By Keith Thompson
Could Jesus’ disciples read and write? In assessing if they wrote the gospels and epistles attributed to them, this question is of paramount importance. Critics claim first century Jews were illiterate and thus the Jewish disciples could not have written the gospels. Robert Price asserts Acts 4:13 actually teaches the disciples Peter and John were illiterate (Robert M. Price Jesus is Dead, (Parsippany, NJ: American Atheist Press, 2007), p. 230). The text says, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were ἀγράμματοί and ἰδιῶται, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). But here Price is guilty of committing “the false assumption about technical meaning fallacy.” When this exegetical fallacy is committed “an interpreter falsely thinks that a word always or nearly always has a certain technical meaning” (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2nd edn, 1996), p. 45). Ehrman has also committed the same mistake concerning the verse (Ehrman (1999), 45). The problem is in Acts 4:13 ἀγράμματοί should not be understood in this strict technical sense.
Obviously from a small conversation the Jewish leaders would not be able to discern if Peter and John could read and write. That makes no sense. Instead, what was being said was Peter and John were not formally apprenticed by a rabbi in Jewish law, scripture interpretation and legal opinions. That, on the other hand, could be discerned by a theological conversation. The Jewish leaders referred to lack of advanced study under a Jewish scholar, and also to lack of secondary Jewish education. First century Palestinian Jews were first educated in their homes by learning Torah and literacy. Then they often went to primary school in a synagogue memorizing Torah and reciting liturgy. This school was known as a beth sepher (“house of reading” or “house of the scribe”). Afterwards some went to secondary school at a beth midrash or beth talmud to learn rabbinic commentary on scripture (i.e, midrash) and topically arranged oral law (i.e., mishnah). After this some were then formally apprenticed by a Jewish scholar in exegesis and legal opinion for advanced studies aimed at training future religious leaders (Everett F. Ferguson, Background’s of Early Christianity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 3rd edn, 2003), p. 112; cf. Deuteronomy 6:7; m. Aboth 5.21; Sirach 51:23; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5; 2 Timothy 3:15; Luke 4:20; Acts 22:3; y. Ketub. 8.32c; b. B.Bat. 21a; p. Ket. 8.11, 32c; b. Sanh. 17; Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, 210; Josephus, Against Apion, 1.60; 2.204).
That ἀγράμματοί has a broader semantic range than is assumed by Price and Ehrman can be seen in the fact the Greek philosopher Epictetus talked about men who were ἀγράμματοί still nevertheless being able to write (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.9.10). And Plato employed the word with the broader meaning of a lack of general education (Plato Timaeus, 23A). So, the word does not always refer strictly to illiteracy. In light of the aforementioned considerations, most lexicographers and NT scholars who address the issue cast doubt on the interpretation of Price and Ehrman here:
“Acts iv. 13 (i.e., unversed in the Jewish schools)” (Joseph, H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), p. 8).
“Some persons have assumed ἀγράμματος in Ac 4.13 means ‘illiterate’ in the sense of not being able to read and write, but this is highly unlikely in view of the almost universal literacy [of Jewish men] in NT times, and especially as a result of extensive synagogue schools. Evidently, ἀγράμματος in Ac 4.13 refers to a lack of formal rabbinic training” (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol. 2, (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1988), p. 239).
“. . .the Sanhedrin was amazed by the scriptural knowledge and courage of the ‘unschooled’ Peter and John (Acts 4:13)” (William D Mounce (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2006), p. 18).
“theological disputations required rabbinic training. . . . Aγράμματοί. . .here. . .undoubtedly means ‘uneducated’ or ‘unschooled’ in rabbinic training” (Longenecker (1981), 306, 307 n. 13).
“they were not trained as interpreters of Scripture and rabbinic tradition” (Peterson (2009), 194).
“here it means rather ‘uneducated’ in respect to rabbinical training” (Bruce (1988), 94-95 n. 27).
“These terms are probably not meant to be taken literally as though Peter were unschooled and could not write or read” (Robert W. Wall, Acts, (NIB, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 70 n. 184).
“In view of such texts as John 7:15 and the religious context it probably has a more limited meaning here, namely, one not trained in the Law” (Witherington (1998), 195).
“The term more broadly indicated simply lack of formal education” (Keener (2013), 1154).
“It need not mean ‘unable to read’ but simply that the person lacks a certain level of skills. Kraus (1999) has a careful study of both terms in this phrase. In this context, it is religious instruction that is primarily meant” (Bock (2007), 195).
“To be agrammatos does not necessarily mean to be unable to read” (Evans (2012), 81).
In sum, the Greek terms in Acts 4:13 were not employed to indicate Peter and John could not read or write. Therefore, it cannot be used as evidence the disciples could not have wrote gospels. The dynamic equivalence NLT translation has a great rendering: “they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures.”
