Jesus notebooks?

Bible scholars, including those of the conservative variety, often talk about an oral tradition and its role in the composition of the Gospels.  But we now know that in the ancient world disciples recorded their teacher’s words in notebooks.  So says Michael F. Bird.  (You can check his footnotes.):

It was quite common among literary elites of the Greco-Roman world to take notes (hypomemata, commentarii) as an aid to learning.[3] Greek gnomai (sayings) and chreiai (short story) collections provided short anthologies largely for didactic purposes.[4] The poet Martial recommended that persons carrying his poems on journeys should use a membranae, or note book for its convenience.[5] In Mediterannean schools of rhetoric, orators often used notes and hearers of speeches often took notes to capture the gist of the delivery.[6] The notebook was regarded as a good alternative to the wax tablet.[7] The notes of lectures could even be published. Arrian in fact published an account of the lectures of his teacher Epictetus, saying: “[W]hatever I heard him say I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, endeavouring to preserve it as a memorial, for my own future use, of his way of thinking and the frankness of his speech.”[8]

In the Jewish context, Birger Gerhardsson identified rabbinic evidence for the use of notebooks or “scrolls of secrets” to aid in a pupil’s memorization of their rabbi’s words.[9] Though roughly criticized as reading later perspectives back into the first century, the thesis of Jewish notebooks has more going for it. Martin Jaffee has plotted the use of written sources in the redaction of the Mishnah well before 200 CE.[10] The Qumran scrolls provide first century evidence of short prophetic testimonia collections (11QMelch) and halakhic collections (11QTemple) that were used in the community. Jacob Neusner proposes that Jewish communities often used a large body of manuscript material, teachers’ notebooks, preachers’ storybooks, exegetical catenae and florilegia to maintain its traditions.[11]

Early Christian testmonia collections, which provided a short extract of important Old Testament passages, were most likely used by Christians very early on, certainly by the time of Justin and Irenaeus.[12] In the early second century, Papias’ Exposition of the Logia of the Lord was a collection and commentary on the sayings of the Jesus.[13] We find a reference to a “book” and “parchment” in 2 Tim 4:13, which might specifically designate a “notebook.”[14] Graham Stanton infers from the Christian “addiction” to the codex: “Even before Paul wrote his first ‘canonical’ letter c. AD 50, followers of Jesus were accustomed to use the predecessors of the codex-book format, various kinds of ‘notebooks’. They used them for Scriptural excerpts and testimonies, for drafts and copies of letters, and probably also for collections of traditions of both the actions and teachings of Jesus.”[15] The tradition known to source critics as “Q” may have started out as a note book of Jesus’ sayings.

The constant shadow of proto-Gospel theories in solutions to the Synoptic problem suggests at least the possibility of early notebooks/extract/digests about Jesus before AD 70. According to C.H. Roberts, in the early church: “No doubt the oral tradition was reinforced as it was in Judaism, with notes.”[16] Thus, it is highly probable that notebooks were used by Jesus’ own disciples and by later adherents in the early church to assist in memory retention by functioning as an aide-mémoire.

via The Jesus Tradition and Notebooks « Euangelion.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Michael B.

    “But we now know that in the ancient world disciples recorded their teacher’s words in notebooks. So says Michael F. Bird. (You can check his footnotes.)”

    haha, exactly! Even though scholars estimate that 90% of the Roman Empire was illiterate, and even though the Bible describes the disciples as “unlettered”, and even though the disciples were common laborers, the truth is that the disciples were part of the educated elite who wrote down what Jesus said verbatim.

    Some of these liberal Christian scholars want people to believe that the New Testament was written decades after Jesus’s death, by people who spoke a different language than him, and probably got their stories at least third or fourth hand.

  • Michael B.

    “But we now know that in the ancient world disciples recorded their teacher’s words in notebooks. So says Michael F. Bird. (You can check his footnotes.)”

    haha, exactly! Even though scholars estimate that 90% of the Roman Empire was illiterate, and even though the Bible describes the disciples as “unlettered”, and even though the disciples were common laborers, the truth is that the disciples were part of the educated elite who wrote down what Jesus said verbatim.

