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Was John the Son of Zebedee Capable of Writing a Gospel?

I deal with an interesting question in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag: is it plausible that the apostle John could compose a Gospel in Greek?  If you have a question you would like me to address, ask away, and I will add it to my long list!

 

QUESTION:

You mention in your book Forgeries and Counter Forgeries that John most likely did not write the Gospel attributed to him as he almost certainly could not write in Greek. I seem to remember you writing that the Greek of that Gospel was good and fairly nuanced. However, I am being told by someone who is fairly conversant in these matters that John could easily have learned the Greek necessary to write the Gospel, since he lived for over 60 years on the mission field and that his Greek is the most basic of the NT. Is he right? And if so how would you respond?

 

RESPONSE

Yes, I get asked this question a lot, or rather, get told this a lot – that if an illiterate Aramaic speaking day-laborer spent a lot of time abroad, he would be able to write a Gospel in a foreign language (it  has been established on clear philological grounds that John’s Gospel, like the other books of the New Testament, is an original Greek composition, not a translation from Aramaic).    It’s clear that my thinking about this is not at *all* what (some? many?) other people think.  The problem, it seems, is that people have a massive misunderstanding about education levels in the ancient world, and of what people were capable of doing when it came to reading and writing.

To begin with, the New Testament itself indicates that the apostle John was a fisherman by trade.   How well educated were fishermen in rural Galilee?  We actually have a reliable answer to that.  They were not educated at *all*.   The vast majority of people in Galilee had zero education.  There were not day schools; the only people who got education were urban elites – the wealthy upper crust who lived in major urban areas.

John lived in a tiny rural community where there almost certainly was no school (see my bibliographical references at the end of this post).  And as a day laborer from a family of day laborers, he was in the lower classes.  He would never have learned his letters, let alone how to read a book, let alone how to copy a book, let alone how to compose a sentence in writing, let alone to compose a book.  And that is in his *own* language, which was Aramaic.  That is why the New Testament itself indicates that he was “agrammatos,” i.e., someone who didn’t know his letters, that is, someone who could not read (let alone write; let alone compose a book) (thus Acts 4:13).

Why would any experience he had on the missionary field with people who spoke a different language (Greek) suddenly make him educated, able to read any language, or the language of people he was suddenly living among, or able to compose a sentence in writing in that language, or able to write an entire book in perfectly constructed, even literarily pleasing in places, Greek?  I think the problem is that we simply assume that rural day-laborers in ancient Galilee were kind of like our next door neighbors in 21st century America: highly educated people with college degrees who know how to write and who, if they spent say twenty years in a foreign country, would be able to write in that other language.  But that’s not how it was at all.

For one thing, there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that John spent any time at all outside of Palestine.  Whenever he is mentioned, he is either in Aramaic-speaking Galilee or Jerusalem.  But even more important, just because someone spends time in countries speaking a foreign language that doesn’t make them qualified to write a *book* in that language.

Here is more what it is like.  I have a wonderful house cleaner from Guatemala who has been in the U.S. for about fifteen years.  Her English is barely functional, even though she has TV, radio, a computer, access to social media and American movies, and is constantly among English speaking people doing her job.  Would she be capable of writing a Gospel about Jesus in English?   Good grief –NO!  She would not be able to construct more than a very brief and improperly worded sentence or two.  And she is far more educated (in her home country) than John was (in his).

Living abroad does not allow a person to become an author.  First there has to be a preliminary education, which, in the ancient world, happened only among children of very rich people, and took years.  After those years the student needed to learn how to compose writings.  That took more years.  It was a very long drawn out process.  It was only for the rich kids because everyone else had to start working for a living at a very young age.

Could an adult who was uneducated in this way eventually learn to write?  Possibly, but we have precisely zero evidence of anything like adult education in the ancient world.  And no evidence either, at all, of people being trained in a school setting to write in a second language.

I’m afraid too many people have a completely romantic idea about what education was like in the ancient world, because they think that it must have been roughly analogous to education in the modern world.   And partly because they’ve heard so many fictions about education in Palestine, where allegedly every boy went to a synagogue school to learn to read and write Hebrew.  But that’s simply not true.

I discuss all of this in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.  But no one has to take my word for it.  Go to the real experts. It is much better to see what such established scholars who have devoted huge chunks of their research lives to such matters have to say than simply to make some guesses based on some rather romantic hunches about what life might have been like all those years ago.

If you want to learn about literacy in antiquity, the best place to start is Columbia professor William Harris’s book Ancient Literacy.  If you want to know about how literacy worked in ancient Palestine, go to Catherine Hezser’s amazing study, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (she argues that the rates of literacy at the time in Palestine were probably not a lot more than 3%; that is, only 3% or slightly more of the population could read.  And that this 3-4% were wealthy urban elites – not rural fishermen).  If you want to see how education worked – how children learned to read and write – then read the books on ancient educational systems by Raffaela Cribiore, for example her enlightening Gymnastics of the Mind.

