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Did Peter Use a Secretary for his Writings? A Blast from the Past

Looking through some posts of blogs-past I came across this interesting one from six years ago now!   I think it’s an intriguing question, and the answer is not what most people would probably think.



What do you make of the author’s reference to a Silvanus in 1 Peter 5:12? Could it be that this really is Peter saying he used a secretary to write this letter? I know you said there is little to no evidence that people used secretaries, but what do you make of this reference to a Silvanus?


Yes, this is a question that I deal with in my book Forged, and that I deal with at yet greater length in the book coming out in the fall, Forgery and Counterforgery. Several points are important to make about the question, but first a bit of background.

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My First Taste of Critical Scholarship
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  1. Avatar
    Xyloplax  July 26, 2018

    “We have numerous unambiguous instances where that is clearly what it means”. Can you provide us some examples or a bibliography of secondary sources around this point?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2018

      Yup, I give the references in my discussion in Forgery and Counterforgery, where there is a full consideration of the issue.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 26, 2018

    A clear, powerful, and well reasoned conclusion. I have heard the “secretary” argument a lot. Thanks.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  July 26, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, the fact that 1 Peter is written in implausibly well-written Greek is not what makes me doubt its authenticity. What makes me question its authenticity is A) the scriptural quotes are clearly from the LXX, which is certainly odd if this is supposed to be coming from Peter, and B) his use of words that the historical Peter would probably never have used, like “Christian,” and his reference to some form of established church heirarchy (e.g. 5:1), are things that point to this letter being composed by someone other than Peter. The whole thing smacks of forgery. Of course, much of the rest of the sentiments of the letter seem like something what the real Peter could have believed and even propagated.

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 27, 2018

      You have to assume that Peter’s ideas were well known in the larger Christian community, whether he could write them down or not–and that anybody writing in his name would incorporate those ideas as much as possible. (While still probably adding some of his own.)

      Socrates never wrote one thing, far as we know. We do know Plato often used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. In his mind, he was probably completing Socrates’ chain of thought, but Socrates might have had a thing or two to say about that.

      We still use Plato’s dialogues as our most important source of information about Socrates. Without them, all we’d have is Xenophon (arguably more reliable, directly anecdotal, but less voluminous) and Aristophanes (not meant to be taken seriously, but maybe we should anyway).

  4. Avatar
    gavriel  July 26, 2018

    If Peter knew how to produce Greek letters, he would have put all his energy into producing a rather wonderful and *complete* gospel, before any other type of writing. It would not have been lost.

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 27, 2018

      He certainly knew people who could write Greek. He could have dictated it to a secretary. He was pretty busy, you know, and not everybody has the writer’s urge. Just knowing things doesn’t mean you have the talent to transform them into a coherent engaging narrative. Knowing how to write isn’t the same thing as knowing how to write well. As Paul said, we have different gifts.

      And sure it could have been lost. The memoirs of Augustus Caesar were lost.

  5. Avatar
    forthfading  July 26, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You’ve mentioned before that the majority of New Testament scholars are Christian believers. I would tend to think this creates a bit of agenda and bias when dealing with the historical data and criteria to authenticate the writings within the NT. This being said, do you often look to other scholars in related areas such as Roman history, classicist, Mediterranean studies, etc. to get less bias or agenda concerning the history of ancient Judea?


    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2018

      Yes, it certainly can do. And yes, it’s important to see what scholars are saying about all things related, outside the NT itself.

  6. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  July 26, 2018

    and what happened to the scholars who asserted that Silvanus had written 1 Peter.
    by exquisite Greek.
    continue with the same thought?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2018

      I”m not sure! No one has told me if their mind has changed.

  7. Avatar
    prestonp  July 27, 2018

    In proper context, they spoke so eloquently that others were astonished they were fisherman, affirming how erudite they really were.

    Silvanus or Silas may have been the messenger who carried it to its recipients.
    He may have served as the secretary or editor of the letter who polished Peter’s Greek for him. He had 37 years to improve.
    He may have served as Peter’s agent in writing the letter on his behalf.

