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Were First-Century Jewish Boys Taught to Read and Write?

In this post I continue to dig down into whether a poor Aramaic-speaking fisherman in rural Galilee could compose a highly sophisticated Greek treatise such as 1 Peter.  In my last post I dealt broadly with the question of how many people in antiquity could write.  In this post I turn my attention to Peter’s own historical context, Roman Palestine.  Is it true that boys were consistently taught literacy there and that it’s plausible that one of them could write rhetorically effective Greek compositions?

I take the discussion, again, from my book Forged.

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It is sometimes thought that Palestine was an exception, that in Palestine Jewish boys all learned to read so that they could study the Hebrew Scriptures, and that since they could read they could probably write.  Moreover, it is often argued that in Palestine most adults were bilingual, or even trilingual, able to read Hebrew, speak the local language Aramaic, and communicate well in the language of the broader empire, Greek.   Recent studies of literacy in Palestine , however, have shown convincingly that none of these assertions is true.

The fullest, most thoroughly researched, and widely influential study of literacy in Palestine during the period of the Roman empire is by Catherine Hezser.[1]  After examining all of the evidence Hezser concludes …

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Pilate, Who Never “Learned His Lesson”

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Comments

  1. Bamayorgo  November 28, 2018

    What about memorization? I have heard that many of the illiterate Palestinian Jews memorized large parts of the Torah- do you find that to be true?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      No, that was very rare. And even so, that wouldn’t make someone able to compose a rhetorically effective essay in a foreign language. (I know many, many college students with 15 more years of education tahn Peter who have learned foreign languages; none of them could write a rhetorically effective letter like 1 Peter in a foreign tongue.)

  2. Matt2239  November 28, 2018

    A Jew who learned Hebrew and then learned Greek was someone who could be trusted, because a Jew who couldn’t be trusted wouldn’t be taught Hebrew in the first place. Hence, a Jew who learned Greek and then sought to learn Hebrew could easily be rejected for further education out of fear or jealousy. And that stone that the builders rejected could still become the foundation somewhere else.

    All we know of Simon comes from the New Testament. There are some details about where he was and what he was doing when he met Jesus. He was in a small town but doing a skilled job (boats were not cheap even then, and ropes and nets still take fingers and lives). There’s nothing about where he came from, what education, if any, he had, or why he would find a calling as part of a traveling ministry.

    If we accept all that the gospels say about Peter, why then reject what else the New Testament says about Peter: that he wrote 1 Peter and 2 Peter? But don’t stop there.

    Jesus was smart and could not only read but also write. Peter was the first to see who Jesus was (or is, depending upon your faith). Jesus said Peter was the rock on which he would build his church. Why would Jesus choose an illiterate, unsophisticated person as his right-hand man? Why would Jesus, a controversial revolutionary, trust someone who could be co-opted by the establishment? How could a fisherman have succeeded running a new religious sect in a foreign city (Rome)? Finally, 2 Peter tells everyone to cool it with the apocalypse and study the scriptures. Those are two clear differences between early and modern Christianity — less The-End-Is-Near and more Bible Study.

    Now there is the issue of stylistic differences between 1 and 2 Peter. A clue is found in the exhortation to study the scriptures. It’s the first time anyone refers to the hodge-podge of circulating codexes as works that are permanent, inspired, and revered. The author of 2 Peter may have known he was writing something important, and used greater effort.

    The archeological and historical probabilities can be swept aside with a simple fact about Jesus and his disciples — they are the most unique, improbable historical figures ever.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Being an important historical figure does not make you literate in Greek.

    • AstaKask  December 2, 2018

      I mean, it’s possible that Jesus had a conjurer and a mariachi band at the last supper. Do you have any *evidence* that Peter could write? Any evidence that isn’t circular, such as “well, he wrote 1 and 2 Peter, didn’t he?”

  3. francis  November 28, 2018

    Dr Ehrman.
    If Jesus spoke Aramaic and Pontius Pilate the Roman procurator spoke Latin (or possibly Greek0 how did they communicate? According to the bible they were alone, or my interpretation of it, at his trial.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      I assume that either there was a translator or that they infact did not actually talk to each other.

  4. RonaldTaska  November 28, 2018

    Your evidence, to me, seems overwhelming as your arguments usually do. I would not be surprised, however, if, somehow, many whom I know would not be convinced in the least. I find that discouraging. They would probably say “Let’s get back to THE Bible and it says Peter wrote First Peter and Second Peter. That pretty well settles it”

  5. MaryPetra  November 28, 2018

    Reading and writing are hard work.
    Thinking is hard work.
    True scholarship is priceless!
    THANK YOU, Dr. Ehrman, that you “dig down into” your field of investigation so sacrificially!
    I feel thoroughly enlightened by your work! God bless you!

