Like a number of other bloggers, I’ve been reading through Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God. I’ve posted some positive and negative reactions here and here. This time I’d like to wonder aloud about a frequent assertion that Ehrman makes.
Ehrman repeatedly says that Jesus’ disciples were uneducated peasants:
the followers of Jesus, as we learn from the New Testament itself, were uneducated lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine. These books [the canonical Gospels] were not written by people like that. (p90)
…the lower-class, uneducated, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasant Peter… (p227)
Jesus’s disciples were lower-class, illiterate peasants from remote rural areas of Galilee, where very few people could read, let alone write, and let alone create full-scale compositions. (p244)
Ehrman is combining a general point about the disciples (they are lower-class Galileans) with a general point about lower-class Galileans (they are largely illiterate) and drawing a specific conclusion: these specific disciples would not have authored the Gospels, or taken notes during Jesus’ ministry.
However, given that these specific disciples were implicated in one of the biggest turning points in history, I think we need to press beyond generalities. We may not be able to reach any firm conclusions, but we can attempt to explore the possibilities rigorously and imaginitively, and we may end up reconsidering the likelihood that Jesus’ disciples could have taken notes or authored Gospels. Here are some side-points within Ehrman’s book that would suggest this sort of exploration might be fruitful:
Point 1: Jesus was regarded by all as a teacher. This is a remarkably robust element in the study of the historical Jesus: it is not important to later orthodoxy that Jesus be known as ‘teacher,’ and yet the Gospels constantly refer to him as such. Ehrman comments:
People saw Jesus as a teacher, a rabbi, and even a prophet. (p44)
This might drive us to consider how teachers in a culture that emphasised Torah might operate. Presumably (and the later Rabbinic material would seem to back this up), they aimed to be memorable in their presentations. The fact that his followers were called mathetai (students) would indicate that they expected to learn from him, rather than being passive bystanders.
Point 2: Jesus chose his disciples/students personally. It is well known that this is unlike the normal pattern. Why did Jesus choose these specific disciples? Furthermore, why did he choose them from select families? He didn’t just choose a random assortment of unrelated people, but for his closest confidantes selected them from key families: Andrew and Simon, son of John; James and John, of Zebedee. For the latter, their mother takes an interest in Jesus’ coming kingdom. These appear to be religiously (hyper-)active and exceptionally motivated families. (Of course I am aware that it was impossible to be completely irreligious at this place and time – but my point is their particular religious complexion and fervency.) Indeed, Ehrman comments that the development of earliest Christianity occurred through a particular religiously motivated apocalyptic subgroup:
…an apocalyptic Jew like Jesus’s closest follower Peter, or Jesus’s own brother James… (p203)
Could it not be that, as with many modern counterparts, these particular families, which may have been broadly illiterate and ‘uncultured,’ might yet have taken very seriously the need for religious text-related literacy?
Ehrman’s mention of Jesus’ brother James in this regard above raises the further question of Jesus’ own family…
Point 3: Jesus himself may have come from a highly religiously motivated family. Here I draw from a pre-publication essay on Jesus and Scripture by Roland Deines. Deines draws cautious attention to the raw data we have about the family of Jesus in the NT:
Take the names of his brothers: James, that is Jacob, the father of the twelve sons, who is also called Israel; Jude, that is the tribal ancestor of the Davidic line; Simon who is another son of Jacob, the one who avenged the rape of his sister Dina, or the Hasmonean Simon, a famous fighter, perhaps even more famous in the time of Jesus than his biblical namesake; and then Joses or Joseph, the fourth brother of Jesus, which is another biblical name that represents a special calling: Joseph prepared a place in Egypt for the clan of Jacob to survive and to become a people. These are rather telling names, and from their use for Jesus’ brothers it is possible to deduce among Jesus’ immediate family an Israel-centred perspective and perhaps a certain militant zealous messianism. (pre-publication edition)
Now consider again the names of the disciples Jesus chose: Simon, James, John, Judas, James, Simon, Judas… obviously one can’t press this too far, but neither should one ignore it. Deines goes on to point out that two of the letters in the NT are attributed to brothers of Jesus (James and Jude), and both contain ‘strongly Enochic-type apocalyptic language’. This at least indicates the way in which early Christians regarded the family of Jesus: as literate, apocalyptic champions of God’s poor.
These three points are hardly going to result in any firm conclusion regarding the authorship of the Gospels – but they illustrate that sociological generalisations may in fact be out of place when considering the people involved in the turning points of history. Jesus’ disciples were not generic peasants; they were – to name his closest three – Simon, James, and John…