Tag Archives: history of the Bible

Were the early Christians capable of producing the Gospels?

Skeptics of the historical accuracy of the New Testament often think that first-century Jews living in the Roman Empire were overwhelmingly illiterate and hence incapable of producing an accurate written record of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Some of the reasons given for the low literacy rates within the Roman empire are 1) there was no need for writing among the lower classes, 2) the lack of public education inhibited literacy, and 3) the prohibitive cost of writing materials made it difficult for people to afford to learn the skill.[1]

We now know that literacy within the first-century Palestinian and Roman cultures was much more widespread than these skeptics assume. Literacy was actually highly prized in the first-century Roman Empire. It allowed people to read publicly posted documents, deal with legal matters, and operate businesses.

Many surviving examples suggest literacy levels were relatively high and widespread. These examples include personal letters, legal deeds, divorce certificates, writing on coins, and household inscriptions that were clearly not written by scribes. [2]

But the primary reason to believe that Jesus’ first followers were capable of producing the documents that would later become the Gospels is that the witnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry were not just run-of-the-mill inhabitants of the Roman Empire; they were Palestinian Jews.[3]

Jewish culture, more any other ancient culture, was founded on familiarity with a written document—the Mosaic Law.[4] Every synagogue in every small community, no matter how rudimentary and humble, was a center for religious teaching that included passing on the ability to read and discuss the Scriptures.

Internal evidence within the New Testament reinforces the view that written records were made of Jesus’ teaching long before the Gospels were written. We have good reason to believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were supported by written as well as oral sources from the very beginning.[5] The early followers of Jesus were more than capable of faithfully chronicling His message for future generations to read.

[1] Where literacy exists, people have always been highly motivated to learn to read and write. Just as parents would pass along other skills to children, they pass along any literacy they had gained. Even rudimentary skills in reading and writing are useful, and anyone who wants to learn how to read could certainly find ways of doing so. Within the Roman Empire, even the lower classes were highly motivated to attain a degree of literacy and adept at improvising less expensive writing materials than papyrus and parchment.

[2] (The Jesus Legend, p. 244).

[3] The great volume of writings found at Qumran testifies to a high degree of Jewish literacy. Jesus’ followers “were not all illiterate peasant laborers and craftsmen, as the form critics supposed, but evidently included people who studied the Scriptures with current exegetical skills and could write works with the literary quality of the letter of James. Leaders who were not themselves literate could employ the services of other believers who were” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 287).

[4] “These are the commands, decrees, and regulations that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you. You must obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy, and you and your children and grandchildren must fear the Lord your God as long as you live. If you obey all his decrees and commands, you will enjoy a long life. Listen closely, Israel, and be careful to obey. Then all will go well with you, and you will have many children in the land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.* And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:1-9 NLT)

[5] Luke notes, quite incidentally, that “many” before him had attempted to write accounts of what went on among the early Christians (Luke 1:1). In addition, some of Paul’s sayings in his letters parallel sayings in the Gospel traditions. This may suggest that sayings were written down and circulated well before the Gospels were written. Even more forceful, however, are the strong verbal similarities between Mathew and Luke when recording material not found in Mark. These similarities can be accounted for most easily by supposing that Matthew and Luke shared a common written source (Q). And, as a number of scholars have noted, there is ample evidence of early collections of Old Testament proof-texts (testimonia) in written form that were apparently used in preaching and in apologetic settings in the early church (The Jesus Legend, p. 250).

Did this answer your question?
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (6 votes, average: 2.00 out of 5)
Loading...