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I'm curious how the authors of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) actually knew how to write. They were fishermen and simple people, and very few people knew how to write back then.

Perhaps some will say that it was the Holy Spirit who gave them this ability, but I'd like to know whether there is some other historical explanation for the fact that they were literate.

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    Nowhere does it state Luke was a fishermen, Mathew was an educated person and a Tax Collector. John was not a fishermen either. That leaves Mark, who not an apostle never indicates he was a fishermen. Nowhere does it suggest that they were literate or actually put paper to parchment themselves. – Marc May 31 '15 at 15:18
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    Scribes. For a very long time, people made a decent living off of writing for other people. Anybody could pay a scribe to write anything. Just like today, anybody can pay for a domain and wordpress blog that will be about anything. In other words, they didn't have to be literate. Whether they were or not is another question. – fredsbend May 31 '15 at 21:50
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    Luke and Matthew may not know coding but could have their own website – user4951 Jun 1 '15 at 11:00
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    To supplement the above comments, one of the letters of Paul (I think it was Corinthians) has a line near the end where Paul says something to the effect of "See, I write this in my own hand"; making it obvious that Paul at least used scribes, but sometimes did write himself. It is then, even from just scriptural references, possible to see that the New testament writers dictated their works. – shiningcartoonist Jun 1 '15 at 16:33
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Tradition says that the gospels now known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were actually written by the persons whose names the gospels now bear. Of these, Matthew is thought to have been a tax collector and therefore literate, Luke was a physician and therefore literate. We know too little reliable information about Mark to say if he was literate, while it would be quite surprising if John could write.

However, in spite of tradition, the four New Testament gospels were all written anonymously and were only attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John at various times during the second century. Ian Wilson says in Jesus: The Evidence, page 25, despite the versions printed in our Bibles long having borne the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these names are mere attributions. In the fourth century, Eusebius says that Papias (c. 130 CE) named Mark as the author of one gospel and the ‘interpreter’ of Peter, presumably as if Mark had written from Peter’s memory and notes as his secretary (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39). Burton L. Mack says in Who Wrote the New Testament, page 205, that exactly when the name of John came to be associated with the gospel and letters of John is most unclear, but the earliest attestation that these were regarded as having been written by John is found in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, dated about 180 CE.

John Dominic Crossan says in The Birth of Christianity, page 100, a vast majority of scholars in this century considers that Mark was used by Matthew and Luke as a major source. We could perhaps argue that Luke might have used Mark as a source, although this would remove any grounds for believing that 'Luke' was the physician companion of Paul, but it stretches credibility to say that Matthew, a disciple of Jesus, would need to rely on another gospel. This confirms that we simply do not know who wrote the gospels.

The author of Mark, the first gospel to be written, was far from a simple person in spite of the apparent, and possibly intentional, use of poor grammar. His use of Greek rhetorical devices such as intercalation ('sandwiches'), chiastic structures and parallel structure surely mark him as one of the most gifted writers of the first century. David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey and Donald Michie say in Mark as Story (third ed) page 1, the composer of this story has used sophisticated storytelling techniques, developed the characters and the conflicts, and built suspense with deliberateness, telling the story to generate certain insights and responses in the audience.

Once we accept that the second-century Church Fathers, with the best intentions, gave incorrect authorship attributions to the New Testament gospels, it ceases to be a mystery as to how the authors might have been literate.

