This is a question that must be explored. A Yes to the question would give a huge boost to the reliability of the Gospels.
This article explores a possible way the traditions were treasured during Jesus’ ministry, with a glance at afterwards, during the gap.
Were at least some of the traditions about Jesus written down, if only in notes, before the four Biblical Gospels were written? Strong circumstantial evidence says yes. Maybe – just maybe – nearly direct evidence affirms this possibility, also.
The goal of the series, including Part Eight here, is to bring onto the web what scholars say in their books, specifically, scholarship that upholds a traditional view of Scripture. The series is intended for the laity, so I use the Q & A format, for clarity.
Here are my reminders again. I repeat them in each article, since readers may look at only one article, not the whole series. Recall that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of passages in common, so they are called the synoptic Gospels (synoptic means viewed together). The authors are sometimes called synoptists. The writers of the four Gospels are also called evangelists.
This is Part Eight on the historical reliability of the Gospels. The series has nothing to do with the inerrancy or inspiration of the Gospels, though nothing in this article contradicts those doctrines.
The three previous articles analyzed how the traditions about Jesus were handled and handed on during this gap:
Jesus’ Ministry | | Written Synoptic Gospels
This post looks into the gap too.
1. So what are scholars saying about early written Jesus traditions?
Here are some representative scholars, whose publications have been numbered for clarity. They are placed in chronological order of their publication.
(1) Edgar J. Goodspeed uses analogies in the larger Greco-Roman world and the Jewish environment in Israel to compare to Matthew’s Gospel. Goodspeed says that Matthew the tax collector may have written down some of Jesus’ teachings. Indeed, it would have been strange if Matthew had not. Plus, Goodspeed writes: “[Jesus] now has a secretary, a recorder, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah had, to such tremendous advantage!” (p. 10). A little later Goodspeed writes: “Tax collectors were not only proficient in writing but many of them knew shorthand, in Jesus’ times and a hundred years before. While we cannot say that Matthew used it in taking down Jesus’ utterances . . . even without it dictation could be taken down with great speed” (p. 17).
(2) Jewish scholar Saul Lieberman, an expert in Talmudic literature, offers a brief summary of the possible practice of Jesus’ disciples. Lieberman writes:
Now the Jewish disciples of Jesus, in accordance with the general rabbinic practice, wrote the sayings which their master pronounced not in a form of a book to be published, but as notes in their . . . codices [plural of codex or early book], in their note-books (or in private small rolls). They did this because otherwise they would have transgressed the law. In line with the foregoing we would naturally expect the logia [sayings] of Jesus to be originally copied in codices. (p. 205 emphasis original)
What Lieberman means about transgressing the law is that the Pharisees and the rabbis were careful not to publish formally the oral law in books, in case they were confused with the Law of Moses. But notes and notebooks or codices (early forms of the book) for note-taking of the oral law were acceptable.
(3) E. Earle Ellis comes up with several factors that indicate that “some written formulations of Jesus’ teachings were being transmitted among his followers during his earthly ministry” (p. 243). Some of these factors include the education of Jewish children, particularly in the synagogues that were located in Israel’s villages. “The picture of Jesus’ followers as simple, illiterate peasants is a romantic notion without historical basis. Unless it can be shown otherwise, it must be assumed that some of the disciples and / or their converts were capable of composing written traditions” (p. 243).
Next, Ellis notes that the Qumran community had no inhibitions about written commentaries and interpretations of sacred texts. Apparently the early rabbinic (Pharisaic) transmission was inhibited about writing their interpretations in case they may get confused with the Torah (first five books of the Bible) (pp. 243-44).
Further, Ellis connects some level of writing with the early mission of the Twelve during the ministry of Jesus and afterwards. The villagers and townspeople encountered growing opposition, so they were in need of teaching. Their social need called for some writing. “It is more plausible [than just oral teaching] to suppose that at least some written paradigms of the Lord’s pronouncements would be left with those who received his message of the kingdom” (p. 245).
Finally, Ellis says that some of Jesus’ travels took him into more or less Hellenized regions. For example, some of his disciples had Greek names: Andrew and Philip. They were from Bethsaida, a town located north of the Lake of Galilee and having a Gentile presence (or perhaps they were from the Bethsaida on the Lake of Galilee). The Decapolis was also influenced by Greek culture and language. “If he attracted such followers, he must have been concerned to mediate his teachings – and they to have them – in their own language” (p. 246). So this language need is a factor in producing early written documents in some form. Ellis reaffirms this factor in a later article (1999, pp. 53-54).