    Some of these liberal Christian scholars want people to believe that the New Testament was written decades after Jesus’s death, by people who spoke a different language than him, and probably got their stories at least third or fourth hand.

  • Jon

    Notebooks? I thought Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would cause them to remember all the things He said when it came time.

  • Jon

    Notebooks? I thought Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would cause them to remember all the things He said when it came time.

  • http://gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    It has long been my own theory that the Q material consists of notes taken contemporaneously with Jesus pre-passion ministry, then latter incorporated by the apostles into the text which we now have. This is why the Q material says nothing about Christ’s death and resurrection. Luke’s prologue indicates that something like that would have happened. This in no way conflicts with the fact that the text is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

  • http://gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    It has long been my own theory that the Q material consists of notes taken contemporaneously with Jesus pre-passion ministry, then latter incorporated by the apostles into the text which we now have. This is why the Q material says nothing about Christ’s death and resurrection. Luke’s prologue indicates that something like that would have happened. This in no way conflicts with the fact that the text is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

  • WebMonk

    Uh… yeah. Following up on Michael B’s general point with what the article claims. Look at what the article is saying about the practices of writing things down at the time (emphasis and comments added):

    “It was quite common among literary elites…”
    “The poet Martial recommended that persons carrying his poems”[anyone who could own and read written materials was in the rarified upper echelon of society]
    “In Mediterannean schools of rhetoric, orators often used notes and hearers of speeches often took notes”[these are all wealthy and learned people]
    “Birger Gerhardsson identified rabbinic evidence for the use of notebooks or ‘scrolls of secrets’ to aid in a pupil’s memorization” [again these pupils are wealthy upper class]

    Consider me wildly less than impressed by the shoddy basis for this article. It’s possible that some of what Jesus said was indeed written down, but it is extremely unlikely that the Gospels were based on any such notes.

    (However, in the course of writing this comment, some other thoughts have come up. I’m not sure I entirely agree with my comment here.)

  • WebMonk

    Uh… yeah. Following up on Michael B’s general point with what the article claims. Look at what the article is saying about the practices of writing things down at the time (emphasis and comments added):

    “It was quite common among literary elites…”
    “The poet Martial recommended that persons carrying his poems”[anyone who could own and read written materials was in the rarified upper echelon of society]
    “In Mediterannean schools of rhetoric, orators often used notes and hearers of speeches often took notes”[these are all wealthy and learned people]
    “Birger Gerhardsson identified rabbinic evidence for the use of notebooks or ‘scrolls of secrets’ to aid in a pupil’s memorization” [again these pupils are wealthy upper class]

    Consider me wildly less than impressed by the shoddy basis for this article. It’s possible that some of what Jesus said was indeed written down, but it is extremely unlikely that the Gospels were based on any such notes.

    (However, in the course of writing this comment, some other thoughts have come up. I’m not sure I entirely agree with my comment here.)

  • WebMonk

    I posted the above, but I’m not sure it’s a very solid line of reasoning.

    Luke, for example, is specifically stated to be gathered together after the fact, which could include notes that people took while Jesus was speaking. (the notes probably wouldn’t be by the disciples, but there were hundreds of other followers, including at least a few who were wealthy and learned)

    Matthew is not strictly a first-hand account, but is at least partially compiled from Mark and other sources (the “Q” sources mentioned by Spomer above, as an example).

    John is pretty definitely drawn from the apostle John’s testimony, at least partially from “interviews” with John. But also has some sources from elsewhere – potentially from “notes”.

    Mark, being the earliest Gospel, is very likely the closest there is to being directly drawn from an apostle (with John being a distinct competitor for such a description), but it too has materials from other sources.

    I still pretty strongly disagree with Bird’s apparent conclusion that the Gospels were drawn directly from notes taken as Jesus was speaking. However, the idea that notes were taken of Jesus’ sermons is pretty solid. The idea that the Gospels are directly based on such notes (which is what I think Bird is suggesting) – shaky in the extreme.

  • WebMonk

    I posted the above, but I’m not sure it’s a very solid line of reasoning.

