James Still's "Critique of New Testament Reliability and 'Bias' in NT Development"--my initial response (cont.).

Section Two: My Comments 9-12

In this first section of Jim's work, he attempts to summarize my arguments in "Bias?"...

(Several of these summaries of my arguments are accurate, and do not require response, but one or two notes might be made...)

The Arguments for Reliability

Miller makes five arguments for the integrity and veracity of the NT in general and the four canonical gospels in particular:

[I actually gave 9 arguments in the section entitled "Data advanced to show that the NT records are NOT embellishments or 'pious frauds'". I find it notable that Jim OMITS my argument FROM Form Criticism for the non-embellishment of the gospel accounts! (One of his main points in his argument is that Form Criticism is 'AGAINST me'; when in fact, it actually supports many of my conclusions (as noted in "Bias?").) ]

  1. The apostles are never legendized and are portrayed as normal, human beings complete with the foibles that such humanity entails. The apostles stood the most to gain from exaggerating their own exploits, but since they did not aggrandize themselves this argues against bias on their part. The texts themselves look and feel like narrative history, not a work of fiction.
  2. The early Church acted consistently in an anti-bias fashion, purging heretical texts from its own canon.

    [This is the only statement I want to interact with in Jim's summary. The church did not 'purge heretical texts from its own canon'--the texts NEVER MADE it to the 'canon'. In this process the church accepted the principle of apostolicity as the basic difference between NT 'scripture' and 'good Christian literature'. (I have discussed much of this material elsewhere, and will deal with it again below.)]

    [On the other hand, it did have a HUGE problem sorting through the spectrum of beliefs that arose during this formative period. We will see below that this challenge of being true to the original revelation, while working out the implications of it for their situation in history was a most difficult task!]

    This preserved the integrity of the texts as we have them today because they "knew the difference" between "reliable and unreliable reports" and "opted for [the] truth."

  3. The miracles that Jesus performed were unique in their telling and were not told with a flair that would indicate exaggeration or fabrication.
  4. Each gospel was written without the influence of the other writers in different parts of the known world. As such, they constitute "five to eight independent witnesses" to the miracle accounts which indicates that the miracles ring true. Although the gospels share "some data" they have a very different "development path" using different literary styles and oral traditions as their foundation. Since each gospel seems to derive from a different source (the Synoptic problem) and yet tell the same story, we have excellent evidence for an unbiased and historically truthful account of Jesus' ministry.
  5. Even where the gospels do share a like source, e.g., Mark was used by both Matthew and Luke, "there is no tendency to embellish the narratives. The writers seem to function as responsible scribes, in an area in which it would be easy/natural to embellish or fabricate." Given that there were many places where the authors could have placed "innocent" statements to embellish Jesus and they did not, we can rely on the gospel narratives as historically valid accounts.

Miller also argues that the time period was too short between Jesus' own ministry and the appearance of these documents to indicate wholesale fabrication in the manner so typical of the Hellenistic "divine man" gods of the period. Because the Jesus movement arose so quickly, there must have been a real, historical Jesus that catalyzed it early on. The fabricated gods of the pagan world took centuries to fully develop into their final characterization.

Since we see a good number of seemingly contradictory statements, where different authors seem to disagree with each other on minor points, this further argues for veracity over legend because if the authors were creating a legend, they would have smoothed over all of these contradictions. Just because we find a few problems with the texts, that is no reason to throw out the entire NT as too problematical to accept.

Rebuttal and Response to NT Reliability

The NT Texts

Miller's argument rests on two assumed premises: the apostles were themselves the gospel authors, and that their original writings are more or less exactly as we have them today.

Comment 09

A couple of remarks about these two premises:

First. That the apostles were themselves the gospel authors.

Actually, I do NOT hold to that position, as stated. What I DO believe is that two of them were written by apostles (i.e. Matthew and John), that Luke was written by Luke (not an apostle, but an early disciple, most closely associated with Paul), that Mark was written by Mark, a follower of Peter. I will get into the REASONS I believe this below, in the section in Jim's piece that deals with the origin of the NT.