    When lawyers seek witnesses to confirm their client’s stories, they look for people with proven character. In fact, the testimony of any particular person is as reliable as the person is. Keep that in mind when you think about the people who shouted out the good news from house tops and prisons and mountain tops.

    People who experienced miracles at the hands of Jesus were blown away. Absolutely pulverized with incredulity. Absolutely ecstatic. Freaked out. In awe. Couldn’t believe their eyes. 

    There was but one Man Who performed miracles constantly, Who raised the dead, Who was raised Himself from the grave, Who healed all manner of illness, Who merely spoke and the winds and the waves obeyed Him. And they make no bones about it. They were proud of His miracles, proud of Him. They loved the guy! These guys were your typical Jewish persons. They had nothing to gain by proclaiming what they saw and heard. They had everything to lose by perpetuating stories that were hostile, repugnant to their peers. Did a single one of them receive lots of denari, (besides Judas?) or fame, or power for being involved with this Guy? Think! Think! Think! What motives did the first disciples, apostles, followers have even to acknowledge they knew the Guy? Pete was scared out of his gourd. What were the scribes hoping to gain if the writers found they changed the wording from the originals, or the second hand or third hand copies or to the often repeated oral accounts? I can tell you word for word what my coach from decades ago told his team and so can my fellow teammates, with no sweat, with no difficulty and we weren’t with him 24/7 for 3 years. 

    BTW, observe how many different theories you all hold despite all the information available today. Remember what Bart said, too. He and Metzger could have pounded out with perhaps a dozen exceptions out of thousands of possibilities, what the original N.T. said.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  July 29, 2018

      prestonp: “Think! Think! Think! What motives did the first disciples, apostles, followers have …”

      ABSOLUTELY and I would hope you would THINK THINK THINK too! Why would Muslims follow a false prophet? Why would Mormons follow a false prophet? Do you accept all the Catholic claims of miracles as proof of their Saints? There are claimed witnesses. You need to study religious history. You would see even Christian denominations/sects that started by following a charismatic leader whose’s prophecies didn’t come true. Miracles are claimed too! But even though they failed, people continued to follow them anyway.

      THINK THINK THINK: do people ever follow false leaders and prophets? Do people ever die for false claims and stories? Do stories ever get distorted and changed over time? We don’t need to THINK, we KNOW from history they do. Claims that they don’t are contrary to observed human behavior and require proof, not belief.

  8. Avatar
    elwoody  July 27, 2018

    On the question ‘Did Peter use secretaries?’ the better, but unsatisfactory, answer is given by ” The evidence of this is very sparse”. I would add ‘on either side of the question’. We simply do not have sufficient fact or artifact to reasonably say ‘this’ or ‘that’.

    We suffer a poverty of historically verifiable stuff. Still we can look at the culture as we know it. The apostles were all practicing Jews. At the synagogues of the day, scribes belonged to group known as ‘scribes, Pharisees and priests’. We may intuit that scribes did more than etch out script; ‘etching by the way is the Greek word for ‘writing’. Scribes also spoke about what they etched. And in doing so, they gained a reputation.

    Now here’s the point: if some scribes like some Jews migrated to the assembles, then the assembles had scribes available for Peter and his fellow apostles. But that is an inference, not hard or even plausible historical fact.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2018

      The question is whether ancient scribes ever did the kinds of things being imagined by the hypothesis.

      • Avatar
        elwoody  July 29, 2018

        Yes, I must agree. From a known behavior, we may inference existence; but from existence, we cannot reasonably infer behavior. It would help to know what duties the Jewish scribes performed at the temple or synagogue. We would still need to see a basis from which those duties were carried forward to the assembly of believers.