    Luke, for example, is specifically stated to be gathered together after the fact, which could include notes that people took while Jesus was speaking. (the notes probably wouldn’t be by the disciples, but there were hundreds of other followers, including at least a few who were wealthy and learned)

    Matthew is not strictly a first-hand account, but is at least partially compiled from Mark and other sources (the “Q” sources mentioned by Spomer above, as an example).

    John is pretty definitely drawn from the apostle John’s testimony, at least partially from “interviews” with John. But also has some sources from elsewhere – potentially from “notes”.

    Mark, being the earliest Gospel, is very likely the closest there is to being directly drawn from an apostle (with John being a distinct competitor for such a description), but it too has materials from other sources.

    I still pretty strongly disagree with Bird’s apparent conclusion that the Gospels were drawn directly from notes taken as Jesus was speaking. However, the idea that notes were taken of Jesus’ sermons is pretty solid. The idea that the Gospels are directly based on such notes (which is what I think Bird is suggesting) – shaky in the extreme.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Were the PeeChees, or Trapper-Keepers?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Were the PeeChees, or Trapper-Keepers?

  • formerly just steve

    Mike, #6, of course there were. Everyone knows the name Pee Chee was taken from the Greek letters Chi-Rho that represent Christ. The Rho, shaped like a P and the X, mistakenly pronounced “chee”, were simply inverted for marketing value (and because nobody wanted to buy a folder called a “chee-pee”.

    I’m surprised you didn’t know that.

  • formerly just steve

    Mike, #6, of course there were. Everyone knows the name Pee Chee was taken from the Greek letters Chi-Rho that represent Christ. The Rho, shaped like a P and the X, mistakenly pronounced “chee”, were simply inverted for marketing value (and because nobody wanted to buy a folder called a “chee-pee”.

    I’m surprised you didn’t know that.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    FJSteve (@7), well done. :)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    FJSteve (@7), well done. :)

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Michael, I think you’ll find that virtually all Jewish boys were literate. They had to be able to read from the Torah to be accepted into the religious assembly (as in the “bar mitzvah”). (I know that ceremony came later, but I’m pretty sure it had its antecedents in ancient practice.)

    The point is, liberal Bible scholars have been positing an “oral tradition” that supposedly evolved over a long period, but there wasn’t time for that, as scholars, based on manuscript pieces they keep finding, keep pushing back the composition date of the Gospels earlier and earlier. That Jesus’s words might well have been written down keeps them from being as malleable as some have made them. But, yes, Christians believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the Gospel writers so it doesn’t completely matter.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Michael, I think you’ll find that virtually all Jewish boys were literate. They had to be able to read from the Torah to be accepted into the religious assembly (as in the “bar mitzvah”). (I know that ceremony came later, but I’m pretty sure it had its antecedents in ancient practice.)

    The point is, liberal Bible scholars have been positing an “oral tradition” that supposedly evolved over a long period, but there wasn’t time for that, as scholars, based on manuscript pieces they keep finding, keep pushing back the composition date of the Gospels earlier and earlier. That Jesus’s words might well have been written down keeps them from being as malleable as some have made them. But, yes, Christians believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the Gospel writers so it doesn’t completely matter.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    I have never been a fan of Markan priority theories. They are all essentially based on the idea, it’s the shortest so it must have been first. More likely is that Matthew and Mark wrote about the same time independently – Matthew based off of his own notes and Mark based on the oral testimony of Peter. Later Luke used both in his research.

    At the same time while “Q” may have existed, as a theory it ain’t worth spit. And it won’t be worth anything until there is archeological evidence of a document or collection of documents that contain information of eyewitness accounts. The origin of the theory also makes me doubt it, as it originates from those who do not believe that Scripture is actually the inspired word.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    I have never been a fan of Markan priority theories. They are all essentially based on the idea, it’s the shortest so it must have been first. More likely is that Matthew and Mark wrote about the same time independently – Matthew based off of his own notes and Mark based on the oral testimony of Peter. Later Luke used both in his research.

    At the same time while “Q” may have existed, as a theory it ain’t worth spit. And it won’t be worth anything until there is archeological evidence of a document or collection of documents that contain information of eyewitness accounts. The origin of the theory also makes me doubt it, as it originates from those who do not believe that Scripture is actually the inspired word.