[However, I DID find a statement in my "BIAS?" article that would suggest that I believed that, and will be expanding and clarifying that section soon. I owe the detection of this misleading passage in my work to Jim--my thanks to him.]

Second. That the 'original writings are more or less exactly as we have them today.'

I need to make a qualification or two here:

    1. As indicated in the quote from Aland and Aland above, we have NO TEXTUAL "HARD" DATA to support the view that the opposite is true;

    2. As long as a wide range of textual variants are allowed in the phrase 'more or less exactly as we have them today', I can agree that this is my position. The original works, that show up in our manuscript histories, have a general rhetorical 'closure' about them--they appear as 'finished works' and can EASILY be understood as such. (The whole discipline of redaction criticism PRESUPPOSES a closure of the texts before us.) There are open questions still in this, of course, such as the abrupt ending of Mark (probably due to a missing last page in the original codex, see COMFORT:49), but the NT as we have it, at the END of the textual critic's work, is essentially that of finished literary wholes.

    3. As we will see in the following discussion, this position does NOT preclude the use of sources by the gospel writers. Obviously, Luke SPECIFICALLY tells us he consulted sources (Luke 1.1f):

    Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

    And that Mark used Peter as a source is explicitly stated in one of the earliest (and best) data points we have on the origin on the NT--the testimony of Papias, recorded by Eusebius (in Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15):

    And the presbyter [Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia of Asia Minor until about 130ad.] used to say this, "Mark became Peter's interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord's oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them."

My point here is that (1) we have strong, non-conjectural data that the NT writers used sources, and (2) that the manuscript tradition and rhetorical analysis DOES NOT INDICATE the existence of 'earlier layers' embellished by the writers. [The argument that Form Criticism has identified such layers is the subject of a later comment.]

As we shall see, both of these premises are naive, unfounded, and haven't been taken seriously by biblical scholars for decades.

Comment 10

Jim here has made a rather sweeping statement, but since he says 'as we shall see', I will wait to make my major reply when (and "if") he get to his 'demonstration'.

But just for the record:

1. "Naive" - This is hard to respond to, actually. I will simply have to let the reader decide on how simplistic I am, or to what extent I interact with the material at a superficial and uncritical level.

2. "Unfounded" -- I have already said it a hundred times: every scrap of historical data we have (non-conjectural!) indicates that our existing NT documents are 'more or less' the same as the originals; and (as I will show later) that every scrap of 1-3rd century witnesses testify to the apostolic and sub-apostolic authorship of the gospels. It is ONLY 'conjectural' work that will construct elaborate theories of gospel construction (that would make Ockham blanch!). These theories will find NO basis in actually parallel data, and the mixture of presuppositions and dissimilar 'parallels' (e.g. German folk tales?!) are entirely inappropriate for basing theories of NT development on.

3. "No biblical scholars for decades" - I don't know how restricted his reading is, but a strong minority of English-speaking NT scholarship has been surprisingly 'conservative' in these matters, with serious scholars such as Bruce, D. Guthrie, I.H. Marshall, John Wenham, Craig Blomberg, R.T. France. [I also gave some data in "BIAS?" on this.]

But more on this, when he gets to it.

To expose these two fallacies, we must look closer at the origins of early Christianity as well as the evolution and historicity of the NT manuscripts.

The manuscripts of the NT were written in Greek. It is argued that there may have existed an Aramaic source for the Synoptic gospels, especially Mark's gospel, but the evidence is still inconclusive. The earliest incomplete texts of the NT--the Beatty papyri and the Bodmer papyri--date from the third century CE. Unfortunately these exist only as tiny fragments of various texts.

Comment 11

Jim needs to update/brush up on this textual data here. (All of the below data are from ATNT, MTNT3,EMMT, COMFORT)

First, as to his remarks that these texts are 'tiny fragments'. Let's look at each of the two collections.

The Beatty papyri.
The major papyri in this collection are p45, p46, p47.

Depending on how one defines 'tiny', this set of mss ALONE comprise a 'non-tiny' fragment collection!

