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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Were Jesus' Disciples "Illiterate Peasants"?

Image result for the gospels symbols




Many argue that the Gospels could not have been composed by Jesus' disciples on the grounds that those disciples were illiterate, Aramaic-sspeaking, low-class Jewish peasants from Galilee, while the Gospels are written in good enough Greek.
Bart Ehrman gives a telling presentation of this viewpoint:


"These authors [the Gospel writers] were not lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee.  but isn't it possible that, say, John wrote the Gospel as an old man? That as a young man he was an illiterate, Aramaic-speaking day laborer--a fisherman from the time he was old enough to help haul in a net--but that as an old man he wrote a Gospel?...I suppose it is possible.  It would mean that after Jesus' resurrection John decided to go to school and become literate..." [Ehrman, Bart.2009. Jesus Interrupted. Harper One, pp. 106-107]

In short, men like Peter and John couldn't have written anything--especially in Greek--because Aramaic-speaking Jewish peasants from Galilee couldn't have been literate; nor could Matthew or Mark, because they were associated with Peter and John, and hence low-class, monolingual illiterates, too. In fairness, Ehrman notes from Jesus' reading of the Torah in the synagogue that Jesus himself must have been literate (disagreeing with Dominic Crossan, another media star in Gospel research). However, the general assumption is that pre-modern, non-urban, non-elite folk "had to be" illiterate and monolingual.

What a monoculturalist, time-bound assumption this is!  In fact, there are a number of historical, cultural, religious, and sociological reasons that tell against this reconstruction of Jesus and his disciples.

First of all, monolingualism is a condition of peoples who live in very large, geographically extensive, and politically powerful linguistic communities and who belong to highly immobile or insular cultures. A peasant from Henan can be monolingual in Northern Chinese; an American farmer in western Pennsylvania can be monolingual in English.  Speakers of Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Panjabi, Malay, or Turkish might also be able to afford monoglossia.  However, much of humanity, regardless of formal education, must learn second--or even third or fourth languages--due to minority status, residence in a linguistically diverse region, or a position in a border area.  It is worth noting that the Galilean Jews of the first century A.D. fit all of these criteria. As such, they were in a position not too different from many Central Europeans from medieval times to the interwar era, or Hill Tribes in northern Southeast Asia today--who were often polyglot regardless of formal education.

'First century 'Eretz Yisroel seems to have been ideally situated as a home for a people for whom polyglossy would be desirable and monolingualism a handicap. To begin with, while we can safely assume that most inhabitants of first century 'Eretz Yisroel probably spoke forms of Western Aramaic on a day-to-day basis, it is known that the Greek-speaking and Gentile cities of Sepphoris and Tiberia were planted squarely in the midst of Galilee.  Caesarea, the port-city, was a primarily Hellenophone enclave; while to the east there must have been contacts with the Decapolis, a federation of ten Greek-speaking cities dating back to some time after Alexander's conquest of the area .  The Jews themselves were not uniformly Semitic-speakers.  The existence of a large, Greek-speaking diaspora that sometimes resettled in 'Eretz Yisroel is amply attested to in the Book of Acts, in which conflict between linguistic communities appears early (Ac. 7), and from the archaeological record.  For much of Western Diaspora Jewry, Greek rather than Hebrew was even the language of the Bible and religion. Hence, the opportunity to learn and use Greek was not rare and certainly far from implausible.Some Hellenophone Jews moved back to 'Eretz Yisroel itself, forming their own synagogues and existing as a distinct subculture.  The New Testament itself witnesses to a linguistic divide in the primitive Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1), while ossuaries and other epigraphic remains provide archaeological testimony to the use of Greek as well as the Semitic languages.

It is doubtful that Jesus' first followers were invariably poor and socially marginal.  The Gospels mention that when John and James joined Jesus, they left their father Zebedee with the hired men (Mark 1:20).  While fishing may not be a prestige profession, it did not, apparently, condemn its practitioners to mere subsistence. We read also of wealthy women supporting Jesus and his disciples, plus such sympathizers as Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus who were members of the Sanhedrin.  In this, Jesus may well have been part of patterns attested to later in Talmudic Jewish history of a rabbi and his disciples supported by family and wealthy friends; and of men from ordinary walks of life who were nonetheless literate, and hence able to move into the ranks of the learned.

