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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The New Northern Kentucky Islamic Center

As recently reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Northern Kentucky will soon be home to its first mosque. Here are some brief thoughts:

Freedom of religion applies to all Americans of all religions. I have often heard Christians thank God for the freedom to worship in the United States. Like freedom of speech, freedom of religion doesn’t apply only to popular, inoffensive ideas. In parts of the US, evangelical Christianity is viewed as offensive and dangerous. Should those regions be allowed to ban new church buildings?

Few Muslim countries allow freedom of religion. We should shame them by our example. Yes, it is indeed unfair that Muslims are allowed to build mosques in the US, while Christians are not allowed to build churches in Saudi Arabia, even though more than one million Catholic Filipinos live and work in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the laws of Saudi Arabia (and many other Muslim nations) directly contradict the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which is binding on Saudi Arabia as a UN member[*]. What would we gain by lowering ourselves to the hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia?

The Gospel spreads through relationships and truth, not government enforcement. In Rodney Stark’s book Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, the Baylor historian and sociologist demonstrates that the early church grew from 150 Jesus followers to more than 30 million through ordinary relationships: family members, coworkers, neighbors. Elsewhere, Stark has suggested that gaining its status as the state religion of the Roman Empire actually slowed the growth of Christianity. If we want to share the love of Christ with Muslims, we can do so only by building relationships with them, not by isolating them from our community.

Muslims already live in Northern Kentucky. This mosque would not be built if there were not already a community of Muslims in Northern Kentucky. By opposing the mosque, I’m not sure what we gain other than antagonizing our neighbors. Opponents of the mosque cite fears of terrorism. But is there a faster way to turn a Muslim youth against the US than by making him feel hated and unwanted?

What should we do then?

  • Welcome our Muslim neighbors as fellow Americans and support their freedoms under the US Constitution.
  • Build friendships with our Muslim neighbors so that they can witness Christian love and hospitality firsthand.
  • Share the gospel with them in word and deed, in the hope that they will accept the good news of Jesus Christ.

Today, a major problem in Muslim countries is the perception that Christians are uncaring, immoral, and hypocritical. We may not be able to do much to shape the views of Muslims overseas, but shouldn’t we ensure that American Muslims see a better side of Christianity?


[*]Tellingly, the Saudis abstained from the original adoption.

World Religions: Christianity

We had a great turnout last night.  If you missed the first class, feel free to drop in another time.  We’ll be meeting Wednesday nights at 6:30pm at Lakeside Christian Church. There are a couple of nights that I will be out of town, so we won’t be having class on March 24, April 28, or May 5. Missing class for two weeks in a row is not ideal, I know, but a last minute change of schedule came up just as we were starting class. On May 5, I’ll be in Chicago auditioning for Jeopardy!

Each week, I’ll post some additional resources online, as well as the notes and slides from the class. For Christianity, here are a few good resources:

  • GetReligion.org follows media coverage of all religions. It’s a great place to see critical assessments of how well the media covers various religions, as well as to learn a lot more about different religions.
  • Christianity Today’s news page collects Christianity-related news from across the Internet. CT also has a Christian History page that collects articles about Christian history, as well as important events. By utter coincidence, today is the day when Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Restoration Movement, died in 1866.
  • The official website of the Orthodox Church in America is a great place to learn more about the 2nd largest Christian communion in the world.

Are there any other resources you are looking for? Resources from last night’s class can be found by clicking “Read more.” Continue reading

World Religions Class Starts Tonight!

Tonight will be the first meeting of the World Religions Class that I’m teaching at Lakeside Christian Church. First up: Christianity. Might as well start off on something easy, right? Yeah, right.

If you are interested, feel free to join us, and let others know, too. I’ll be posting updates and helpful links about each of the religions that we cover. You can also drop in at any time. This ain’t college, you know.

Emerging Scholars at Jubilee 2010

Cross-posted from the Emerging Scholars Blog

Byron Borger

Byron Borger at Jubilee 2009

I spent the weekend at Jubilee, the annual student conference of the Coalition for Christian Outreach. Jubilee has a great reputation for emphasizing the theology of vocation – a reputation which was confirmed, by the way – but I didn’t expect the high level of fun generated by the conference. Saturday evening featured a hilarious (and moving) monologue from actress and writing Susan Isaacs (author of Angry Conversations with God) and a can’t-possibly-be-true-except-he-brought-pictures talk from Bob Goff, president of Restore International and good friend of Don Miller.

Photo: Byron Borger at last year’s Jubilee, but he looked basically the same this year. From livingjubilee via Flickr. Click for a larger image.

Occasionally, these streams of fun and vocation combined, such as the first night. In quick succession, seven speakers presented pecha kucha, a speed-presentation format of 20 slides, changing automatically every 20 seconds, whether the speaker is ready or not. The pecha kucha presenters included:

  • David Greusel, an architect speaking on the connection between architecture and faith, especially what he called “the lie” that “secular work” doesn’t matter in God’s kingdom on earth (Greusel was the lead designer of Pittsburgh’s PNC Park).
  • Gideon Strauss, President of the Center for Public Justice, who testified to the application of Isaiah 58 in our current society.
  • Leroy Barber, president of Mission Year, speaking about Green My Hood, a program which identifies the abuse of the environment in poor urban neighborhoods and looks for ways to bring good creation stewardship into the inner city.
  • Good friend of ESN Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds Books, who said that “part of this conference is learning to read deeply,” and reminded us that the word “disciple” means “student.”

As Benson Hines (who was also there) said on Twitter,

Lord, let me be as passionate about my calling as Byron Borger is about his.

More about Jubilee and some upcoming articles after the jump Continue reading