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Peter as Literate? Part 2


In pursuing this line of inquiry, we might ask what we can know about Peter as a person, prior to his becoming a disciple of Jesus. The answer is that we do not know much at all. The Gospels are consistent only in portraying him as a fisherman from the village of Capernaum in rural Galilee. We can assume that since he was a common laborer, he was not from the landed aristocracy; and since he was from rural Galilee, he would have spoken Aramaic. What can we say about his home “town” of Capernaum?

The historical and social insignificance of the place can be seen by the fact that it is not mentioned in any source, including the Hebrew Bible, prior to the writings of the New Testament. In the Gospels it is portrayed as a fishing village on the “sea” of Galilee (Matt. 4:13; 8:5; 11:23; 17:24; Mark 1:21; 2:1; 9:33; Luke 4:23, 31; 7:1; 10:15; John 2:12; 4:46; 6:17, 24, 59). It is sometimes called a πόλις, although, as we will see, that designation is certainly wrong. Josephus mentions it only because he fell off his horse nearby and was taken there (Life 72); he calls it, more accurately, a “village” (κώμη). The rabbinic literature mentions it as a place of the minim (Midr. Qoh. 1.8.4; 7.26.3). There is no other literary evidence about the first-century town.

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A Christian Forger Caught in the Acts
Peter as Literate?



  1. Avatar
    jasha  August 7, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’m sure you are aware of this, but even contemporary adult education programs struggle to teach writing to illiterate adults. The fine motor skills needed are just very hard to develop unless you learn them early.

  2. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  August 7, 2012

    I read or heard from you (I think?) at one point that the Greek name “Peter” was not actually a name given at birth until later in Christianity. The person had to forge 1 Peter by using his unique titled name; moreover, it couldn’t be another person named Peter!

    When did the name “Peter” start being used as a birth given name? Does the name “Cephas” factor in any of your postings? As to manuscripts, are the ones we have all say “1 Peter?”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 8, 2012

      I’m not sure when Peter began to be used as a name: second century, I should think. I haven’t dealt with Cephas in any of my posts; it too is not a name (before Jesus), but is the Aramaic word for Rock. The manuscripts have different titles for 1 Peter, but most of them ar seom veraition of 1 Peter.

  3. Avatar
    Deaconess  August 8, 2012

    I am 67 years old was raised attending The First Christian Church. My father was an elder and we went to church every day and twice on Sunday. While much of it was good, I always had trouble reconciling some of the teachings. When I was 19, my sister was brutally murdered. A string of other tragedies followed. These events nearly destroyed me and then motivated me to question everything and to become a truth seeker. One of the truths I have come to understand is that for our society to progress in a humane and successful direction, we must come to view Jesus and the Bible in a realistic way. While there are other Bible scholars and authors of spiritual interpretations of the Bible, I know of no one else who is dedicated as you are…to educating others about the historical truth surrounding the Bible. Plus you make it so interesting. You bring impressive intelligence, talent, education, and dedication to the task. You are doing important work and I wish you every success and blessing.

  4. Avatar
    hwl  August 8, 2012

    Bart, I started listening to “Did Jesus exist” on Audible. Rather than search through archived posts to identify a related topic, I would like to post my query here for convenience. In the book, you mentioned from his letters, we know that Paul “worshipped Jesus as his Lord”. Is this almost the same as worshipping Jesus as God? Would worshipping a man as Lord be considered outside the acceptable bounds of 1st century Jewish monotheism, just as failing to observe Jewish ritualistic laws would be? Does 1 Cor 8:5 show that Paul was a henotheist?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 11, 2012

      Yes, it’s a great question, but there’s not an easy answer. Beings other than God could be worshiped (if you bowed down in front of the king you were “worshiping” him. But there is some question of whether Jews were allowed to worship anyone other than God; some scholars have argued that Jews in fact were not monotheists, but monolatrists (worshiping just one God). It’s a complicated issue: I’ll have to deal with it in my book on How Jesus Became God. If you can’t wait, I’d recommend the books by my friend Larry Hurtado.

      • Avatar
        hwl  September 7, 2012

        In recommending Larry Hurtado’s books (presumably, “Lord Jesus Christ” and “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God”) before you publish your own book tackling the topic of “how Jesus became God”, you are giving the impression you are endorsing his central thesis. I browsed through amazon readers’ reviews, and Maurice Casey’s review-essay in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, and the core thesis I take away is, quoting Hurtado:
        “Christians were proclaiming and worshiping Jesus, indeed, living and dying for his sake, well before the doctrinal/creedal developments of the second century and thereafter that have received so much attention in histories of Christian tradition… Moreover devotion to Jesus as divine erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually and late, among first-century circles of followers. More specifically, the origins lie in Jewish Christian circles of the earliest years.”
        This conclusion seems at odd with your own view:
        “That the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God is not a controversial point among scholars. Apart from fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals, scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles.” (“Did Jesus Exist”)
        So did view of Jesus as divine arise in the “earliest years” (Hurtado), or was it a “later development”? Is Hurtado dissenting from consensus scholarship?
        I am happy to wait till your book comes out. At this stage, it would be helpful if you would clarify whether you agree or disagree with Hurtado’s core thesis. Do you see your position closest to that of Maurice Casey’s “From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God”, or James Dunn’s “Christology in the making” or Hurtado’s?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 9, 2012

          I recommend a lot of books I don’t agree with! I sometimes have required reading in my courses of books that I think are fundamentally flawed. It’s good to read widely and make up one’s own mind. Unfortunately, the answers to your questions are too complicated for a “comment response.” But yes, my views will be seen clearly in my book — when I get around to writing it! (I hope in the Spring) In the meantime, it is worthwhile to read all three: Hurtado, Dunn, and Casey!

