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Seriously. How Many People in Antiquity Could Write?

I have received some push-back from readers who object to my view that Simon Peter, Jesus’ disciple, a fisherman from rural Galilee whose native language was Aramaic, living among lower-class people who spoke Aramaic, almost certainly could not have written a highly stylized and sophisticated Greek treatise such as we find in the book of 1 Peter.   My sense is that I will never convince anyone who thinks that it is simply “common sense” that of course he could learn to write Greek if he wanted to and did so at the end of his life.  But I’m bound and determined to try!  (It used to be “common sense” that the sun revolved around the earth, after all….  Just because it’s something we’ve always heard and thought doesn’t make it true!)

I’ve dealt with literacy issues on the blog before, but I think I need to give a fuller explanation of my views.  The fullest is in my book Forgery and Counterforgery, but I”ve decided not to go there, since it is not really written with a general audience in mind.  But I do have a fuller discussion of the matter in my book Forged, and so I will give my comments from there.  This will take two or three posts.  It’s obviously an important matter, not only for 1 Peter but for lots of the books of the NT (Matthew, Mark, John, James, Jude, the Johannine epistles, etc!)


Simon Peter, Ancient Palestine, and Literacy

What do we know about literacy and the ability to write in the ancient world, especially in rural Palestine where Simon Peter was born and raised?  Scholars of antiquity have been diligent over the past twenty-five years or so in trying to understand every aspect of ancient literacy and education.  In what is now the classic study, the 1989 book, Ancient Literacy, William Harris, professor of ancient history at Columbia University, showed that modern assumptions about literacy simply are not applicable to ancient times.[1] Today, in modern America, we ….

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Could Peter Have “Written” 1 and 2 Peter Some Other Way?
Who Wrote 1 Peter?



  1. Robert
    Robert  November 28, 2018

    “I have received some push-back from readers who object to my view that …”

    I will never understand how anyone could ever dare to disagree with anything you might say. What arrogance!

    On a more serious note, I do think we should be open to the possibility that John the Baptist or Jesus or James had received some education somewhere. Like maybe he left his family and went to something like Qumran or one of its sister groups or breakaway sects for a several years, achieving some level of scribal ability and being initiated into some apocalyptic exegesis (eg, of the book of Daniel or Enoch). Not necessarily educated enough to write something sophisticated on his own, but enough to absorb or even develop a few of his own ideas with some interpretational freedom toward scriptural texts.

    Chris Keith in his Jesus Against the Scribal Elite speaks about various forms and levels of (il)literacy but commitment to textuality. Some of your other readers may also find this book interesting.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2018

      I know. It’s hard to believe people don’t just agree with me…..

  2. Avatar
    brenmcg  November 28, 2018

    The question is not whether a fisherman from rural Galilee whose native language was Aramaic, living among lower-class people who spoke Aramaic could write 1 Peter, obviously he couldnt. The question is whether a fisherman from rural Galilee, whose native language was Aramaic and who through a bizarre set of circumstances found himself as the leader of religious community based in Jerusalem and with access to theologically sophisticated greek speaking converts like Paul, could develope the skills after 20-30 years to compose 1Peter.
    I’d say possibly.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      It is hard for us to imagine a world like antiquity, but it wasn’t like ours. Today any adult can learn a new language by getting CD’s or taking evening school classes, etc. Even then it is almost impossible to get fluent enough to write a philosophical treatise. But in antiquity it was much, much worse. No comparison. The only way to acquire writing-literacy was by massive training for years, as a child. The only ones who could afford to do so as adults were less than 0.1% of the population– the extremely upper class elites.

  3. galah
    galah  November 29, 2018

    Aren’t there details in Mark’s Gospel that indicate the author’s level of skill in Greek literacy was somewhat lacking, as compared to, say, the level of skill exhibited by the author of Luke’s Gospel? If so, could Greek have been the author’s second language? Or, was he simply not as eloquent a writer?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Yes, Mark’s Greek is not superior, but it’s perfectly passible as an avenue of communication. It appears he simply was not well trained, but Greek was almost certainly his primary language. (He writes better than most university students do today!!)

  4. galah
    galah  November 29, 2018

    Another question, perhaps a bit off topic, but still about writing. In a previous post you mentioned the author’s use of Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13, where the word is understood to represent Rome. Why didn’t he just say Rome? Who cared if he said Rome? What would/could anyone do? Didn’t the author have the freedom to say whatever he wanted? Isn’t it doubtful that, whoever he was, anyone could ever trace the letter back to him? Or her?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      By calling it “Babylon” he was saying something significant: it had destroyed the city of Jerusalem and was the enemy of the people of God. We do this kind of thing all the time, as when we say “Drain the Swamp” instead of mentioning D.C. explicitly

  5. Avatar
    seahawk41  November 29, 2018

    The evidence provided seems pretty solid. One thing comes to my mind, and that is graffiti, of which there seems to be lots in Pompei. It is hard to escape the image of kids walking down the streets in any major city and scrawling stuff on the walls. Add to this the various ostraca, writing etched in desert rock, and the like, and you are left with the impression that writing in the ancient era was omnipresent like it is now. I understand that anecdotal data is not even close to proof. So my question comes in two parts: (1) Is all this evidence of ancient writing really a drop in the bucket? I.e., was there really not a lot of this happening? (2) Was all of this stuff done by the 3%± documented by the sources you refer to?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      The problem is that we have no idea of who wrote the graffiti. Nothing suggests it was children, for example. It was whoever could do it — adults with some modicum of education. Most of the graffiti would not have been read by people, except those who would read it aloud to others who wanted to know what it said. “Romans Go Home”!

      • Avatar
        turbopro  December 1, 2018

        “Now write it a hundred times …
        Hail Caesar! …
        If it’s not done by sunrise …”


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