  6. hoshor  November 28, 2018

    So if the Bible writings are supposedly inspired by God, couldn’t God “empower” Peter with this skill just for these writings? (Playing devil’s advocate, and I realize this is not a historical question)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Sure, if you believe in miracles then literally anything is possible.

      • cmdenton47  December 1, 2018

        As I tell anyone who’ll listen, once you step off the Reality Boat you can go anywhere!

  7. cheito
    cheito  November 28, 2018

    DR EHRMAN:

    Your Question:

    Were First-Century Jewish Boys Taught to Read and Write?

    My Response:

    My answer to your question above is yes, the Jewish boys were taught to read and write.

    In John 19:19-20. Many of the Jews READ the inscription that Pilate has put on the cross of Jesus. It’s also very interesting that the inscription was written in only three languages, Hebrew, Latin and in Greek. So in what language do you think these Jews read the inscription? Hebrew,Greek, or maybe Latin?

  8. fishician  November 28, 2018

    Were there any discussions among the early Christians about whether the apostles were literate? I’m wondering if the Pentecost scene in Acts was perhaps a way of suggesting that the Holy Spirit could gift Peter and others to communicate in other languages, as a way of explaining this problem.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      I’m not aware of any discussions like this, no, though apologists like Origen did make a big deal out of the major impact made by the uneducated apostes: it must have been because of the power of the Spirit. So too, Pentecost is mainly being used to show that the gospel preached in foreign lands is empowered by the spirit…

  9. Lev
    Lev  November 28, 2018

    I’ve read that Simeon ben Shetach introduced public schooling in Palestine in 75BC, and that in the absence of a school building, smaller settlements used the local synagogue to educate their children.

    You argue that even if there were some schooling arrangements in place in Capernaum, that Peter would probably be fishing than attending school. I have some sympathy with that view – but I’m not convinced – what reason would his parents keep him out of school? Was it the economy? I do think you’re right that he was illiterate in Greek, and even if he could read Hebrew, I doubt he could write it, or in his native tongue for the reasons you outline above.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Did you notice what the evidence for this is?

      Peter’s parents didn’t keep him out of school. There probably *wasn’t* a school. It’s not like America in the 1960s!

      • Lev
        Lev  November 30, 2018

        I understand the source for this is the Palestinian Talmud.

        I never imagined (or suggested!) 1st century Palestine was comparable to the US in the 60s.

        If Capernaum didn’t have a school building, then wouldn’t the synagogue have been used to educate children?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 2, 2018

          Yes, that’s the point. The Palestinian Talmud is centuries later. One of the major finds of 20th century scholarship on rabbinic texts is that these later texts, when referring to earlier times, are often not at all accurate. When I meant “comparable to 60s” I meant that we today think that if a child doesn’t go to school, his parents are “keeping him out” for some reason. That’s not at all applicable to the first century. Also, no, synagogues did not have schools connected with them in the period. All of these are precisely the problem!

  10. Steefen  November 28, 2018

    Bart

    The parable of the wicked tenants is clearly presupposing a situation within the life of the church after the death of Jesus.

    Steefen

    It appears in Mark so it is clearly presupposing a situation before AD 67, before it could be picked up by Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. That is a hard sell.

    The vineyard is Jerusalem. The tower of the vineyard becomes the temple and the vat the altar of burnt offering in front of the temple. The parable indicts not Israel but the leaders who opposed Jesus. C. H. Dodd says the parable is a non-clairvoyant prediction from Jesus. I guess Jesus is hoping God would pass judgment upon his slayers.

    Before the destruction of the Temple, the Idumeans started killing the opponents of “Jesus” at the Temple itself.

    Sacrifices at the Temple stopped which in effect dis-empowered Temple authorities who had once opposed the Biblical Jesus. The writers of Mark then would have the timeline so it could say the Temple establishment which rejected Jesus and James was rejected by the Father who destroyed them. But He throws out the baby with the bath water because He loses His Temple and more.

    This produces a Gospel at face value without integrity. Below that, we have the gospel authors writing the true powerlessness of the Hebrew God and his Son-Messiah, ripping the heart out of Jewish violent messianism.

    The prophecy of this parable must link to the prophecy of Tribulation followed by the entrance of the Son of Man because they come from the same person, the Biblical Jesus, who gets his God of Moses to turn his Face away from him by declaring how he wants to be remembered (in the gospel of John, this happens even before the Last Supper).

    But there is no hoping the Hebrew God would let his own Temple get destroyed and a great loss of faith into atheism by people who suffered through it with starvation, cannibalism, the Idumeans, and the Romans.

    Question: You want us to accept 1) Jesus had no hopes his God would punish those who rejected him but later forgave them on the cross and 2) Jesus did not predict AD 70?

