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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  • Really useful note, Mike – thanks for bringing so much helpful info together in one place.

  • George Athas

    I have no doubt that Jesus’ followers memorised his words, which were probably often delivered on more than one occasion. But would the use of the suggested notebooks imply the want to preserve his words for posterity? If so, what does this say about the eschatological-apocalyptic like thrust of Jesus’ ministry? Does it in some way go against the immediacy of his mission (‘Pick up your cross and follow me!’)?

    I’d like to keep thinking about this.

    • In response to George’s comment, I post here a relevant quote from Theissen with which I agree:

      “The thesis about the imminent expectation of the end as a factor impeding literary creation is false. Jewish apocalyptic writing is full of imminent expectations and yet attests to a flourishing literary production” (Gerd Theissen, “The New Testament: A Literary History,” [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012], 10).

      He goes on to provide examples. I find his case persuasive.

  • This is a fascinating thought! I appreciate how well-documented your research is as well.

  • This is terrific, Mike. I’ve also become convinced that the earliest Jesus-movement probably included note-taking. Thanks for bringing all this together; this post will be helpful for me later.

    Also, RE: George’s comment (and Brice’s response) above, I am convinced the emphasis on apocalyptic “immediacy” in the earliest church giving way to a “delayed parousia” later in the church is overblown, if not outright false. We simply don’t have evidence of this sort of move from immediacy to delay; it has to be read into the texts to begin with. And Brice is correct: many early apocalypticists were prolific writers.

  • Thanks for an interesting post, Mike. A few comments:

    (1) “Sadly most scholars are accustomed to explaining the complexities of the Synoptic Gospels purely in terms of literary relationships.” I’m not sure why this is sad. I’m pretty happy about it! But there is a confusion in NT scholarship between the literary analysis of Synoptic relationships (what we do) and dynamic interactions between orality and literacy (what they did). A great deal of the overblown rhetoric about orality in recent NT scholarship relates to a misunderstanding of this very important distinction.

    (2) “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 . . “: good point. It’s so important to make clear that oral traditions did not die the moment that the evangelists set pen to papyrus. The interaction between orality and literacy that characterizes the early period is also present in the later periods too.

    (3) “The tradition known to source critics as “Q” may have started out as a note book of Jesus’ sayings.” I suppose it may have, but I don’t know why one would want to single out Q, except that as a non-extant text it is more malleable to anything one wants to project on to it. One of the major properties of Q, seldom appreciated by those who hold to it, is that it stands for the most obviously “literary” of all the strands of Gospel material, i.e. there is closer verbatim agreement between Matthew and Luke in double tradition (= “Q”) than there is in any other set of tradition. It’s this kind of vague appeal to Q, I am afraid, that re-entrenches a dubious hypothesis in the every-day thinking of NT scholars.

  • Bill Heroman

    For my part, I’d like things to be more numerically particular; for instance, Michael, you did not specify _how many_ of the twelve may have kept notebook(s)? Not all twelve, surely. So, one? Two? More? And, of course, how do we tell?

    Also, what about the Communal aspects of Jewish Literacy, as opposed to other cultural experiences (& expressions) of literacy? What about the natural sense of a scribe copying Law for the sake of the Synagogue, as opposed to his own memory? Finally, what about the aspect of Jesus as Moses, where the disciples’ growing perception of Him should have quite naturally urged them to ask, “Which of us is about to start writing some of this down?”

    I’m about to post these thoughts in a bit more detail at my blog.

    Thanks for writing this post, Mike. And thanks in advance for the upcoming book.

  • Anonymous

    “Thus, it is highly probable that notebooks were used by Jesus’ own disciples”

    Isn’t it a rather large step from the demonstration that the literate living in the 1C used notebooks to the conclusion that a particular set of 12 disciples did as well?

    I am not aware of anything in the canon – out primary records afterall – that suggests that many, if any, of Jesus’ inner circle could write with any facility. As you know, Luke claims in Acts that Peter and John, two of the “pillars”, were illiterate. We can assume that their brothers, Andrew and James, were unlettered as well. This is the social stratum from which Jesus was calling his disciples. Was Matthew, as a tax collector, literate? Matthew says that Jesus found him in a tollbooth. I don’t think we can conclude with any certainty that the guy collecting tolls was a high-ranking, educated, member of society.

    Did one guy maybe keep notes? Given the contemporary existence of systems of written communication, it is certainly possible. I just don’t think you have established anything like a “high probability” that we can move from the general to the specific.

  • steven

    Didn’t Jesus vary his teachings from place to place, which explains why the Sermon on the Mount has Beatitudes which differ from those in Luke’s big Sermon?

    Didn’t Jesus bother to write down his own words, so he could remember exactly what he had said?

  • steven

    ‘But my initial reservations have been assuaged. It was quite common among literary elites of the Greco-Roman world to take notes….’

    A practice soon echoed by Galilean fishermen…..

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Mike. What do you think of the possibility that a notebook or something of the sort is what Papias was referring to when he wrote that Matthew composed the oracles [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language?