The First Apostles- Poor Ignorant Fishermen?

It’s frequently asserted that some of the first apostles were poor simple fisherman. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

We usually make that assumption for two reasons.

  1. Fisherman in our culture are neither wealthy. nor is rocket science or a PhD required for the trade. We import those ideas back into our reading of the NT. (This is a frequent occurrence when reading the scriptures.)
  2. Acts 4:13 describes Peter and John as “ignorant and unlearned men.”

Let’s start with #2. This accusation is hyperbolic. Coming from the mouth of “the rulers of the people and the elders of Israel” (Acts 4:8), “ignorant” probably means that they had no theological training in the rabbinic schools. “Unlearned” is better translated as “ordinary” or “laymen.”

#1 is much more interesting. Jerome Murphy O’Connor gave a lecture to us in Jerusalem that he also wrote up as an article for Bible Review, a popular but scholarly journal. I draw most of the following from his article, which I’ve posted here.

Fishing was a major industry at the time of Jesus. From various places in the New Testament, classical, and Jewish sources, we learn the following about the 2 teams of fisherman brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John.

  • Fishing was a major international business.
  • The four brothers had their own prosperous fishing business, owned their own nets and boats, and had multiple employees who worked under them. (This is probably what allowed them to follow Jesus.)
  • The brothers changed the city their business was based out of in order to get a tax break (!).
  • The brothers probably spoke Aramaic (with a Galillean accent), Hebrew, and Greek, the language of the elite and educated.
  • The house of the CEO (Peter) in Capernaum was unusually large. (Mentioned in O’Connor’s article, but taken up in-depth elsewhere.)*See update below.

In other words, borrowing the article summary elsewhere in Bible Review, the first “First Presidency” was not made up of gullible, backwoods ignoramuses. “Rather, they were no-nonsense, relatively prosperous businessmen very much in control of their lives— important characteristics because much of what we know of Jesus’ sayings and acts flows from the testimony of these fishermen.”

As the article points out, this has import for the reliability of their witness (as the Gospels were based directly or indirectly on their oral tradition.)

Perhaps more important for us, we sometimes hear criticism of our church leaders on the basis that they are too worldly, too educated, too businessman-y. (On that note, David O. McKay once said “We can’t run the Church as a business.”) “Why don’t we have simple men proclaiming the gospel like the early apostles?” some ask.

Given the data in O’Connor’s article, I’d submit that our current lineup is much more like the early apostles than we typically think, and God knew what he was doing when he picked them and their talents.

*I found my source for this, BR 8:06 (Nov/Dec. 1982). Seems I was off some. Here’s what it says. “For all intents and purposes, this house as originally built is indistinguishable from all other houses of ancient Capernaum. Its indoor living area is somewhat larger than usual [that’s what I remembered], but overall it is about the same size as other houses. Its building materials are the usual ones. It was built with no more sophistication than the others in the region. In short, there is nothing to distinguish this house from its neighbors, except perhaps the events that transpired there and what happened to it later.”

26 thoughts on “The First Apostles- Poor Ignorant Fishermen?

  1. Wow, Ben, that’s very interesting. Sort of changes your paradigm to think of Peter as an affluent CEO.

  2. I think I read/heard somewhere that Peter owned more than one house. I’ll have to check on that one though.

  3. I don’t think it changes my paradigm all that much because these men were still “ignorant and unlearned” as to all things religious. They were good men, but not deeply indoctrinated in most of the major Jewish religious movements of the time (admittedly, many were disciples of John the Baptist). It was on this same sort of model that the early Apostles of this dispensation were chosen.

  4. I don’t think it changes my paradigm all that much because these men were still “ignorant and unlearned” as to all things religious.

    True, and in that sense they were much like Joseph Smith.

  5. I’ve always read Mark 1:16 and 19 as prvoding an interesting contrast: Simon and Andrew casting nets into the sea (i.e., no helpers, too poor to own a boat so casting directly) versus James and John, who has a boat and servants. The point of these details: Jesus called people from the top and the bottom.

  6. It should also be mentioned that many, if not most of them were illiterate, that is what Act 4:13 is referring to. Also, many scholars are convinced that majority of the apostles, including Peter, James and John, knew neither Greek or Hebrew. Of course Paul was the exception to this, he being by all accounts by far the best educated. But to even insinuate that they were among the “elite and educated” would simply not be warranted.