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Are There Passages Where *Every* NT Manuscript Gives the “Wrong” Reading?
Interpolations and Textual Corruptions: The Blurry Lines

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  August 20, 2017

    Bart, how would you answer a conservative evangelical whose response to the above might be something like the following: ‘Bart Ehrman is not taking into account the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit to impart the gift of tongues or languages as happened on the day of Pentecost. He’s dismissing the supernatural, and evaluating the evidence as an un believer. Therefore his conclusions are bound to be erroneous?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      I guess I would say that the author of the Gospel of John never claims or intimates that he was John the son of Zebedee and the he never gives any indication that he was inspired — so this view is imposing something on the text that the text itself doesn’t suggest. I see no reason to do that. Why not just let the text be what it is, instead of insisting it is something else? (And anyone who *does* appeal to miracle obviously is conceding that in fact it is almost impossible for the book to have been written any other way; but again, what about the text would make anyone think “Oh, this must have been written by a miracle!”?)

      1
  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 20, 2017

    Even closer to our time: My mother, who was born in 1898, suspected (though she admittedly wasn’t sure) that her father was illiterate. And he was born in the U.S., to *English* immigrant parents. (He worked as a mechanic, repairing trolley cars and later buses.)

  3. Avatar
    Franz Liszt  August 20, 2017

    Knowing the Church Fathers, it seemed that quite a few of them (Origen, Jerome, etc…) were able to learn Hebrew as adults well enough to translate the Hebrew Bible into other languages. I know that this isn’t exactly comparable to the instance of John, as they did receive general education when they were young (though usually not in Hebrew, which by Origen was picked up around when he was thirty), it doesn’t seem out of the question that John could have picked up Greek with study. If Irenaeus is to be believed (and I know there are good reasons to doubt him) John was in Ephesus, and it seems plausible to me at least that John could have had a decent sense of the language and combined that with fluent Greek speaking Christians who aided in his writing of the Gospel (Especially since the Gospel seems to indicate that it wasn’t the personal hand of the Beloved Disciple which penned it, but that he still was involved with the Gospel’s composition in at least some sense). That’s not to say that I think John the Apostle wrote the Gospel, but I don’t really see how the fact he was a Galileean fisherman originally would prohibit his authorship decades later.

    I’m also curious about this comment: “Could an adult who was uneducated in this way eventually learn to write? Possibly, but we have precisely zero evidence of anything like adult education in the ancient world. And no evidence either, at all, of people being trained in a school setting to write in a second language.” Isn’t there abundant evidence of people learning different languages in school settings? I thought a central piece of Roman education was learning Greek.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      I don’t think I would use Origen and Jerome as similar instances: Origen was the most highly educated and brilliant Christian of the third century, and Jerome was one of the two or three most highly educated and brilliant Christians of the fifth. John was not educated *at all*. To use a modern analogy, it would be kind of like saying that since Einstein came up with the theory of general relativity, then my sister could have done so as well! My point is that living in a Greek culture does not make someone capable of writing a book. Most college-educated people today cannot write a coherent book — and they have 16 years more education than John had! And no, there is no evidence of uneducated people learning to write in another language (When you speak of Roman education, again, you are talking about educatoin that maybe 2% of the entire empire received, completely unavailable to someone in rural Galilee)

      • Avatar
        Franz Liszt  August 21, 2017

        Thank you, so the issue I see is more than just learning an additional language, but learning the skills to write a cohesive narrative with wordplay, etc…

        One thing did come to mind in regards to ancient education that I was curious about. Would Roman officers be expected to read and write in Latin (and possibly Greek) in the Empire or would they have had scribes and assistants who could do that task for them? I’m asking because someone like Diocletian, who came from a poor family on the borders of the empire, rose through the ranks of the Legions to become Emperor. Was he really able to accomplish such a rise without being able to read or write? Again, this isn’t super relevant to the specific question of John, just something I was thinking of.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 22, 2017

          Yes, someone on Diocletian’s level would be able to read. But he also would have used lots of scribes and assistants for his work.

      • Avatar
        jamal12  February 11, 2018

        hi, Professor Ehrman
        I can vouch on that, I have been living in the middle east for 16 years. speak fluent Arabic can read Arabic but i can never write a book in Arabic no way.Yet i speak and read and write 3 European languages fluently. Aramaic and Greek are entire different languages, the text the grammar and so on. And it would be very difficult for someone who is illiterate in his own language to become fluent in a very different and difficult especially in the time olden days. As you say he never left Palestine. I traveled to some countries and learnt the language and became fluent there.But to have stayed in your own country 2000 years ago and having been illiterate and become fluent in another language so much so that you can even write a book in that language. A big no no. Some people even claimed that Jesus apart from speaking Aramaic and Hebrew he also spoke fluent Greek also because he was god and son of God they believe he could speak any language . Most unlikely. I asked them may be he spoke Hindi aswell because some claim Jesus went to India LOL.

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  4. Avatar
    Adam0685  August 20, 2017

    It seems like we’re very lucky to have any early Christian literature from the first and early second century, considering most could not write. And we’re also lucky that some who could write converted and decided to write something…and that these books were preserved. Seems like with the literacy rate, the size of Christianity in the first and early second century, and by having any writings that early we really beat the odds.

