Over the past month I have received a number of questions on the blog about whether it was possible that some of the apostles used “secretaries” to write their books — so that when 1 or 2 Peter, say, claims to be written by Peter, it actually was written by Peter in a sense. Peter told a secretary what to write and the secretary (e.g., Silvanus? 1 Peter 5:12) actually put pen to papyrus. But the thoughts and ideas were all Peter’s.
It’s an important question, and I’ve dealt with it a good bit over the years. I actually did a short thread on it over six years ago now here on the blog. I’ve decided to return to the issue. This will take three posts. The first is on what levels of literacy back at the time of the New Testament: how many people cold read and how many write (which is not the same thing in antiquity!); and apart from who could write, who could compose a writing?
Here is what I said about the matter in my academic book Forgery and Counterforgery.
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 consider the issue of literacy specifically in Roman Palestine, a matter pursued most convincingly in studies by Bar-Ilan and Catherine Hezser.
Bar-Ilan begins his analysis by referring to cross-cultural studies that have demonstrated that literacy rates are closely tied to broader social and cultural factors. Urban societies are always more literate than rural. Moreover, low birth rates, low population growth, and low life expectancy all contribute to low literacy rates, and for good reason. With respect to life expectancy, for example: the use of the written word positively affects a society’s hygiene, infant care, agricultural practices, and so on, all of which play a vital role in longevity. And so, for example, the more illiterate societies always suffer the highest rates of infant mortality.
Turning to hard historical evidence for ancient Israel, Bar-Ilan notes that the Talmud allows for towns where only one person could read in the synagogue (Soferim 11:2). Since all synagogues that have been discovered can accommodate more than 50 people, we are probably looking at literacy rates, in these places, at about 1%. When this figure is tied to the fact that the land of Israel was 70% rural, and only 10% was “highly” urban, one can take into account all the sundry factors and crunch the numbers: “it is no exaggeration to say that the total literacy rate in the Land of Israel… was probably less than 3%.” Most of this 3% would have comprised wealthy Jews living in the major cities.
Hezser has devoted the only full length study to this question in her monograph Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. She agrees with Bar-Ilan on his statistical claims: total literacy in Palestine was probably around 3%; those who were literate were largely located in urban areas; some villages and towns had literacy rates of lower than 1%. In this connection Hezser makes the striking historical observation that “the only literary works which can with certainty be attributed to Palestinian Jews of the first century C.E. are the writings of Josephus and the no longer extant works of his opponent Justus of Tiberias” (both of whom “received a Greek education and were influenced by Graeco-Roman writing”). Moreover, Hezser argues that “writing seems to have mostly – and perhaps almost exclusively — been used by the political, economic, and religious-intellectual elites in late Roman Palestine.” Was the fisherman Simon-Peter in this august group?
Before pursuing that question, we should look at the related issue of the use of Greek in first-century Palestine. 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. But even she points out that Josephus is the only Jew of Roman Palestine to indicate that he learned Greek, and she notes that Josephus himself indicates that he could not write literary Greek without assistance from Greek speakers (Contra Apionem 1.9). Moreover, Hezser admits that we do not know whether Josephus studied Greek before coming to Rome. She later acknowledges that most Jews in Palestine would have had only “a rudimentary knowledge of Greek” which involved knowing “a few phrases to lead to a simple conversation.” That is a long way from being able to write a high-level Greek composition, especially in light of the fact that simple conversational Greek took no special training, whereas learning to read (even in one’s own language) took years of hard work, and composition took years more. Louis Feldman notes that “Josephus’s admission (Contra Apionem 1.50 [= 1.9]) that he needed assistance in composing the version in Greek of the Jewish War illustrates that few attained the competence in the language necessary for reading and understanding Greek literature.”
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. There is, in fact, scant evidence that Greek was widely used outside of the major urban areas. People living in rural areas spoke almost exclusively Aramaic.
These and other studies have made it clear that there were few educated people in Palestine in the days of Peter. Those who did have the benefits of education would have been taught Hebrew to enable them to read the Torah, unless they came from a fabulously wealthy aristocratic family in a major city. These fortunate few would have made up the bulk of the 3% of Palestine who could read. Moreover, most of the 3% who could read could not compose a sentence or a paragraph. Most of those who could compose a paragraph could not compose an entire book. Most of those who could compose a book could not do so in a foreign language, Greek. Most of those who could do so, could not compose it in elegant Greek. 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.
In my next post I move on to the question of whether he (or any of the other illiterate “authors” of the New Testament) could have used a secretary.