Does Acts 4:13 call Peter ‘illiterate’?

I’m preparing a review of Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery at the moment. In general, it’s a good book that will be a useful go-to for discussions of authorship for a long time, even if it is a bit maximalist in its views of the extent of early Christian forgery.

But here I simply want to note in passing one odd argument that Ehrman makes. In arguing that Peter *could not* have written the letters ascribed to him, he suggests,

Was Peter, a lower-class fisherman from rural Galilee, among that minuscule fraction of the Palestinian population who could compose books in elegant Greek? He was not wealthy. He would have had no time or resources for an education. Let alone an education in reading a foreign language. Let alone education in Greek composition. Acts 4:13 is probably right: Peter was illiterate (245)

I think it’s unlikely that Peter wrote the Petrine epistles as well (though the case is admittedly stronger for 2 Peter than for 1 Peter), and the quality of the Greek is surely permissible as one line of argument in that case. Ehrman is also correct that literacy was low, and writing literacy even lower.

There is an ambiguity to the Greek term here translated ‘illiterate’ (ἀγράμματος) in Acts 4:13. Ehrman seems to assume that ‘illiterate’ here means ‘unable to read and write’ (and admittedly he finds low-hanging fruit in Louw and Nida’s unguarded lexical remarks here, which he rightly criticises). But it can also mean ‘unlettered’, in the sense of uneducated or unrefined. So, for example, Seneca wrote, ‘Thus we call illiterate (illiteratum) a person who is not completely uncultivated but who did not receive a higher education’ (De beneficiis 5.13.3, cited by G. J. M. Bartelink). In a series of articles, H. C. Youtie had canvassed the term in the documentary papryi, and it is unsurprising that it there almost unerringly refers to an inability to write (cf. also Jonas Greenfield on the comparable phrases in Semitic documentary texts). But as William Harris, in his landmark study Ancient Literacy argued,

Even when it is clear that an ancient literary text is referring to basic literacy and not to some higher level of education, it is very seldom clear how much knowledge a person needed to qualify as ‘knowing letters’. Such expressions have to be interpreted case by case. The occasional papyrus texts which show people who are said to be illiterate subscribing their names suggest that something more than signature-writing ability may often have been needed to earn such a description (6).

In my view the rhetorical narrative emphases in the account in Acts, in which the unlettered peasants possess a divine fluency that outwits their learned adversaries, functions much like Paul’s own claim to be an ἰδιώτης. Thus it is unlikely to record anything of Peter’s literacy stricto sensu. Moreover, deductive arguments like this (lots of people were illiterate, so chances are Peter was as well) are necessary for the historian’s craft, but always problematic.

This is nitpicking, I know, but one need not argue that Peter is illiterate to argue that he did not write the letters that bear his name. As Harris’s work shows, there are many degrees of literacy in the ancient world, and it’s not at all unlikely that someone in Peter’s position would have acquired a sort of low-level professional literacy.



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