Doherty claims “a rough and simple man” like John could not have written the fourth gospel (Doherty (2001), 15). He also claims had Jesus existed he would have been illiterate because he was allegedly a Galilean peasant (Doherty (1999), 245. For refutations of Crossan’s claim Jesus was a Mediterranean peasant see Charlesworth (2008), 94; Witherington (1995), 85-86). Similarly, Carrier claims if Jesus existed, he would have been an “illiterate Galilean” who could not have been responsible for the literarily advanced Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel (Carrier (2014), 465). But the idea first century Palestinian Jews like Jesus and his disciples were illiterate is not supported by the evidence.
Mythicists and other critics frequently cite (e.g. Richard Carrier, Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story; Ehrman, (2012), 47-48) the low literacy estimates put forth by William Harris and Catherine Hezser. Harris estimated a literacy rate of 10-15% for the ancient Greco-Roman world (William Harris, Ancient Literacy, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 328). Hezser affirmed Harris’s statistic and argued Jewish literacy was even lower in first century Palestine (Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), pp. 496ff). Harris’s methodology was more of a comparativist approach than an epigraphic or literary one. So, instead of closely examining the relevant epigraphic and literary evidence bearing on the subject, he preferred to come up with conditions he believed were necessary for ancient literacy. Then he examined ancient Greco-Roman society for them and asserted they were found wanting. Yet, the theses of Harris and Hezser have been strongly challenged by scholars (For critiques see Nicholas Horsfall, “Statistics or States of Mind?” in Literacy in the Roman World, ed. Mary Beard (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), pp. 59-76; James Franklin, “Literacy and the Parietal Inscriptions of Pompeii,” in Beard (1991), 77-98; Eddy and Boyd (2007), 241-243; Harlow Snyder, review of Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, by C. Hezser, Review of Biblical Literature (2002); and for a good summary of such critiques and others see Michael Owen Wise, Language and Literacy in Roman Judea, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 24-36).
As regards early Jewish education and its bearing on literacy, Josephus informs us parents taught children both letters and the Torah: “γράμματα παιδεύειν ἐκέλευσεν καὶ τὰ περὶ τοὺς νόμους” (Josephus, Against Apion, 2.204). Unlike in Acts 4:13, here γράμματα is being used in the strict technical sense of “letters” (i.e., literacy). It is not being used in the broader sense of “learning.” We know this because such child “learning” in the Jewish education context would be the learning of the Law (Josephus, Against Apion, 1.60; Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, 210; Kent L. Yinger, “Jewish Education,” in Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald (eds.) (2013), 327: “For Jews, God’s Torah was the controlling center of all education, as both Philo and Josephus emphasize”). Yet, the learning of the Law is also mentioned in the same sentence as a different aspect of education (νόμους means “laws”). Hence, to avoid redundancy we must interpret Josephus as saying children were taught both letters (literacy) as well as the theological content of the Torah (Bruce N. Fisk thus understands this passage as saying “the law enjoins parents to teach children to read and to know both the laws and the deeds of their forefathers” in Bruce N. Fisk, “Synagogue Influence and Scriptural Knowledge among the Christians of Rome,” in Stanley E. Porter and Christopher D. Stanley (eds.), As it is Written: Studying Paul’s Use of Scripture, (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), p. 179). This Josephus evidence is crucial since he was born and raised in Jerusalem and so is reflecting the practice of Jerusalemites and, given his very broad language, most likely those in broader Palestine too (Larry Hurtado, “Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark: Critical Assessment of Werner Kelber’s The Oral and Written Gospel,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 7 (1997), p. 96 n. 15: “Josephus' statements likely reflect cultural values characteristic of first-century Jewish society.”). This is confirmed by another important Jewish work from the late Second Temple period called The Testament of Levi which exhorts Jewish parents to “teach your children letters, that they may have understanding all their life, reading unceasingly the law of God” (The Testament of Levi, 13.2). What is more, 4 Maccabees 18:9-19 indicates average Jewish men were able to read the Law and the prophets to their children.
Josephus’ Life further demonstrates common first century Galilean men could read and write. In Life, 46 he wrote, “Jonathan and his partners . . . took counsel together by what means they might attack me. John's opinion was, that they should write to all the cities and villages that were in Galilee; for that there must be certainly one or two persons in every one of them that were at variance with me, and that they should be invited to come to oppose me as an enemy.” Life, 55 then says, “And as they were discoursing thus, they produced four letters, as written to them from some people that lived at the borders of Galilee, imploring that they would come to their assistance.”
