How do we know which disciples could read and write, or not? What other sources outside of the Bible tell us this? For example, Matthew was a tax collector before following Jesus, so would it not be reasonable to assume he could also read?

You are correct that Matthew was a thought to be a tax collector, and such people were probably able to read but not write—at the time these were separate skills. . You’ll notice, by way of illustration, that Paul dictates his letters to a trained scribe.  (Some argue that Jesus would not have been able to read, but others say he would have needed rudimentary reading at least to work as a carpenter in Carpernaum).

Some tax-collecting jobs did not require literacy, according to Bart Ehrman, who believes that if Matthew was an Aramaic-speaking northern Jew like Jesus was, he was probably illiterate, because 97% of the region was illiterate. Even if he were literate, he would have known Aramaic, not high-level Greek. Again, it’s possible that a worker in Carpernaum, the nearest Roman city, would have been able to read rudimentary Greek to do business. But the Gospel attributed to Matthew is written in advanced Greek, and it uses Greek sources, too (again, I cite Ehrman’s blog).

But even if there was a Matthew the tax collector, and even if he could read and write in Greek, there’s no evidence that Matthew the tax collector actually wrote the gospel attributed to him. The first time we know the texts were attributed to Matthew, Mark, etc. was 180 CE, so about 150 years after events and about 120 years after the last known original followers of Jesus, Peter and James, had been executed. The earliest manuscript of Matthew we have dates from 150-250 CE. This doesn’t mean that the gospel wasn’t written much earlier, but it does mean we have a copy that was recopied and conceivably altered.

Furthermore, nowhere does the gospel attribute itself to Matthew, if he existed (the other gospels refer to Levi the tax collector, not Matthew).

Some parts of the gospels were added much later–for example, the prohibition against throwing stones dates from the middle ages. All this means that the literal truth of the events in the gospels, as well as their authorship, is a matter of faith and conjecture, not fact. The scholar who’s made a name for himself in this field is Bart Ehrman, who still teaches at UNC Chapel Hill. Here’s his take on this subject (part of the article is behind a paywall, but you will get the idea, I think).

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