Did Apostle John and Apostle Peter write their epistles?

Bible Difficulty #10

Could the Apostle John & Peter read and write?  Were they illiterate?

Most conservative evangelicals hold to the traditional view that both Apostle John and Apostle Peter were the original authors of their epistle, but historical and literary critics have almost unanimously concluded that to be impossible.  Now this is something I came across, after watching some YouTube videos on agnostic scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman.  He claims that there is no way for John and Peter for them to have written their New Testament works.

Simon Peter and John were both common ordinary fishermen.  Likely illiterate fishermen.  In fact, when Jesus approached Peter for the first time, he was at work fishing.  So, it is hard to imagine they were both was able to read and write.  Nonetheless read, write, and speak fluently in both Greek and Aramaic.  So the idea that (Simon) Peter and John were both able to compose such a highly regarded charismatic literary works with such a high degree of literary skill is highly improbable.  Here are two more points as to why these works are considered forgeries.

  • Peter 1: Although attributed to Peter, it is widely doubted by most scholars, on the basis of the fact that the author of this book cites Greek translations of the Old Testament, instead of the Hebrew originals. This questionable book contains the fundamentalists’ slogan, “born again” (1 Peter 1:23)
  • Peter 2: This book has even more doubtful authorship that Peter 1, so much so that it was delayed entrance into the New Testament’s canon. It is generally believed that it was written by an unknown scribe around 150 AD.
  • There is no external evidence prior to Origen indicating that Peter wrote 2 Peter. Origen himself mentions that there were some doubts as to its authenticity, but he himself did not deal with the problem which seems to imply that he didn’t take the doubts seriously.
  • The Muratorian Canon did not contain 2 Peter, but it also omits 1 Peter, so this is not a decisive factor. Eusebius rejected it but indicated that the majority accepted the epistle, including James and Jude. Jerome also accepted 2 Peter as authentic.

Historical research does suggest it is possible, that Jesus and a few of the disciples were able to speak and understand both Greek and Aramaic.  Since that part of the world was heavily engulfed in the Hellenistic Jewish culture.  It is very plausible that they both spoke Greek. However, when we examine what the bible says about the men, it throws another huge discrepancy into the mix.

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men…”-Acts 4:13.  (Some versions say uneducated, unschooled, unlearned, common, and ordinary.  It all means the same illiterate.)

In Bart Ehrmans Book “Forged,” he claims that:

* At least 11 of the 27 New Testament books are forgeries.

* The New Testament books attributed to Jesus’ disciples could not have been written by them because they were illiterate.

* Many of the New Testament’s forgeries were manufactured by early Christian leaders trying to settle theological feuds.

As one examines the arguments for both sides, it becomes evident that analysis of stylistic differences is subjective and can be used to prove any hypothesis. When dealing with such a small corpus as 2 Peter, it is difficult to make strong conclusions. – (Hampton Keathly IV, The Authorship of Second Peter)

The most common rebuttal to these allegations of fraud is that the apostles used scribes to dictate and write for them.  In asserting that allegations of forgeries is circumstantial evidence and presumptuous.  “[For] the ultimate answer may be there really is no forgery here…The differences in style of I Peter and II Peter may be easily explained by something amanuensis (that means scribe or ghostwriter). That does not mean that the scribe “wrote” the book for the author as Dr. Ehrman as claimed in Jesus Interrupted. It means that the scribe penned the letter.For I Peter, Silas was the scribe( see I Peter 5:12).  For II Peter, written just before his death, someone  transcribed his words who had less command of the Greek language…There is some evidence in II Peter that the audience changed to the Christian community as a whole where I Peter was directed to Jewish Christians in Asia Minor.”  -Papapound from the Good News Blog

With the I Peter clearly giving evidence and credit to Silas for dictation.  This actually becomes more damning evidence, because you don’t see that same acknowledgement of dictation in II Peter or in any of the works of John.

It is nearly impossible to imagine that they were able to read and write in Greek considering they had no formal education.  Nonetheless; Is it still reasonable to assume that they were both able to read & write FLUENTLY in Greek to a high literary degree and skill to be able to compose some of the New Testament writings we have today without a formal education?

