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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.


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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The Books of Peter
Seriously. How Many People in Antiquity Could Write?



  1. Avatar
    DennisJensen  December 31, 2018

    I’m sorry, Bart, but your argument that Peter could not have used a scribe to create 1 Peter just seems to me to be very weak. The early church didn’t have much money but it did have an abundance of members of all social classes, professions, and skills, most of whom were willing to aid the advancement of that church in any way they could. Peter could have asked some professional he knew or who was referred to him to volunteer his services. Peter dictated what he wanted to say and the scribe copied it likely in Aramaic. The scribe then studied the Aramaic and translated it with his or her own rephrasing to make it more understandable and polished to a Greek speaking audience. Thus it need not have sounded like translation Greek at all. Since the scribe was more acquainted with the LXX, he would have substituted that translation for the Hebrew or Aramaic that Peter was used to. The scribe then translated it back to Peter in Aramaic, explaining the gist of the changes he made in wording. If Peter didn’t mind that the phrasings and idioms of his letter sounded more Greek than Aramaic, he would have made few or no corrections.

    I think that in one of your debates with Licona he mentioned some Greek or Roman personage who was asked to write something for someone. He said he could but he preferred not to because his scribe was so much better than he at elegant and sophisticated writing. So it sounds as though people may have commonly allow their scribes to take one’s written or spoken words and rework them to sound better. Why couldn’t this be similar to what happened with Peter?

    You say we have no accounts from the ancient world of one person “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.” Wouldn’t the instance Licona recounts be such an example or at least sufficiently close to it?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 1, 2019

      It’s very hard for those of us living in the 21st century to imagine what the conditions for writing (or for doing most other things) would have been in the Roman world 2000 years ago; we tend to think, based on our own experience, that “surely they would simply have done *this*”. What historians discover, though, is that things were very very different then, and what seem common sense — and an obvious way to proceed with doing things in life — were decidedly not common sense then, and that people didn’t do things in ways that might occur to us today. That’s why we need to *discover* how things worked in antiquity: how did people write? How did illiterate people put things in writing? How did they employ scribes? What did scribes do and, importantly, what did scribes not do? How did they take dictation? Did they every do anything other than dictation? What evidence is there of scribes actually composing letters for others? Or of them translating words from one language into another language for a writer? Etc. etc. Knowing the answers to these questions is not a matter of thinking that “surely they would have done it like this.” It is a matter of seeing what ancient sources tell us about literacy, and scribes, and dictation, and translation practices, and so on. If you’ll notice, in my book I go into some detail on such matters. So it’s not a matter of either guessing, asserting, or suggesting — it’s a matter of interpreting evidence. Other interpretations may be possible, but they need to be based on evidence, not what today makes perfectly good common sense in our own context.

  2. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  May 11, 2019

    If Peter was unable ro read or write (as per the interpretation of ‘agrammatoi’ in Acts 4:3), then how do we account for his sermons in Acts (liberally sprinkled with OT scriptures), his 3 years with Jesus in which Jesus taught from the scriptures (‘it is written, but I say to you….’), Jesus’s choice of Peter the chief disciple, Peter’s prominent role in the early church, his concept of the messiahship of Jesus and his awareness of the laws of moses?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2019

      1. The sermons were not by him but by Luke (as with all the sermons in Acts). In any event, even in Acts he didn’t write them out; 2. It was common for the literate teacher to teach the illiterate disciple in antiquity. He wasn’t teaching them to read; 3. Leaders of ancient religious groups did not have to be literate. Often they weren’t. Peter was not chosen for his high education.

      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  May 13, 2019

        Dear Bart, many thanks indeed for graciously replying to my various amateur questions. I truly appreciate the opportunity to bounce questions off someone I consider an exceptionally talented biblical scholar, even though I hold a very different position as regards faith in the existence of God and in the resurrection of Jesus, so I don’t neccessarily expect an answer to this further comment. However, I have to say that I think to suggest that Luke (or whoever the author of Acts and Luke was) concocted Peter’s sermons in Acts solely from his own theology, must of neccessity be pushing the boundaries of scholarship a long way into the realms of conjecture. I am of course aware of the psuedo-epigraphic epistles in the cannon and outside about which you have written much, but this conclusion just seems to me too disingenuous to be compatible with Luke’s Christian message and suggests you have lost all faith in all Christians of all times. Aren’t you being a bit harsh? Maybe someone at some point is being honest? I am interested in what you say about it being common for the literate teacher to teach the illiterate disciple in antiquity. Can you point me to some evidence of that? Peter certainly knew about some Jewish theological concepts: Messiahship, dietry and other laws, for starters and he knew enough theology to be the first pillar (or rock) of the Church and to preach and evangelize apparently effectively – or are you doubting that also? The gospels describe Peter not just as a labourer, but as a ‘fisherman’ ie he proabably had a share in a boat and ran a business – he was certainly concerned about the yield of his fishing trips. Basing your conclusion about him being completely illiterate on the etymological derrivation of single word in Acts (agrammatoi) when you don’t even believe that the author of Acts is being honest in relaying Peter’s sermons, strikes me as having your cake and eating it as we English like to say :-). As you know, the meaning of words migrates from their original etymology and in this case, one could make a good argument anyway that Luke was using hyperbole to contrast with the efficacy and eloquence of Peter’s sermons