(4) Werner Kelber works hard at defending the oral nature of the pre-Synoptic traditions, but he concedes that their orality does not preclude written data. He writes: “The concept of a predominantly oral phase is not meant to dispense with the existence of notes and textual aids altogether. The Q tradition, other saying collections, anthologies of short stories, parables, miracles, and the like could well have existed in written form” (p. 23).
(5) Harry Y. Gamble takes up the topic of books and readers in the early church. Christianity grew out of Judaism, and the earlier religion valued literacy and the Book. The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews, and his followers preached to their fellow Jews. So those “who sought to persuade fellow Jews to their faith necessarily developed scriptural arguments, and there is every reason to suppose that the primitive church turned immediately to the study and interpretation of scripture and began to adduce those texts” . . . (p. 23).
Gamble points to Qumran texts in which Old Testament proof texts are compiled or strung together, so this provides the background for earliest Christianity to do the same (pp. 26-27). “There is, then, at least a strong circumstantial probability that collections of testimonies [proof texts] were current in the early church and should be reckoned among the lost items of the earliest Christian literature” (p. 27). In short, Gamble’s study demonstrates that the earliest Christians were attuned to the current exegetical and interpretive methods of their day. Eventually, their skills made it into the written synoptic Gospels that we have now.
(6) James M. Robinson is one of the foremost scholars on the hypothetical Q source and the Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi collection. He says that the pre-Synoptic traditions were not entirely oral: “The history of the synoptic tradition is no longer dependent only on the forms of oral transmission, but now has a series of written texts bridging much of the gulf back from the canonical [Biblical] gospels to Jesus” (p. 61). Thus, in his complicated study, he provides near-direct evidence that Q was written down, short of actually having an ancient manuscript in front of us.
(7) Samuel Byrskog explores the interrelations between the Gospels and histories, biographies and oral history. He also says that oral and written traditions were important for the earliest followers of Jesus. Spoken or written traditions are not mutually exclusive. Byrskog writes:
Oral and written transmission are not mutually exclusive alternatives and do not follow the logic of first oral and then written. In fact even ancient scribes, who were among the most literate in their society, can be seen as performers, not merely copyists, of written texts, being deeply influenced by their oral culture in which they lived. (pp. 139-40, emphasis original)
In the bigger picture, the disciples of Jesus would have breathed in, so to speak, this ethos or general character of the Greco-Roman world, particularly in the development of Q (material common in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark).
(8) In this list of scholars so far, Alan R. Millard did the most thorough study of reading and writing in the time of Jesus. Millard shows that Galilee was not an illiterate backwater. He summarizes an impressive array of material evidence. Key areas and cities in Galilee in the north match up well in Judea in the south, which has more evidence, since Jerusalem is the capital. For example, coin hoards in Galilee reveal the need for records and the existence of robust trade, along the trade routes. So what does Millar conclude?
The previous chapters [in his book] have shown the ubiquity of writing in first-century Palestine, the variety of writing material and scripts, and the range of circumstances in which people wrote. The last chapter made a case against the heavy emphasis placed upon oral tradition . . . This is not to say the Evangelists began to compose the Gospels in Jesus’ lifetime, but that some, possibly much, of their source material was preserved in writing from that period, especially accounts of the distinctive teachings and actions of Jesus. (pp. 222, 223-24)
(9) Birger Gerhardsson has done the most valuable pioneering work on the possible parallels between the rabbinic (Pharisaical) outlook and practices and the ministry of Jesus. Gerhardsson is careful to distinguish rabbinic (Pharisaical) practices before the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by the Roman General Titus, and afterwards. Gerhardsson had suffered from criticism for supposed simplicity, notably from Talmudic expert Jacob Neusner, but Neusner has since changed his mind and says so in a generous Foreword. But instead of using that linked book, I cite Gerhardsson’s later one, which puts together key articles. He writes on the possibility – or probability – of writing before the Biblical Gospels were written:
I still maintain that the Pharisees and their scribes distinguished between written and oral Torah already in New Testament times, and that they did not accept any official books containing oral Torah. But – and this is the point here – this practice did not prevent their making private notations of material found in the oral tradition. In other words, a distinction was made between official books and private memoranda. In the rabbinical tradition we can glimpse records of various kinds: “scrolls of secrets,” notebooks, and other memoranda. Such probably appeared among the students of Hillel and Shammai as early as Jesus’ time. Private notations of this kind were found above all in the schools of the Hellenistic world . . . (pp. 12-13, emphasis original, links added).
So both in rabbinic schools and the Hellenistic schools, notations were made. Gerhardsson’s point is clear. Would Jesus’ disciples fail to take notes on at least a few things?
