Many argue that Jesus’ disciples were unlearned peasants. Some might conclude that these disciples could not have written the Gospels consequently. Others might conclude that we should have a simple faith like the disciples did (or what we overcomplicate things). But the argument and its implications are wrong.
Jesus’ disciples came from all parts of life (from peasant to learned person), and these same disciples did, in fact, write New Testament books, a feat that shows not only some of the early disciples’ ability to read and to write but their ability to create art (i.e., literature).
To be clear, I am not arguing that all of the early disciples’ could read and write nor that they were all learned people. I am arguing that some were and that many learned how to read and to write (or made use of people who could write).
Bart Ehrman believes that Jesus’ disciples could not have written the Gospels. Describing Jesus’ initial disciples, Ehrman maintains that they “were uneducated lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine” (How Jesus Became God, 90). He then explains of the Gospels, “These books are not written by people like that. Their authors were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians of a later generation” (90).
Ehrman affirms that the Gospels represent the work of highly educated persons yet claims that the disciples could not possibly have written them! After all, he assumes that the disciples were country peasants. Yet Matthew (the apostle) was a tax-collector who presumably could record names and numbers (Matt 9:9). So, he was probably literate. Other disciples were fishermen who would represent the lower-middle class of society—those who could run their own small business and were not day laborers.
In any case, letters like James were written quite early by leaders in Jerusalem. And Paul, a contemporary of the apostles, certainly showed a propensity for writing. And so did many others. After detailing the ways in which the early church likely transmitted the tradition of Jesus, Richard Bauckham maintains:
The first Christians were not all illiterate peasant laborers and craftsmen, as the form critics supposed, but evidently included people who studied the Scriptures with current exegetical skills and could write works with the literary quality of the letter of James (Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2017: 289).
Bauckham’s statement seems self-evident. And it was also what the early Christians themselves said.
Consider for example the testimony of a bishop named Papias who lived while some disciples of Jesus still lived. For example, he had access to John the elder and Ariston, who were disciples of Jesus. He also knew of the daughters of Phillip who lived nearby to him (Acts 21:8–9). And Papias records the words of one of Jesus’ disciples by the name of John the Elder regarding Mark’s Gospel:
And the elder used to say this: “Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For [Mark] neither heard the Lord nor [accompanied] him, but afterward, as I said, [accompanied] Peter. (Frag. Pap. 3.15; I modified slightly Holmes’ translation, noted in )
One relevant thing to recognize is that Papias records the words of a disciple of Jesus (John the Elder) who lived at the same time as John the Elder. Papias hears what John said and records it. And here is what he heard: Mark wrote down Peter’s stories about Jesus. When you read the Gospel according to Mark, it’s Peter’s words written down by Mark according to John the Elder.
Papias also records that Matthew wrote the Gospel according to Matthew (Frag. Pap. 3.16). So, Papias lived while disciples of Jesus still lived, and he also lived when the Gospels were being written (or was born around this period). And it is Papias who affirms that Peter committed his preaching to words through Mark’s hand (through the testimony of John). And it is Papias who affirms that Matthew, an apostle of Jesus, wrote the Gospel according to Matthew.
More could be said. One only has to read the preface to Luke’s Gospel to see that he, an early Christian, performed an extensive study of Jesus through hearing eyewitness testimony about Jesus (Luke 1:1–4).
The early Christians quite simply were not all unlearned peasants (nor were all of Jesus’ disciples). Many were. But not all. Some wrote great literary works and others invented a genre of writing that still stands the test of time. To this early disciple, we now turn.
Paul was a highly educated person who studied at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). And his letter writing confirms his ability to thoroughly read the Scriptures and to synthesize his study into letters. N. T. Wright argues that Paul has invented the genre of theology. And I think he is on to something.
In other words, Paul studied, wrote, and invented a genre of writing. And he is the earliest writing disciple of Jesus. His first letters to the Thessalonians were probably written at about AD 50. So he is a first-generation disciple of Jesus.
Granted, he did not accompany Jesus’ during his earthly sojourn. He does, however, investigate Jesus’ life and teaching. And he does meet the risen Lord and receives the Gospel directly from Jesus according to the New Testament.
What Does Scripture Communicate to Us?
It is entirely probable that Jesus’ disciples could have written the Gospels (or used someone who could like Peter did with Mark). And many Christians were learned people as is evident by the writing that comes down to us as the New Testament (and the hard work that lies in creating such literary works). But I want to focus for a moment on the implication that we ought to be simple like the early Christians were simple (or that we make things too complicated).
First, I am not sure how much we can infer from the fact that Jesus’ disciples were not from the educated class according to the Gospels. Certainly, not all were (Matthew, for example). But even if they were, why would that mean we should be like them in terms of a simple lifestyle? It’s not as though Jesus left them as they were. They followed Jesus, and Jesus frequently corrected them and moved them along.
They gained understanding daily and later became the representatives of Jesus, committing to memory his teachings. They were probably the primary eyewitnesses for the Gospels. So, why should we try to imitate them as they were when Jesus found them as recorded in the Gospels?
Second, the Bible knows of all kinds of people serving him. Isaiah was an aristocrat while Amos was not. Neither Amos’ low birth nor Isaiah’s high birth barred them from being effective. It’s faithfulness that counts.
Third, the New Testament was written by skilled authors to communicate something to us. And simply because they record actual history does not mean we should be like people within that history. We ought not, for example, to be like Peter when he told Christ not to die. Jesus certainly didn’t. He said, “Get behind me Satan.”
But we are to learn from the Gospels according to the message being conveyed by the author. And if the author desires to communicate that we should be simple like many of the disciples were, then so be it. But that does not seem to be the case.
To take an example from another book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation is a work of literary genius. It is vividly written and its message is conveyed through rich biblical symbolism. It was obviously birthed through long and hard meditation on the visions that John received. And so I wonder if this might be a better example for us to follow?
Are we not all called to know God, and does this not entail effort? I think it does. We are called to walk the way of righteousness and to grow in our knowledge of God. So it’s worth it to dive into the depths of God. The New Testament authors certainly did (just read Romans 9–11 as an example of this!).