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    What do you then make of the fact that we possess no gospels that are NOT attributed to one of these authors? If we found gospels that were not associated with a name, I would give more credence to this. – shiningcartoonist Jun 1 '15 at 16:35
  • @shiningcartoonist We do in fact have many gospels, with all but four rejected for inclusion in the New Testament. The most important non-canonical gospel is Thomas, probably followed by the Gospel of Peter. Others include the Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of Mary Magdalene and so on. – Dick Harfield Jun 1 '15 at 21:15
  • I am aware of this, I am saying do we actually have any copies of the 4 canonical gospels that aren't attributed to these writers? If we did I would consider your explanation more likely, but I do not believe we possess any documents like that. – shiningcartoonist Jun 2 '15 at 12:14
  • @shiningcartoonist We have no early gospel manuscript in which the author identifies himself. We also have none in which the affixed attributions follow the standard naming convention for ancient literary works, of placing the author’s name in the genitive case. Instead, the gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names - adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/… – Dick Harfield Jun 3 '15 at 4:07
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I think you've cross wired your history a little bit. The lower overall literacy rate at the time doesn't mean nobody was literate. It certainly doesn't follow that a hand picked set of men must be illiterate because a lower percentage of the population was educated. Not everybody was a fisherman, ond even those that were often had other backgrounds and experiences. In fact most of the NT was written by folks with more formal education than yourself (and I say that expecting it to be true even if you turn out to have a P.h.D or something like that). Paul was about as educated as you could get at the time. And while he might have been baffled by a cell phone, it would be a mistake to assume that that his literacy was inferior to yours.

Back to the gospel authors that you asked about.

  • Luke was a medical doctor turned historian, not a fisherman. 'Nuf said.
  • John wrote John. That may sound rhetorical in a sense but while there are some strange linguistic features to the books he wrote, it would be hard to make an argument for him being illiterate based on the works he produced. Did he come from high blood and start his education early? No probably not—in fact he was likely quite young when he started with Jesus. In any event his writing shows evidence of both having been an eyewitness to Jesus like as well as being familiar with the literature of his times, the Hebrew scriptures, and of being articulate.
  • Matthew wasn't a fisherman either. He was a tax collector, and that meant being literate in at least two languages. Possible more. In any event his education would have been enough to get employment in a field that required a working knowledge of both his own country's laws and those of the occupying empire.
  • Mark is the biggest unknown on this list and his writing suggests he might have been less well educated as some of his compatriots. His work is likely the earliest written and he seems to almost fall over his own words telling some of the stories. It's likely he didn't have a lot of upper level education. On the other hand his lack of command over the finner points of grammar are more than made up for by his first hand accounts. And yes, he was literate.

The issue of actually dealing with a pen and paper was somewhat more complex than it is now (Ever tried to write with hand made implements on hand made substrates?) and it's possible that some or all the books were dictated. While this could have helped an illiterate person get a written record of their experiences, there is no particular reason to believe that was the case with any of the NT authors. It's more likely that if anything was dictated it was more a matter of pragmatics.

  • I get most of your arguments. What I don't agree with is that with John and Matthew you're assuming they're literate because there's a book authored by them. Do we have concrete proof that it was them who actually penned them? – Gigi May 31 '15 at 15:56
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    @Gigi I think you're going to have to define what you mean by "literate", because it seems like you might have a very anachronistic idea of what constitutes literacy, especially in a historical context. – Caleb May 31 '15 at 16:52
  • As I wrote in my question, by literacy I mean the ability to write. – Gigi May 31 '15 at 20:14
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    @Gigi In your question you wrote about "fishermen and simple people" with the implication that such people were also likely ignorant in general. Your question reads as if you were going by a modern definition of literacy as being able to gain understanding through an intellectual process and communicate fluently using language. Now your comment suggests you're strictly concerned with orthography and fluency with a quill, ink bottle and parchment. Do realize how words apart those definitions are? – Caleb May 31 '15 at 21:11
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    If the Gospel writers rose to prominent positions in the Church, they may eventually have decided learning how to read and write essential for them to faithfully execute their duties. If the gospels were written decades after Jesus rose, it is certainly enough time to learn to read and write. In the book of Acts the Apostles appointed deacons to serve the church so that the Apostles (like Peter) could devote themselves to studying scripture. Just as people today expect their leaders to be well educated, the same was true in ancient times. – Paul Chernoch Sep 4 '15 at 13:10

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