What Could a Fisherman Compose?

What Could a Fisherman Compose? January 30, 2015

I shared a link to a blog post by Jonathan Bernier a while back, which questioned the relevance of the purported employment of the traditionally-proposed author of the Fourth Gospel.

Here’s a list which someone put together of occupations of tannaitic rabbis:

The sages of the Talmud worked at many diverse occupations. For instance, Hillel was a woodchopper before he became the Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin) and Shammai the Elder was a builder. Abba Chilkiyah was a field laborer; Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai was a businessman for forty years; Abba Shaul was a gravedigger; Abba Chilkiyah was a field worker; Abba Oshiya was a launderer; Rabbi Shimon P’kuli was a cotton dealer; Rabbi Shmuel b. Shilas was a school teacher, Rabbi Meir and Rabi Chananel were scribes; Rabbi Yosi b. Chalafta was a tanner; Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar was a shoemaker; Rabbi Yehoshua b. Chananiah was a blacksmith; Rabbi Safra and Rabbi Dimi of Nehardea were merchants; Rabbi Abba b. Zavina was a tailor; Rabbi Yosef b. Chiya and Rabbi Yannai owned vineyards; Rabbi Huna was a farmer and raised cattle; Rabbi Chisda and Rabbi Papa were beer brewers; Karna was a wine smeller (he determined which wine could be stored and which had to be sold immediately); Rabbi Chiya b. Yosef was in the salt business; Abba Bar Abba, (father of Mar Shmuel) was a silk merchant; and (Mar) Shmuel was a doctor. 

It doesn’t seem to me that a fisherman would have been out of place. So why is it often claimed that a fisherman – which might include someone whose family was involved in the fishing industry, and not just someone who spent his day working for such a person – could not have written certain New Testament texts, such as the Gospel of John?

The evidence for John son of Zebedee having written that Gospel is unpersuasive. But so too is the attempt to settle the matter in terms of likelihood of a fisherman composing it.

It is perhaps worth noting that William Shakespeare probably had a very good education – while it lasted, as he was withdrawn from school at age 14. It seems to me a mistake to judge people of bygone eras by modern standards, and it is also a mistake to presume that those in antiquity who lacked scribal training could not have composed words in an eloquent and effective manner.

Perhaps an even more useful analogy can be made to the realm of music. In that area, we seem to be more able to realize in our era that the skills of reading and writing music are distinct from those of being able to compose and perform. The musical “Amazing Grace” which I went to see a few months ago was written by a former police officer who does not read and write music in the sense of placing or interpreting symbols on a staff in musical notation.

In the ancient, primarily oral, world of the New Testament, as well as earlier and later, something similar applied to reading and writing. More people could compose and tell stories effectively, than could write them down or read the letters on a page. Indeed, the two skill sets often did not overlap at all.

Just for the record, I’m inclined to think that, if someone named John wrote the work we know as the Gospel of John, it is more likely to have been John the Elder than John the son of Zebedee. As for who the “beloved disciple” was and whether he was even an actual figure, those are separate issues. My point here is simply to ask whether arguments about an alleged author’s employment actually prove anything regarding whether or not they wrote it.

John the Fisherman card

John the Fisherman Pokecard found here.

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  • TomS

    It seems odd that a person concerned with fish never uses anything other than the generic word for fish. Is there any other discrimination which one would expect a fisherman would be expected to make? Kind of boat, for example.

  • Jimmy Doyle

    My grandfather was a farmer who only completed the 8th grade because his family needed him to help provide, so at 14 he went to work in the coal mines in our area. However, he was one of the most knowledgeable men I have known and taught his children and grand-children to pursue education (both in formal and informal ways). He was gifted in math, read voraciously, led the school board, and was a source for advice and wisdom for people who would come and sit with him under the pecan trees near his house. He also was a fantastic story-teller. I had the honor of growing up near him and witnessing this on an almost daily basis. My guess is that, just looking at him or knowing the small details of his story, most formally educated people would have made assumptions more about his lack of abilities rather than the wide-range he actually possessed. This is an unfortunate type of thinking.

    In addition, having read some about Bedouin methods of poetry and history as well as Appalachian story telling traditions (both derived from segments of society often without formal education or literacy), and being from the state that produced Will Rogers, I think it highly likely that a good number of first century workers in various fields (whether managers or the lowest servants) could have narrated a complex and nuanced story.