    So we go with Mara Bar Serapion and move the historical Jesus from 30 CE up a few decades to his wise king, “King” Menah-em (Em-Manu as in Em-Manu-El, sort of reversed without the El). Then the prediction of Tribulation sticks as non-clairvoyant.

    • Steefen  November 28, 2018

      What advantage did the Jews gain from {being against} their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished {by Rome, in the year after Rome had four emperors}. … [He is not dead]
      because of the new laws he laid down.
      –Mara Bar Serapion, circa 170 C.E.

  11. balivi  November 28, 2018

    “far more people could read than could write.”
    Dear Prof!
    Life has brought it, that I gained nearly ten years of experience various in developmental and learning disorders diagnosis and therapy. Based on my experience and the authentic letters of Paul I realized that Paul’s speech was disability and written language disorder. The reading and writing: the written language. Paul’s was a strong articulation disorder, or speech disabilities, and/or dyslexia and dysgraphia could. (2Thes3:17; 2Cor 11:6; 2Cor 10:10).
    So Paul, in the 3% of that was in it 🙂

    • balivi  November 29, 2018

      It is important to see, because these disruptions same neural based, and generally affects the reading comprehension. Paul always refers to the writings. What he did not understand. Thus became of Abram: Abraham (in Roma4:3), He uses the book of Hosaeas, or the psalms, but something completely different sense (Rom9:25; Rom3), because he did not understand exactly what he read.

      • balivi  November 29, 2018

        Finally: Paul usually (almost always) dictated his letters. Just in the end he wrote greetings, with his own hands. Exception is the letter written to Philemon, written in jail. But this is a very short letter. He had difficult to write (2Thes3:17; Gal6:11). This are a sign of writing disorder (dysgraphia).

  12. brenmcg  November 28, 2018

    If Josephus could learn to read and write Greek in later life why not Peter also?
    Both had time on their hands, both had wealthy patrons, both had the motivation and both had access to the upper echelons of the educated elite in Palestine.
    Peter may not have been able to write the Antiquities but why not 1 Peter?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Precisely because Josephus was in the upper 0.1% of the elite (higher, actually) and Peter was at the very lower end. No resources or opportunities in his world, unlike that of Josephus, living in the court of the Roman Emperor!!

      • brenmcg  November 30, 2018

        Peter began at the very lower end and began with no opportunities in his world. But he got catapulted into the 0.1%

        How many day laborers from Capernaum got to hang around Jerusalem all day discussing theology with sophisticated greek speaking theologians.

        If he wanted to convert the Gentiles he must have been capable of composing a theological argument and must have made at least some attempt to learn Greek.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 2, 2018

          How many day laborers could do that? Precisely none. Including Peter. There is zero record of him having any contact with a sophisticated Greek-speaking theologian. Even if he did have (he didn’t) that wouldn’t enable him to write his own sophisticated theological tractate. Trust me on this. I have students who hear me lecture on complicated topics all the time, but they can’t write an essay themsleves on the topic. Hearing someone who is sophisticated doesn’t make you sophisticated! And listening to someone who is literate doesn’t make you literate..

          • brenmcg  December 2, 2018

            But Paul is the sophisticated Greek speaking theologian.

            Early christians, including Peter and Paul, undoubtedly discussed which scriptures supported christian teachings and which didn’t.
            With less than a dozen bible quotations in 1 Peter you wouldnt need any deep understanding of the septuagint to produce it – just put down all the verses used in debates between 1stC christians and jews.

            Then just get a native speaker to polish up your broken Greek.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 3, 2018

            When Paul had a scribe “write” his letter for him, it means he was dictating it and the scribe wrote down what he said. That’s precisely *not* what is being imagined about Peter and 1 Peter, since he could not dictate a letter like this in Greek (let alone highly rhetorical Greek). If you want to follow up on this, see my earlier posts by searching for “secretary” on the blog.

            Talking to a sophisticated theologian does not make you able to write sophisticated theology, and more than talking to Charles Dickens would make you able to write a Victorian novel.

  13. brenmcg  November 28, 2018

    How about the apostle’s letter to the gentiles in Acts 15?, presumably written in Greek.
    Were the apostles capable of writing this or should it be concluded that acts 15 isn’t historically reliable?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Yes, I don’t think there was any such letter. If there was, then one of the members of the church who happened to be literate would have actually written it (someone who wasn’t a lower-class fisherman!)

  14. John Murphy  November 28, 2018

    Bart.

    “…the Gentiles in Galilee were almost exclusively located in the two major cities: Sepphoris and Tiberias.”