The first century Palestinian pseudepigraphal work 4 Ezra contains a crucial passage bearing on the literacy of the Palestinian population Hezser neglected. It makes little sense if we assume the author and audience believed Palestine was around 90 percent illiterate as Hezser claims. 4 Ezra 14.45 says, “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them.”
In the Mishnah the first century Rabbi Akiba indicated it was common for storekeepers to write on ledgers as a way to keep track of credit borrowing (m. Aboth. 3.16). First century Jewish males knew the ancient sages exhorted them to “study the words of the Torah” as opposed to engaging in too much conversation with women (m. Aboth 1.5). In fact, Hillel said “whoever does not study the Torah deserves death” (m. Aboth 1.13). Rabbi Shammai also said, “Make your study of the Torah a matter of established regularity” (m. Aboth 1.15). These kinds of instructions help establish broader literacy rates among first century Jews.
In m. Aboth 5.21 and 1QSa 1:6-8 of the Dead Sea Scrolls we read of early systems of Jewish religious education for children. In y. Ketub. 8.32c Simon ben Shetah (100 B.C.) commanded all Israelite children to go to school. The traditions in b. B.Bat. 21a, p. Ket. 8.11, 32c, and b. Sanh. 17 affirm the existence Jewish schools for children in Palestine from the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. Hezser claimed the rabbinic literature supports the idea first century Palestinian Jewish education involved reading but not writing (Hezser (2001), 89). However, this position is refuted by the existence and content of the first century Jewish and Christian literary sources we do possess. Hezser neglected this evidence (see below the passages from them bearing on population literacy). Her position also contradicts what we know about the education processes of the larger Greco-Roman world and what papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt tell us about education (writing was involved in both systems). Although the rabbi’s who actually comment on the matter failed to mention writing being part of education, Greco-Roman authors sometimes did too, even though we know their Greco-Roman education involved writing (Wise (2015), 30-31).
Sectarian Dead Sea Scroll documents dating from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. also have passages bearing on the literacy of the Palestinian population. The War Scroll commands that an incredibly large amount of writing (e.g. slogans, prayers, names, etc.) be inscribed on a large quantity of war trumpets, banners, and shields for an anticipatory eschatological battle. Many people would have to be involved in such a massive literary project. Moreover, The Rule of the Community 1QS 7.1-3 says, “Anyone who speaks aloud the M[ost] Holy Name of God, [weather in . . .] or in cursing or as a blurt in time of trial or for any other reason, or while he is reading a book or praying, is to be expelled, never again to return to the party of the Yahad.” The Qumran document 4QMMT affirms writing-skills among young Jewish disciples of teachers (ancient disciples were very often teenagers). For, it contains notes of rulings of an unnamed authority (Alan Millard, “Literacy in the Time of Jesus - Could His Words Have Been Recorded in His Lifetime?,” Biblical Archaeological Society, (July/August 2003)).
The existence of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves also establishes high literacy among first century Palestinian Jews. These documents were not composed by some isolated, small group. We have uncovered over 930 manuscripts, they lack signatures of scribal schools, there are five different scripts, over 500 individual hands, over 350 extrabiblical writings, over 210 manuscripts of scriptural books, and certain scrolls are not as well-written as others (Wise (2015), 32-33. There was continued copying of both scripture and extrabiblical material, as well as production of many new materials (Alan Millard, “Literacy in the Time of Jesus - Could His Words Have Been Recorded in His Lifetime?,” Biblical Archaeological Society, (July/August 2003)). There is no reason to separate this evidence of high literacy from the practice of broader first century Palestine. Hezser’s assumption these documents were produced by a small sect (Hezser (2001), 426) on the shores of the Dead Sea is based on antiquated and incorrect scholarship. Quantity, diversity, and internal studies instead suggest the documents come from different towns and villages in Palestine, thus demonstrating the Qumran material is but a “cross-section of what existed, a glimpse into the broader literary culture of late Second Temple Jewry” (Wise (2015), 33-34; Evans (2012), 74: “analysis of the scribal hands has shown that most of the scrolls were composed elsewhere in Israel and then brought to Qumran”). Wise et al explain in their translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls how an important document helps confirm this: “According to the standard model . . .this work [“The Rule of the Community” in 1QS] is supposed to have governed a community living in Qumran. But this idea is at least partly wrong; the work itself refers to various groups or chapters scattered throughout Palestine. Therefore it did not attach specifically to the site of Qumran. . . . This text does not merely reflect a small community living there” (Michael Owen Wise et al (trans.), The Dead Sea Scrolls, A New Translation, (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2005), p. 113). Indeed, Josephus informs us the Essenes settled in large numbers in many Palestinian villages (Josephus, War of the Jews, 2.124; Cf. Philo, Every Good man is Free, 75-76). Dunn notes: “. . .Qumran was only one branch of the Essenes and that the other Essene groups lived in various towns, including possibly Jerusalem. And the disparity of the material in the scrolls is becoming steadily clearer, with only some representative of the Qumran community’s own beliefs, and probably the Covenant of Damascus (CD) representative of the more widely dispersed Essenes” (Dunn, (2003), 271-271). Thus, the Qumran writings show Jews from around Palestine wrote a lot of material.