(10) Peter M. Head adds a note to his earlier review (2002) of Alan Millard’s book Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. In 1999 archaeologists found a Hellenistic building with a storeroom of clay jars and 1,800 stamped bullae, which were used to seal and identify official documents written on papyri. The room served as a kind of archive and as storage for pottery. The location of the storeroom, dating from the mid second century BC, is a mere twenty miles from Capernaum, at Tel Kedesh in Upper Galilee. Head writes: . . . “This new piece of evidence offer a good fit with the broader picture that emerges from the wealth of evidence amassed by Millard, and as the jig-saw takes shape the emerging picture suggests that the production of written records would have had a place in the cultural milieu of the Galilean disciples of Jesus” (p. 345).
(11) Graham N. Stanton, in his study of the codex (an early form of the book) and the Christians’ use of it, shows how a modern scholar reasons by circumstantial evidence. He writes:
We know very little about the 30s and 40s of the first century, but we have enough evidence to confirm that in those decades Christian missionaries or teachers did not always have ready access to local synagogues in order to consult rolls of the Scriptures . . . Making their own copies was time-consuming and expensive. And carrying handfuls of rolls of favorite Christian Scriptures such as the Psalms and Isaiah on their often arduous journeys was not easy. So in all probability some kind of notebook was used for Scriptural excerpts which were prominent in early Christian preaching and teaching. (p. 182)
Then Stanton tells us:
The widely held view that the followers of Jesus were either illiterate or deliberately spurned the use of notes and notebooks for recording and transmitting Jesus traditions needs to be abandoned. Oral and written traditions were not like oil and water. They could exist side by side; orally transmitted traditions could be written down by the recipients – and written traditions could be memorized and passed on orally. (p. 189)
(12) In addition to Gerhardsson and Byrskog, no one explains the transmission process of the Jesus traditions as clearly as Richard Bauckham does. After describing the notebooks that the rabbis used, he expands the cultural context to the ancient world: “Such notebooks were in quite widespread use in the ancient world (2 Tim 4:13 refers to parchment notebooks Paul carried on his travels). It seems more probable than not that early Christians used them” (p. 288).
Next, but still under the twelfth point, Millard says, as noted, that literacy was fairly high in first-century Israel, but Bauckham acknowledges that this is a debated point; literacy may have been low. Still, though, Bauckham points out that “we should also notice that the followers of Jesus, both during his ministry and in the early church, were drawn from all classes of people. There would undoubtedly be not only members of the educated elite but also professional scribes and copyists” (p. 288). He then drops a hint that Matthew the tax collector would have been just such a professional (see Goodspeed, above).
To sum up this lengthy Q & A, for a long time in New Testament scholarship these opinions had been laughed out of court. Hardly anyone is laughing now. The practice of writing or note-taking during the ministry of Jesus and immediately afterwards must be taken seriously.
2. Is there Scriptural evidence for notebooks (of sorts) and for writing?
Yes, some direct pieces of evidence, others indirect, based on our knowledge of the historical context.
We already noted in the previous Q and A and the section on Bauckham that Paul used parchment notebooks (2 Tim. 4:13). Next, Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, called for a small tablet to write down his son’s name (Luke 1:63). The tablet was close at hand. Further, in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager the manager used written bills to settle his accounts (Luke 16:6-7). In this parable Jesus assumes that his listeners would take this kind of writing for granted, as if it is not unusual or outlandish. Also, Matthew or Levi (Matt. 9:9-13) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) are named as tax collectors, and, according to the historical context, they recorded sums and figures. Next, Cuza is named as the manager of Herod’s household, and, according to the historical context (see my book) notes and documentation were required to keep business in order (Luke 8:3). Finally, the scribes or teachers of the law, Pharisees, Roman government officials, and centurions would be used to writing, the Romans through assistants and secretaries. Millard concludes:
To imagine any of these people going out with papyrus roll, pen and ink to take down the words of a traveling preacher would be absurd. To imagine some of them opening note-books they carried for their day-to-day business, perhaps hung at the belt, and jotting down a few key striking sayings that they had heard, or writing a summary of what they had experienced while it was fresh in the memory is quite feasible. (p. 223)
3. Are these early possible notes and notebooks proto-Gospels?
No. Bauckham is on target when he writes: “Such notebooks would not be a wholly new factor in the process of transmission through memorization . . . They would simply have reinforced the capacity of oral transmission itself to preserve the traditions carefully. They should not be imagined as proto-Gospels” . . . (p. 289). Thus, they were used only in the transmission process, both oral and literary (written) traditions.
