Bart Ehrman on the Illiteracy of the Apostles

On pages 104-107 of “Jesus, Interrupted”, Professor Ehrman paints a dismal picture of the disciples.  Because they were uneducated fishermen and tradesmen, he implies they had no intelligence. But one doesn’t need an education to be intelligent or to do great things.  Temujin, the man who became Genghis Khan, for example, was an illiterate man whose father was murdered by other Mongol tribesmen when Temujin was a child, and who consequently had to live by his wits.  He finished up creating the second largest empire in history.  But his empire wasn’t one that rose and fell with its creator, like that of Attila and his Huns.  Genghis Khan created an empire that continued to expand after his death and which was governed efficiently, and he set in place the foundation of a nation with laws.  He was a genius who is still revered by his countrymen today.

When the apostles Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-30), Luke tells us they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke so impressively that the Jewish rulers were amazed.  He writes “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered, and they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13 RSV-CE).  Professor Ehrman has no hesitation in pointing out from this passage that Peter and John were illiterate.  What he ignores is the most important point, which even the Jewish rulers noticed – these men had been with Jesus.  It is this that made the difference.  Lack of education is meaningless to God; or rather, I should say, lack of education is not only no hindrance to God, but he uses it by choice and design.  In a passage in which Paul asks “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”,he writes, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:26-29).

Jesus chose simple and humble men to be the foundation of his Church and to build his Church.  It was they who were the pillars; it was they who took the Gospel to the ends of the earth; and it was some of them who wrote the New Testament.  And he equipped them to do so.  In Jesus’ prayer for the disciples, he said “I have given them your word….As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world…..The glory that you have given me I have given to them” (Jn 17:14, 18, 22).  If Jesus prayed for them, sent them, and gave them the word of God, and his glory, what is there that these men could not do?  Even their enemies in the Sanhedrin could see this.  Illiterate or not, these men were outstanding, and the world will never see the likes of them again!

The Bible itself tells us, as Professor Ehrman loves to point out, that Peter and John were uneducated men.  But that wouldn’t stop them from writing scripture.  Peter used Mark as his scribe to write his gospel.  And Peter himself tells us that he had an amanuensis, or scribe, to write his first letter: “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it” (1 Pet 5:12).  Peter acknowledges and identifies the one who wrote for him.  He doubtless had a scribe, perhaps Sylvanus again, to write his second epistle as well, even though he doesn’t mention it. 

Even the apostle Paul, who was highly educated and himself able to write, indicates he used a scribe when writing his letters, as we see at end of some of them e.g. “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22).  And in another of his letters, although apparently written by a scribe, Paul liked to add his personal greeting as well: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (Col 4:18).  This personal greeting, however, is not an isolated event; rather, it his normal practice.  To the Thessalonian church, he writes, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.  This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write” (2 Thess 3:17).  Peter the apostle writes of him: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters” (2 Pet 3:15).    

And the beloved disciple John was told exactly what to write to the seven churches in the book of Revelation.  Jesus repeatedly tells John what he wanted: “To the angel of the Church in….” and the names of seven churches in seven cities are specified, each of which is inserted in this introduction; Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Rev ch 2 and 3).  So, what is to stop John from also using a scribe to write gospel, letters, and Revelation?  Illiteracy is no obstacle to God. 

Whether these men could read or write is irrelevant.  Paul and Matthew could write, but Paul chose to dictate his letters to a scribe.  Peter probably couldn’t write but he had a brain and he could think and he could reason and he could speak, so he was quite capable of dictating his chosen words to a scribe.  Whether or not John could write, I don’t know; but Jesus dictated the words he wanted John to write to the seven churches.  Jesus isn’t stupid or impotent either; he wouldn’t have told John what he wanted him to write if John couldn’t write or couldn’t remember correctly everything Jesus dictated.  Just as Peter tells us that Paul wrote “according to the wisdom given him”, why couldn’t Jesus do the same for John, equipping him with whatever he needed to write the letters, whether that be a supernatural temporary gifting of writing, which is unlikely but not out of the question, or the ability to remember everything Jesus told him, and then dictate it to a scribe?  To Professor Ehrman, that scenario is out of the question because he doesn’t believe in Jesus anyway; but to the Christian, there is no problem.  Not because we’re stupid and believe in fairies but because the evidence for our faith is all there in the bible – indeed, the bible itself is evidence, as I’ve demonstrated in other articles on this web site.

 This is just another ploy by Bart Ehrman to undermine the faith of Christians and perhaps to shore up his confidence in his own unbelief.  In eternity, when he’s discovered that Jesus is all that the bible says of him, he’ll have endless ages to think about where he went wrong; but it won’t be simply an academic exercise for him there where he can go “Whoops!”  He won’t be a respected academic or scholar who is looked up to in that place; if anything, the souls of the multitudes who are themselves languishing there may well rise up against him for murdering them by deceiving them into abandoning Jesus, the only one who could – and would – save their souls if they would only trust him.  In hell, “They who see you will stare at you, and ponder over you: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble….’?” (Isa 14:16).

And as he passes through the gate, over which, in Dante’s allegory, reads “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, he’ll discover that hell is not a myth after all; that God is not a “never-dying eternal divine Nazi”, as he accuses him (Ehrman, 2010, p 276), but the righteous judge of all the earth, who will say to that great scholar who frightened many with his erudition, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoer” (Matt 7:23).  I do not gloat as I write these words.  I recognise that I am no more worthy of grace than is Bart Ehrman; but the difference between us is not whether one of us is better or more deserving, but of faith in Jesus.  I write these refutations of Professor Ehrman’s statements of unbelief to encourage those Christians who are intimidated by him and his deceitful claims.  I want them to continue to trust Jesus with their souls and their eternity even though they feel their faith in Jesus and their trust in the bible may have been severely shaken by Professor Ehrman.  Bart Ehrman himself has been deceived and, as do many other professing Christians who have also been deceived into abandoning Jesus, has taken it upon himself to pass on the deception to others, rob them of their faith and murder their souls; and he must pay the price for causing many of Jesus’ “little ones” i.e. Christians, to fall.  “For thus said the LORD of hosts…he who touches you touches the apple of his eye” (Zech 2:8).


“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, p 16-17, by Bart Ehrman, publ., HarperCollins Publishers, NY

Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.