About M. Rodriguez

When I first received Christ salvation, I made it a priority to read the whole bible and I did. But it was the Bible that made me question my faith. For I found it flawed and lacking. Due to this I launched a personal inquiry/investigation into my faith, and ultimately realized that the Christian God of the Bible was indeed man-made. Now I Blog about those findings and life after Christ.
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12 Responses to Did Apostle John and Apostle Peter write their epistles?

  1. Don Hartness says:

    I didn’t vote because I didn’t see the “undecided” button. 🙂

    I think Keathley’s statement that you quote here is the only healthy one to maintain on scholarship. There is definitely reason to doubt authorship but impossible to prove, since we don’t have the originals (and probably never will). The disciples were, by and large, uneducated…but does that mean they couldn’t become educated later in life? Scribes? With the numbers of converted growing daily, it’s plausible, even probable, that a few were educated and encouraged the disciples to tell their story for preservation.

    I plan to write my own series on inerrancy, authorship, and other matters soon. When I do, I want to find scholars that disagree with Ehrman in order to get some different perspectives. Although Ehrman is well respected in textual criticism, he is no longer a Christian (on account of the question of suffering, not the Bible, as most here probably know). Although I don’t think he has an agenda, he is naturally biased in his interpretations (aren’t we all?). From what little I’ve dug up on the matter, these biases are subtle: “possible” is replaced with “probable”, and so on. Critics maintain that his presentations are accurate in what is presented, but omit some facts and views that would switch “probable” back to “possible”.

    • M. Rodriguez says:

      I look forward to your series on inerrancy, I spent so much time reading and studying inerrancy; its still one of those topics I still enjoy learning about even though I am no longer a believer.

      If you need any sources (Christian and non-christian). I got plenty of links and sources on my page.


      I’ll include an undecided for you in the voting polls.

      And you do bring up an interesting point I never considered. Which is that they may have learned to read and write as time went on. Thought it is unlikely, it is probable. But as for this statement you said…..There is definitely reason to doubt authorship but impossible to prove Yes there is reason to doubt authorship, and we may never be able to improve, so I’m glad we agree here on that. Given that we may never know there should be no reason for scholarship or church or christian to assume they were written by the apostles. Wouldn’t it be better, for both sides to say I don’t know, and not assume a conclusion on authorship until proven.

      • unklee says:

        “Given that we may never know there should be no reason for scholarship or church or christian to assume they were written by the apostles. Wouldn’t it be better, for both sides to say I don’t know, and not assume a conclusion on authorship until proven.”

        I don’t agree. The traditional names have been associated with the gospels right from the beginning. If the scholars can’t make a definitive call, I see no reason not to accept that the early traditions were right.

    • Arkenaten says:

      I don’t agree. The traditional names have been associated with the gospels right from the beginning. If the scholars can’t make a definitive call, I see no reason not to accept that the early traditions were right.””

      The consensus agrees that the gospels are NOT autographs, so why on earth should we accept the authorship of these epistles?

  2. unklee says:

    For what it’s worth:

    1. My experience of reading Ehrman is that his scholarship and discussion is good, but he overstates his conclusions – i.e. his own discussion doesn’t always support his quotable conclusions. “Forgeries” is an emotive word totally unjustified.

    2. Maurice Casey, also a non-believer, suggests that many (most?) Jewish males were sufficiently literate to be able to read the Torah.

    3. John and his brother were not just “illiterate fisherman”. The gospels tell us they employed “hired men” – i.e. they ran a business.

    4. If the NT documents were written when generally thought, there was plenty of time to improve literacy skills.

    I don’t really care all that much about authorship, but I don’t find these arguments at all convincing. Like Don says, we just don’t know, and Ehrman is speculating just as much as the conservative scholars.

    Best wishes.

    • M. Rodriguez says:

      Hello Unk,

      as for point 2- could it be that they knowlegable on the torah, because it was customary for Jews at that time to memorize the torah or the Pentateuch

      and point 3- business man does not equate to illiteracy. My wifes grandfather owned his business, and she he had terrible customer service skills, could barely read and write, and did not graduate high school

      and point 4- that is something I have not considered before. It is possible, but not probable.

      sorry I left out point 1, because I really did not have an opinion as it pertains to ehrman and his conclusion.

