The Illiterate Apostles?

Saint George Preca has been likened as a succe...

The notion of apostles as “illiterate” would have been a surprise to many throughout history. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NPR recently interviewed Reza Aslan, a Muslim convert to Christianity who later left the church, but never lost his fascination with Jesus. He has a new book out about Jesus called Zealot.

Overall, I found the views expressed in the interview to be much more nuanced and considered than many of those from ex-Christians who write books about Jesus. In particular, his point that Jesus was crucified for sedition is a good one, though his following point that one should focus on the death of Jesus, rather than his birth, isn’t going to cause too many waves among practicing Christians. Those “in the know” have always recognized that Easter is more important than Christmas.

This part, though, about the education of the apostles and nature of the New Testament struck me as an example of someone applying anachronistic assumptions about authorship and literacy to ancient texts.

[The Apostles] were farmers and fisherman [sic]. These were illiterates; they could neither read nor write, so they couldn’t really espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was. They certainly couldn’t write anything down. Instead the task of spreading the Gospel message outside of Jerusalem, of really creating what we now know as Christianity, fell to a group of urbanized, Hellenized, educated Jews in the Diaspora…

Some of the apostles were fishermen, certainly. Matthew was a tax-collector, but for most of them, we simply don’t know what their professions were. (I don’t know where he gets “farmers” from – none of the apostles are ever identified as farmers.) Considering the economy of 1st century Judea, “farmer” seems like a decent enough guess for their professions. On the other hand, Jesus spends much of his ministry in cities, and we learn in Luke 8 that his disciples included several wealthy women from prominent households.

Further, as Kenneth Bailey (among others) has written, “literacy” in the ancient Middle East was quite different than the skills we think of as “literacy.” The inability to read or write should not be confused as a measure of an ancient person’s education or intelligence. In  oral cultures, the ability to remember and recite is more highly valued than in our contemporary culture. The Pharisees, for example, believed that the oral traditions transmitted alongside the written Hebrew Scriptures were indispensable for correct theology. (This oral tradition was eventually written down as part of the Talmud.) It’s virtually certain that the apostles, like many other first century Jews, had large amounts of Scripture committed to memory. The New Testament implies that they did the same with Jesus’ life and teachings. (For example, Paul uses technical language from rabbinic educational methods to describe how he was taught about the resurrection.)

As far as the fact that others wrote down the Gospels and other early Christian letters, the New Testament freely admits as much. The use of secretaries and scribes was common in the Ancient Near East; we have records of prominent politicians and scholars discussing  their reliance on literate servants.

Finally, regarding the apostles’ abilities to “espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was” – well, who could? Observing that the scribes of the New Testament were urban Hellenistic Jews doesn’t really explain anything. As I have written before, the ethical and theological content of the New Testament, written by a handful of authors from the same small circle of disciples in a very compact geographic area over a couple of decades, is unprecedented in human history. Matthew’s Beatitudes, Mark’s miracles, Luke’s parables, John’s high Christology (yet written in such simple Greek), Paul’s ethics and theology, the typological faith of the anonymous author of Hebrews, the powerful apocalyptic imagery of Revelation – is this output any less remarkable if we think the authors were Greek-speaking city dwellers?

How do we account for this sudden explosion of religious genius? It’s as if Gandhi, MLK, Billy Graham, and the Dalai Lama all went to the same kindergarten.

One final thought: a book about Jesus by someone named Aslan? If this guy were an orthodox Christian, no one would believe it.

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