Can an Oral Culture get it Right?

Italy, Papal States. Roman Senate. 13th-14th c...

Papal coins

I am continuing to read through Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman.

There were always exceptions, of course, like the apostle Paul and the other authors whose works made it into the New Testament and who were obviously skilled writers; but for the most part, Christians came from the ranks of the illiterate…the disciples are simple peasants from Galilee—uneducated fishermen, for example. Two of them, Peter and John, are explicitly said to be “illiterate” in the book of Acts (4:13) Page: 33

This is an example of why you have to watch Dr. Ehrman really closely. I have read where on a number of occasions he puts his meaning and interpretation to verses.  He did this very same thing in Jesus Interrupted.  Acts 4:13 is a prime example. Acts 4:13 DOES NOT SAY that Peter and John were illiterate, no, here is verse 13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus”

He is stretching Acts 4:13 to say what he would like for it to say. The verse does not say that Peter and John were illiterate. It says that those hearing perceived them to be uneducated, however, they were “astonished” when they heard them speak!!! The two Greek words used here means that they had not had advanced rabbinical training. (Yes, Greek  is a very explicit language!!) These high officials in Jerusalem (“hearers” of Peter and John) thought they were uneducated.  Nothing here implies that they were illiterate. Yet Dr. Ehrman assumes that they are illiterate from the Acts 4 passage in Misquoting Jesus.   He then goes on to imply that because they were unlearned or uneducated, they would have difficulty creating either the Gospels or letters attributed to them.  But he never develops in my view a sound basis for putting that argument forth.  The guys are coming out of a “bookish” Jewish culture.   Books were of high regard in that culture and that day.  The orientation to books or literature impacted all parts of the culture.

However, the fact that many early adherents could not read or write has nothing to do with the letters and gospels found in the New Testament. Obviously those who wrote the letters and gospels could write. So, I don’t get the point of all the fuss over illiteracy in the 1st century.

fragment of the manuscript

Codex Regius

Dr. Ehrman then makes another irrelevant point about early Christians. He tries to draw out of I Corinthians a reference to Christians not being wise to imply that most were illiterate. However, this “wise” may refer to “wise in the ways of the world” and not education. Besides, the Corinthians were far away from Jerusalem or Galilee, so their literacy has nothing to do with literacy in Israel.

Next He discusses illiteracy in the 2nd century. That is irrelevant to the issue of the writing of the New Testament letters and gospels because they were written in the first century.

We appear, then, to have a paradoxical situation in early Christianity. This was a bookish religion, with writings of all kinds proving to be of uppermost importance to almost every aspect of the faith. Yet most people could not read these writings. How do we account for this paradox? Page: 34

He is either making fun of early Christians or he does not understand the disciplines of an oral culture.

My study of Islam has helped me develop a greater appreciation of oral cultures. The Qur’an was originally written on anything that could be found to write on—bark, skins, etc. Early followers immediately memorized all revelations. On its completion, there were followers of Muhammad who could recite the entire Qur’an.

The early non-reading Christians were the same way. Because they did not read they were much more oriented to memorizing what they heard.

However, the fact that many adherents could not read or write has nothing to do with the letters and gospels. Obviously those who wrote the letters and gospels could write. So, I don’t get the point of all the fuss over illiteracy in the 1st century.

In short, the books that were of paramount importance in early Christianity were for the most part read out loud by those who were able to read, so that the illiterate could hear, understand, and even study them. Despite the fact that early Christianity was by and large made up of illiterate believers, it was a highly literary religion. Page: 35

Thank you for that conclusion Dr. Ehrman. I agree with these statements.


2 thoughts on “Can an Oral Culture get it Right?

  1. Pingback: The Misquoted Jesus is now a Forged Jesus | The Good News

  2. Pingback: My Investigation of Bart Ehrman | The Good News

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