Perhaps it might be useful to see Peter and Andrew, James and John, and even Jesus himself not just as primary producers or workingmen, but as businessmen as well.  Fish can be salted and dried, then transported to places distant from the waters in which it was caught.  A skilled craftsman such as a carpenter might well work an itinerary that might take him away from his home village.  In both situations, the need to keep accounts would provide an incentive towards literacy.


When first encountered, Jesus' first disciples are not only fishermen,, but also spiritual seekers.  Andrew and Simon Peter were apparently initially drawn to John the Baptist (John 1:35-42)who also preached the approach of the Messianic age.  This suggests that the sons of Jonah had some familiarity with biblical prophecy and the leisure to ponder its possible implications. These spiritual aspirations in a culture that eschewed images as foci of worship (although first century 'Eretz Yisroel apparently had few objections to art for the purposes of decoration or illustration) would have been yet another incentive for literacy. 


Jesus himself may well have known Greek from an early age.  The Gospel of Matthew notes that the Holy Family spent some time in Egypt fleeing Herod's attempts to kill the infant Jesus.  We know that they returned to 'Eretz Yisroel some time after Herod's death--quite possibly after the lapse of some years. In Egypt, the Holy Family probably would have gravitated towards Alexandria, that vast, polyglot,albeit mostly Hellenophone, which was the center of the Mediterranean world's Jewish diaspora and the place where the Bible itself was first put into Greek two centuries before Jesus' birth. It was home as well to a vibrant Hellenophone Jewish culture attested to by the works of the Jewish philosopher Philo and the writings of Gentile historians and critics.In intertestamental times, the Apocryphal book of Jesus son of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), while evidently first composed in Hebrew, was early translated into Greek and preserved in that language.  The additions to Daniel (Susannah and Bel and the Dragon) also seem to have originally been Greek compositions rather than Hebrew or Aramaic. Even a later son of 'Eretz Yisroel, Josephus, writes an elegant Greek, and defends the Jews against the calumnies of the Egyptian priest Manetho in an interchange that clearly was conducted in Greek. So pervasive is the Greek influence among the Jews that even in 'Eretz Yisroel itself, one of the sages in the times shortly before Jesus' own, Antigonos of Socho, bears a Greek name, as do some of the Jewish protagonists of the First Book of Maccabees.

It is also important to note that while Matthew Two is often taken as a birth narrative (and used as such every Christmas), it is more accurately a narrative of Jesus' childhood, a synopsis of Jesus' earliest years whose chief purpose is to show how the life of the Messiah recapitulates the life of the Israelite nation, the star echoing the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers; the adoration of the Magi reflecting the status of Israel under David and Solomon; the flight into and return from Egypt reflecting the origins of the nation.  Thus, the likelihood is that the Magi from the East found a toddler rather than a newborn; that toddler going on to find his early speech shaped not only by the presumed Aramaic of his earthly parents, but also by the Greek of his likely Egyptian home.


By the time of Jesus, Jewish culture had already become an "exegetical culture".  Its cult had no images, and stressed a sacred text that long had been known and used, even to the point of being translated for the Greek-speaking diaspora community.  While the climate and soils of most of 'Eretz Yisroel are not conducive to the preservation of ordinary scraps of inscribed papyrus and leather (save in the very dry regions close to the Dead Sea and the Negev), it is known from Hellenistic Roman Egypt that large numbers of common people often wrote letters, accounting documents, contracts, and the like (thanks to Egypt's uniquely dry climate, these were preserved); while ostraca probably inscribed by ordinary Jews in 'Eretz Yisroel have also been found.

The image of Jesus and his disciples as illiterate, monolingual peasants must thus be discarded.  Some, doubtlessly, were from very ordinary or even poor backgrounds.  But even in such instances,their Galilaean homeland was well-situated to foster multilingualism, including knowledge of Greek; and the already dispersed condition of their Jewish people would have given them opportunity to encounter and interact with Greek-speakers, even if they may have had few contacts with Gentiles.  Their Jewish culture was literate, possessed a strong historical sense, and even possessed writing for purposes far removed from the religious ones best represented in ancient Jewish Hebrew,Aramaic, and Greek texts.