  3. papapound says:

    Thanks for the quote from my blog. As you may see if you visit lately I have moved off apologetics for the year, 2013.

    It is ironic that your quote a blog where I was wrestling with the authorship of II Peter.

    Today is Sunday and we are in I Peter in the main service. We’ve been on the first 13 verses about 6 weeks. Today the pastor gave us a confession. He said that the first 6 years of his Christian life were miserable. The reason they were miserable was his wavering in faith. Many time he got to the point where he knew it was ‘true’ but not working for him. He said, that he over and over again tried to forsake the faith and run. Result: he just couldn’t. Running didn’t work. Non-faith didn’t work. Defeat didn’t work. He always came back.

    He is much past 6 years at this point. He has been a Christian for over 40 years by now. So, there are those out there who, regardless of all the bantering about authorship, validity, infallibility, etc, the Word stands because there is a great God who stands behind it–the Word, His Word and behind each of His children. He has promised He will keep us–regardless of what is thrown our way. I have seen that happen time and again with myself and with others like Bob.

    • M. Rodriguez says:

      Yes I’ve noticed that you have generally moved off the topic of apologetics. I’ve visited your blog a few times in the last few months, and I can tell that is something you don’t want to take your blog in that direction. And thats fine. But thanks for the source, quote and comment.

  4. Arkenaten says:

    Discussions like this are unlikely to reach a satisfactory conclusion simply because of the fundamentalist element, and to a lessor degree, the (supposedly) more liberal likes of Unklee, who will ALWAYS go with the side that leans towards what they WANT to believe.
    Unklee, (and there are many like him, I’m sure) will eagerly throw Ehrman into the mix when it suits his agenda, but will tacitly rubbish his arguments when it calls into question his core beliefs.

    And when I read a phrase like this. ….Maurice Casey, also a “NON-BELIEVER” (my emphasis). the bells ring. What is the point of stating this?

    For what it’s worth, I reckon Ehrman is a very good scholar who enjoys selling books. You can read into that whatever you wish.

    I agree with Marcus that the likelihood of such individuals being literate enough to have composed such works is pushing the limits of credibility.

    One possibility that has not been raised is that, the biblical characters were simply narrative constructs. And it should be considered, simply because once the scriptures have been shown to contain error – and they have -how can we honestly accept that this is the “Breathed Word of God”?
    Furthermore, there are no mentions outside of the bible of these characters. Therefore, considering that there were many, many texts that were perfectly acceptable, many believed to be god -inspired, and allowed to be read before the compilation of the bible, it is perfectly plausible for the Church to have had these texts written by any scholar, and simply state they are the epistles of ”Peter” or ”John” to add weight to the text.
    Considering what the church did to try to eradicate heresy, why would ANYONE consider they would balk at such a trifle as writing a few epistles?

    Good post, as always.

  5. Matthew can be shown to have extensively used Mark as a source for his Gospel, but the numerous errors in Mark make it highly improbable that an Apostle would have placed such heavy reliance on such a poorly conceived work. Something is definitely remiss when it is recorded in the Catholic Encyclopedia, in a favorable evaluation of the clerical mindset, there ascends the Catholic Church, which admits that it does not know who wrote its Gospels or Epistles, confessing that all twenty-seven New Testament writings began life anonymously, “It thus appears that the present titles of the Gospels are not traceable to the Evangelists themselves… They [the New Testament collection] are supplied with titles which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those writings.” ~Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. vi, pp. 655-6.

  6. Kevin Noa says:

    The first few verses of the Gospel of John are beautiful and compelling on so many levels. Whether John was the author, had help with scribes or someone else wrote it, the imagery of the text grabs the reader into a higher plain of understanding. The “Word” , along with The Nativity in Luke, are my favorite parts of the New Testament. Reading them strengthens one’s faith.

  7. steve says:

    The other consideration is that even though peter and john may have had little education for reading and writing it is not impossible that they did write some things down. Then later this could have been re written by a scribe and translated. Some of the inconsistencies or interpretation that was used may have come from the scribe that had written their works. If what they had written in the first place was hard to understand or just poorly written then it would make sense that someone decided to have it redone so that it was easier to read and comprehend. It may have been something they had organized later in their lives or someone did it themselves after coming across the writings.

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