    • Avatar
      Adam0685  August 20, 2017

      I forgot to finish my thought. Given that few could write and tell the story of what happened…it makes me wonder how much we do not know about the earliest Christian movement since few could write to tell their story/beliefs and considering only the educated coverts wrote something. I wonder if there is a disconnect between what the educated writers wrote and what the average Christian believed.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 20, 2017

    As usual for you, a very thorough and convincing argument. Thanks.

  6. Avatar
    anthonygale  August 20, 2017

    What about the Book of Revelation, considering that the Greek is much clumsier? Is it also conceivable that either: John converted someone who could teach him Greek, he converted someone rich enough to pay for his education, or the community had enough money to have him educated? I realize that is still unlikely, but is it significantly more plausible than him writing the Fourth gospel?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      A historian would want to know if there is any known instance of such a thing *ever* happening in antiquity. (The answer is no; we don’t have evidence of adult education of any kind, to my knowledge, in antiquity)

  7. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 20, 2017

    Do fundamentalists and evangelicals commonly argue that, after all, John’s gospel was divinely inspired and that an all-powerful God is capable of miraculously enabling an uneducated, Aramaic-speaking fisherman to write a gospel in Greek–or, perhaps slightly more realistically, of causing that fisherman to go into a series of trances in which he spoke the words in the gospel which were then written down by scribes? I have the idea that something like the latter is claimed for Muhammad–but may be mistaken.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      Sure. Or they could say that the Gospel was written twenty years after John died, but God raised him from the dead in order to pull off the task. Why not?!

      But note: the author of the Gospel of John never claims or intimates that he was John the son of Zebedee and the he never gives any indication that he was inspired — so this view is imposing something on the text that the text itself doesn’t suggest. (And anyone who *does* appeal to miracle obviously is conceding that in fact it is almost impossible for the book to have been written any other way; but again, what about the text would make anyone think “Oh, this must have been written by a miracle!”?)

      • Avatar
        Seeker1952  August 21, 2017

        Very convincing response. But it also makes me wonder if there aren’t some proto-orthodox texts that more or less claim to be inspired, eg, John’s Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas? Not that that would prove anything but it’s something that would be good to look for to better understand the text.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 22, 2017

          No, I don’t know of any proto-orthodox texts that claim to be inspired, but there certainly were prophets who claimed they received revelations from God.

  8. Avatar
    wostraub  August 20, 2017

    Great response, Bart. But I would add that for believers it will make no difference at all — God simply waved his magic hand, and John became a brilliant writer and linguist. And, as you noted in at least one of your books, there was yet another rural, uneducated Jew who could have spoken Swahili if He’d wanted to.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      Yup. But I would say (to them) that the author of the Gospel of John never claims or intimates that he was John the son of Zebedee and the he never gives any indication that he was inspired — so this view is imposing something on the text that the text itself doesn’t suggest. I see no reason to do that. Why not just let the text be what it is, instead of insisting it is something else? (And anyone who *does* appeal to miracle obviously is conceding that in fact it is almost impossible for the book to have been written any other way; but again, what about the text would make anyone think “Oh, this must have been written by a miracle!”?)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  August 21, 2017

        wostraub wrote: “And, as you noted in at least one of your books, there was yet another rural, uneducated Jew who could have spoken Swahili if He’d wanted to.”

        What was*that* all about? You didn’t refer to it in your reply.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 22, 2017

          Just that if miracles are possible, then they’re possible.

  9. Avatar
    ask21771  August 20, 2017

    Please write an article about the shroud of Turin

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      Apart from pointing out that it has been scientifically shown to be a medieval creation, I’m afraid I don’t have anything to say about it!

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  August 21, 2017

        A medieval creation? I didn’t even know that. A while back I read a report wherein an Italian engineer who had examined the shroud described the person who had been wrapped in the shroud…His description of the physical condition of the body was taken to match that of Jesus. I’ve no references, this was a while back.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 22, 2017

          We don’t have any physical description of the historical Jesus, so I’m afraid the claims of the Italian engineer are completely bogus.

          • Avatar
            RVBlake  August 23, 2017

            I re-read my post and it was worded badly. What I meant was that the engineer described the physical condition of the person in the shroud, and this condition was taken to match that of Jesus.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 24, 2017

            Yes, if it is a fake, that would have been its intention — so it’s no surprise!

      • Avatar
        ask21771  August 21, 2017

        What about the recent discovery that the blood on the shroud was from a man who was tortured

      • Lev
        Lev  August 22, 2017

        I thought that, since 2005, the debate over Shroud’s authenticity has been re-opened given that the sample used to date it has been proved to be from a medieval repair.