  7. I took a class with Jack Welch at BYU Law School. This thread reminds me of a paper he said he was working on at the time (don’t know if it’s been published yet) arguing that Paul was probably quite wealthy and not poor as so many have assumed over the years. Don’t know if he had anything on the other disciples.

  8. Jeffrey,
    There is little textual evidence to indicate that Peter, James, and John were illiterate and much to indicate the opposite. One might wonder about the linguistic know-how of a successful fisher in an area of the Galilee that featured an awful lot of Greek speakers. Hebrew might be a stretch, but there really is little textual reason to assume that Peter or John didn’t know Greek.
    The idea that they didn’t generally comes from assumptions that were made recently (in the last 200 or so years) regarding what we think a Jewish fisherman should have known. Most of the assumptions that were made were based on the same model that Ben was trying to address in posting on this in the first place. There are several ways of taking Acts 4:13, not all of which indicate that the early Apostles were illiterate.

  9. The one argument for John is that if the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation were written by the same guy that their knowledge of Greek was very different. One apologetic for this is that Revelation was written first, without much knowledge of Greek (along with the fact so much is quotation or paraphrase of scripture or pseudopigrapha). By the time he writes the gospel, he’s mastered Greek.

    Of course that’s a controversial view, to say the least. (The typical view is different authors – or at least different scribes)

  10. My understanding was that barely anybody knew how to read, the literacy rate being under %10. Peter and John were fisherman (whether successful or not I’m not sure) along with other companions as most fisherman have always done. True, each group has it’s leader but he is far from a CEO of any sort. Even if they were successful, they were not in that top %10.

    It also would make sense that Jesus who addressed his message principally at the poor and illerate, would choose poor and illiterate disciples especially before he had reached any kind of acclaim.

    Also, if I recall correctly, the apostles were frequentily mocked for their inability to speak Greed well. So yes at a time they did come to speak Greek so people could at least understand them, but to say they were fluent in Greek as fisherman, I’m not so sure. Bart Ehrman, a scholar whom I respect greatly, is convinced that they (Peter and John) were illiterate.

    Am I just completely wrong?

  11. Jeff, I think it’s a debated issue, so much as I’d like to, I can’t say you’re completely wrong 🙂

    For the Israelites pre-New Testament, there is apparent evidence that

    there were readers and writers in ancient Israel, and that they were by no means rare

    Alan Milard “the Question of Israelite Literacy”, Bible Review 3:03 (Fall 1987).
    It’s a safe assumption that that level of literacy continued into the NT, especially among those who would have found it useful in their trade, as fisherman selling to Greek-speaking Romans would have.

    There is also some evidence that Hebrew was still spoken and written by common people.

    Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, was built by Herod Antipas; the population there, too, was far more bilingual than in Jerusalem.
    Coming from such an area, Jesus would no doubt have shared this double linguistic heritage. Reared in an area where many inhabitants were Greek-speaking gentiles, Jesus, the “carpenter” (tektōn, Mark 6:3), like Joseph, his foster-father (Matthew 13:55), would have had to deal with them in Greek. Jesus was not an illiterate peasant and did not come from the lowest stratum of Palestinian society; he was a skilled craftsman. He is said to have had a house in Capernaum (Mark 2:1). He would naturally have conducted business in Greek with gentiles in Nazareth and neighboring Sepphoris. His parables reveal that he was familiar with Palestinian trade and government. His followers, especially the fishermen Simon, Andrew, James and John, would also have had to conduct their fishmongering in Greek with gentile customers.

    Joseph Fitzmeyer, “Did Jesus Speak Greek?” Biblical Archaeology Review 18:05 (Sep/Oct 1992).

    “the apostles were frequentily mocked for their inability to speak Greed well” I think you’re misreading the scriptures in which they were mocked for the accent in their Aramaic (immediately making them recognizable as Galileans, as in Acts 2:7), which was regarded as socially undesirable.

    I’m not familiar with Ehrman’s opinions on the literacy of the time, but from what I’ve read, I’m inclined to believe that at least Jesus, the fishermen, and Matthew the toll-collector (who had to keep meticulous records in Hebrew AND Greek) were literate and at least bilingual in speech, if not in writing.

  12. I believe that Jesus probably spoke Greek fairly well, and I have little doubt that Matthew did. But, I’m still not so sure about Peter and John.

    My source for Ehrman is an audio lecture I have given in the year 2000. I’m sure he says the same thing in the university text book he wrote on the New Testament since he cites it as his source. A University Textbook would seem to establish a fairly general consensus I would think.