4. Do you have any examples of early writings that feed into the Synoptics?
The orality and literality of the traditions interpenetrated so deeply that we may not be able to uncover or distinguish the differences, in general (Bauckham, p. 289). But this scholar says:
If we take seriously the possibility that Jesus traditions were transmitted both orally and in written form, then an explanation [for the variations between parallel passages in material common to Matthew or Luke, but not Mark] is to hand. Q passages where there is close agreement may come from a written document or from more than one set of notes; where the level of agreement is low, oral traditions may have been used. (Stanton, p. 188)
You are invited to go to Young’s Literal Translation at Bible Gateway, and then type in those references. They also provide nearly direct evidence of written traditions.
5. Do written traditions mean that oral traditions never existed?
Not in the slightest. Each of these scholars clearly affirms the reality of oral traditions. Parts Five, Six, and Seven already discussed how they were handed on – very carefully and scrupulously. The truth is, both written and oral traditions existed, but orality is the most common way that the traditions were handed on.
6. What does all of this mean for the historical reliability of the Synoptics?
With the practice of writing described in this article, we are very close to the historical Jesus, even during his lifetime. Writing secures the traditions before they were included in the synoptic Gospels. Security implies reliability and stability in the transmission process.
However, if no disciple jotted things down during Jesus’ ministry, then the Gospel traditions were handed down orally, for a while. And we have already seen that this oral process was reliable (click on Parts Five to Seven).
But I see no reason to exclude the possibility — perhaps probability — that at least one disciple (possibly more) jotted a few things down. This would fit into the immediate Jewish and larger Greco-Roman cultures and schools, in regards to teachers and their students or disciples.
7. How does this information compare with the Gnostic texts?
The closer we get to the origins, the more we achieve accuracy as to what Jesus really said and did. Proximity to the source, among honest conveyers of information about it, implies reliability. On the other hand, the farther one strays from the source, the more likely it is that one lurches into error. Coming late (except for some passages that obviously derive from the Biblical Gospels), the Gnostic texts stray far from the source, so they lurch into errors. Therefore, they are much less accurate and reliable as to what Jesus really said and did.
It can be that simple.
8. So what does all of this mean to the Church of all denominations?
For many decades (from about 1920), hyper-skepticism has dominated the academic world in New Testament studies. To this day, it permeates many seminaries and churches. It leads to the conclusions, for example, that the words and deeds of Jesus were transformed or invented freely according to the needs of the later church. His words and deeds could not be attributed to him with any confidence. And the miracles were supposedly pious myths.
However, quite simply, with the advent of newer scholarship, it is clear that the synoptic Gospels reach back to the ministry of Jesus. When we read them, we can be sure that we hear his voice and his words. The Synoptics accurately convey his ministry.
Written by James Malcolm
Articles in the Series
8. Did Some Disciples Take Notes During Jesus’ Ministry?
Church fathers and the authorship of the four Gospels
Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts (Part 4 is the summary)
References and Further Reading
I recommend the books that have been linked, but they are for the advanced.
Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans, 2006.
Samuel Byrskog. Story as History, History as Story: the Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. Brill, 2000.
Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd. The Jesus Legend: a Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Traditions. Baker Academic, 2007. They cite other scholars, not mentioned here due to space, who believe that some of the traditions may have been written down.
—. Lord or Legend? Baker, 2007. I discovered this book belatedly. It’s written for the laity. It’s a clarification of their more academic book, noted in the previous entry. Definitely get it.
E. Earle Ellis. “New Directions in Form Criticism.” In Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity: New Testament Essays. Mohr, 1978. Pp. 237-53.
—. “The Synoptic Gospels and History.” In Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Ed. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans. Brill, 1999. Pp. 49-57.
Harry Y. Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. Yale, 1995.
Birger Gerhardsson. Reliability of the Gospel Tradition. Hendrickson, 2001.
Edgar J. Goodspeed. Matthew: Apostle and Evangelist. John C. Winston, 1959. This book has no link to amazon.com, but I recommend it if you can find it.
Peter M. Head. “A Further Note on Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus.” Evangelical Quarterly 75 (2003) 343-345.
Werner Kelber. The Oral and the Written Gospel. Fortress, 1983.
Saul Lieberman. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962.
Alan R. Millard. Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. NYUP, 2000.
James M. Robinson. “A Written Greek Sayings Cluster Older than Q: A Vestige.” Harvard Theological Review 92 (1999) 61-67.
Graham N. Stanton. Jesus and Gospel. Cambridge, 2004.