        • Bart
          Bart  May 14, 2019

          Yeah, I get it. But it’s not speculation and it’s not an opinion I came up with — it’s fairly standard to think that authors recording speeches in antiquity made them up themselves, in part because Thucydides himself says they did; and it’s clear that Luke has done so on the basis of his own ideas both because the speeches of all the speakers sound the same notes and agree on just about everything, and these notes are in fact ones that Luke stresses elsewhere in his books, and because you can compare what one of the speakers, Paul, says in Acts with what he says himself in his own letters. There are stark differences; the versions of his speeches in Acts happen to coincide with the speeches of Peter and the theological views of Luke. So it’s not guesswork: a detailed analysis (as opposed to this brief summary) shows it quite clearly. That’s why it’s the standard view among critical scholars.

  3. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  May 14, 2019

    Thanks Bart. I proabably ought to wait until I’ve finished How Jesus became God before I weigh in with my challenges, as I have just read your answer above in the book today!! I have to say your book is the most fascinating and insightful book I have EVER read on Christian doctrine and I’m stunned at the amount of thought and careful research that’s gone into it. The discussion of what ‘God’ can actually mean to different cultures and periods, the discussion of the developement of the ideas of Messiah, Logos, Son of God, Son of Man, Angelic beings etc is just great. Even better is the discussiuon of the development within early Christianity of the different Christologies. I can’t put the book down and I’ve bought the audio to keep up the pace. There are few books I read twice, but this is almost certainly going to be one! Although I find myself accepting many of your ideas, I’ve still got quite a few things I want to challenge – if you have the patience to allow an amateur into the ring! A couple of questions I have now: Thucydides was a politcal historian living in the 5th century, so surely he is not a reliable contextual source for arguing that a 1st century Christian would fabricate Peter and Paul’s speeches in a religious text? You yourself have pointed out that Luke included passages in Peter’s speeches with an exalatation Christology (great term by the way) that are not consistent with his own Christology. So by the criterion of dissimilarity, it would suggest he genuinley got them from somewhere else – why not from some record of Peter’s speeches? That all the speeches ‘sound the same notes and agree on just about everything’ and that there are differences between Paul’s epistolic doctrines and those ascribed to him in his speeches in Acts could have many explanations and I obviously need to do some reading on this, but it is slightly off the subject of Peter being Agrammatos. You haven’t yet convinced me Peter could neither read or write 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2019

      I’d encourage you to read the scholars who deal with Greek and Roman historiography and biography; to my knowledge they all agree that the authors of the texts wrote the speeches. Yes, Luke got the ideas from earlier sources; but the ideas in Peter’s speeches are almost exactly like the ideas in Paul’s and they are written (spoken) in almost exactly the same writing style: so they appear to have been produced by the same author. And since Paul’s speeches are not at all what he himself says in his surviving letters, we’re pretty sure Luke has molded his speeches in his own (Luke’s) image. We have no record of anyone taking notes at speeches in antiquity and then writing the speeches down later.

      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  May 15, 2019

        OK will do some reading. I’m not saying this is an all or nothing issue. It’s certainly very reasonable to think that Luke may have ‘filled in some gaps’ and rounded them off in his own style, I just feel that complete speech fabrication is perhaps over-stating the case. Obviously, the underlying issue is whether we can take anything from the Acts speeches or from 1Peter to inform our view of Peter’s Christology and also how he perceived the resurrection. You view is obviously that we can’t.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 17, 2019

          Yes, I can see why it would seem that way. But Thucydides tells us that historians *had* to make up the speeches themselves; without written records, or other means of access, there simply wasn’t much choice.

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