        Raymond Rogers, a leading chemical specialist and original member of STURP, demonstrated this in his peer-reviewed paper in 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4210369.stm

        As for blood not being on the Shroud – there’s a bunch of evidence to support that it is stained by human blood (see A58-A78): http://www.shroud.com/pdfs/doclist.pdf

    • Avatar
      Petter Häggholm  August 21, 2017

      Tim O’Neill (who has occasionally commented here) wrote a pretty solid post giving a high-level overview of the various lines of evidence pointing to its origin and construction. https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-Shroud-of-Turin/answer/Tim-ONeill-1

  10. Avatar
    jakethedog  August 20, 2017

    If the 3-4% of the literate people were from urban elites, is it the common view that the historical Jesus had an education? He came from Nazareth (a small rural village) with a carpenter for a father.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      It’s really hard to say. Jesus is said to have been able to read in only one passage of the entire NT (Luke 4), and that was written some 50 years after his death. There is nothing to suggest he could write. Possibly he could read — but it would have been unusual for someone born and raised in a little rural hamlet in the backwaters of Galilee.

  11. Avatar
    doug  August 20, 2017

    Do we have any idea how long John the son of Zebedee lived? If the gospel of John was written around 95-100 CE, as most scholars I’ve read think, John the son of Zebedee would had to have lived a long time before writing it, even assuming the extremely unlikely chance that he was capable of writing a book.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      The old tradition is that he lived to be quite elderly and wrote the Gospel as an old man. But we don’t have any historical information about his life or death, just later legends found in such intriguing but completely unhistorical texts such as the second-century Acts of John.

  12. Avatar
    John  August 21, 2017

    I came across this and have seen it before:

    “sn Uneducated does not mean “illiterate,” that is, unable to read or write. Among Jews in NT times there was almost universal literacy, especially as the result of widespread synagogue schools. The term refers to the fact that Peter and John had no formal rabbinic training and thus, in the view of their accusers, were not qualified to expound the law or teach publicly. The objection is like Acts 2:7.”

    https://lumina.bible.org/bible/Acts+4#

    Is there something in the Greek translation that confirms it means ‘grammatically illiterate’ rather than ‘theologically illiterate’?

    Is there a reference to the fact that synagogue schools were not widespread?

    Thanks as ever.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2017

      Yes, I’m afraid that’s just wrong. The Greek word “agrammatos” means literally “without letters” and is precisely a word for “illiterate.” The idea of universal education among Jewish boys is just a myth. Again, anyone who really wants to see what hte situation was at the time needs to read the scholarly discussions, such as Catherine Hezser’s Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, who looks at every single piece of surviving evidence (as opposed to simply repeating modern myths about it)

      • Avatar
        Petter Häggholm  August 21, 2017

        Hezser’s piece is available for download—it looks to me like a legit site, though I could be wrong?—at http://www.academia.edu/4268581/Jewish_Literacy_in_Roman_Palestine

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  August 22, 2017

          The link for Hezser only provides a snippet. I bit the bullet and bought her book. Still expensive ($80) but cheaper than what it was selling for previously ($130). I bought it from Amazon, but it’s coming through a third-party seller, so I hope it doesn’t take forever to get here. I see from the Table of Contents there’s a section on The Process of Reading which is what I’m most interested in.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  August 25, 2017

        Again, I should point out that “literacy” falls along a spectrum. It’s not a binary state. There aren’t those who can read and write like Cicero on the one hand, and those who couldn’t tell an Alpha from a hole in the ground on the other hand. The vast majority of humanity falls somewhere in the middle. Probably the best way to think about it is along a normal distribution. Let’s say the scale goes from 1 to 10, one being those who can’t tell an Alpha from a hole in the ground, and 10 being the Ciceroes of the world. What’s changed is not the range; the standards at the extremes are the same. There will always be those who can’t read to save their lives and those who can compose multipli-volume works with immaculate grammar and form. No, what changes is the skill of the average person in the middle.

        What we’ve seen over the last two thousand years is a shift in the mean from, say, a 2 or 3, to a 7 or 8. That is to say, the AVERAGE person is more likely to be closer to Cicero than to “can’t read a word to save my life”. This is important to keep in mind when talking about literacy in general, not just literacy at a specific time and place in history. To say that 3% of Jewish men in 1st century Palestine were “literate” is a misleadingly binary way to look at it. Just because those 3% are at a 10 on the literacy scale doesn’t mean the remaining 97% were at a 1. The AVERAGE literacy of men in 1st Palestine was probably closer to a 2.5. That’s still closer to “hole in the ground” than Cicero, but it’s also not abject illiteracy.

        As for my own opinion, the sense I get is that Jesus and his disciples were probably around a 4.5 on that literacy scale — so slightly above the average of 2.5. To put it in modern educational terms, I would say that they could read Aramaic writing (both for the Aramaic and Hebrew languages) at what we might call a 6th or 7th grade level. And they could possibly write Aramaic/Hebrew at a 3rd grade level. They could probably speak a little very broken Greek, comparable to how well the average resident of Hong Kong 100 years ago could speak English. And they could probably be able to tell the difference between a written alpha from a written omega on Greek signs. But if you asked them to read or write Greek, they couldn’t do it to save their lives.