The Bodmer papyri.
The major papyri in this collection are p66, p72, p75.

Again, substantial portions of the NT (as opposed to 'tiny fragments'). And, notice that several of these large mss. date from the 2nd century and not from the third (contra Jim's statement).

But what about OTHER papyri, not included in the Beatty and Bodmer collections? Are there any other mss. that would give us clues as to how early the NT was written and in circulation?

Aland and Aland (NT:ATNT: 85f) summarize the significance of p52 and the Beatty collection:

We cannot conclude this survey of the papyri without some further comments on the truly amazing discoveries of the past generation. The critical significance of p52, which preserves only a fragment of John 18, lies in the date of 'about 125' assigned to it by the leading papyrologists. Although 'about 125' allows for leeway of about twenty-five years on either side, the consensus has come in recent years to regard 125 as representing the later limit, so that p52 must have been copied very soon after the Gospel of John was itself written in the early 90's A.D. (with the recent discovery of p90 another second century fragment of the Gospel of John is now known). It provides a critical witness to the quality of the New Testament textual tradition, further confirming it by exhibiting a 'normal text', i.e., attesting the text of today (that of Nestle-Aland26 and GNT3). While it is true that papyri from the third century were known before the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri, none of them was as early as p46, which contains the Pauline letters and has been dated 'about 200' (with some leeway on either side). But more significantly, all the early papyri known previously contain no more than a few verses of the New Testament text, with the exception of p15 from the third century which preserves almost a whole leaf. Now for the first time entire New Testament writings became available from the early period.

And, skipping a bit ahead...

One of the issues that will come up later is how much modification of the texts occurred during the 4th century by the Church. Jim's position will be that wholesale modifications of the text occurred during this period. These 'hard data' mss. SHOULD exert control over these theories of massive recensions and revisions. And the significance of textual finds in this direction is argued by Aland (NT:ATNT: 87):

The implications of Papyrus Bodmer XIV/XV (p75) of the gospels of Luke and John went even further. Written somewhat later (than p66), at the beginning of the third century, it comprised twenty-seven almost perfectly preserved sheets together with a part of their binding. This papyrus marked another revolution in our understanding of how the New Testament text developed: its text proved to be so close to that of Codex Vaticanus (B) that the theory of recensions, i.e., of thoroughgoing revisions of the New Testament text made in the fourth century, was no longer defensible. One of the main pillars supporting the dominant theory of New Testament textual history was now demolished.

Note my point again here: The HARD DATA argues for an early, a complete, and an un-distorted NT! This HARD DATA counts so much more to me that speculations about what 'an early Church COULD have believed'...

But I get ahead of myself...

Papyrus was in use prior to the fourth century and was a very perishable substance. Beginning in the fourth century, the more durable vellum, made from the scraped skin of goats and sheep, quickly replaced papyri as the preferred writing medium. The first complete manuscripts we have--the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus--date to the fourth century. These complete codices are also in Greek and their dates of composition have been well-established among biblical scholars and linguists. We have no original autographs, extant fragments or manuscripts which date to the first or second centuries and to the time of Christ. With respect to everything that we know about Jesus, these manuscripts are our only authority and despite the 300-year gap between these two extant codices and Jesus, they will have to suffice.

[See Comment 11 above on this--I list the major mss., covering virtually ALL of the NT, ALL of which was in the period early 2nd-middle 3rd century, ALL of which is documented in the standard textbooks of NT Textual Criticism. I have no idea why Jim is so far off on this data.]

And...just for the record...EVEN IF we didn't have a SINGLE manuscript...

"Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church Fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient ALONE for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament" (Bruce Metzger, TNT2, p86; emphasis mine.)
Jim's phrase 'they will have to suffice' sounds a bit frugal, doesn't it?! ;>)

Before there existed any writings of Jesus on papyri, stories about Jesus were spoken orally between people and communities. If the earliest manuscripts began appearing around 50 CE as many scholars conclude, then the oral tradition, as it is known, preserved the deeds and activities of Jesus for around 13 years prior to their eventual codification. These "proto-gospels" were copied and reproduced well before the invention of the printing press and so they had to be copied by a scribe, line for line and word for word in a very time consuming and expensive process. In the centuries after Jesus' death, most people could not afford to own a copy of a gospel themselves and those Christian communities that could afford a copy used only a single gospel that they read aloud to each other on the Sabbath. Since most communities did not own a copy of a gospel, they preserved the teachings and sayings of Jesus by retelling these stories to each other. Most of these communities preferred to use only their own gospel tradition and so a proliferation of gospel traditions arose.

Comment 12

Since two of the items in this section are foundational to later arguments of Jim's, I will need to analyze them at this point.


Before I get to the first point, let me emphasize the stability of oral tradition in 1st century Palestine. Oral transmission of information in the cultures of the ANE and the times of Jesus was MUCH MORE accurate, controlled, and predictable than anything we in the modern, Western world have experienced. [The closest thing to it I have experienced, in the USA, is the Pledge of Allegiance. I said that every day in school for 12 years, and it is SO ingrained in me, that I would detect an verbal variant INSTANTLY.]

In the last 20-30 years or so, several schools of scholarly thought have arisen, all of which have argued persuasively for the 'fixedness' and 'stability' of the oral transmission process in 1st century Palestine. Beginning with the Scandinavian School of Riesenfeld (1959) and Gerhardsson (1961), and continuing on in the German theses of Rainer Riesner (1981), Boman (1967), Muller (1982), Zimmermann (1984) there has been a considerable emphasis on the accuracy of the transmission process in both rabbinic circles and in the other teaching circles in/around 1st century Palestine. Studies by anthropologist circles (Lord, Vasina) have produced examples in non-Palestinian contexts of incredible feats of memory (e.g. of 100,000 word epic poems!). [for biblio and discussion, see BLOM: 25-31; SPI:165, 205-206; NT:CMM:23-25].

Part of this growing confidence in the accuracy of oral transmission, is the growing awareness of the easy-to-memorize structure of many of Jesus sayings. So Stein (SPI: 200):

It is now clearer than ever before that Jesus was a teacher. In fact the Gospels describe him as a teacher forty-five times and the term 'rabbi' is used of him fourteen times. One of his prominent activities was teaching. Like the rabbis, he proclaimed the divine law, gathered disciples, debated with the religious authorities, was asked to settle legal disputes, and supported his teaching with Scripture. He also used mnemonic devices, such as parables, exaggerations, puns, metaphors and similes, proverbs, riddles, and parabolic actions, to aid his disciples and audience in retaining his teachings. Above all he used poetry, "parallelismus membrorum", for this purpose. Jeremias has listed 138 examples of antithetical parallelism in Jesus' teaching that are found in the synoptic Gospels alone (NT Theology, 15f), and to these over fifty other examples of synonymous, synthetic, chiasmic, and step parallelism can be added (Stein, "The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings", Westminster, 1978: 27-32). In light of all this, it is evident that Jesus 'carefully thought out and deliberately formulated [his] statements' (Gerhardsson).

It should also be pointed out that even the earliest church had 'controls' in place, that would naturally 'keep the tradition in line'. There are several indications that the early church had a surprising amount of information exchange and 'feedback loops'. Consider:

  1. The early church had a center (Jerusalem) and leaders (apostles)
  2. When the church expanded into Samaria, there was interaction with the leaders of the founding church (Acts 8.14): "When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them". [By all accounts, Peter and John would have been closest to ANY information about Jesus' acts/words.]
  3. When the church expanded into Antioch, we see the same pattern occur (Act 11:22): "News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch."
  4. When the issue of circumcision came up, the church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas "to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question" (Acts 15.2)
  5. The first church council was held at Jerusalem (Act 15:23-29)
  6. Paul accepted the importance of the Jerusalem center (Gal 2.1-2): "Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain."
  7. At Jrs. Paul was welcomed and sent to the Gentiles (Gal 2.9f): "James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do."
  8. Paul (a native of Tarsus!) returned to Jerusalem after EACH missionary journey.
  9. The leading apostles and evangelists had traveling ministries, bringing them into contact with churches and believers everywhere.
  10. The early churches did NOT live in a vacuum. They corresponded with each other (cf. I Clement, a letter from Rome to Corinth, A.D. 95, see NT:ATNT:48-49) and exchanged NT documents (cf. Col. 4.16).