  • Gary

    Don’t know how to take this… College drop out, good at business, probably lousy fisherman. Exposed to Latin and Greek (got an A in both) in high school. But never got around to learning another verbal language (software doesn’t count). So Bill Gates could never have written a Greek manuscript like the Gospel of John, regardless of his billions! Although I bet he could pay some Greek scholar to do it, and put his name on it. (Not implying anything about Windows being stolen from Apple)! Although perhaps the Gospel scribes should have put v1.0, v1,1, v1.2, Win, Win95, Win 2000, Vista, … On their manuscripts, so we could keep track of their present day bugs.

  • As I’ve seen the argument (in the writings of Bart Ehrman, for example), the problem posed with the apostles John and Peter writing portions of the New Testament, is less about their ability to compose a nice line of text and more about their literacy and fluency in Greek.

    I agree with you that their are other and better reasons to conclude that the gospel of John and the letters of Peter were not written by apostles.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Exactly. The examples James gave were people writing (or speaking) in their native tongue. The poor Galilean John writing the eloquent Greek of gJohn is like Shakespeare composing Hamlet in Russian.

      • Greek was widely known in the Eastern part of the Roman world. It was not so widely known in Elizabethan England. John’s Greek is pretty good, and one might even say eloquent depending what one means by that, but not at all in the sense that it reflects the kinds of expressions and phrasing that one expects from someone who has received Greek education. Its author is no Paul, never mind a Luke or Hebrews. And so I don’t think the comparison is at all apt.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Fine, change it to French (the language of diplomacy and that of England’s neighbors). Still not probable.

          Your example is that of scribes who had studied texts in their native tongue for years, and who also had other jobs to put food on the table (like grad students). The Apostle John, if we’re to believe the NT at all, was not a scribe in training but a poor manual laborer, who would’ve had little time for becoming literate at all. Yes, they’re exceptions to every rule, but beyond a tradition that began decades after the writing reportedly happened, there’s nothing to suggest an exception occurred here (and it’s not even clear who meant what in terms of the conflation of John the Apostle, John the Edler, John the Presbyter, John of Patmos etc.)

          • You don’t think Shakespeare could have learned French?

            Which parts of the Gospel of John do you think required scribal literacy, or any literacy at all for that matter, to compose them, as opposed to the ability to tell stories, which others could then write down?

          • Actually, Andrew … Shakespeare did speak French. There are entire scenes in French in Henry V, for example.

            So … not only probable, but a matter of fact.

            Also, there are so many specific references to fishing terminology and fishing techniques in his plays, there are a number of Shakespeare historians who believe he was a frequent fisherman in Stratford.

            Hmmm … a fisherman who writes in a language not native to his hometown … Shakespeare may not help the argument against apostle authorship of the gospels.

            No worries … as James has pointed out, there are far better arguments against the apostles as gospel writers than language issues.

  • arcseconds

    Let’s take Ferguson as a representative of the view you’re arguing against:

    We know from internal evidence, based on its complex Greek composition, that the author of the gospel was highly literate and trained in Greek. Yet, from what we know of the biography of John the son of Zebedee, it would rather improbable that he could author such a text. John was a poor rural peasant from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic. In an ancient world where literary training was largely restricted to a small fraction of rich, educated elite, we have little reason to suspect that an Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant could author a complex Greek gospel. Furthermore, in Acts 4:13, John is even explicitly identified as being ἀγράμματος (“illiterate”), which shows that even evidence within the New Testament itself would not identify such a figure as an author.

    (‘Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels’)

    Note that Ferguson does not argue that it’s impossible for a Galilean fisherman to write a Greek text. As though being raised as a fisherman utterly precludes a literary education, or that receiving a literary education utterly precludes becoming a fisherman.

    He simply says it’s unlikely.

    Now, Bernier explicitly construes the argument as what he describes as a ‘classical’ deductive argument (‘No Galilean fisherman could have written something like the Gospel of John’). But no-one as far as I know is making that argument. It could be that Bernier construes it like this as a deliberate artifice for expositional purposes, maybe, but he nowhere indicates that this is what he is doing.

    And it seems as if you too are engaging impossibility argument with statements like ‘So why is it often claimed that a fisherman … could not have written certain New Testament texts, such as the Gospel of John?’ (my emphasis). Do you really think anyone’s arguing this? Are you straw-manning, or is this just an unfortunate turn of phrase?

    There’s two approaches to genuinely engaging Ferguson’s argument:

    (1) an epistemological argument, which is to deny that background probabilities have anything to tell us whatsoever.

    (2) an empirical argument, which could take one of two forms:

    (a) disagreeing with Ferguson about the low probility of a Galilean fisherman having the skills to write the Gospel.

    (b) arguing that the low probability of the general case doesn’t matter, because of evidence relating to the Apostle John directly which shows he probably did write it.