  • WebMonk

    Veith 9: ” I think you’ll find that virtually all Jewish boys were literate.”

    What are you smoking? Whatever it is, it can’t possibly be legal.

    Josephus pretty clearly describes the universal education of Jewish kids being via public oral recitation. The general estimates of literacy during the Roman Empire in Israel is around 3% – concentrated in the wealthy.

    I’d love to hear where you heard that there was nigh universal literacy among young Jewish males. Did you discover that “fact” on the Internet somewhere?

  • WebMonk

    Veith 9: ” I think you’ll find that virtually all Jewish boys were literate.”

    What are you smoking? Whatever it is, it can’t possibly be legal.

    Josephus pretty clearly describes the universal education of Jewish kids being via public oral recitation. The general estimates of literacy during the Roman Empire in Israel is around 3% – concentrated in the wealthy.

    I’d love to hear where you heard that there was nigh universal literacy among young Jewish males. Did you discover that “fact” on the Internet somewhere?

  • WebMonk

    I got to thinking that since I called bull on Dr. Veith’s nonsense, I probably ought to back it up.

    I found what I was remembering in an issue of Essays in Social Scientific Studies of Judaism and Jewish Society. The essay was “Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Century C.E.”

    I think there is also a book I have on Mark that talks about the literacy levels of the time. I think that’s where I saw the Josephus quotes – they describe people reciting and the law being read to them but never the common people reading for themselves.

  • WebMonk

    I got to thinking that since I called bull on Dr. Veith’s nonsense, I probably ought to back it up.

    I found what I was remembering in an issue of Essays in Social Scientific Studies of Judaism and Jewish Society. The essay was “Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Century C.E.”

    I think there is also a book I have on Mark that talks about the literacy levels of the time. I think that’s where I saw the Josephus quotes – they describe people reciting and the law being read to them but never the common people reading for themselves.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    There is a significant amount of scholarship in this area with very rigorous controls for postulating theory. N.T. Wright in particular has some excellent work re: Q. At the center of the issue is the textual composition of the gospels – Mark is clearly the median term for both Matthew and Luke. But These gospels also share elements foreign to Mark – and these elements are textually identical. This most likely points to a common written source. There are many studies on oral tradition, and as Wright points out, thy all conclude that verbatim identical oral tradition does not, in fact, exist. Wright represents the majority position among paleographers, contra his major opponent, J.D. Crossan. So, I see this article as an explanation of how an already well-established theory might have been executed in history.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    There is a significant amount of scholarship in this area with very rigorous controls for postulating theory. N.T. Wright in particular has some excellent work re: Q. At the center of the issue is the textual composition of the gospels – Mark is clearly the median term for both Matthew and Luke. But These gospels also share elements foreign to Mark – and these elements are textually identical. This most likely points to a common written source. There are many studies on oral tradition, and as Wright points out, thy all conclude that verbatim identical oral tradition does not, in fact, exist. Wright represents the majority position among paleographers, contra his major opponent, J.D. Crossan. So, I see this article as an explanation of how an already well-established theory might have been executed in history.

  • SKPeterson

    Well, the Didache appears in the almost immediate aftermath of the period ascribed to the Gospels if not right in amongst its later stages. i don’t think anyone is seriously saying that it is the product of illiterates. In fact, I have heard credible theories advanced that the Didache may have been formulated and put together by this one guy named Paul in association with another guy named Barnabas up in some town called Antioch. Now, on occasion they ran around with some guys named Mark and Luke, and they knew some other guys named Peter and John and James. So, maybe, just maybe, the early Gospels were published by some little publishing house in Antioch and then spread around through the Jewish diaspora and eventually into the Gentile communities of the Mediterranean.

    Also, there is evidence that the sons of Zebedee were not uneducated illiterates. They had access to the high priest’s household (selling fish to the temple, no doubt) and probably were at least possessed of the rudiments of basic literacy (probably Greek or Aramaic) and numeracy.