The point should be clear--the early church had a significant amount of information exchange, among the leadership, and therefore had major 'feedback controls' which would have corrected significant aberrations early.

And lastly...NOT ONLY has contemporary scholarship moved considerably toward the 'fixedness' of the oral transmission process, and NOT ONLY was the material perfectly suited to such accuracy of transmission, and NOT ONLY were there organizational/information-based 'controls' on the transmission...but ALL THIS transmission occurred "in a world in which novelty was scorned"! (E. P. Sanders, in JPB:424).

Now, with this behind us--that oral transmission ITSELF would have been an accurate and controlled transmission mechanism--let us go on to the issue of "did people write Jesus' sayings down BEFORE Easter?"

There is a growing body of evidence and arguments that supports the thesis that the disciples (and sometimes even the audiences of Jesus) 'took notes' during or immediately after His words/deeds.

  1. I have already cited the biblio from RPI:165, but see his summary quote: "It is now clear that even during the rabbinic period the rabbinic teaching process was not exclusively oral." (he then cites the works of Reisner, Gerhardsson, E.E. Ellis, et. al.)

  2. Gundry (addressing the synoptic problem in "The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew's Gospel", Brill, 1967:xii) brings in the data from the Graeco-Roman world also:
    The only hypothesis with enough flexibility to meet the requirements is that a body of loose notes stands behind the bulk of the synoptic tradition. The wide use of shorthand and the carrying of notebooks in the Graeco-Roman world, the school practice of circulating lecture notes and utilizing them in published works, and the later transmission of rabbinic tradition through shorthand notes support this hypothesis. As a former publican, the Apostle Matthew would have been admirably fitted to fill a position as note-taker in the band of uneducated apostles.

  3. The time-estimates of the recording of these words/deeds continue to move earlier and earlier in history. So E.E. Ellis (Criswell Theological Review, Fall88, p.7):
    There are good grounds, then, for supposing not only that the traditioning of Jesus' acts and teachings began already during this earthly ministry, as H. Schurmann has argued, but also that some of them were given written formulations at that time.

  4. The use of oral tradition IN NO WAY implies that 'written tradition' did NOT occur. The body of allegedly oral traditions of the rabbis of Jesus' day was transmitted orally during His day. Eventually it was written down into the Mishnah, but "even after its definitive compilation, the Mishna (as well as a great deal more interpretive material of the Rabbis) continued to be passed on primarily by rote for centuries to come" (Kugel, EBI:68). The point is that the oral transmission process CONTINUED even after the definitive compilation of that oral tradition!

  5. The descriptions we have of the relationship between Jesus and the disciples approximates the type of school known as 'disciple circle' (FMM: 120), and would have used the standard teaching techniques of the world at that time:
    A different type of school is the disciple circle, a handful of disciples grouped around a master. The disciples were apprentices who learned by constant attendance upon the master. They watched his every action and listened to his every word. The disciple circle existed as long as the master remained active; upon his death or retirement the school died with him. Hence these schools were neither corporate bodies nor perpetual institutions. Disciple circles were the normal pattern for higher education in both Jewish and Greco-Roman antiquity.

