Objection: John was illiterate as reported in Acts 4:13, so there was no way he could have written the Gospel which bears his name. It is possible, some say, that he could have dictated it. However that is doubted by some literary analysts due to the literary and writing styles in Greek of both the Gospel of John and the epistles of John which vary considerably. They read as though they were composed by someone of medium to high writing skills, not that of a peasant farmer/fisherman.
This objection is usually offered as a generalization against all the Gospel authors. It is presumed that because the Apostles were poor peasants — more or less — and the Gospels are written with a stylistic quality we wouldn’t likely find among them. This objection to John, specifically, might be more appealing since we have four New Testament documents bearing the same author’s name. Having multiple written works by the same alleged author gives us the benefit of being able to compare them for internal linguistic consistency.
Let’s begin with the citation from Acts 4:13. Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. The basis for the objection seems to be founded on what uneducated and untrained means to Luke, the author of Acts. It should be kept in mind that he was recording the perception of Peter and John as the Sanhedrin saw them. Luke was a doctor and historian, both professions requiring an education. I’m not convinced uneducated and untrained necessarily means illiterate. It could be inferred without a stretch to mean that they were not what we consider formally educated in a university, like Luke. There were universities at the time where higher training in philosophies, medicines and whatnot were available. I think we can also reasonably conclude that Peter and John were probably literate, but not to the degree of scholars of the day given that their profession likely required some degree of written communication.
However, it certainly could be the case that John was illiterate at the time Acts 4:13 was written, I could grant that. What’s important to keep in mind though is that the Gospel according to John and his epistles were written some decades after the events in Acts. Given that John played a substantial role in the early Christian church, it’s well within reason to presume that he would have learned to read and write in the 40-60 years between the events in Acts and his Gospel being put to paper. This objection fails to take into account that there was passage of time between John being described as uneducated and untrained (or illiterate) and when the Gospel according to John was written.
But even if he, John, were illiterate, I still think it is not out of the realm of reasonable possibility to have the Gospel and epistles penned for him. Some might hold this against the supposed authors of the New Testament. That if the attributed author didn’t actually set pen to paper this somehow diminishes its authenticity or authority. I, however, don’t think it’s any liability if it were to turn out that they were written by someone who was highly educated and dictated by the Apostle. Transcribers could be hired, and given the weight of the document and the growth of the church, I think that it is certainly reasonable to believe that an educated convert to Christianity could have taken John’s dictation for the good of the movement, so to speak. It has been my experience within the church that members often do favors for one another. People barter. There are favors done for good friends, especially if you have a skill they don’t. I have a friend who’s expertise is in computer engineering, I also have a mechanic friend. Both of them do very expensive work for me at a fraction of the cost, many times at no cost at all.
What about the differences in styles? Many critics of New Testament authorship build their critique on what they consider to be significant variation in writing styles between works by the same author. Bart Ehrman makes this the crux of his argument in his book Forged. And while I agree there might be differences in writing styles and vocabulary, and even broad differences, this is only a liability of we posit the corpus of works were completed in one sitting by John himself, or a scribe. But they weren’t. They were written over a span of time. In fact, my writing style (vocab, structure, content type, and flow) here on this blog has changed drastically over the last 3 years. I would bet all the money I could borrow that if we gave my earliest posts and some of my last to an analyst, they’d conclude they were different authors. Same could easily be true with John’s (or Paul’s) writings.
I am unconvinced that John (or the other Gospel authors for that matter) were illiterate. This notion trades on a rigid understanding of agrammatoi meaning illiterate without accounting for the fact that plenty of time had passed between the events in Acts and the authorship of John’s Gospel account in which he could have learned to write. The objection also fails to take into account that the Gospel and epistles were not written in one sitting, and would be the only situation with which literary styles varying as they do makes any substantial difference. It then stands to reason that John’s alleged illiteracy at the time Acts 4:13 was recorded offers no reasonable obstacle to accepting John’s Gospel as authentic. Given John’s position in the church it is very reasonable that he would have learned to read and write well in time to have penned the Gospel and epistles which bear his name.