Were Jesus’ Disciples Illiterate Peasants?
by Mikel Del Rosario
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. But some skeptics say this shows many New Testament books must have been forged–that the people who wrote them probably weren’t Jesus’ disciples. Why? Because most 1st century Jews living where Jesus lived couldn’t read or write at all. Since Jesus’ disciples spoke Aramaic, how could these guys write any New Testament books, in Greek, if they couldn’t even read or write in their own language?
In this post, I’ll show you to respond to the idea that the Gospels are forgeries because Jesus’ disciples were all illiterate peasants.
Did Jews in Galilee Know Greek?
Skeptics like Bart Ehrman think Jesus’ disciples couldn’t have known Greek, much less written any of the New Testament books in Greek. In Forged, he writes: “We know for certain of only two (1st century) authors in Palestine who produced literary works (in Greek)…Josephus…and a man named Justus (p 73).” He even says “it is highly probable that [Peter] could not write at all” (p.75).
Others, like Mark Chancey, in Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus, assert there’s no evidence that most Jews in Galilee knew Greek (p 124). Additionally, Catherine Hezser suggests, “in some rural towns and settlements the literacy rate will have been below one percent and some villages may not have even had one single individual who could read” (Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, p 35).
But what about this? Does this mean all Jesus’ disciples were illiterate peasants? Let’s take a look at the rest of the story.
Were All Jews Illiterate peasants?
Were all Jews living in the time of Jesus illiterate peasants? What skeptics don’t often acknowledge is that The Mishnah and Dead Sea Scrolls show some Jews taught their kids to read. In fact, the Mishnah shows us they even encouraged girls to learn Greek! After the war with Rome, the Mishnah records some directions saying not to teach kids Greek. But this tips us off to the fact that some people were in fact teaching Jewish kids Greek.
This seems to square with the Gospels. Over 60 times, Jesus asks the Pharisees and Sadducees and others “haven’t you read?” not “haven’t you heard?” Clearly, Jewish scribes could read and write, too! So it isn’t true that all the Jews in Galilee were illiterate. But what about Jesus’ disciples?
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