By Evan D. Burns
Sometimes theological education can be downplayed as though it were an unnecessary hobby for left-brained seminarians. Unfortunately, rigorous biblical/theological training can be disparaged and treated as peripheral for “real” ministry to “real” people with “real” problems. Doctrine divides, Jesus unites; deeds, not creeds; practical application, not propositional truth… so goes the post-modern, anti-authoritarian mantra. One of the most oft-cited examples supposedly in support of this anti-intellectualism is that Jesus chose uneducated simpletons to be his disciples, not the highfalutin scribes and Pharisees, as though pure spirituality corresponds to untrained simple faith. However, this is not the case. Eckhard Schnabel explains in Early Christian Mission vol.1, 277-278:
The calling of the twelve disciples in Galilee must not be burdened with the view that Jesus called uneducated Galileans to the task of preaching and teaching. It is rather probable that Jesus’ disciples, including the fishermen Simon and Andrew, were educated.
According to John 1:44, Peter, Andrew and Philip came from Bethsaida, an up-and-coming town that was granted the status of a polis in A.D. 30 and was located in the vicinity of the Greek city Caesarea Philippi. Rainer Riesner argues that people “who grew up in such close proximity to a Hellenistic city must have spoken more than a few scraps of Greek. Thus John 12:21 presupposes that Philip could speak Greek.” Andrew, Philip and Simon had Greek names, which may not be coincidental. Riesner observes, “The Galilean fishermen in Jesus’ group of disciples belonged not to the rural lower class but to the vocational middle class. As the latter had religious interests, we may assume a certain degree of education in the case of the disciples such as Peter and John…. We may assume that several disciples came from that segment of the Jewish people who displayed religious interests and that they received, like Jesus, a good elementary education in the parental home, in the synagogue and in elementary school.” A Jew who came from a pious background “had a solid, albeit one-sided, education. He could read and write and he could retain large quantities of material in his memory by applying simple mnemonic devices…. Whether a boy of the lower classes received an elementary education depended on two preconditions: the piety of the father and the existence of a synagogue in the village.”
The view that Jesus had untutored disciples is a romantic and entirely unwarranted one. Note, for example, the calling of Matthew-Levi, a tax collector…. A tax collector belonged to the higher levels of society. His position presupposed not only that he was wealthy but also that he had…education.
Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Southeast Asia with his wife and twin sons. They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.