  13. Are there any scriptures that demonstrate the original disciples/apostles couldn’t read and write? That sounds farfetched to me … but maybe there’s some kind of evidence being used to back this up?

    Anytime I’ve been able to read a decent up-close characterization of a prophet, it seems to indicate at the very least an inquisitive mind and a kind of impetuousness … at least enough so that when God/Jesus communicates with him, he can express legitimate concerns, reservations, etc. Very few of them merely say “Yes Lord” all the time. And most of them have concrete wishes and desires that end up working themselves into the covenants that are being made.

  14. I don’t know, in my opinion I would like to see scriptures that demonstrate that the original disciplines could read and write! Since most people could do these things, it would seem that we should bring evidence to show that they were some how exception to this, not the other way around.

  15. I don’t know, in my opinion I would like to see scriptures that demonstrate that the original disciplines could read and write! Since most people could do these things, it would seem that we should bring evidence to show that they were some how exception to this, not the other way around.

  16. Jeffrey: I don’t think there are any such passages, especially if you view the gospels solely as constructs of the later Christian community.

    My understanding comes from the articles I’ve cited. Jesus, as a *carpenter* (another potentially misleading word) living near Sephoris, one of the largest centers of Greek culture outside of Italy, would have had to read and write at least enough greek to make simple contracts and receipts. Ditto for the fisherman, who were not lower class. See the quotation from the Fitzmeyer article above.

    I pulled out my copy of Ehrman’s Introduction to the New Testament. On p.45 he does say that only 10-15% of the population could read and write. However, the population he’s speaking of is not that of the Jews or the New Testament. Rather, he’s speaking generally of the Greco-Roman world, and says nothing specifically about any NT figures or literacy in Jewish tradition, which, given the emphasis on the written Torah probably had higher rates of literacy. Given that vagueness of Ehrman’s, I’ll go with the specific comments of Fitzmeyer and O’Connor.

  17. Did Jewish boys have bar mitzvahs during Jesus’s time? If so, they would have been required to read out of the Torah scroll in their early teens. But maybe that’s a more modern social construct. I have no idea.

  18. Ehrman is a fine scholar. But it seems to me that the contention that the Greco-Roman world had such a low literacy rate would argue against Ehrman’s own ideas of the multiple Christianities that developed in the first couple centuries AD, especially as each of these Christianities developed around its reading of some form of a gospel. There were a lot of people identifying themselves particularly with specific documents to assume that most of them had no idea what the documents actually said.
    Ehrman, fine scholar that he is, is playing into the same stereotypes regarding the social classes represented in the early church that make all the early apostles illiterate.
    Regarding proof as to whether the apostles were literate, well, IF you accept that some of the speeches in Acts might reflect actual speeches, the Pentecostal speech (most likely given in Greek originally, considering the audience) might be an example of Peter working the Greek (yes, I am referring to the speech post-tongues). Then again, many scholars are unlikely to accept that. Similar arguments could be made about epistles.

  19. Ben,
    In the lectures I have Ehrman also refers to the illiteracy rate of the entire old world, but this statement is different from the mulitple occasions which he says the John and Peter were illiterate. I know this doesn’t add power to his argument, which may in the end be flawed, but his statements are very unambiguous.

  20. I did a study and I think most of them were at least somewhat educated, especially as to Jewish scripture. Another thing I learned was that most of them, I can’t remember the specifics, maybe all, of them were known to and/or related to, Jesus.

    I think the really wonderful thing is they all stayed faithful, spread the gospel in the known world, and I think all but two died as martyrs.

  21. I was surfing Milard’s name and your site came up. I’ll be at Cambridge in July and he is one of the lecturers on the issue of literacy in antiquity, especially Jesus era.

    Although antiquity was an oral/aural world, I think there is biblical evidence of Jesus and his apostles reading and writing. Even given the assumption that the NT documents are kerygma (what the Church preached about Jesus) rather than a direct account of the historical Jesus, the fact that John talks about Jesus “writing on the ground” (John 8:6-8), Luke records him reading the Isaiah scroll (Luke 4), and the sign on the cross for the general audience, would assume such skills or the assertions would be nonsense to the audience of these writings (I’ll take John A.T. Robinson’s dating of the NT in the first century). The undisputed books (with ref to apostolic authorship) in the NT, some by those fishermen, reflect literary skill and thereby argue for literacy of the Jesus group.

    James L. Crenshaw’s work on Education in Ancient Israel (Doubleday, 1998) would argue for a reasonable level of literary in Jesus’s kind of world.

    Nice chating with you,


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