The Jesus Tradition and Notebooks

The Jesus Tradition and Notebooks March 15, 2012

Sadly most scholars are accustomed to explaining the complexities of the Synoptic Gospels purely in terms of literary relationships, while they account for the intricacy of the Jesus tradition exclusively with regard to oral transmission. But if the lines between orality and textuality were fluid –and they were– with oral material written down and written materials delivered orally; and if the Jesus tradition was carried in a mix of oral and textual media beginning in Jesus’ own life-time all the way through to the Gospels and beyond; then we need to take serious heed of the interface between the oral and written forms. More specifically, we should take seriously the possibility of notebooks being used to aide in the remembrance and transmission of Jesus’ teachings.[1]

I have to confess that I was originally skeptical at the prospect of notebooks being used to preserve Jesus’ teachings. It struck as rather convenient and we don’t have any surviving note books containing Jesus’ words. I once regarded with incredulity Paul Barnett’s claim: “In our view Jesus’ disciples must have begun memorizing Jesus’ teachings, and perhaps even writing them down, while he was still with them.”[2] But my initial reservations have been assuaged. 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.

[1] Cf. Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 202; Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer, 491-98; idem, “Messianic Teacher,” 1:433-34; Graham Stanton, Jesus and Gospel (Cambridge: UP, 2004), 186; James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 41; Keener, Historical Jesus, 148-49; Paul Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity, 206-7, 380-81; Ellis, “The Synoptic Gospels and History,” 53-54; Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 251-52, 287-89.

[2] Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity, 206.

[3] Cf. George A. Kennedy, “Classical and Christian Source Criticism,” in The Relationship among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, ed. W.O. Walker (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1978), 130-37.

[4] Martin C. Albl, And Scripture Cannot Be Broken: The Form and Function of the Early Christian Testimonia Collections (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 77-79.

[5] Martial, Epigr. 1.2.

[6] See esp. Quintilian, Inst. 11.2.2, 24-26, 44-49 on taking notes from a speech in order to learn it and the dangers of orators being too reliant on written notes.

[7] Quintilian, Inst. 10.3.30-32.

[8] Epict. Diatr. 1, pref.

[9] See b.Shab. 6b, 96b, 156a and commentary in Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript, 160-62.

[10] Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth, 100-25.

[11] Jacob Neusner, Method and Meaning in Ancient Judaism (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979).

[12] Cf. esp. Albl, And Scripture Cannot Be Broken.

[13] Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.1. Cf. Ernst Bammell (RGG 5:48): “[Papias’] contained annotated reports about sayings and deeds of Jesus.” We might also observe from “Gnostic” teachers, the Exegetica of Basilides consisting of 24 volumes (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.7.5-8; Clement, Strom. 4.81.1-83.1; called by Origen [Hom. Luke 1] “Gospel according to Basilides”) and Marcion’s Antitheses and Gospel of the Lord (see Tertullian, Adv. Marc.), were books consisting of a mixture of agrapha, apocryphal sayings, pre-Synoptic tradition, and redaction of the canonical Gospels

[14] So Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 64; Alan Millard, Reading and Writing at the Time of Jesus (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 63.

[15] Graham Stanton, Jesus and Gospel (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), 165.

[16] C.H. Roberts, “Books in the Graeco-Roman World and teh New Testament,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible I: From the Beginnings to Jerome, eds. Peter R. Ackroyd and Craig F. Evans (Cambridge: CUP, 1970), 55.


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