Were Jesus’ Followers Uneducated?

Bart Ehrman, an atheist scholar, argues: “Jesus’s disciples were lower-class, illiterate peasants from remote rural areas of Galilee, where very few people could read, let alone write, and let alone create full-scale compositions.”1 Some skeptics expand on the argument: Because Jesus’ followers were lower-class, illiterate peasants, no educated person would believe the claims of Jesus, and therefore Christianity isn’t true.

While it is true several of the disciples were fishermen, the Bible doesn’t mention what occupations most of the disciples had, or their eduction. Matthew was a tax collector, and certainly would have been literate. The New Testament mentions other people who were not uneducated, poor and with little influence.

  • When he had entered Capernaum, a [Roman] centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” (Matthew 8:5-6 ESV)
  • There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41 ESV)
    • Some of these women may have supported Jesus’ ministry financially.
  • Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (Mark 15:43 ESV)
  • With this in mind, since I [Luke] myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus (Luke 1:3 NIV)
    • The term excellency is used for two known Roman officials in Acts (Felix Acts 23:26 ESV and Festus Acts 26:25 ESV), so Theophilus may also have been a Roman official.
  • Soon afterward he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve [disciples] were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 8:1-3 ESV)
    • These women seemed to have been wealthy enough to help support Jesus’ ministry.
  • He [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. (Luke 19:1-3 ESV)
  • Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2.ESV)
  • Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:36-37 ESV)
    • Supported the Apostles financially.
  • And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7 ESV)
  • Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship…. (Acts 8:26-27 ESV)
  • At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. (Acts 10:1-2 ESV)
  • One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. (Acts 16:14 ESV)
  • I [Paul] am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. (Acts 22:3 ESV)
  • Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas. (Colossians 4:14 ESV)
  • [Paul]…of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5b ESV)

Also, the Apostle Paul went to Ephesus to teach in the synagogue, but ended up teaching in a lecture hall. There is an implication Paul was teaching students, not only to the uneducated lower classes.

  • And he [Paul] entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:8-10 ESV)

In first-Century Judah, boys were expected to get an education, and one which may have exceeded the educations in the surrounding cultures.

  • …at 5 years old, Jewish boys could begin instruction in Scripture, at 10 the Mishnah, at 13 the commandments, and at 15 the Talmud. Such an education would train the student not only in basic subjects such as reading, but also in the Scriptures and the tradition of interpretation.2

Jesus had followers who were educated, wealthy or respected in the community. The people listed above were intelligent, and most held positions of responsibility. The Bible doesn’t say all of these people became Christians, but we do know these people put some level of trust in Christ. For two thousand years, many world-class scholars have investigated and thoughtfully considered the claims Jesus made, and placed their trust in Him.

Footnotes

  1. Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God – The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2014) 244. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 719. (Amazon)
  2. Barry, John D. Editor. “Jewish Educationin Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press, 2016) (Logos Bible Software)
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