Illiterate Authors?

Illiterate Authors? September 5, 2008

Today I started reading Bridget Gilfillan Upton’s book Hearing Mark’s Endings (Leiden: Brill, 2006). It connects up both with my interest in the end of Mark and in oral tradition.
At one point she writes the following about the author of the Gospel of Mark: “That the evangelist could read and writer Greek suggests that he had received at least a primary education, and therefore must have come from a background which offered him a certain level of privilege” (p.10).

As I read those words, I almost immediately wondered whether such an assumption is justified. We know that Paul’s letters were composed by Paul but not, as a rule at least, written by him. Perhaps merely on the basis of the content and style, we could draw conclusions about Paul’s literacy. However, Mark’s Gospel is characterized by features typical of oral storytelling. Is it not a genuine possibility that its author was only fluent as a composer and teller of orally-transmitted materials, and in order to compose a book, needed to employ a scribe?

On what basis might we conclude that an “author” in the ancient world could read and/or write? Does anyone know of a clear instance of an illiterate author, ancient or modern?
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  • Does Muhammad count? According to the histories of Islam that I’ve read, he wasn’t literate.

  • McG: – “We know that Paul’s letters were composed by Paul but not, as a rule at least, written by him.“Actually, we’ve known since at least the middle of the 19th century that Paul’s letters are very probably individually “composed” of a patchwork of fragments of various epistles (Baur, Van Manen, etc). Some of these fragments may trace back to a “historical Paul” but the obvious redaction and interpolation involved in their “composition” hangs a big question mark on the question of their “pauline” origin.Your point about literacy needs another example besides Paul.Personally, I don’t think that Mohammad qualifies. I know that people claim he was illiterate —it’s actually one of their apologetic constants that “proves” the divinity of the work—but I think the work reflects an undeniably literate author behind it. (The legal aphorism “intent follows the bullet” comes to mind, here.)The author of Mark surely inherited oral traditions that were not necessarily literate(probably none of it was), but the moment he wrote them down in the form he did . . . . . y’know?peaceÓ

  • Thanks for both comments – and for both the example of Muhammad (who somehow didn’t come to mind when I asked the question) and for calling it into question. I won’t get into the question of whether Paul’s letters as we now have them incorporate multiple letters in instances. In the case of Romans, we have the little snippet from “Tertius, who wrote this letter” in the last chapter, which I think makes the point well enough.In the case of Muhammad, it certainly is possible that the emphasis on his illiteracy had an apologetic aim. But then again, I think most of us in our context today tend to think that someone who could compose beautiful poetry and was clearly intelligent must also have been literate. But until the modern era, that simply didn’t follow. And I thought your point Quixie about what happened when Mark wrote the traditions down makes the same assumption Upton did. How do we know that the person who composed the Gospel (utilizing earlier oral tradition in the process) was the person who wrote it?

  • By way of example . . . Bela Bartok wrote some wonderful music utilizing some traditional Hungarian melodies.The themes he used are analogous to the “illiterate oral traditions” . . . does it follow that he is not the author of the pieces which incorporate these melodies?Ó

  • I think you’re addressing a different point than the one I wanted to ask (although I’m always happy to bring Bartok into a conversation!). My question is whether, just because “Mark” is the author of the Gospel, that means he could read and write. Were there not authors, just as there can be songwriters, who can compose eloquently but not know how to record it in letters or in musical notation? How could we tell if Mark were such a case?