As regards Jesus, in synoptic tradition he was said to read from an Isaiah scroll in Luke 4:17-20. Also, to debate biblical interpretation with literate scribes and Pharisees, one had to at least have home and beth sepher education which involved reading and writing (Josephus, Against Apion, 2.204; The Testament of Levi, 13.2; m. Aboth 5.21). As a tax collector (Mark 2:14; Matthew 10:3; Luke 5:27), Matthew required the skill of literacy. He needed education in accounting and literacy for managing his records. Tax collectors wrote notes on pinakes as part of their job, as well as receipts and registers (On the use of pinakes among tax collectors see Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 28. On the use of both shorter and longer detailed receipts among tax collectors see Mark D. Roberts, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), pp. 115, 165 n. 19; Roberts mentions the Elephantine and Egyptian ostraca receipts, and the papyrus receipt P.Oxy. 51:3609). Peter and John were fishermen (Mark 1:16, 19; Matthew 4:18, 21; Luke 5:2-4, 10). This trade likewise required the ability to read and write. As businessmen they had to deal with tax collectors, toll collectors and business records (J. A. L. Lee, ‘Some Features of the Speech of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel’, NovTT 27 (1985), pp. 1-36, esp. p. 6; Ben Witherington, Bart Interrupted: Part Four). As a physician (Colossians 4:14; The Muratorian Canon, The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke) Luke had to study medical works during his education and write reports on injuries and deaths for law-enforcement and slave owners. This was a common practice of ancient doctors (Roberts (2007), 117). That Paul was a former Pharisee means he was literate. In texts like Mark 2:25-26 the Pharisees are asked “have you not read . . . ?“ We have evidence ancient Jewish and Gentile disciples, including first century ones, took written notes of their master’s teaching (e.g. 4QMMT; p Maas 2.4; b Men 70a; b Shab. 6b, 96b, 156a; b Bab. Mes. 92a; b Hul. 60b; b Shab. 89a; p Kil. 1.1; Quint. Inst. 11.2.2, 25; Sen. Ep. Lucil. 108.6; Arius Didymus. Epit. 2.7.11k; Lucian Hermot. 2). This of course demands literacy of young disciples of rabbis which is what Paul was when he trained to be a Pharisee under Gamaliel (Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5; Acts 22:3). This applies to Jesus’ original disciples as well.
Although Zechariah lived in the rural hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39-40), concerning his son in Luke 1:63, he still nevertheless “asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’” Mark 10:4 indicates it was common for men to be able to write divorce certificates in first century Palestine (We have some examples of ancient divorce certificates from this time. They were a somewhat lengthy paragraph long. See e.g. m. Git. 9 and papyri BGU 1103 in C. K. Barrett (ed.), The New Testament Background: Writings from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire that Illuminate Christian Origins, (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1987), p. 41). The Parable of the Shrewd Manager in Luke 16 is an early pre-Lukan “L” tradition. It shows it was normal to assume common debtors could read and write (Luke 16:5-7). John 19:20 says many Jews read a titulus inscription placed near Jesus’ cross. The fact this inscription was created for the masses assumes commoners in Jerusalem were expected to be able to read it (cf. Mark 15:26; Matthew 27:37; Luke 23:38). In fact, it was most likely created as a warning to potential and actual disciples of Jesus (Evans (2012), 81). In the context of the Jerusalem Council, Acts 15:19 assumes early Jewish Christians could write letters. 2 Corinthians 3:14 states first century Jews read the OT. In Acts 8:30-35 a Galilean disciple named Philip (Mark 3:18; John 1:43) was able to read and interpret the OT better than an educated Ethiopian. Now, even if one is skeptical about the historicity of some or all of these accounts, the first century authors of them still nevertheless show knowledge of a certain literacy climate of first century Palestine that should not be overlooked by the historian. What is more, the very existence of the numerous Palestinian gospels and epistles of the NT demonstrate lots of writing took place among first century Jewish Christians. Luke’s prologue also mentions other written Jewish-Christian accounts created prior to his gospel (e.g. probably works like Q, M, L, etc.). Also important to note is how the hundreds of OT, apocryphal, and pseudepigraphal quotations and allusions in the NT presuppose its Jewish-Christian church audience was widely literate and well-read in those sources to be able to detect them.