    Remember, these guys weren’t acting in isolation from each other. 1st century Christianity was still defining itself in terms of its relationship to traditional Judaism and was a small, fairly tight-knit fraternity. Now this could indicate evidence of a Q source for the Gospels, but it is just as likely that there is a common narrative (especially in the synoptics) because it was a historical event in which they all were witnesses to either the ministry of Jesus or his resurrection or both. A shared experience will tend to result in many narrative similarities with individual peculiarities – particular stories or remembrances that each author brought to the Gospel meta-narrative. Think of various diaries and histories written by participants in various battles. There is a common narrative describing the course of the action, but there is no central text; each author tells his own story that partakes of the common narrative while adding his own unique perspective and remembrances.

  • SKPeterson

    Well, the Didache appears in the almost immediate aftermath of the period ascribed to the Gospels if not right in amongst its later stages. i don’t think anyone is seriously saying that it is the product of illiterates. In fact, I have heard credible theories advanced that the Didache may have been formulated and put together by this one guy named Paul in association with another guy named Barnabas up in some town called Antioch. Now, on occasion they ran around with some guys named Mark and Luke, and they knew some other guys named Peter and John and James. So, maybe, just maybe, the early Gospels were published by some little publishing house in Antioch and then spread around through the Jewish diaspora and eventually into the Gentile communities of the Mediterranean.

    Also, there is evidence that the sons of Zebedee were not uneducated illiterates. They had access to the high priest’s household (selling fish to the temple, no doubt) and probably were at least possessed of the rudiments of basic literacy (probably Greek or Aramaic) and numeracy.

    Remember, these guys weren’t acting in isolation from each other. 1st century Christianity was still defining itself in terms of its relationship to traditional Judaism and was a small, fairly tight-knit fraternity. Now this could indicate evidence of a Q source for the Gospels, but it is just as likely that there is a common narrative (especially in the synoptics) because it was a historical event in which they all were witnesses to either the ministry of Jesus or his resurrection or both. A shared experience will tend to result in many narrative similarities with individual peculiarities – particular stories or remembrances that each author brought to the Gospel meta-narrative. Think of various diaries and histories written by participants in various battles. There is a common narrative describing the course of the action, but there is no central text; each author tells his own story that partakes of the common narrative while adding his own unique perspective and remembrances.

  • Michael B.

    “Josephus pretty clearly describes the universal education of Jewish kids being via public oral recitation. The general estimates of literacy during the Roman Empire in Israel is around 3% – concentrated in the wealthy.”

    True, and also consider that many who can read could not write. In education today, reading is taught along with writing. However in the ancient world, this was not the case. (I wasn’t sure if it were you or somebody else on here who had an advanced degree in Biblical studies, but if it were you, I presume there’s a good chance you can read ancient Greek or Hebrew. However, I’d be very surprised if you could also write in ancient Greek or Hebrew. )

    Lastly, consider that the New Testament manuscripts were written in ancient Greek. The implication is then that the disciples could read and write in their own native Aramaic language, as well as Greek, as well as Hebrew — now that’s pretty impressive for a group that the Bible calls an “unlettered” group of poor, common laborers in a time where illiteracy was the norm.

  • Michael B.

    “Josephus pretty clearly describes the universal education of Jewish kids being via public oral recitation. The general estimates of literacy during the Roman Empire in Israel is around 3% – concentrated in the wealthy.”

    True, and also consider that many who can read could not write. In education today, reading is taught along with writing. However in the ancient world, this was not the case. (I wasn’t sure if it were you or somebody else on here who had an advanced degree in Biblical studies, but if it were you, I presume there’s a good chance you can read ancient Greek or Hebrew. However, I’d be very surprised if you could also write in ancient Greek or Hebrew. )

    Lastly, consider that the New Testament manuscripts were written in ancient Greek. The implication is then that the disciples could read and write in their own native Aramaic language, as well as Greek, as well as Hebrew — now that’s pretty impressive for a group that the Bible calls an “unlettered” group of poor, common laborers in a time where illiteracy was the norm.

  • Cincinnatus

    But ultimately, of course, this discussion is meaningless.

  • Cincinnatus

    But ultimately, of course, this discussion is meaningless.


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