  6. Literacy among the common populace was highly developed and wide-reaching, and had been so for centuries.
    Excavations within the territory of biblical Israel have turned up a number of practice alphabet texts, as well as isolated letters, or letters apparently grouped by similarity of shape, and other materials indicative of elementary instruction. These finds, unearthed at Lachish, Arad, Kuntillat-Ajrud, and other sites, suggest the existence of some form of literacy training in these locations by the eighth century B.C.E. Certainly it is difficult to imagine that the seats of government and diplomacy and other centers were without a substantial literate elite even earlier, but these 'provincial' finds are perhaps more impressive because they indicate how widespread literacy training might have been by the eighth century. (EBI: 52-53)

    E.P. Sanders (JPB: 179f) discusses the archeological finds by Yadin in Nabataea (at the southern end of the Dead Sea). These 35 legal documents are very detailed and deal with property issues of a twice-married woman named Babata. The significance of this find is that "even in a backwater town legal paperwork flourished" (p. 179), and that there were scribes in the sense of 'clerks' and 'copyists' in this 'backwater town' (p. 180).

  7. There was an ABUNDANCE of people with scribal skills in 1st century Palestine, many of whom would have heard Jesus speak and some/many of whom became followers of His after such encounters. It is not improbable that these skilled people 'took notes', some of which were probably included in Luke's comment that "MANY had undertaken to put together an account of Jesus life" (Lk 1).

    We shall not be able to arrive at definite numbers, but we may assume that there were some thousands of scribes in Jewish Palestine in our period: legal advisors in each locality, people who could draft documents, and legal experts and copyists in the employ of the temple. At the time of Herod, according to Josephus, there were about 6,000 Pharisees. We have seen that there were 18,000 to 20,000 priests and Levites [with scribal skills]...let us recall that that priests and Levites were forbidden to work the land and that they were on duty only one week in twenty-four, plus the three pilgrimage festivals, a total of five or six weeks every year. They were not tied to farms, as many Pharisees were, and they could take employment. (JPB: 181--Sandars points out on p.179f that the ancient world required vast numbers of scribes, and that most priests would have had to supplement their income with such occupations as 'common' scribal work.)

    We know that the priestly and/or scribal types came in contact with Jesus frequently, albeit often in a hostile fashion. But it was not always so. Luke 1 records the account of the priest Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) who both writes (v63) and prophesies (v67-79). In Mark 12.28-34, in the section on the Great Commandment, Jesus compliments a scribe for his good judgment. And we know, after the resurrection, that 'a great number of priests became obedient to the faith' (Act 6.7). Paul the Apostle was certainly a Pharisee (Acts 23.6) and was probably a 'scribe' as evident from his official role in the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:58).

    The point is that there was a VERY large number of people with the free time, the skillset, access to writing materials, and the interest (both favorable and hostile) to listen to Jesus (and take notes).

  8. We have a VERY special case with Matthew, the apostle.

    Matthew was a tax-collector by trade, involving a VERY complex system of taxation and record-keeping. Wenham summarizes some of the data from Goodspeed in RMML:112-113:

    It is known that in Egypt at this date there were 111 kinds of tax, and many of the tax-collectors knew shorthand. Matthew's livelihood was earned by interviewing tax-payers and discussing their affairs (usually in Aramaic) and then writing up his reports in Greek. He had a lifelong habit of noting things down and of preserving what he had written.

    And in the same passage, discusses Goodspeed's suggestion that Jesus took the role of a major prophet, in selecting a 'record keeper' for his teachings (RMML: 112):

    Goodspeed suggests that Jesus found himself in a similar position to Isaiah, when it became clear that his message was going to be rejected by the people as a whole. He deliberately took steps for the preservation of his teaching among his disciples. He observed the faith and commitment of Levi the tax-collector and recognized him as one who was capable of making a record of his teaching. The other leading disciples could doubtless read and write, but from what we know of them they all seem to have been essentially practical men. The only one who was a professional pen-pusher was Matthew.

    [N. Walker even suggests that Matthew kept an Aramaic 'diary' ("The Alleged Matthean Errata", New Testament Studies, 1963, 9: 391-4), an interesting suggestion in light of Justin Martyr's (2nd century) repeated references to the Gospels as 'memoirs'. Note also that Jeremiah used the scribe Baruch to record his messages (36.4, 18, 32) and other scribes to record legal transactions (32.10-12). I have documented elsewhere the VERY close relationship between the prophetic office and written records. See also EBI:53ff.]

  9. The last point under this issue of 'note taking' is that the farther one got from 'normative' Judaism, the more one tended to record oral traditions.