        That’s probably what Paul meant by Peter being “agrammatos”.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2017

          I don’t think there’s any way the disciples could read. That requires going to school, and in most rural places there simply weren’t any schools. I’d be interested in your take on Catherine Hezser’s work (building a bit on an article by Meir bar-Ilan)

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  August 27, 2017

            I haven’t read Hezser’s book yet, but 3%? Sanders certainly didn’t think the literacy rate was that low when I read his book, Judaism. Besides, formal schooling is not required for reading. I truly believe what we do to our children in today’s world is something called “frenzied learning.” The idea that kids can’t learn how to read without being formally taught with a systematic approach–ABC’s, phonics, a teacher, etc. There’s research that says otherwise. Here’s a few points of what I’m talking about from Dr. Peter Gray, Psychologist and research professor at Boston College:

            1. For non-schooled children there is no critical period or best age for learning to read.
            2. Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to fluent reading very quickly.
            3. Attempts to push reading can backfire.
            4. Children learn to read when reading becomes, to them, a means to some valued end or ends.
            5. Reading, like many other skills, is learned socially through shared participation.
            6. Some children become interested in writing before reading, and they learn to read as they learn to write.
            7. There is no predictable “course” through which children learn to read.

            An excerpt from one of the studies–
            “Twenty-one years ago two of my undergraduate students conducted a study of how students learn to read at the Sudbury Valley School, where students are free all day to do as they wish (look back at my essay on Sudbury Valley).[2] They identified sixteen students who had learned how to read since enrolling in the school and had received no systematic reading instruction, and they interviewed the students, their parents, and school staff to try to figure out when, why, and how each of them learned to read. What they found defied every attempt at generalization. Students began their first real reading at a remarkably wide range of ages–from as young as age 4 to as old as age 14. Some students learned very quickly, going from apparently complete non-reading to fluent reading in a matter of weeks; others learned much more slowly. A few learned in a conscious manner, systematically working on phonics and asking for help along the way. Others just “picked it up.” They realized, one day, that they could read, but they had no idea how they had learned to do so. There was no systematic relationship between the age at which students had first learned to read and their involvement with reading at the time of the interview. Some of the most voracious readers had learned early and others had learned late.”

            The whole article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201002/children-teach-themselves-read

            I learned how to read before I ever stepped foot inside a school building. The reason I know that is because I was a transient kid growing up and let’s just say education was low on the totem pole for my parents. If those parables originated with Jesus, then I believe he could read AND write. That is someone who was thinking deeply about his life and the world in which he lived in, but he just keeps that in his mind? Memorized his own parables but didn’t write them down? How do we know he wasn’t the originator of the Q source? I don’t think we give ancient, poor, uneducated people enough credit.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 28, 2017

            What you’re saying about kids learning to read is true in a culture of 98-99% literacy; but not in an environment (such as a remote rural village 2000 years ago) where no one could!

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  August 29, 2017

            Okay, fine, nobody could read. Except for Jesus.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 29, 2017

            🙂 Well, it wasn’t quite that bad. In a community of, say, 200 people, six or seven could read. At least a bit.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  August 29, 2017

            I would be interested to, but, also, I don’t have a spare $130 lying around to purchase her book. From what I have read of reviews of her book and method, it’s flawed for the very reasons I adumbrated in my above comment. I’m kind of in an advantageous position to unpack this topic because I have a Masters in Education that is also an emphasis in Social Science education. So I look at this from the prespective of both an educator AND a historian. The historian part of me says, sure, the evidence shows that the vast majority of people living in 1st century Palestine could neither afford to go to school nor take the time off to attend school even if they could afford it. The educator part of me, however, says that’s nice, but irrelevent. School isn’t the only way a person can learn to read and write. If someone really wants to learn how to read and write, they can learn how to read and write. And they don’t even need to be instructed by an expert teacher (e.g. a Cicero) to become competent at it. They merely need the impetus.

            I’m reminded of a picture I saw recently of some excavated ostraka with various names etched onto them — presumably the names of those people the etcher is voting for (or against?). Anyhow, I noticed something interesting about the etched Greek on those ostraka. Every single one of them had a misspelling. For instance, one had Themistocles spelled “Themistoklees” with two epsilons. Why would that man (the writer’s probably a man) make the effort to add another epsilon that was not even necessary to begin with? Because that spelling probably better reflected how he pronounced the name Themistocles. Normally, the name Themistocles in Greek is spelled with an eta there, which does represent the long “e” sound in Themistocles. The man writing that name on the ostrokon, however, probably didn’t know that, so he simply doubled the epsilon. Clearly, this was an educated man — educated well enough, at least, to be able to write. But he was not educated enough to know how to “correctly” spell a very common Greek name! This is exactly what I’m talking about. Literacy skill falls along a spectrum. Some have master level knowledge of orthography, and some, like our ostrakonist, have middling orthography at best. Technically, he’s “literate”. But is he going to compose a multi-volume commentary on Plato? Not likely.

