s say in the case of some gospels/letters, etc. where it wasn’t Paul writing, the Greek-speaking writer was doing a good job as a reporter and weighing different second hand sources against each other, so that he had arrived at a pretty good representation of what the original disciple might have said, relayed to many of his own disciples, and summarizing their years of exposure; .rather than attributing his own written views to someone by that point well-known, and an accepted authority within the Christian community (easy to see why someone would do this!) – and granting that either way, the writer’s personal biases will inevitably color the final work, do historians have much to go on, as far as deciding which new testament pieces fall into the former category? Do we have stronger candidates for the latter ?

    2. Now, if Peter was named as an author of these works, why not name Jesus then of others(that we know of )? Was it understood within the community that, and why, he chose not to write his views down ?(or supposing he couldn’t write, the problem is why then credit Peter, if it explicitly says in Acts he can’t write – even if it’s just supposed to represent Peter’s views, then why not do the same for Jesus? ) – or was this too bold of a move even for a shameless forger? (considering it would’ve still been fairly bold to put one’s own views in the mouth of Peter, by naming the gospel/letter after him!) – or he was still deemed less accessible than his followers?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      1. yes it is often thought that these pseudonymous authors were writing what they thought the author himself would have written had he had the opportunity. The problem is that people with *opposite* views did the same thing, claiming that *their* views were the ones the author would have written! I deal with this at some length in my books on forgery, whcih I’d recommend you look at it you want to see how it all worked (and what the evidence is). 2. Ah, there *are* some works that claim to be written by Jesus! Maybe I’ll post on that.

  17. FireBrand  December 2, 2018

    Are there any ancient texts claimed to have been written by Jesus himself? It seems to me that if you’re going to claim a false authorship, you may as well “go big.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 2, 2018

      Ah, someone else has just asked that! Answer: yes. I’ll post on it next!

  18. Lev
    Lev  December 2, 2018

    “Is it possible then that the historical Peter directed someone to write a letter, basically told him what to say, and let him produce it?….. But even more compelling is this: where in the ancient world do we have anything at all analogous to this hypothetical situation of someone writing a letter-essay for someone else and putting the other person’s name on it – the name of the person who did not write it – rather than his own name?”

    Perhaps I misunderstand your point here (I suspect I do), but isn’t this how Paul wrote his letters – by having someone else write them out under his direction? Probably the best example is Romans 16:22 “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 3, 2018

      Yes, that’s actaully my point. When Paul had Tertius, or anyone else, “write” his letter for him, it means he was dictating it and the scribe wrote down what he said. That’s precisely *not* what is being imagined about Peter and 1 Peter, since he could not dictate a letter like this in Greek (let alone highly rhetorical Greek). If you want to follow up on this, see my earlier posts by searching for “secretary” on the blog.

  19. webattorney  December 4, 2018

    Do you think disciples and Paul were exposed or familiar with and knowingly influenced by Platonism?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2018

      Definitely not the disciples, in a remote rural region in the boonies. But Paul, to some extent. He never would have read Plato, but he may well have been familiar with typical philosophical views, such as embodied in Platonism.

      • webattorney  December 4, 2018

        Why do you say Paul would never have read Plato? Wasn’t Paul able to read Greek?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 5, 2018

          Yes, but only highly educated philosophically trained people read Plato directly. Paul himself was not in that camp; and also, when he did read, it was almost always Jewish religoius literature (Scripture, etc.)

  20. webattorney  December 5, 2018

    So, since John could not read or write, it’s also unlikely that John himself wrote Book of John which beginning sounds like Platonism?

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