    There’s also an option for side-stepping the argument:

    (3) Argue that John might well have lacked the skills to write Greek texts, but may have had a relationship with the text in some manner that means he’s worthy of being called its author nevertheless (or at least a strong enough relationship to make κατά appropriate).

    One could advance all of these arguments together, but the epistemological argument (1) is in tension with (2a). If you don’t believe background probabilties have any relevance, it cuts both ways. If you’re utterly unmoved by an argument to the effect there’s a probably of ~10^-6 or less for a Galilean fisherman having sufficient Greek to author a Gospel, then you should also be unmoved by an argument that raises it to 0.99 (i.e. that almost every Galilean fisherman had enough greek). If one truly believes (1), then the point of advancing (2a) would be to argue “Well, (1), but you clearly don’t accept that. Nevertheless, even by your own epistemological lights your argument doesn’t work because (2a).”

    At various points, you seem to be arguing all of these except (2b), which you explicitly deny in this post, which is a point of difference between you and Bernier (he doesn’t sound super-convinced of (2b) but apparently thinks there’s something to it).

    Where do you see the argument concerning the rabbis’ occupations hitting?

    Do you see it as just showing it’s possible for a 1st century palestinian fisherman to be literate, or do you think of it as a way of arguing for (2a), i.e. establishing that the probability is not as low as Ferguson thinks it is?

    • My point is that, unless something is so unlikely that no amount of evidence can render it likely, then question of what is most common in the abstract really ought to be set aside. If there is no strong evidence that a fisherman, or any particular fisherman, authored a work, pointing out how few fishermen were authors adds nothing to the case. If there is evidence that a fisherman wrote a work, the fact that few others wrote detracts nothing from the case. Or at least, such considerations should not be considered relevant, in my opinion.

      • arcseconds

        So, you’re asserting (1).

        In which case, isn’t the point about the occupations of Rabbis irrelevant? By your own lights, it can’t have any bearing at all on the question and ought to be set aside.

        • It is certainly worth investigating whether or not it is relevant, isn’t it, before deciding? Surely if we found a different state of affairs, in which no one outside of aristocratic circles ever participated in scholarship or composition, then the point about fishermen might have some merit as evidence? Showing something is unprecedented is one thing, showing that it was not particularly common but not exceedingly rare is something else.

          • arcseconds

            I certainly think it’s relevant what previous occupation rabbis have when working out who is likely to be literate (and in which languages and to what degree).

            But then I also think the chances of some Galilean fisherman being literate in Greek is relevant when considering whether John the Apostle wrote the Gospel of John.

            But you appear to think the second is irrelevant, on the basis that “what is most common in the abstract really ought to be set aside”, and I can’t work out how you can say this and tell me that “pointing out how few fishermen were authors adds nothing to the case”, and yet still think that looking at the occupation of rabbis is at all relevant to the question.

            Isn’t that also ‘what is most common in the abstract’, and therefore shouldn’t that be set aside, by your own criteria?

            If it’s true that looking at how many fisherman were authors adds nothing to the case, isn’t it also true that looking at how many rabbis might have been fisherman also adds nothing to the case?

            (To say nothing of the fact that no-one asserts John was a rabbi, nor is anyone (so far as I know) commiting themselves to the idea he was compositionally literate in Hebrew, so you’re one further step removed from what Ferguson is asserting. You’re asking us to look at the breakdown of the occupations of rabbis in order to inform us about the case of a specific fisherman writing in Greek. At least he’s working with a relevant reference class.)

            If I didn’t already know that you generally are fairly consistent and that you don’t have any strong commitments about John writing John, this would look a lot like inconsistent application of criteria to argue for a pre-determined result.

            As it is I’m just confused as to why you’re prepared to look at the occupations of rabbis to tell us about John, but not prepared to look at the evidence for (the absence of) literacy in small-town Galilee.

          • OK, let me try this again, since perhaps I am simply not expressing myself clearly. And let me use my own lack of clarity as a profession.

            Let’s imagine that someone determines that on average, only one professor in a thousand is unclear when explaining something on his or her blog.

            Then you find me to have been unclear, and being aware of this calculation of the frequency of this phenomenon among professors, you decide to turn it into an argument about the probability that I am a professor.

            It is that attempt to use frequency, in a case in which something is infrequent but not extremely so, to evaluate the probability of one individual being in that smaller category. It simply does not make any kind of historical or even simply logical sense to me. While being a professor who is unclear may be rare, there is no genuine statistical unlikelihood that I could be one of the members of that subset. More professors are clear than are unclear, but unclear professors are still well represented, and having encountered evidence that I am a professor, and having encountered evidence that I am unclear, the appropriate response, in my opinion, is to regard me as a member of that smaller subcategory.

