Illiterate Evangelists, Illegitimate Gospels? A Rebuttal of Bart Ehrman’s Argument
I recently finished reading Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. There are things to like about the book and things I disagree with (one will want to inject oneself with a healthy dose of elitism vaccine before wading into the book, for example). There are several arguments he makes that seem very silly, and one in particular stands out. His argument in that passage is that there’s no chance that the Gospels were written by Jesus’s disciples, since most people in that time and place were illiterate. In his own words (footnotes removed):
Several significant studies of literacy have appeared in recent years showing just how low literacy rates were in antiquity. The most frequently cited study is by Columbia professor William Harris in a book titled Ancient Literacy. By thoroughly examining all the surviving evidence, Harris draws the compelling though surprising conclusion that in the very best of times in the ancient world, only about 10 percent of the population could read at all and possibly copy out writing on a page. Far fewer than this, of course, could compose a sentence, let alone a story, let alone an entire book. And who were the people in this 10 percent? They were the upper-class elite who had the time, money, and leisure to afford an education. This is not an apt description of Jesus’s disciples. They were not upper-crust aristocrats.
Even if we concede for the sake of argument, and only for the sake of argument, that St. John (for example) couldn’t write anything at all, let alone Greek, Mr. Ehrman here has outsmarted himself, and made himself confused with modern ideas of authorship. I think the foundation of his argument can be easily dismantled with a single picture:
There—I hope that clears up for Mr. Ehrman how it is a first-century Palestinian fisherman like the Apostle John could have possibly written the beautiful Greek of the Gospel that bears his name.