            Therefore, for me, it’s not at all unreasonable or unrealistic to think that Jesus and his disciples could read and even write. I mean, Jesus himself was probably at or approaching 30 years of age during the events recounted in the Gospels. There’s no reason to think it impossible that he could have learned to read and write at, at the very least, a level comparable to grade school level by then. To think otherwise is to terribly underestimate the ability of human beings to learn.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 30, 2017

            I’d suggest you read the books by William Hezser, Catherine Hezser, and Raffaella Cribiore. What seems sensible to us, in our highly literate world, simply doesn’t work in other cultures.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  August 27, 2017

          I’d be interested in your take on her book as well. I’m hoping my copy will arrive this week.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  September 23, 2017

          Hey talmoore,
          Someone asked me to write my opinion for Hezser’s book, but I am distracted by other things and it looks like it might take a while. Bart has asked your opinion for it, and I’d like your opinion too! Maybe I could mail it to you and you could write about it? If you’re interested, email me: patty_floyd@yahoo.com

  13. Avatar
    godspell  August 21, 2017

    I don’t believe the Gospel of John was written by John the Apostle, and given what we know about its provenance, it’s almost chronologically impossible that could be the case. None of the gospels were written by people who knew Jesus.

    However, what your housekeeper can or cannot do is beside the point. There is such a thing as genius–some people, sufficiently inspired, are capable of amazing feats of learning. Were that not the case, we’d still be hunter/gatherers, and you wouldn’t be in a position to hire a housekeeper.

    Autodidacts happen. All the time. And somebody who was drawn to Jesus in the first place, to the life that discipleship would demand, would, by definition, be exceptional.

    I’m left thinking maybe your housekeeper should demand a raise. 😉

  14. Lev
    Lev  August 21, 2017

    I don’t understand why being a manual laborer by trade would mean someone was uneducated. Paul was a tent maker by trade, yet he was highly educated. Jesus was a carpenter / construction worker, yet he seemed to know the Jewish scriptures intimately.

    Was it not the religious custom, if not the legal requirement, for all Jewish fathers to teach their sons not only how to read, but also to write their laws? I understand that every family would have their own family scriptures, and any sons growing up would copy out their own family copy. Would this not be the case for people like John?

    I’m not convinced the sons of Zebedee were of such a low social/economical status as you suggest. John was said to know the high priest well enough to get into his courtyard on the night of Jesus’ arrest. His mother Salome traveled from Galilee with other women of means, providing for the material needs of Jesus and his disciples. His father Zebedee ran a fishing business that hired other men to attend his boats. This doesn’t sound like a family from the working underclass, but more like a family of some means and influence.

    With the exception of Q, an Aramaic sayings gospel circulating in Palestine, I have yet to see any evidence of the early church communities writing to each other in any other language than Greek. John was a pillar of the early of the early church and would have been a co-commissioner of the Apostolic Decree at the Jerusalem Council. This decree was written in Greek, would he not have been able to read it himself? Would John not have been able to read the epistles of Paul and others that were circulating amongst the churches?

    Finally, there is evidence that John had read the gospels that preceded his own. Papias tells us he knew the gospel of Mark well enough to say that some episodes were chronologically disordered, but the contents were truthful. Charles Hill believes he’s found another fragment of Papias in one of Origen’s Homilies on Luke, which would suggest John had reviewed the other gospels also:

    “There is a report noted down in writing that John collected the written gospels in his own lifetime in the reign of Nero, and approved of and recognised those of which the deceit of the devil had not taken possession; but refused and rejected those of which he perceived were not truthful.” (Charles E. Hill, “What Papias Said About John (and Luke): A “New” Papian Fragment,” Journal of Theological Studies NS 49 (1998), p.585)

    I also share the growing belief that the Muratorian fragment used Papias as its source for the provenance of Luke and John’s gospels. Here, we have explicit evidence that John wrote his gospel:

    “The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], he said, ‘Fast with me from today to three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another.’ In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it.”

    The balance of evidence suggests to me, that John was a man from a family of some means and influence, was literate in Aramaic and at some point (possibly through education as a child) learnt enough Greek to not only review the other gospels but also to write his own and his three epistles.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  August 23, 2017

      So, Lev, you disagree with the scholars Dr. Ehrman cites? If so, what are your sources?

      • Lev
        Lev  August 24, 2017

        Hi HawksJ,

        I’ve cited, Charles Hill as a modern scholar, but I’ve used 1st-century sources for much of my argument:

        The biographical information about Jesus and John found in the gospels.
        Acts (the Council of Jerusalem) and Paul’s letters to demonstrate Paul’s literacy.
        Fragments of Papias whose source was John, including the Muratorian fragment, which some argue (and I agree) used Papias (and therefore John) as a source.

        I hold these to be early, independent and reliable sources of the early Church.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 21, 2017

    But…for the ancient Jews to understand their faith, wasn’t it likely that every spiritual leader of a community (whether or not he was called a “rabbi”) must have been able to read their sacred texts? And then, that he would have identified some bright young member of the community, and taught him so that he could become his successor?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2017

      No, that’s my point. In antiquity spiritual leaders did *not* always have the ability to read their texts. It seems weird to us, but it’s demonstrable.