            Let me anticipate the possibility that you will ask about miracles again. The miracle question is akin, in my thinking, to the question of how many professors are aliens disguised as humans. Jokes aside, the answer is “None as far as we have any clear evidence to tell.” And so that either renders the probability so vanishingly small, or makes it simply incalculable, that one cannot go on to make an argument that someone is likely to be an extraterrestrial on the basis of such data.

            If something is a one-in-a-thousand case, you will expect to encounter it from time to time. If something is a never-seen-before case of something which has not been shown to even be a thing, then one might reasonably not expect to encounter it ever, and one might reasonably decide that anything offered as evidence of such a case in ancient literature might be better accounted for in other terms.

            Does that make sense?

          • If I know that 99.9% of blogging professors write clearly, how can I be anything other than justified in concluding that ceteris paribus an unclear blogger is unlikely to be a professor? Should I confess complete ignorance about the likelihood merely because one out of every thousand professors blogs unclearly?

          • Have you established that 99.9% of people connected with the fishing trade in ancient Galilee were incapable of composing a decent work, especially if they left that trade to become the apprentice of one or more rabbis?

          • Of course not, but that has nothing to do with the logic of your example. If literacy rates in general were less than 10% and literacy rates among the working classes were even lower, that seems like more than sufficient basis to conclude that it is unlikely that a fisherman wrote the gospel of John. Of course, if we had sufficient evidence to show that some particular fisherman had the capability to do so, that would change the conclusion, but we can’t ignore the general probability on the grounds that such a fisherman might exist.

          • There are debates about the precise extent of literacy (although no one disputes that it was low). There are also debates about whether literacy tended to be higher among Jews, given their emphasis on a sacred text. But it isn’t clear how that relates to this topic, which is not about literacy but about authorship in the ancient sense, and not putting pen to paper. Indeed, in this case, it is about the ability of someone previously connected to fishing to have served as the source of a work which was clearly written by someone else in its present form (as indicated by the distinction between that source and the “we” in chapter 21).

          • I agree that if the question is whether a fisherman could be the source of John’s gospel in some sense that didn’t depend on literacy, then the probability that a fisherman would have been illiterate is irrelevant. That wasn’t the question I was addressing though.

          • arcseconds

            So where does this leave your argument from evidence from the Talmud about the secular professions of rabbis that a fisherman could be a rabbi?

            I was taking it as being analogous to someone arguing both these points:

            *) “I don’t care whether it’s one out of a thousand professors that are unclear, or whether actually 99% of them are unclear: I’m going to ignore statistical data in favour of direct evidence about James.”

            *) “but did you know that actually lots of people with post-graduate degrees are considered by many to be really quite confusing? So it’s totally likely that James writes unclearly.”

            I hope you can see the inconsistent treatment of evidence here: ignoring statistical evidence in one case but accepting it in the other.

            Is the point then merely to establish that a literate person being a fisherman is not in the category of miracles and aliens disguised as professors?

          • Yes, the point is merely to establish that a fisherman being capable of composing (not necessarily literate, in the sense of scribal training) is not in the same category as miracles and aliens.

          • arcseconds

            Well, I’m glad I now understand what you took yourself to be proving.

            However, I’m not sure who your target is. Does anyone actually think that a Galilean fisherman being literate in Greek enough to write John is in fact in the same category as miracles and aliens?

            Certainly I don’t, and I’d be highly surprised if Ferguson (or, for that matter, anyone) put it in that category.

            And would you put the author of John being Chinese, or over 9′ tall, as being in the same category as miracles or aliens?

          • I would not. And again, the reason for not thinking the author of the Gospel was Chinese is that we have no shred of evidence that he was, not even in later traditions that might be judged historically dubious. If we had such traditions we might judge them not to contain historically accurate data. But once again, a calculation of the a priori likelihood of someone from China ending up in the Greek world and writing Greek would not be the reason for doing so. I imagine that the odds of Columbus making it to land alive were comparably slim, but such considerations become irrelevant once we have evidence that he did so.

          • arcseconds

            You’re dividing possibilities into two piles,

            (1) the nigh-impossible ‘aliens and miracles’ pile. You’re not going to think this happened pretty much no matter what the evidence, and

            (2) everything else, where you say you’re just going to ignore the background probability.

            One could say that in the first case, you think the low probability is all important and won’t allow any specific evidence to affect that, and in the second case you think the background probability is not important at all, and you’ll only pay attention to specific evidence.