  9. Avatar
    anthonygale  July 27, 2018

    Do you have a sense for how long it took before educated people started to convert to Christianity? I realize that Jesus and all (or at least virtually all) of his earliest followers would have been illiterate. But once educated people converted, they could have served as secretaries to eyewitnesses or written something of their own (e.g. notes, letters). I’m not saying we have anything in the Bible direct from an eyewitness, but perhaps at some point there existed writings not so far removed from the original sources? That may have even found their way into M, L or Q?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2018

      Paul was certainly educated, and he must have converted 2-3 years after the crucifixion.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  July 29, 2018

        Do you think Paul was an extremely rare exception to the rule (i.e. only a handful of early followers who were educated) or that perhaps there were a large number of early converts who could write (in absolute number as opposed to percent of followers)? I ask because I wonder if any early converts took notes or exchanged letters, who either knew Jesus or the apostles. I suppose at the end of the day, there is no way to know and, if such writings existed, we don’t have them anyway. But I do wonder if M, L or Q might have included/used written sources from someone who knew an apostle.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 30, 2018

          No, in my view the literacy rates were extreemely low, maybe 10% of the general population or so, and that 10% were mainly urban elites (most early Christians were not elites!)

  10. Alemin
    Alemin  July 31, 2018

    In your opinion, how upper class would the author of 1 Peter have had to be? What kind of person could have written that kind of Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2018

      He certainly wasn’t of the highest classes, but he was unusually well educated for someone in antiquity — top 2-3% I would guess. That didn’t necessarily translate into class or wealth, though.

  11. Avatar
    T20011152  July 31, 2018

    How does the research look for gaining insights as to who the writers of the Gospels may have been (other than educated Greeks) or what sources influenced their writings? You touch on this in “How Jesus Became God”. Perhaps you explain more about Q in one of your other books? Also, in “How Jesus Became God” you mention that most scholars agree the Gospels were written long after Jesus’ death and alleged resurrection. And since Paul’s writings were written earlier than the Gospels, have any scholars theorized that the Gospel writers, whoever they were, may have been influenced by Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2018

      We haven’t made huge advances in our knowledge of who they were, since there is no more evidence than, say, fifty years ago. But yes, whether or not they were influenced by Paul is a major interest among scholars who pursue such things. My sense is that Mark is veyr much like Paul in some ways, Luke surprisingly less so (since Paul is the hero of his Acts), and Matthew is probably opposing a Pauline understanding of Jesus in relation to the jewish law.

  12. Avatar
    alikaraca  August 18, 2018

    This question is not to compare religions. Just trying to figure out some kind of confusion: Being a muslim, and as far as I know, source of Quran is simple to understand: There is God, Allah, there is prophet, Mohammed and there is angel of God. And this angel transmits message of God to prophet.

    Source of Bible is kind of complicated, at least for me. Who is the main source of message? God Father or Jesus? Or both? And to whom was the message transmitted? And how?

  13. Avatar
    Nichrob  November 26, 2018

    Facts: Paul could read and write Greek. He composed very suffisticated letters in Greek. He converted to “Christianity” around 3 years after Jesus’ death. He met with Peter and James. Question: has anyone argued that “Paul”, or one of Paul’s secretaries wrote letters for the Apostles? (I could see an Apologist use this as a basis to argue the “possibility”….)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2018

      No, the writing styles and topics / issues are very different.

  14. spencer290
    spencer290  October 15, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, thank you for your dedication. In one of your debates with D.B. Wallace in 2012 you said that we think Paul used a scribe to write what he dictated. Do you still think this is true, and why would we not think this is what occurred with the canonical gospels and their purported authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2019

      Yes, we know Paul did because one of the scribes identifies himself: Tertius, in Romans 16:22.

      The authors of the Gospels may have used scribes, indeed. BUT, this is the key point: scribes were not editors, authors, or translators. They wrote down what the author told them to write down. I talk about this at some length in my books on forgery, and on the blog in a few posts. Search for “secretary”

      • Spencer Black
        Spencer Black  October 16, 2019

        But if the gospels were originally written in Koine Greek, and scribes were not translators, then it would follow that the purported authors of the gospels did not use scribes, right? Because the ostensible authors probably didn’t know Greek?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2019

          Ah, right! No, the logic is actually usually the inverse of that: namely, that the authors did know Greek and therefore the ostensible authors were *not* the actual authors.

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