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.

Mark Noll on Why the Atonement Matters for Christian Scholarship


> If, then, the **act of substitution** is a primordial human reality, the **seriousness of sin** is the essential human dilemma, the **divine initiative in salvation** is the basis for human hope, the **narrative movement of grace** is the primary shape for human knowledge, and the **complex nature of reality** is the inescapable challenge for human understanding — then the **human study of the world should reflect these realities.**

Mark Noll, [Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind](, pp. 70-71, emphasis added.

By “complex nature of reality,” Noll refers to the multiplicity of the atonement. Who put Jesus on the cross? Judas? Pilate? The priests? God? Jesus himself? Yes — they all did. Does God love sinners or punish them? He does both. Was the cross the worst moment in human history or the best? It was both at the same time.

The New Testament's Religious Geniuses

Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman — who used to consider himself a Christian but now calls himself agnostic — has a new book out called Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, and he has been making the rounds. Over lunch, I heard his interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. During this interview, he touched on a point that has long fascinated me.

Ehrman told Gross that he no longer considers the Bible to be the Word of God, but that he considers several of its authors to be “religious geniuses” — he explicitly included Paul and the writers of the four Gospels in this group of “geniuses.”

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Here you have 4 Jews and a Gentile, living and writing on the marginal fringes of the greatest empire in the world. Only in retrospective do we consider Israel and Jerusalem to have been an important part of the world. At the time, it was a minor province that, while occasionally troublesome, could be routinely put down by Roman force. Two of them (Paul and Luke) were well-educated by the standards of their day, but consider the others: John, a village fisherman; Matthew, a minor government official; Mark, whose “education” consisted of a series of missionary trips with Peter, Barnabas, and Paul.

According to Ehrman’s view of the Bible, there was nothing inherently special about the Jewish traditions they received. According to Ehrman, Jesus never rose from the dead, so Matthew and John might have known him and his teachings, but Mark, Paul, and Luke were all working from hearsay and secondhand stories. Not that his teaching counted for much: Ehrman’s new book makes the argument that Jesus was deluded. Would you trust your children’s education to the deluded followers of a deluded teacher?

And yet…

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.

Wouldn’t you want to know who they had as their teacher?