            But it’s arbitrary and artificial to divide possibilities into two distinct categories like that. I’ve already tried to illustrate this with height: at some point perhaps a human being’s height does indeed become so outlandish that it’s in the ‘aliens and miracles’ case, and no evidence will convince us of a human being actually having that height. But that’s susceptible of the Sorites treatment: if that height is so tall as to be impossible, what about 1cm shorter? What about 1cm shorter than that?

            And we do of course have a famous account of someone being over 9′ tall: Goliath! You’ve admitted that this isn’t an aliens and miracles case, so according to what you say whenever this topic comes up, it seems we should put aside our qualms about > 9′ tall being statistically extremely unlikely, and only pay attention to the evidence, and in this case the text says he’s > 9′ tall.

            But I think the main reason people doubt that Goliath was really 9′ tall is, in fact, because it is actually statistically extremely unlikely.

            (I’m aware that some early manuscripts have a height around 6’7″ or something. So there is a case to be made that the height was once something considerably more believable and was later exaggerated. But even here, the 6’7″ height is treated differently from the > 9′ height: we’re far more inclined to believe the 6’7″ height. We don’t give a lot of credence to the idea that the >9′ height was the historic height and the 6’7″ was a later corruption.)

            Your attitude to the ‘aliens and miracles’ cases seems correct enough. And of course, when background probabilities become high enough, and the evidence becomes strong enough, the background probabilities do indeed become irrelevant. But you’re treating these two extreme cases as though there’s no ground in between them. Surely it’s more reasonable to admit that there’s a continuum of situations (which can be clearly illustrated with a naturally continuous variable, like height) and treat them in a continuous way.

            Why do you continue to argue as though people who do think things being prima facie statistically unlikely is a relevant consideration when assessing a particular historical case can’t then accept that the later evidence does in fact make it likely? Of course there can be further evidence that persuades. And there is such evidence in the case of Columbus. Once one has been persuaded by such evidence, of course re-consideration of the background frequency or whatever isn’t going to unpersuade you: it’s already been taken into account, and may well be not a very important consideration when compared with the other evidence.

            (in this regard, note that we both agree that there’s no very persuasive evidence that John the Apostle wrote John. )

            (Also, discovering the New World is not that unlikely. It has been discovered independently at least five times. So it’s a good deal more likely that a crew with sufficient seafaring capacity discovered the New World than some inhabitant of Palestine was >9′ tall, for example. But it is unlikely enough that we doubt accounts or theories involving this unless they have some reasonably persuasive evidence. )

            I don’t really understand the difficulty you’re having here. You have bought up William Lane Craig and Carrier in this sort of context before. And we have had the example of one of our Anonymouses, who really did refuse to update his priors in the face of new evidence. Have you settled on a simple recipe to exorcise bad Bayesianism which is perhaps a little too simple?

          • I don’t have a problem distinguishing between different degrees of probability in principle. In this case, the issue is showing that something is rarer than something else, but not for that reason inherently unlikely to be encountered, and using it as though it could demonstrate something about authorship.

  • Gary

    “The sages of the Talmud worked at many diverse occupations”…
    Seems like writing in Greek is a minor issue, compared with a Jewish fisherman becoming a representative of Greek philosophy and apparently rather anti-Jewish.

    • John has been described as the most Jewish precisely when it is the most anti-Jewish. There is nothing, in my opinion, in the Gospel of John that reflects Greek philosophy which was not already found in Jewish literature. The work seems to me to be profoundly and fundamentally Jewish, whoever one thinks wrote it.

      • Gary

        Perhaps. Although I get mixed messages. Oxford NRSV, on Gospel of John, “The audience of John consists of Greek speakers…Here we find two encomiums…farewell address known from both Jewish and Greek literature…”
        And a real strange “The Gospel discredits the religious authorities, whom it calls “the Jews”, by portraying…although it’s scathing portrayal of the “Jews” has opened John to charges of anti-Semitism, a careful reading reveals “the Jews” to be a class designation, not a religious or ethnic grouping…”
        Although a “careful” reading and a “plain” reading seem to be at odds. And historically, the Valentinian Gnostics and the ancient orthodox Christians seemed to be confused between the two as well. I can’t see a Jewish fisherman from Galilee, not just learning Greek, but absorbing Greek to the point of differentiating between a class designation Jew, and a religious Jew, and make it plain enough to his Greek audience, that he made no offense toward Jews in general. Guess I don’t see John being welcomed with open arms by his old, Jewish, mother, for a little Chicken soup and matzo balls, after writing what he did (or didn’t).

        • The Gospel of John uses the term “the Jews” ironically. The leaders of their community had defined them out. And so it is much like what we find in Gnosticism, which has rejected the god that Jews worship and yet is interpreting the Jewish Scriptures in a way that reflects a Jewish origin.

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