Oral Culture and Chronology of the NT

10 Jul
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When were the books of the New Testament written? Many folks believe much of these books were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, and a lot of pressure has been placed upon the conservative biblical scholars to do the same. The reason has to do with the strong oral culture of the 1st century AD. However, oral culture should not be a consideration of any of the writings except for the Gospel narratives. The epistles were written for specific reasons, namely to correct certain problems that had arisen in the Messianic churches.

Many scholars, including some conservative scholars, believe Mark was written first and had to have been a major source for the other two Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke. However, this is not necessarily true, if one is to believe in a strong oral culture concerning the life, words and deeds of Jesus. Consider the following:

“Writing was usually seen as supplementary to the oral discourse. Orators should avoid note-books that were too detailed. One is reminded of Quintillian’s criticism of Laenas’ dependence on such notes and his clear-cut advice: “For my own part, however, I think we should not write anything which we do not intend to commit to memory”…Writing was not avoided as such, but functioned mainly as a memorandum of what the person already should remember from oral communication” [Samuel Byrskog: “Story as History” page116].

If writing was a supplement to oral discourse, there is no reason not to consider that records of Jesus’ discourses and mighty works were kept while he was yet alive. Matthew was a tax collector and was very handy at keeping records of the Jewish people for Roman interests. It is very reasonable to believe he kept on doing so, but about Jesus’ words and deeds, during Jesus’ ministry for the sake of the Twelve. The Gospel narratives often show the apostles discussing what Jesus did and said while they traveled. Moreover, Jesus often questioned them when they returned to “the house” in Galilee. This, when considered together, shows that oral tradition was not the “telephone game” we might play at parties today. It may be fun to see how an original statement becomes unrecognizable as it goes through the ears of about a dozen people or more at a party, but the oral tradition of the 1st century AD was not only very accurate, but was also supplemented with writing.

Among the Jews, rabbis were encouraged to memorize entire books of the OT, indeed the whole OT, and all of Jewish education consisted of rote memory. Students were expected to remember the major events of narratives – although incidentals could be varied, if the main point was not affected (Wilkins, Michael J. and J. P. Moreland, eds: “Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus,” p. 32; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995). This is reflected well in the differences in reportage that we find in the Gospels, for there we find an 80% agreement in the words of Jesus (Lentz, Tony M.: “Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece,” p.106; Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1989).

We all remember memorizing what we considered huge works when we were young and in school. I remember memorizing the Gettysburg Address when in 8th grade, and most of us could have recited it together without missing a beat or mixing the words. This is what the apostles were expected to do with what Jesus said and did. They weren’t playing “telephone” and hoping to get it right by the time Peter’s repetition of Jesus’ words got to Judas Iscariot. They were serious about remembering what Jesus said and did. They recited things together when they were away from the crowds, and were often questioned by Jesus either while they traveled together or when they were alone. This contributed very well to excellent memory recall.

The point is this. Perhaps you also memorized the Gettysburg address when you were in school. If we met, today, while traveling and the subject came up, we might be able to recite it together. For me this would be over 50 years after I first memorized the document. We could recite it together, though we never met before. We could quote it in works we chose to write to establish a point in our literary works, and we may quote the very same passages verbatim, yet we never met. How can that be? It is like an oral tradition.

The Gospel of Mark was Peter’s testimony, according to two of the church fathers of the 2nd century AD. Mark was Peter’s “secretary” and he wrote down what Peter testified in the churches at Rome at their request. Peter was one of the “inner three” who was always with Jesus. If any testimony was written down or learned, it would have been Peter’s testimony. However, this did not have to occur after Mark wrote what Peter testified in Rome, just before Peter was martyred. Peter’s testimony existed from the time of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the 30s AD. It is what he told people about Jesus from the very beginning.

The fact that Matthew and Luke quote so much of what Mark recorded doesn’t mean they had to have had Mark’s Gospel right before them when they wrote their Gospels years after Peter’s death. No, they could have written their Gospel narratives anytime after the death and resurrection of Jesus and still have had access to Peter’s testimony, because it is what he preached from the beginning and was, no doubt, written out in Aramaic very early. All of the New Testament, according to a church father of the 3rd century was written between the reigns of Tiberius and Nero! What should that tell you about the book of Revelation? What should it tell you about John’s Gospel and his letters?

Folks, there was an all-out assault made against the Messianic churches of the 1st century by the Jewish leadership at Jerusalem. This assault was empire-wide, and represented the final attempt of Annas, the Jewish High Priest, to destroy the Jesus movement. Many of the epistles and much of Revelation concern this assault and what believers at that time should expect to come upon them and what Jesus was doing to destroy his enemies. It all fits, but we need to consider it to see it. May God help us to do so, and may he be honored in our response.

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Posted by on July 10, 2010 in Gospel, Religion, Textual Criticism


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