Were Jesus’ Disciples Illiterate?


A question often asked by curious Christians and critics: “Since Jesus’ disciples spoke Aramaic, how could they write any New Testament books if they couldn’t even read or write in their own language? Weren’t they illiterate?”

That sounds like a solid query … until you realize that the question is based on a wrong assumption.
It’s interesting that many modern Christians assume that everyday Jews in Jesus’ time went without schooling. I’ve even been in churches that promote that “Jesus was but a simple carpenter” — as if He miraculously morphed from “uneducated wood guy” to “healing teacher extraordinaire.”
But the Bible makes it clear that Jesus, even as a 12-year-old, possessed enough Jewish knowledge and moxie to enter the Jerusalem temple to discuss Scripture with seasoned temple teachers. It is in Luke 2:41-52 that we read how vexed Jesus’ parents were to find Him sitting in His “Father’s house,” happy as a clam, while they had been anxiously searching for Jesus for three days after realizing He wasn’t among the crowds schlepping home to Nazareth at the conclusion of Passover.

Scholars have placed the literacy rate among first century Jews around 10 percent, but this number is a rough estimate that has recently been called to question.

Jews in Jesus’ time placed a high value on education, as they took the commands of the Torah seriously. Even if literacy was 5-10 percent, there would still be plenty of average, run-of-the-mill Jews capable of writing. Evidently, the Gospel authors were some of them.
So were the disciples illiterate? Hmmm…. is the real question you’re asking, “Did the disciples sometimes get help with writing down their message?” If that is what you’re after, the answer is yes, it’s certainly possible. But it’s doubtful that the disciples lacked the ability to read and write, or that they were ignorant of Jewish Scripture. And their understanding of Scripture certainly grew during their three years with Jesus.

Who Were These Disciples?

Historian Colin Green brings up a good point about these young, hand-picked Jewish men. “It is worth mentioning,” he writes, “that Jesus would have set out to select apostles who would be capable of going out and preaching his message effectively.”
Let’s recap who was in this intimate group of disciples:
*Simon Peter, a fisherman/businessman who lived in Bethsaida and Capernaum, part of Jesus’ inner circle, martyred
*Andrew, brother to Peter, also a fisherman from Bethsaida, martyred
*John, brother to James, also a fisherman from Bethsaida, part of Jesus’ inner circle, died of natural causes
*James, brother to John, also a fisherman from Bethsaida, part of Jesus’ inner circle, the first disciple martyred
*Philip, also from Bethsaida, possibly a fisherman, martyred
*Nathaniel (Bartholomew), possibly a fisherman, martyred
*Thomas (Didymus), possibly a fisherman, famous for being the “doubter” of Christ’s wounds, killed
*Matthew (Levi), a tax collector from Capernaum, likely wealthy before joining Jesus’ ministry, martyred
*James, cousin to Jesus; martyred
*Thaddeus (Jude), lived in Galilee, martyred
*Simon, the zealot, possibly engaged in politics and anarchy before Jesus called him to be a faithful disciple, martyred
*Judas Iscariot, treasurer of the group and the “betrayer” of Christ who hanged himself after feeling remorse
We don’t know all that much about most of the disciples, but scholars believe they would have all been young, perhaps no older than 20 years of age, when selected by Jesus. We do know that Andrew and John were disciples of John the Baptist, prior to following Jesus. The Bible tells us that Thomas and Nathaniel were fishing by the Sea of Galilee with Peter when Jesus appeared to them after He resurrected. It’s likely they were fisherman. The Bible gives us no clue, however, as to the professions of Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Thaddeus, James, or Judas before they joined Jesus.

But, again, they likely received training in the Jewish Scriptures in their youth. And given that Greeks lived all around them, it is likely that they were bilingual in Aramaic and Greek, even if they couldn’t write the language.

Shares Apologetics professor Mikel Del Rosario:

“Interestingly, four of Jesus’ disciples had Greek names: Philip, Andrew (Peter’s brother), Thaddeus and Bartholomew. Why would their parents give them Greek names if Greek didn’t have some kind of influence in their families? Whether or not you’re Jewish, you would’ve picked up some Greek from living near native Greek speakers.”

Peter, John, and possibly Matthew are thought to have personally written books of the Bible. John wrote one of the Gospels. Jesus’ own brother James is believed to have written the Book of James. As a Galilean tax collector, Matthew would have been required to collect and record information, likely in multiple languages. Clearly, he could read and write. Historians know that tax collectors often carried wooden tablets thickly coated with wax. They used styluses to mark notes in the wax, which were later transcribed and written on papyrus or animal skins. Whether Matthew personally did the transcribing isn’t the important point here.

Scribes Faithfully Recorded

In its blog post titled Common Objection #14 – “Jesus’ Disciples Were Uneducated and Illiterate,” Truth Bomb Apologetics reminds us that some members of the Judean ruling council pointed out that Peter and John were agrammotoi or “unschooled” (Acts 4:13). But that the word doesn’t necessarily imply that Peter and John were illiterate. In the context of the Jewish council, agrammatos likely meant “untrained in the Jewish law.” The council members were merely pointing out that Peter and John had not been schooled as rabbis.

Just for arguments sake, let’s go with their assertion that the disciples were illiterate. Does not being able to read or write automatically translate to their being “simple” or uneducated? No. It simply means they needed help recording their message.

Professional scribes capable of turning Aramaic into polished Greek would have been readily available to the first century disciples. Scholars know that these scribes helped to record everything from receipts to legal documents to letters, for persons of both plenty and poverty. We know, for example, that the apostle Paul, who is credited with writing much of the New Testament, could capably write Greek. Yet even he used scribes to record his letters.
The disciples did exactly what Christ chose them to do: faithfully witnessed to the world, both orally and in writing, about Jesus. 

Evidence book cover Apologists

This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!

If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.


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