Peter was a peasant fisherman and there is no way he could have written 1 and 2 Peter!

At least that’s what many people claim today.

So far in this series, we have responded to the arguments that Paul’s general letters and pastoral letters were forgeries. We explained that these books differed from Paul’s other letters because of their occasional nature, personal style and the use of an amanuensis (scribe).

Three primary objections against the traditional authorship of 1 and 2 Peter can be summarized as follows:

  1. As a fisherman, Peter would have been illiterate.
  2. Even if Peter was literate, he would only know Aramaic and not Greek.
  3. As a poor person, Peter couldn’t afford the writing materials or the cost of a scribe.

Do these three objections proves that 1 and 2 Peter are forgeries?

Peter was Illiterate

A verse that is commonly used to show that Peter and John were illiterate is Acts 4:13:

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”

The word translated as “uneducated” is agrammatos, which literally means “unlettered.” Scribes (grammateis) took their name from this Greek word. Based on this and the context of the passage, here agrammatos means “not having been educated as a scribe, not having studied the Law and other sacred writings.” In other words, Peter and John didn’t have a formal education.

This makes perfect sense of the audience’s reaction in the account. In verses 8-12, Peter preaches a sermon and quotes from the Old Testament. The audience couldn’t believe that someone who had no scribal education could speak in such a way! The text doesn’t specifically say that Peter couldn’t read or write.

What about the literacy rate of the first century? If it was really low, why would we think that a Jewish fisherman would be literate? One answer is that the Jewish people, more than most cultures at the time, gave special attention to reading and writing. Literacy rates were probably higher among the Jewish people because they used texts to preserve their religious traditions. Consider the words of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian:

“It [the Law] orders that they [children] shall be taught to read, and shall learn both the laws and the deeds of their forefathers, in order that they may imitate the latter, and, being grounded in the former, may neither transgress nor have any excuse for being ignorant of them” (Against Apion, 2.25.204).

Peter Didn’t Know Greek

At this point, one might grant that Peter knew Aramaic, but 1 and 2 Peter were originally written in Greek. Without a formal education, Peter didn’t have the opportunity to learn Greek. What can we say to this?

First, the culture that Peter grew up in had been Hellenized for a significant period of time. He was constantly around people who spoke Greek. Peter was a fisherman, which means he had to be able to negotiate as a businessman.

Also, Peter was a well-known leader in the early church for 30 years before the writing of 1 and 2 Peter. This is more than enough time for Peter to learn Greek! It wouldn’t be too farfetched to think that Peter could get a better education before writing these letters at the end of his life.

How literate was Peter? Darrell Bock answers,

“Apparently Peter was literate enough to lead and help launch a religious movement that spanned continents by his death. This means he must have been a solid oral communicator at the least, making him potentially capable of expressing himself in letters. Some of this communication took place outside the land in a diaspora context where Greek would have been important. In an oral culture, he need only be able to dictate in order to compose his letters.”

This brings up the possibility of Peter using a scribe. When you look at 1 and 2 Peter, the Greek is more polished in the first letter than in the second letter. It is my personal view that a scribe was used to write 1 Peter while the second letter was written by mostly Peter himself.

A verse that could indicate the use of a scribe is 1 Peter 5:12: “With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God.”

Once again, a scribe has strong explanatory power, but there is one problem with this theory: they were expensive.

Peter Couldn’t Afford to Write

Maybe Peter knew some Greek, but he was still poor! After all, writing was a very expensive endeavor in the first century. Peter probably didn’t have enough money to buy writing materials or hire a scribe to write for him.

Let’s examine this further. The book of 1 Peter consists of less than 1,700 words in the Greek text. The letter takes less than 15 minutes to read at a comfortable pace. We are not talking about composing the Iliad here.

It also appears that early Christian writers were experts at saving space. Based on our earliest Greek manuscripts, the New Testament was probably written in uppercase letters without spaces or punctuation. So 1 Peter 1:1-2 might have looked something like this:

TOTHOSEWHOAREELECTEXILESOFTHEDISPERSIONINPONTUSGALATIACAPPADOCIAASIAAND
BITHYNIAACCORDINGTOTHEFOREKNOWLEDGEOFGODTHEFATHERINTHESANCTIFICATIONOF
THESPIRITFOROBEDIENCETOJESUSCHRISTANDFORSPRINKLINGWITHHISBLOODMAYGRACE
ANDPEACEBEMULTIPLIEDTOYOU

In addition, names like “God,” “Jesus” and “Christ” were reduced to two letters to further save space (called the nomina sacra). Since these two letters are short, they wouldn’t have been as expensive as writing one of the Gospels, for example.

Here is something else to consider. Hardly anyone doubts that Paul wrote at least 7 letters in his lifetime. Granted, Paul had a formal education, so he has the edge on Peter there. But I wouldn’t say that Paul was rich. He was a tent-maker by trade and some of his income came from ministry partners. Evidently, that was enough to pay for writing materials to compose his letters.

If Peter took on a similar role as a missionary and leader in the church, why couldn’t he also receive financial help from ministry partners? Additionally, if the scribe (possibly Silas) was a Christian, he may have offered his services to Peter for free!

5 Points to Remember

In the end, maybe Peter didn’t physically write every part of these letters by himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t help write them at all! Here are 5 points to remember:

  1. In Acts 4:13, the audience was amazed that Peter could preach and quote from the Old Testament without having a formal education.
  2. The Jewish people emphasized learning to read and write so that they could pass on their religious traditions.
  3. Peter probably knew some Greek since he grew up in a Hellenized culture, was around Greek-speaking people as a fisherman and could have learned the language before writing at the end of his life.
  4. If Peter used a scribe (possibly Silas) to help write his letters, he would only need the ability to dictate his words to the scribe.
  5. Even if Peter was poor, ministry partners could have contributed financially to his writing or believers who were literate could have assisted him as well.

Sources:

Bock, Darrell. “Ehrman Chapter 2- Forgeries and the Name of Peter: Apples, Oranges, and Scripture.” Bock’s Blog. 11 Apr. 2011. Web.

Eillicott, Charles. “Acts 4 Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers.” Acts 4 Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers. Web.

Witherington, Ben, III. “Forged: Chapter Two-What Is Truth?” The Bible and Culture. Patheos, 5 Apr. 2011. Web.

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