          • Avatar
            hwl  September 9, 2012

            I bet Josh McDowell and James White top Ehrman’s required reading list 🙂
            Soon Richard Carrier and Robert Price will have the honor of joining the list.
            I came across Hurtado a few years ago, though never got round to reading his works. Before I encountered him, I was under the impression critical scholarship is broadly settled on the conclusion of a late high christology.
            Hurtado, Dunn, Casey, Bauckham, Wright, Raymond Brown, John Meier and many others are on my medium-term reading list. Unfortunately I read at a fraction of the pace you can write 🙁
            And Christian origins and early Christianity are only a fraction of the total subjects on my reading list.
            It is frustrating for someone not a specialist in this field to hear one expert say there near unanimity on an issue, only to find later another expert who presents an apparently contrary position. As you would acknowledge, consensus of scholarship is not guarantee of being right, but it is the right starting point to orientate one’s study of the topic at hand.

  5. Avatar
    JMarkJones  August 8, 2012

    Hi Bart,
    this is my first comment since joining your blog, and I want to say I enjoy it very much. I’ve read a couple of your books and always enjoy them. By way of introduction, I am a Methodist pastor so my presuppositions are out on the table!
    I hear what you’re saying, and I can’t disagree. I would suggest however that the declaration of “forgery” could be a bit premature and unwarranted relying solely on the convincing evidence of Peter’s likely illiteracy. I agree a hundred percent (with little more than first year Greek) that the book of I Peter was written by a highly literate individual. It flows so beautifully and poetically. The dawn of the Christian era saw a tremendous cross-section of society adopting the teachings of Jesus, and that included people representing the intellectual elite. Luke, Paul…correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t Apollos known to be a scholarly man? Thinking out-loud here, the Apostle Peter finding himself with a new-found fame and notoriety in some circles was known to have been a first-hand witness to the ministry of Jesus. My suggestion would be that an intellectually savvy ghost-writer could easily have sat with him for hundreds of hours and taken his wisdom and essentially an oral history. It’s been suggested that Luke probably wrote his Gospel similarly from the recollections and eye-witness accounts of Peter.

    I understand the writer is claiming to be Simon Peter, the Fisherman, but I’m also remembering that we can’t back-date modern literary custom of attribution and copyright principles that evolved much later. It would seem to me that those things may not have been nearly as important to the folks of the first century as they are today.

    I could go with calling it a ghost-write, but a forgery seems a bit unwarranted and subjective. It does nothing to cause me to lose faith in the text of I Peter to believe that it was ghost-written by a capable scholar who was a likely an early convert.

    Thanks again-love the blog and the idea of helping charities to join is great. I am a tremendous Metzger fan/admirer and I’m really enjoying you talking of your personal relationship with him.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 11, 2012

      I absolutely agree we cannot apply modern literary standards to ancient texts! I’d suggest you read my book — I talk at length there about why “forgery” is the proper term for this ancient activity (one of the things I stress: ancient authors considered the use of someone else’s name for one’s own writing to be lying and a form of literary deceit).

  6. Avatar
    FrankofBoulder  January 22, 2014

    Since “Peter” is a Greek name, then the passage in Matthew where Jesus renames Cephas as Peter must be fiction. Since Jesus wouldn’t have been speaking Greek, he wouldn’t have been giving a Greek name to a disciple. So, Matthew 16:17-19 is a fabrication. I always thought it was a fabrication for other reasons, but the Greek naming proves it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 24, 2014

      I think you have the passages mixed up. In Matthew Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter. Nowhere does he change Cephas to Peter or Peter to Cephas.

  7. Avatar
    Marko071291  April 3, 2018

    Bart, I’ve watched your debate on yt with D. Bock. Could you please in a sentence or two explain what is the difference between the situation when one is dictating epistle to a scribe and when someone is telling his secretary or a scribe to compose a letter for him. I think you mentioned that Paul probably dictated some of his epistles to the secretary. In a nuthsell, is it possible that Peter did the same thing as Paul? If not, why not? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2018

      Dictation, which was common, involved speaking the words and ahveing the scribe write them down just as you say them. Scribal composition, which is almost *never* attested in antiquity, would be someone telling a scribe — hey, write a letter for me about this that or the other thing, and having the scribe actually compose the letter in the other person’s name. Big difference.

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  April 4, 2018

        Thanks for the answer. I have to ask one more question. Would you say that Peter couldn’t dictate his letter to a scribe becaues he probably didn’t speak greek beyond maybe few phrases? On the other hand, if I understand your arguments, we don’t have any example from ancient world where one would dictate a letter in one langauge to be written in another (eg. from aramaic to greek)?
        I guess thats two questions. Hope you can forgive me 🙂
        Kind regards.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 6, 2018

          Yes, Peter would not have been able to dictate this kind of rhetorically effective Greek, even if he knew any Greek. And he would not have dictated it in Aramaic to have someone shape it into the Greek we find in the letter.

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