From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts—Writing and the Early Christians
COUNTLESS generations of believers have devoted endless hours to reading, studying, and analyzing some of the most famous writings ever produced—those of the New Testament, as the Christian Greek Scriptures are commonly called. Those writings, along with the rest of the Bible, have greatly influenced our world, framed morals and ethics, and provided inspiration for literature and the arts. Above all, they have helped millions of people—possibly including you—get accurate knowledge about God and Jesus.—John 17:3.
The Gospels, as well as the rest of the Christian Greek Scriptures, were not written immediately following the death of Jesus. Matthew apparently wrote his Gospel about 7 or 8 years later, and John wrote his about 65 years later. How were they able to record the words and deeds of Jesus with unerring accuracy? Clearly, God’s holy spirit played an active role in guiding them. (John 14:16, 26) How, though, were the teachings of Jesus passed on accurately, eventually becoming a part of the Sacred Scriptures?
During the past century, some have speculated that Jesus’ early disciples were not inclined to write down the teachings and deeds of Jesus but that they passed them on by word of mouth. For example, one scholar states: “There was a gap of several decades between the public ministry of Jesus and the writing down of his words by the authors of the Gospels. During this time what was known about Jesus was handed on orally.” Some researchers even argue that Jesus’ early disciples “were technically illiterate.” * Further, they say that during the decades of oral transmission, the accounts of Jesus’ ministry were expanded on, adapted, or elaborated on. The result, they claim, was far from an accurate account of the events.
Another theory favored by some scholars is that Jesus’ close Jewish disciples probably followed the rabbinic method of teaching—memorization by routine and repetition—which contributed to the accuracy in oral transmission. Did the disciples rely solely on word of mouth? Or could writing have played a role in the preservation of the record of Jesus’ ministry? While we cannot be absolutely certain, it is possible that writing did play such a role.
Everyday Use of Writing
In the first century, people of all sorts knew how to read and write. On this point, Alan Millard, professor of Hebrew and ancient Semitic languages, observed: “Writing in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew was widespread and could be found at all levels of society.” He adds: “That was the environment in which Jesus worked.”
Regarding the assertion that the Gospel texts “arose in an entirely illiterate society,” Professor Millard writes: “That is an unlikely picture, [as] writing would have been known about everywhere . . . Consequently, there were usually people present who could have written something they heard, whether for their own reference or to inform others.”
Apparently, waxed writing tablets were readily available and could be used to jot down information. An example of this is found in the first chapter of Luke. Zechariah, who had temporarily lost the ability to speak, was asked what name he wanted his son to have. Verse 63 says: “He asked [apparently using gestures] for a tablet and wrote: ‘John is its name.’” Bible dictionaries explain that the word “tablet” may have referred to a wooden writing board probably overlaid with wax. Someone present may have had a writing board with him, readily available for Zechariah to write on.
Another example illustrates that writing boards and their use were evidently known at this time. In the book of Acts, we read that Peter was speaking to a crowd in the temple area, exhorting them: “Repent . . . get your sins blotted out.” (Acts 3:11, 19) The expression ‘get blotted out’ comes from a Greek verb that means “wipe out, erase.” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains: “The image expressed by the verb here and perhaps elsewhere is most probably smoothing the surface of a wax writing-tablet for re-use.”
The Gospel accounts also show that Jesus’ followers and audiences included people who likely used writing in their everyday work. There were, for example, the tax collectors Matthew and Zacchaeus (Matthew 9:9; Luke 19:2); a synagogue officer (Mark 5:22); an army officer (Matthew 8:5); Joanna, wife of a high official under Herod Antipas (Luke 8:3); as well as scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and members of the Sanhedrin. (Matthew 21:23, 45; 22:23; 26:59) No doubt, many—if not all—of Jesus’ apostles and disciples were able to write.
Students, Teachers, and Writers
To be Christian teachers, the disciples needed not only to know what Jesus said and did but also to understand how the Law and prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures applied to the Christ. (Acts 18:5) Interestingly, Luke recorded one meeting Jesus had with some of his disciples shortly after his resurrection. What did Jesus do? “Commencing at Moses and all the Prophets he interpreted to them things pertaining to himself in all the Scriptures.” Shortly thereafter, Jesus told the disciples: “‘These are my words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all the things written in the law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms about me must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened up their minds fully to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:27, 44, 45) Later, the disciples “called to mind” the insight Jesus had given them.—John 12:16.
These accounts suggest that the apostles and disciples must have applied themselves diligently to searching and studying the Scriptures so that they could fully understand the meaning of what they saw and heard with regard to their Lord, Jesus Christ. (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 17:11) On this, Harry Y. Gamble, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, writes: “It can hardly be doubted that from the beginning there were Christians, probably groups of them, who devoted themselves to the close study and interpretation of Jewish scripture, constructing from it the textual warrants [proofs] of Christian convictions and making those texts serviceable for Christian preaching.”
All of this indicates that rather than depending solely on oral transmission, Jesus’ early disciples were very much involved in studying, reading, and writing. They were students, teachers, and writers. Above all, they were spiritual men who relied on the holy spirit to guide them. Jesus assured them that “the spirit of the truth” would ‘bring back to their minds all the things he had told them.’ (John 14:17, 26) God’s holy spirit helped them both to remember and to put into writing what Jesus did and said, even lengthy quotations, such as the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew, chapters 5-7) The spirit also guided the Gospel writers in recording what Jesus at times felt and what he said in prayer.—Matthew 4:2; 9:36; John 17:1-26.
So while the Gospel writers doubtless made use of both oral and written sources, the things they recorded had a far more reliable and supremely elevated source—Jehovah God himself. Hence, we may have absolute confidence that “all Scripture is inspired of God” and can teach and guide us in doing the things pleasing to him.—2 Timothy 3:16.
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Jesus’ followers included people who likely used writing in their everyday work
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God’s holy spirit helped Jesus’ early disciples remember and write down what he did and said
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Were the Apostles Illiterate?
When the rulers and older men of Jerusalem “beheld the outspokenness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were men unlettered and ordinary, they got to wondering.” (Acts 4:13) Were the apostles really unlettered, or illiterate? Regarding this assertion, The New Interpreter’s Bible comments: “These terms are probably not to be taken literally as though Peter [and John] were unschooled and could not write or read. They simply recognize the profound difference in social class between those sitting in judgment and the apostles.”
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“He asked for a tablet and wrote: ‘John is its name’”
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A waxed tablet with writing instruments from the first or second century C.E.
© British Museum/Art Resource, NY