    Who were these Gentiles? Soldiers, civil servants, and the like, who were there because of the Romans’ overlordship of the general area, or regular folk who had put down roots in those cities? Were they Semites who weren’t Jews (in the religious sense), or people from further afield who were neither Semites nor Jews?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Yes, not Jews. People from other langds who settled in that area for one reason or another, probably involving getting jobs!

  15. nichael  November 28, 2018

    Beyond the question of whether someone like Peter _did_ learn to read/write, perhaps an equally important question is _why_ would he have learned to do so?

    Viewed purely from a (vastly richer) 21st cent. American perspective (where we could argue that widespread public education is essential to the smooth workings of a modern society) such a policy might make sense. But what advantage would such an education bring to either Peter or the society in which he was born? What would it “buy” them?

    More to the point recall that we are dealing with a rural, peasant, subsistence agrarian society. The cost (in terms of the resources needed, and the diverting of manpower away from daily agricultural work) needed to support this sort of training (to even a handful of individual, let alone to large fraction of the populace) would surely have been catastrophic, at least in terms of any minimal advantages that it might have supplied to the society at large.

  16. Hume  November 29, 2018

    I hope whatever you decided with your cat that all is well! You gave condolences back in March for my family’s dog that we had to put down, which upset us greatly. Thanks. I know we do not know each other but it was surprisingly helpful for me at that time.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Thanks. We have one cat remaining of the three. A skittish little thing. The beloved dog, alas, has bladder cancer. But has already outlived the prognosis by four months and is doing remarkably well.

  17. Fanex  November 29, 2018

    It seems that Jesus was traveling rabbi at least in last year of his life,and it seems that he travels almost in rural Galilea not in cities.If apostles was probably illiterate,Jesus seems that he could write and read if he could cited from hebrew scriptures and preach in synagogues.
    Dr.Ehrman Is there any article on blog about John the Babtist and his relation with Jesus ? Rabbi/disciple.
    Sorry for my awful english,Im probably in that case when I can read an foreign language and cant write in it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      A new book is coming out soon by my friend Joel Marcus on John the Baptist. It will be teh definitive account available.

      • John Murphy  November 30, 2018

        Are there any mythicists in respect of John the Baptist?!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 2, 2018

          I wouldn’t be surprised, but I don’t know of any. He’s talked about in Josephus (more than Jesus is).

      • Lev
        Lev  November 30, 2018

        I got this book the other day. I’ve only just started it, but it’s awesome so far!

      • Stephen  December 1, 2018

        It’s out. I received my copy from the publisher a couple days ago. I admire Prof Marcus’ two volume Anchor commentary on Mark and I have been looking forward to this one for a while. I find John the Baptist to be one of the most fascinating figures in the NT and am curious as to what scholars can really say about him.

  18. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  November 29, 2018

    “In short, Peter’s town was a backwoods Jewish village made up of hand-to-mouth laborers who did not have an education. Everyone spoke Aramaic. Nothing suggests that anyone could speak Greek.”

    I totally disagree with this. Paul says he spent two weeks with Peter. If there’s a bilingual interpreter hanging around for 15 days, then Peter is having conversations on a regular basis about Jesus that’s being transmitted orally to Greek-speaking people. If a Greek-speaking believer is learning all he can about Jesus from Peter, then there’s no reason to believe that someone, somewhere wasn’t writing down his words in Greek as well.

    Galatians 2:11-14 “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him TO HIS FACE…I SAID to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

    Paul was either speaking in Aramaic or Peter could understand Paul as he was speaking in Greek. But even before that, Paul says he met with Peter, James, and John PRIVATELY and had a conversation about the gospel he was preaching. He claims false brothers spied on them while they were there. How did they figure out what he said? Paul doesn’t say one word about a language barrier hindering these conversations in any of his letters even though he stresses the need for interpreting tongues, the need for understanding. It’s a detail that he feels is extremely important, so I can’t see him failing to include the use of an interpreter, something he would have seen as a problem.

    Just because Jesus and his disciples were impoverished doesn’t mean they didn’t have the mental capacity or motivation to learn more. They weren’t cognitively impaired due to lack of funds. They’re not given credit for anything. I mean, according to scholarship Jesus and his disciples barely made it ten feet from the front porch they were so dang poor. There’s really no evidence Paul used an interpreter in any of the exchanges he had with Peter, James, and John. In fact, the evidence in Paul’s letters points to him being bilingual and/or Peter being bilingual.

    2
    1
  19. Fanex  November 29, 2018

    If it was an interaction between Jesus an John at all.
    And sorry for offtopic.

  20. AstaKask  November 29, 2018

    Isn’t a thousand people rather a large settlement? Or was that number total inhabitants in the area?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 30, 2018

      Cities of course didn’t have “limits” the way they do now: but I think that’s the number in the community with houses clumped together. It would not be considered “large” though.

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