  16. talmoore
    talmoore  August 21, 2017

    I have approached the question from another angle. Why is it that we know a great more about Paul, comparably, than, say, Bartholomew? In the grand scheme of early Christianity, Paul was, in hierarchical terms, at best, ancillary to the early church in comparison to a man who was supposedly one of Jesus’ handpicked twelve disciples, and who was also supposedly to be one of the leaders of the newly reconstituted twelve tribes of Israel, and who would assist Jesus in judging the “living and the dead”. To me, at least, I find that highly suspicious.

    The only sensible conclusion I can arrive at it is that the men (or women?) who eventually wrote the Gospels did not personally know Bartholomew, and, moreover, only knew of the majority of the Twelve founders of the Jerusalem church via second- and third-hand accounts at best. That is, they might have personally known Paul, and Paul might have personally known some of the Twelve — particularly Peter, who is the most well-known and well-document of the Twelve — they didn’t know or talk to any of them personally. If this is the case, then it would be preposterous to even speculate that any of the Gospels were written by one of Jesus’ disciples.

    There are countless examples of this process occuring in history, but I’ll use one from recent history that I think perfectly illustrates what I think happened. After Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930 as Emperor of Ethiopia, many proto-Rastifarians proclaimed him the a Second-coming of Jesus — it’s debated within the Rastifarian movement as to whether Selassie was God incarnate or simply a prophet. Oddly enough, Selassie regularly denied throughout his life that he was any such thing, but it didn’t matter to the believers. Those who believed believed he was the Messiah. Many early Rastifarian leaders — such as Leonard Howell — began to regularly preach about the newly arrived Messiah Selassie, and in Howell’s case, we have the first post-Selassie written “scripture” of the Rastifari movement.

    So, did Howell consult Selassie about the new Rastifarian doctrines and ideas for his newly minted “scripture”? No, Howell merely adapted the old Rastifarian beliefs to the new notion of Selassie as Messiah. In other words, the central figure of modern Rastifarianism has absolutely nothing to do with the tenets and beliefs of modern Rastifarianism! He was simply the hub around which the whole movement revolved, without him actually having played an active role in the movement itself. This, I think, was the role Jesus played in early Christianity. While he was alive, I don’t think Jesus claimed to be God incarnate. I don’t think he even explicitly claimed to be Messiah. I think he merely acted as a prophet of the (presumed) imminently arriving eschaton. It was only after his death that his disciples turned him into a greater figure than he was when alive. And only after those outside the founding movement, such as Paul, got a hold of the idea did they begin to expand Jesus into an even greater figure than even the first disciples did. He was no longer just a prophet. And he was no longer just the Messiah. He was an actual divine being (first angel then God Himself) come to earth to proclaim the impending doom. Over the course of only a few decades the movement went from a small band of backwoods apocalyptic Galilean Jews and their “prophet” to an Empire-wide movement of both Jews and Gentiles worshipping the incarnation and sacrifical death of a divine being. What we read in the Gospels was a product of the end of that process, not the beginning. They weren’t written by first-hand disciples. They were written by believers one or two generations, several decades, and hundreds of miles removed from the original disciples.

  17. Avatar
    James Cotter  August 21, 2017

    dr ehrman

    is the reason why god did not want adam to eat from the tree of knowledge because god was afraid that the new knowledge adam had would cause adam to eat from the tree of life?

    christians believe jesus gives eternal life, but the tree seems to be able to give eternal life too:

    And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

    does this mean this tree had some magical powers to allow a person to live for ever?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2017

      Yes, that appears to be what the story means to say.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  August 22, 2017

        Makes you wonder, did the serpent eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or did God already implant this knowledge in the serpent?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 24, 2017

          I think the assumption is that he was already a crafty fellow, by nature.

          • Avatar
            James Cotter  August 25, 2017

            dr ehrman, eve did not, according to the story, have knowledge of good and evil. she saw a red colored apple which was tempting to eat. she was not wise according to the story. if she heard from god or satan, how would her brain have computed if she could not distinguish between good and evil? her nature tells her “very nice apple” her nature tells her that staying naked is fine.
            her brain is without criterion to distinguish wrong and right.
            so she would obviously allow her nature to do the job.

            why did god get angry when he knew that her nature would over power her and she would eat from the tree?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 25, 2017

            I”m afraid the text doesn’t say!

      • Avatar
        rfollin  May 17, 2018

        Bart, first thanks much for the content here. I have been binging on your lectures and I just registered so first comment here!

        I have read that the Serpent in this story (was it later called Lucifer by Christians? was it Lucifer? there is no mention of Lucifer in the Hebrew Bible right? ) is similar to the greek god prometheus, who gave knowledge of fire to man (and was later punished by Zeus for it). is the interpretation that the serpent (Lucifer) is the real God (because he wants man to have access to the knowledge of good and evil, ie, knowledge of self, the world and existence) and Yahweh is the not the good god but a god of evil and domination a valid interpretation?