While a fairly wide literacy among Jewish common people must be conceded to be a possibility (albeit a strong one) rather than a demonstrated certainty, it would be by no means unique among pre-modern peoples.  In Korea during the 15th century A.D., King Sejong promoted the development of the Hangul alphabet in order to foster literacy among Korean commoners, for whom the traditional Classical Chinese traditionally used was inaccessible (and hard enough to learn by young males whose families could afford to educate them, for Korean and Chinese are not linguistically close).  This was a fairly successful project.  Further, Hangul itself seems to have been inspired bythe Phagpa script commissioned by Khubilai Khan to provide a common alphabet for Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan. A few monuments in this writing exist, including, interestingly enough, a Christian grave monument from Fujian memorializing an individual with a clearly Han Chinese name.  While the Phagpa script did not take except among users of Tibetan, its imperial sponsorship is yet another example of a ruler seeking to foster literacy among the common people he ruled.

A further consideration is that speakers of Hebrew and Aramaic used alphabets designed for the phonemes of those languages.  The Greeks, while adopting the Semitic alphabet, heavily modified it to suit their own phonemes.  In this, users of all three languages were in a position somewhat different from that of an English speaker, who must find ways to twist an alphabet designed for a language with only five vowels (Latin) to serve his own vowel-rich spoken language.  Perhaps, then, the storm and stress accompanying an Anglophone child's introduction to spelling and decoding may not have been as severe for a child of first-century 'Eretz Yisroel or Alexandira being put to the task of learning to read.

Finally, as recognized leaders in the primitive Christian community, the apostles would have had access to bilingual secretaries and amanuenses.John Mark, identified in Acts as close to the wealthy Cypriot Jew Barnabas, was probably one who was skilled both in the native Semitic of 'Eretz Yisroel and Greek. While it is clear that Paul was a literate and bilingual former student of Gamaliel the Elder, the presence of Apollos of Alexandria in the pages of the New Testament suggests he was not the only lettered and cultured convert gained by the primitive church.  Papias' account that he worked as Peter's interpreter and that his Gospel represents the memories of Peter is thus entirely credible.  His being mentioned at the end of First Peter along with Silvanus makes it highly possible that he and Sylvanus took dictation from Peter, putting his less-fluent Greek into the relatively polished form found in the Epistle as they worked.  Eusebius also identifies Papias of Heliopolis as John's assistant; so it may be that the elegant if simple Greek of the Fourth Gospel hints both at Johanine authorship, as evidenced by the accurate knowledge of pre-70 A.D. 'Eretz Yisroel, and Papaias' editorial help; while the rugged, near-Pidgin of the Book of Revelation may offer John's own, unaided Greek.

Nor should too much weight be placed on the observation of that Peter and John were "unlettered men"  (Acts 4:13).  This merely indicates that they, like their master, were not trained in the Scribal and Pharisaic Academies.  While history is full of academies or systems that gained much prestige in the cultures that nurtured them, education has never been successfully monopolized; even by philosophic schools, churches, and states that actively sought to do so. A Bible-reading, theologically-minded 17th century England could produce an uncommon author in John Bunyan,the tinker of Bedford; a first century 'Eretz Yisroel with its Jewish exegetical culture teeming with Messianic speculation and aspiration could also have produced similar "uncommon common men".

Thus, questions of literacy and skills in second- or third languages should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles for Jesus' first disciples. True, they were not born into the linguistically dominant ctulure; but if the experience of other peripheral peoples offers any guidance, this would provide an incentive to learn Greek as a second language.The environment in which the apostles lived, the needs of their livelihoods, and their religious background all provided incentives to both literacy and second language acquisition (if that second language was Greek). The status they  gained in the early church also gave them access to a number of human resources, if not further educational ones.  Hence,Ehrman's dismissal of the possibility that John may have been a writer ignores much.  Even if the apostles had help from their friends (and Peter's mention of Mark and Silvanus, along with Luke's admitted dependence on earlier witnesses, suggests that these were by no means unrecognized), their position as authors as well as witnesses is no longer so far-fetched.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your work! I just discovered your blog today and I pray that you continue. I have found multiple posts that are edifying.
    Have you done any research in literacy levels in the ancient world? Do we actually have a firm basis for asserting that ~90% of the ancient world was illiterate, or did that number reach scholarly consensus and is now practically sacrosanct?
    I am wondering if you can shed light on a question that has bothered me for some time. Luke uses two terms to describe the Apostles in Acts 4:13 - ἀγράμματος and ἰδιώτης. Critical scholars assume that the use of both of these terms must denote that they were hopelessly illiterate. I do not hold to that view, but must confess that I do not know how to answer them. Any thoughts on Luke's use of these two terms?

    -Robert

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