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Peter as Literate?

IN RESPONSE TO MY POSTS ON SECRETARIES AND THE BOOK OF 1 PETER, SEVERAL PEOPLE HAVE RAISED THE QUESTION OF WHETHER PETER WAS HIMSELF LITERATE (ABLE TO READ, OR MORE SIGNIFICANTLY, TO WRITE). THIS IS THE FIRST PART OF WHAT I SAY IN MY BOOK FORGERY AND COUNTERFORGERY; THE SECOND PART WILL BE IN THE NEXT POST.

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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.”

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Peter as Literate? Part 2
Ancient Secretaries (Part 2)

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    lbehrendt  August 7, 2012

    Bart, it would be great if you could comment on how books WERE written by early Christians and first century Jews. You are indicating that these books would have been composed by social/political elites. This makes sense, particularly given the expense of producing a work of some length (something else that Richards has described in his work). The impression I get from my reading is that these works were composed by determined individual authors, and later discovered and adopted by religious communities. But couldn’t a community commission a work, to be used for liturgical or other religious purposes? Might a community exercise editorial control over such a work? If someone like Peter was head of such a community, might his name be assigned to that work as its author?

    We have a fair literary production represented by the New Testament, mostly produced (as I understand it) during a 50-year span following the fall of the Second Temple. We might guess that other materials were written at this same time that did not make the canon. Given the relatively small number of Christians during this time (the estimates I’ve read are in the low hundreds of thousands), there would not seem to be enough Christians (the percentage of the percentage of the percentage of the percentage of the 3% you mention) to produce these works in a casual manner … but the works might have been produced by communities that needed the works for their own purposes, communities that could have hired outside professionals to do at least some of the work. Granted, I’m not aware of any evidence that such a thing took place … but I’m not aware of any other good explanation for how these works came to be … not to mention Jewish works such as 2 Enoch, 4 Ezra, etc.

    I’m hoping you can comment.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 7, 2012

      Interesting thoughts, and yes, some people have proposed multiple authors for works. I deal with this in my book. The reality is that we have no evidence from the period of literarry works that were produced by committee. If we did, it would certainly change things. (People have looked for the evidence; it doesn’t appear to exist)

  2. Avatar
    timber84  August 7, 2012

    Is Paul the only Christian author of the 1st century whose identity we can be reasonably certain of? Whether it be canonical or non-canonical writings?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 7, 2012

      The only other one is “John” who wrote Revelation. Unfortunately, we don’t have any idea which John it was (he doesn’t claim to be Jesus’ disciple John the son of Zebedee, and in fact gives clear indications that he is not that one)

      • John4
        John4  July 2, 2015

        “and in fact gives clear indications that he is not [the son of Zebede]”.

        Chapter and verse, please.

        Thanks! 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  July 2, 2015

          sorry, I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

          • John4
            John4  July 2, 2015

            Sorry to be unclear. 😐

            Responding to timber84 just above, Bart, you suggested that the author of Revelation “gives clear indications that he is not [John the son of Zebedee]”. I was wondering if you could point us to the passages where these “clear indications” are given.

            Many, many thanks! 🙂

          • Bart
            Bart  July 3, 2015

            Ah. It’s because the 24 elders surrounding the throne in ch. 4 are normally taken to be the 12 patriarchs of Israel and the 12 apostles of Jesus. So the author was not one of those 12.

          • John4
            John4  July 3, 2015

            I see.

            Thank you so much! 🙂

  3. Avatar
    maxhirez  August 7, 2012

    Is it still fashionable for scholars (like Meeks and Hendricks in that Frontline series) to claim that Jesus had to have a working command of Greek to make it as a tekton in Sephoris or did that pass? It seemed strange to me that they would invoke the idea without any traditions to that effect (in fact there are several scriptural traditions indicating that Jesus had a less than positive attitude towards “The Greeks.”)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 7, 2012

      Scholars debate the point. My own view is that Jesus was strictly a rural person, with no access to Greek speaking circles. You’ll note that he avoids all the big cities in the Gospels. And Sepphris is never mentioned there. I doubt if he spent any time in the place.

  4. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  August 7, 2012

    Noted. I haven’t reviewed the references you cite, yet I’m curious:

    1. Doesn’t the root of ΑΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΟΙ (ΑΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΟΣ) indicate that, while he might have been “unlettered” (see Strong’s# G62), Peter wasn’t necessarily illiterate or an ΙΔΙΩΤΗΣ (ignoramus; cp. Strong’s# G2399)?

    2: When Peter was a boy, weren’t there synagogue schools throughout Israel for the purpose of teaching young boys to read and write?

    3. After Peter became a fisherman, how would he be expected to tally his catch, take inventory,and to maintain business records for tax purposes if he couldn’t count, read, and write?

    4. Doesn’t ΑΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΟΙ simply point to the fact the both Peter and John had no rabinnical training and not qualified to comment on Jewish laws and rules, or to teach in public?

    • Avatar
      Pat Ferguson  August 7, 2012

      The preceding comment is in regard to the wording of P74 (ca. VI or VII CE) at Acts 4:13 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 7, 2012

      Yes, I’m basing my claims on an analysis of how the term AGRAMMATOS actually gets used in antiquity. Not knowing the letters meant “illiterate.” For good measure, in any event, Acts 4:13 also calls them both IDIOTAI.