        I find the entire story striking, because the bible is clear that Adam and Eve did not even know they were naked until they ate the forbidden fruit. This is striking because it seems they did not hold higher intelligence or consciousness. I am not sure if you address this in another write in full detail, but I would love to hear your take on this.
        Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 17, 2018

          Lucifer is a term from Isaiah 14:12 in the King James. It is not the term used to refer to the serpent in the garden, but since the book of Revelation identifies the devil as the serpent and elsewhere Lucifer comes to be identified as the devil, naturally it came to be thought that the serpent was Lucifier. But in Genesis the serpent is not a divine being, and so is not completely like Prometheus. Adam and Eve are highly intelligent. But they don’t know good and evil until they eat the fruit. It’s about moral consciousness rather than intelligence.

  18. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  August 22, 2017

    Since this is a mailbag post, my unrelated question: the significance, at least according to your understanding, of the number “153” in John 21:11. I entered “153” into this blog’s search engine, got 3 pages of hits, none of their titles containing this number; I frankly don’t want to search all of them. If you’ve previously addressed this on the blog, kindly refer me to the relevant post. I’m a bit closer to a biblical scholar than either of my cats, that is, I’ve looked briefly into this, found “responses” such as 153 iterations of the tetragrammaton in Genesis, Augustine of Hippo’s “triangular number,” and some scholar’s opinion that there’s no special numerological significance, it “just means that there were a lot of fish.” Have you a comment? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2017

      Ah, I wish I had an opinion or even a theory! One of the greatest biblical interpreters of the 20th century, Raymond Brown, looked at every option ever proposed, and couldn’t draw a firm conclusion. He sometimes said that when he got to heaven and had a chance to chat with the author of the Gospel of John, his first question was going to be “Why 153???”

      • Avatar
        Evan  August 26, 2017

        I suspect that the author of John will tell Raymond Brown that 153 is the square of three plus the square of twelve. Three represents God/heaven in biblical numerology and twelve represents God’s chosen people. So the sum of the squares of 3 and 12 represents God in union with the elect. (See REV 7 for another instance of the square of twelve as a symbolic reference to the church). I wonder why Johannine scholars do not suggest this as the most probable derivation of 153?

    • cheito
      cheito  August 25, 2017

      Reading John 21:11 in context, it simply means what it’s saying. There were 153 fish.

  19. Avatar
    Tony  August 22, 2017

    To my knowledge, the only place where Paul writes about a “John” is in Gal 2:9. John is one of the three pillars of the Jerusalem church. Mark read Paul and turns these three into Galilean fishermen – and the closest followers of Jesus . According to Mark, John is the brother of James.

    According to Bart Ehrman, James is the brother of Jesus.

    NT studies! What’s not to like?

  20. cheito
    cheito  August 23, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    I will ask several questions, some multifaceted, and then write the scriptural reference that prompted me to ask the questions.

    Question and comments:

    1-If the Aramaic language was the primary language of Jerusalem when Jesus was alive, why did Pilate inscribe the words on Jesus cross in Hebrew Latin and Greek, and did not use the Aramaic language?

    It says that many of the Jews read the inscription. In what language did they read it? In Greek, Hebrew, and/or Latin?

    It seems that many of the Jews were not illiterate. They could read.

    John 19:19-20

    19-And Pilate wrote an inscription also, and put it on the cross. And it was written, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

    20-Therefore this inscription many of the Jews read, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and in Greek.

    ___________________________________

    Questions:

    1-Why did the Jews think that Jesus intended to go to the Jews who were scattered among the Greeks to teach the Greeks?

    2-Did Jesus speak Greek?

    3-Was the Greek language also spoken in Jerusalem during Jesus time?

    John 7:33-36

    35-The Jews therefore said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we shall not find Him? He is not intending to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks, is He?

    ________________________________________________________

    Questions:

    1-When the Greeks requested to see Jesus, In what language, do you suppose, they spoke to Phillip?

    2-In Aramaic or Greek?

    3-Why do you think Greeks came to see Jesus?

    John 12:20-22

    20-Now there were certain Greeks among those who were going up to worship at the feast;

    21-these therefore came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and began to ask him, saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

    _______________________________________________________

    Questions and comments:

    1-Who was the other disciple who followed Jesus into the court of the high priest, when Jesus was arrested?

    2-This disciple was known to the High Priest, yet he wasn’t arrested along with Jesus, why do you think that is?

    3-Would the High Priest be associated with a lowly illiterate fisherman? I would presume, that’s highly unlikely.

    John 18:15-16

    15-And Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest,

    16-but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought in Peter.

    _______________________

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2017

      I’m afraid I can’t answer this many questions at once. Could you give me one at a time? As to the first, it is usually understood that “Hebrew” simply means a Semitic language, in this case, Aramaic.

    • cheito
      cheito  August 24, 2017

      It says in John 19:20-that many of the Jews read the inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city. It seems that MANY OF THE JEWS in Jerusalem were not illiterate. They could read.
      What’s your opinion about the statement, “many of the Jews read the inscription?”

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