    As long as one was in 'mainstream' Judaism (even with its various parties and groups), then one's belief system was reinforced each week in Synagogue. All the social and cultural structures re-affirmed and re-inforced those party-ised oral traditions. BUT, the farther out one's beliefs were--relative to the mainstream--the MORE 'extra efforts' had to be made to keep the oral tradition/belief system 'present'.

    Scholars suggest that by 200 BC there was QUITE a body of 'authoritative' tradition in Israel--which would have represented the 'mainstream' system (including within it, of course, all the minor sub-traditions). So Kugel (EBI:71):

    ...that certain broad assumptions of biblical interpretation were shaped by events and circumstances of a still earlier period and that, by 200 BCE, it is probable that a large body of actual interpretations of individual biblical verses was in wide circulation among the Jews, either in oral or written form.

    Before we turn to Christianity, let's look at two specific 'disagreements' with this 'mainstream system'--The Book of Jubilees and Qumran.

    The Book of Jubilees dates from the middle of the 2nd century BC, and purports to be a commentary on Genesis+. It deals a great deal with Halakha--'the rule of practice' for the Jews. It is seen as both an intended 'correction' to Hellenizing tendencies in Israel (so TOB:9), and Kugel points to its protestation against the 'mainstream' system (EBI: 69):

    Moreover, halakha was not the exclusive domain of a single group; rival traditions of what constituted the proper practice and application of biblical statute coexisted, and written, nonrabbinic sources for this period sometimes bear witness to the centrality of this concern...the Book of Jubilees was concerned with connecting legal (i.e. halakhic) concerns to narratives in Genesis. It seems probable that the author of Jubilees was, by his writing, seeking to modify or protest against halakhic norms already in existence and sanctioned by authority...

    So here was a non-mainstream tradition that HAD TO BE WRITTEN down (for apologetic concerns at least) for preservation of SOME group's understanding of religious life.

    The QUMRAN case is even more explicit, in this regard. QUMRAN was 'far' out of the mainstream of Judaism of the day, and required elaborate rituals and writings to perpetuate its existence. The myriad of documents --from the biblical scrolls to the Manual of Discipline--all bear witness that the Qumran community had to REINFORCE and PERPETUATE its own traditions--OUTSIDE of temple and synagogue--and that to DO THIS, it created an elaborate body of literature and required new converts to undergo training. (BPI: 69, and JPB:361-4)

    Sanders (JPB:364) summarizes the point: A party could survive because members could meet on the Sabbath (at Qumran every day), when teaching and learning could reinforce and develop the group's distinctiveness.

    Since Christianity began as a sect WITHIN Judaism, and began experiencing serious exclusion from 'mainstream' Judaism in the early-30's (with the stoning of Stephen and persecution of Saul--Acts 7,8), it is entirely likely that the new community of faith had to do what others before them did--WRITE down the material for use by new converts and by new churches (a la Qumran). And, over time, as the worship services and gatherings were driven 'underground', and the leaders martyred, the need for written materials became increasingly necessary for the preservation of the core of the faith.

SUMMARY: Not only was oral transmission quite adequate for the task of preserving the words and deeds of Jesus, but the widespread use of note-taking and ample supply of literate listeners almost guarantees that VERY early written sources for the gospel materials would have existed.

Now we can turn to the SECOND POINT--that " the presence of mss. was MUCH MORE widespread than Jim's comments would seem to indicate."...

Let me start with a quote from the "Dean" of NT Textual Criticism, about the rate of mss. production in the early church (MTNT3: 14):

In the earlier ages of the Church, Biblical manuscripts were produced by individual Christians who wished to provide for themselves or for local congregations copies of one or more books of the New Testament. Because the number of Christians increased rapidly during the first centuries, many additional copies of the Scriptures were sought by new converts and new churches. As a result, speed of production sometimes outran accuracy of execution.

