More on the Transmission of the Gospels

This week I will continue my complaints against the arguments Bart Ehrman provided in his discussion with Richard Bauckham on the Unbelievable? radio program of Premier Christianity. In case you are unfamiliar with the subject matter, Ehrman was arguing for the notion that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, while Bauckham argued that they were. In particular, Ehrman hammered away at the possibility of people being able to recall facts from decades earlier. Last week, I addressed a number of objections I had to his arguments. This week, I will address two more issues that Ehrman raised.

Let’s consider first the literacy rate in Judea at the time of Christ. Ehrman makes mention of the idea that the literacy rate in first century Palestine (a.k.a. Judea) was only around 2 or 3%. He points to research done by other scholars in this field to support his claim, and I have no doubt that many scholars endorse this view. However, I think we need to state the obvious: we have no real way to verify the literacy rate of Jews in first-century Palestine. Unless there was some sort of survey done during that time frame addressing the ability of people to read and write, we must admit that we are making educated guesses when we speak of the literacy rate. The idea behind much of this is that only the upper crust were educated enough to read and write. I recognize that acquiring an education in the ancient world was not something that just everyone could afford, but it does not necessarily follow that everyone was dumb as a box of rocks.

Now, interestingly, Ehrman makes part of his case for the bulk of Jews being illiterate based on the fact that we have found very little Jewish written material from that area and time frame. But, let’s be honest about something: we have not found too much written material in that area and during that time frame regardless of language or ethnicity. However, it should be noted that the Essenes had quite a bit of literature in their possession (the Dead Sea Scrolls), and it is entirely possible that the Jewish population in first-century Palestine wrote primarily, if not entirely, religious material. Furthermore, I want to argue that Ehrman is simply arguing from silence, which is not necessarily a very sound way to argue. As the old saying goes, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

But, let’s think this literacy thing through one more step. Let us suppose for a moment that it is absolutely true that only 2 or 3% of people could read and write. Is this the only way of transmitting information? I can think of at least two methods: oral tradition and art. I spoke a little about oral tradition last week, so I will not touch on that today. Instead, I will simply and quickly point out that art is an effective method of communicating messages, especially if there is a story that goes along with it. Take, for example, stained glass windows in churches. When they are done well, a person can share with another the entire life story of Jesus from birth to ascension.

But, let’s carry on with the idea that only 2-3% could read or write and this small number was made up primarily of the wealthy and professional scribes. Does this count Jesus and His disciples out? Hmm… I think not, and that leads naturally to my second gripe against Ehrman in his dialogue with Bauckham.

So, I will now turn my attention to the ability of Jesus and His disciples to have produced written documents. Taking Ehrman’s position on the literacy rate in first-century Palestine at face value, is it possible that Jesus and His followers could have produced written documents? I think it is entirely possible. Consider the fact that not all of Jesus’ followers were penniless – or perhaps, miteless : ) According to John 3:1-21, Nicodemus seems to have had some interest in Jesus’ teachings, and he was a member of the Jewish ruling council (see also Jn. 19:39). Joseph of Arimathea was also personally invested in Jesus enough to have His body removed from the cross and buried in his own tomb (Matt. 27:57-60; Mk. 15:43-46; Lk. 23:50-53; Jn. 19:38-42).

In addition to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, there were others who were seemingly financially well to do. Matthew (a.k.a. Levi) was a tax collector (Lk. 5:27-32), as was Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus, by the way, is also described as being rich (Lk. 19:2). John Mark seems to have come from a family with some degree of wealth. After all, his mother had a house big enough to entertain multiple guests and included at least one servant (Acts 12:12-17). Jesus also had women that followed Him who were wealthy enough to travel with and minister to Him (Mk. 15:40-41).

These are just names found in the New Testament. There may be plenty more in the early church. After all, it is not unreasonable to think that a wealthy person converted. Furthermore, the use of an amanuensis (a professional writer who takes dictation) was not unheard of, and Paul made use of such workers.

This is good enough for today. Next week, I will turn to some other worthwhile topic.

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