      Nope, no evidence of synagogue schools for boys throughout Israel.

      Peter fished in an Aramaic community, and there’s no evidence that common laborers like him knew how to read. He could probably add. (Even if he could read a bit of Aramaic, it wouldn’t qualify him to compose a book in high level Greek)

      And no AGREAMMATOI is not referring to rebbinical trainging in this context, since rabbinical training didn’t exist yet.

      • Avatar
        Pat Ferguson  August 7, 2012

        You said: “… AGREAMMATOI is not referring to rebbinical trainging … rabbinical training didn’t exist yet.” With respects:-) there are, of course, others who have said differently; e.g.–

        > Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, or JFB (Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, 1948): “…, uninstructed in the learning of the Jewish schools,…”.
        > Robertson (Word Pictures, 1932): “Unlettered men without technical training in the professional rabbinical schools of Hillel or Shammai.”
        > Johnson (People’s New Testament, 1891): “Not educated in the schools of the rabbins.”
        > Vine (Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1981 entry at UNLEARNED): “lit., ‘unlettered’ … Acts 4:13, is explained by Grimm-Thayer as meaning ‘unversed in the learning of the Jewish schools;’ …suggests that the rulers, elders and scribes regarded the Apostles as ‘unlettered’ (Moulton and Milligan).”

        However, your references might be more current than mine. I’ll bear that in mind as I ponder what you’ve thus far written.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 8, 2012

          Yes, scholarship has advanced significantly in the past twenty years. The views you quote certainly were the standard views for a long time. If you’re interested in Jewish literacy in the time of Jesus, you really should read the book by C. Hezser.

          • Avatar
            Jim Joyner  August 22, 2012

            Fergus Millar observes the special character of Jewish compositions in Greek during the late Hellenistic and Early Roman periods. What other group was writing so prolifically in a non-native language during these times? Consider that historical observation in conjunction with the strong connections between Jerusalem and diasporic Jewish communities and its easy enough to suspect Hezser and others are missing a link in their assertions about Greek literacy in Israel. Plus the Theodotus inscription (1st century synagogue) is in Greek, right? And we have pre-70 tomb inscriptions in Greek. And Greek documents from the Bar Kokba revolt.

            Is it possible that because of the later 1st century resort to Hebrew we may be hindered in the discovery of more evidence of Greek literacy simply because of those who were eretz Israel had an adverse reaction to the Jesus movement (and the later Christians) who adopted Greek?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 24, 2012

            there is really nothing to suggest that first century Jews in eretz Israel were overly concerned about the Jesus movement — especially in the early decades — and certainly not enough to urge a widespread linguistic change!

      • Avatar
        Jim Joyner  August 22, 2012

        No rabbinical training in Jesus’ time? First century synagogues in Migdal, Gamla and other places have a room next to the worship hall that appears to be for study. If not study, why did they sit in this arrangement? Why would later rabbinic traditrendered to “fit” these places to their later tradition of Bet Midrashes? Of course, they were not necessarily learning to read but there was some form of training (calling pre-70 training “rabbinic” would of course be anachronistic).

  5. Avatar
    z8000783  August 7, 2012

    If Acts4:13 is correct might not Acts 2:4 be as well?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 7, 2012

      Being able to speak in tongues is no guarantee of being able to compose in highly literate Greek — as you can tell any sunday by simply going to a Pentecostal church!

      • Avatar
        z8000783  August 7, 2012

        I read that as other tongues i.e. foreign languages including Greek presumably not tongues as in gobbledegook.

        What does the original Greek translate as?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 8, 2012

          The Greek doesn’t help — there’s not a way to distinguish between “known” tongues and “unheard of” tongues….

          • Avatar
            Skeptic59  September 28, 2012

            The Greeks called it γλωσσολαλία, or ‘glossolalia.’ As far as the phenomenon exists among the Pentecostals, there was a study done by :

            “In 1972, William J. Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto, published a thorough assessment of Pentecostal glossolalia that became a classic work on its linguistic characteristics. His assessment was based on a large sample of glossolalia recorded in public and private Christian meetings in Italy, The Netherlands, Jamaica, Canada and the USA over the course of five years; his wide range included the Puerto Ricans of the Bronx, the Snake Handlers of the Appalachians, and Russian Molokan in Los Angeles.

            “Samarin found that glossolalic speech does resemble human language in some respects. The speaker uses accent, rhythm, intonation and pauses to break up the speech into distinct units. Each unit is itself made up of syllables, the syllables being formed from consonants and vowels taken from a language known to the speaker:

            “It is verbal behavior that consists of using a certain number of consonants and vowels[…]in a limited number of syllables that in turn are organized into larger units that are taken apart and rearranged pseudogrammatically[…]with variations in pitch, volume, speed and intensity.

            “[Glossolalia] consists of strings of syllables, made up of sounds taken from all those that the speaker knows, put together more or less haphazardly but emerging nevertheless as word-like and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody.

            “That the sounds are taken from the set of sounds already known to the speaker is confirmed by others. Felicitas Goodman, a psychological anthropologist and linguist, also found that the speech of glossolalists reflected the patterns of speech of the speaker’s native language.”

            The above is taken from Wikkipedia.

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