The transition from using scrolls to using the Codex (a book-format) increased the availability of mss. to the Christian community (MTNT:6):

Early in the second century (or perhaps even at the close of the first century) the codex, or leaf form of a book, began to come into EXTENSIVE use in the Church...it was better adapted to receiving writing on both sides of the page, thus keeping the cost down.

Jim states that 'most communities did not own a copy of the gospel'. The data is simply otherwise.

  1. Aland and Aland (NT:ATNT:55) point out that as the church grew, so did the copies (and so did our nightmare of Textual Criticism!):
    ...from the mid-second century, with the founding of each new church requiring the production of another New Testament manuscript...If the founder of a church did not supply a manuscript, a copy would have to be made from his exemplar or from a borrowed one. In the early period copies were made privately: there were no scriptora (professionally copying centers) before A.D. 200 at the earliest. In the course of time the private copying of texts produced a teeming variety of small textual families...

  2. Comfort (EMMT:5) points out that the move to papyrus and the codex made ownership of mss. EASIER for individuals (implying its earlier practice as well): "...it made it EASIER for any individual or local church to make its own volumes of the NT or any portion thereof...Since papyrus was cheaper than vellum [high-quality parchment], it was used MORE often by individuals and local churches."

  3. He also points out that this copying activity BEGAN VERY EARLY: "From the first century into the second and the third, various books of the NT were copied over and over again by some Christians--for personal use and use in local churches. Those made for PERSONAL USE varied in quality of penmanship."

  4. Of the papyrus copies we have extant, we have indications in the text that SOME were for CHURCH use, and some were for PRIVATE use (EMMT:6).

  5. A final point is that the earliest copies were NOT made by professional scribes, but by educated, literate folks (EMMT:5-6):
    For the most part, the NT papyri were written in what papyrologists call the 'documentary' hand--that is, the handwriting reveals that the scribes were educated men--familiar with books and writing, but were not trained, professional scribes.
    What this means for us, is that the cost issue Jim raises are NOT relevant to this discussion. The availability of 'educated' folk during the spread of Christianity (pre-Constantine) is well known, and the testimony of professional textual critics supports a wide-spread existence of mss. in the early church.

    But let's ask the 'hard data' question--do we have any RECORDS of churches and/or individuals having multiple copies of NT docs (non-Major churches only--we KNOW the 'big ones' had plenty)?

    Funny you should ask...we do.

    As the persecution of Diocletion broke out in 303ad., the churches were burned and scriptures confiscated, mostly in Palestine, Egypt, and Alexandria. Comfort (COMFORT: 15) tells of two incidents that occurred in rural North Africa, that bear upon our thesis here.

    In the North African city of Cirta (capital of Numidia), the mayor attempted to confiscate all the Scriptures from Bishop Paul. After searching the home where the Christians used to meet and finding only one copy of the Christian Scriptures, the mayor called upon Paul to tell where he had hidden other copies. Paul had been wise; the other copies had been taken to the homes of the readers (or lectors--those who read the Scriptures in church meetings) in that church.

    In Abitina the bishop handed over the Scriptures on demand. But his congregation disowned his act and carried on the church meeting in the home of the reader Emeritus. When the interrogators asked Emeritus to hand over HIS copies...

    [The lector or reader, in those days, was not only in charge of reading the Scripture, but also for keeping accurate and fresh copies of Scriptures, including NT writings.]

    So, the data is fairly clear:

    1. The production of the mss. was quite rapid.
    2. Copies were made for both church and personal use.
    3. Those who founded each church, were responsible for getting a copy to them (i.e. few, IF ANY, churches were without written scriptures, from authoritative/credible leadership sources!)
    4. The use of papyrus, codex, and non-professional copyists drove the costs out of the process, enabling GREATER use by individuals and churches.
    5. Copies were made (profusely!) BEFORE the rise of the professional class of literary copyists.
    6. We have 'hard' archeological data that churches had multiple copies of Scriptures.

    In light of the above data and discussion, I conclude that the situation portrayed by Jim in this passage--limited written 'sources', free and individual oral traditions, limited access of the church to mss. due to cost reasons--to be incorrect and not in accordance with the historical data.

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