By Bob Wilkin
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus. –Acts 4:3
Education in the first century was far different from what it is today. Children of the rich were taught how to read and write either with a tutor in the home or in public education. Poor children, especially in Gentile families, lacked formal education. Illiteracy was widespread in the first century. Some estimate that only 1.5% to 3% of the Jews in Israel in the first century could read and write. Even if those figures are low, it is clear that well over 50% of Jews and Gentiles in the first century were illiterate.
Most of the education first century Jews received was in the synagogues when they heard the OT Scriptures being taught.
For rich children, their initial education, consisting of reading, writing, and arithmetic, ended around age 11 or 12. They would then continue for several more years for additional training, ending their education around age 14, unless they were to go on for even more advanced training.
While there were schools for higher learning, they did not have large faculties like we have today. Most schools would have one teacher or rabbi who would mentor a group of students. Of course, they had trades, and many entered apprenticeship programs where they would learn under a skilled craftsman.
Peter and John had not gone to any of the recognized schools. You see, when they were trained at the feet of Jesus for three and a half years, that was not thought of as school by the religious leaders. However, that is how rabbis mentored their students. The rabbi would sit, and his students would sit around him and learn. Remember when Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to Him teach. She was actually sitting in on one of His classes.
It has been estimated that Jesus taught the disciples for several hours each day privately. In addition, they were able to hear Him teach publicly on most days as well. In three and a half years, they received more instruction from the Lord Jesus Christ than a seminarian would receive in earning a doctorate today. While Peter and John were viewed as “uneducated and untrained,” they actually had doctorates in theology and pastoral ministry from the King’s seminary. It dawned on those who heard Peter and John that Jesus must have been a fantastic teacher (“they realized that they had been with Jesus”).
I’ve heard disparaging statements today about people who lack formal theological education. I’ve even heard this about people who graduated from schools like Dallas Theological Seminary, my alma mater.
When René López was in the doctoral program at DTS, he attempted to quote Zane Hodges and Jody Dillow in his dissertation. He was told that those quotations were inappropriate for his dissertation because they were not published in scholarly publications. Even though Hodges taught for 27 years at DTS and Dillow had both a Th.M. and Ph.D. from DTS, their writings were considered unscholarly since they were not published in peer-reviewed journals or by scholarly publishers.
Some think that the only truly scholarly theological schools today are those that are recognized by the scholars as being scholarly! In the U.S., there are only a handful of scholarly schools for theology, including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Princeton, and the University of Chicago. Oxford, Cambridge, Tübingen, and Edinburgh are highly regarded in Europe. You are a true scholar if you receive a doctorate from such a school today.
But what if you get a doctorate from Talbot, DTS, Southwestern, Southern, Southeastern, Liberty, Moody, Multnomah, or a host of other schools that are not one of the top 100 theological schools in the world?1 Then you would not be someone recognized as a scholar.
I do appreciate all the hard work and effort it takes to get a doctorate from a leading theological school. I am impressed by the person’s intellect, drive, and perseverance. However, I also feel sorry for him. Having gone to such a school almost guarantees that he has lost his way spiritually.
What impresses me is a person’s ability to exegete and explain God’s Word well. If someone like Spurgeon or Ironside can do that, even without having gone to college,2 I value his writings regardless. If someone can’t exegete and explain God’s Word well, then I do not value that person’s writings.
I remember my rabbi, Zane Hodges, applying James 4:4 one day in class. That is where James says that “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” Zane said something like this, If you wish to be a Bible scholar that the scholarly world will recognize as a true scholar, then you will not be a friend of God. You need to decide now, men, whether you want the approval of the world or of the Lord Jesus Christ. I was moved by his comment.3
Theologians with doctorates from leading schools consider men like Hodges and Dillow to be uneducated and untrained. Their writings don’t count. But maybe God thinks otherwise, just as God thought that John and Peter were two of the most educated and trained men in all of human history.
Bob Wilkin is Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society. He lives in Highland Village, TX, with his wife of 46 years, Sharon. He is an avid race walker and marathon walker.
1 For a list of what are considered the top 100 theological schools in the world, see here: https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/university-subject-rankings/2020/theology-divinity-religious-studies.
2 Ironside quit school after eighth grade.
3 Starting in September of this year, GES will begin offering free online courses for seminary and Bible college students, pastors, church leaders, and missionaries. The first class will be taught by
me and will be on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. If you are interested in taking that or subsequent classes, email us at ges@ faithalone.org. (The first course will be free. As long as one passes a given course, subsequent courses will be free as well.)