Were There Written Sources for the Gospels?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

We can surmise that the acts and sayings of Jesus were memorized and transmitted orally for many years after his death and resurrection, but before the Gospels were written. Another question to ask is this: Were there written documents that the Gospel authors also used as source material?

Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, believes that there likely were written sources for the Gospels that supplemented the oral traditions. Bauckham first explains the practices of rabbis in ancient Palestine:

Any discussion of this issue must recognize that in the predominantly oral culture of the ancient world, including the early Christian movement, writing and orality were not alternatives but complementary. For the most part writing existed to supplement and to support oral forms of remembering and teaching. But as a supplement to orality, more for the sake of reminding than of remembering, it had a place even among the later rabbis, those who insisted on the necessarily oral character of the Oral Torah, as Gerhardsson already explained. Martin Jaffee has recently argued for a thorough “interpenetration” of oral and written composition in the rabbinic traditions behind the Mishnah. But what we know the rabbis used were not so much books as private notebooks. They were notes of material known in oral transmission and were not in any sense intended to replace the oral traditions but rather to serve as aids to memory precisely in learning and recalling the oral traditions.

How might these private notebooks played a role in the early Christian movement?

Such notebooks were in quite widespread use in the ancient world (2 Tim 4: 13 refers to parchment notebooks Paul carried on his travels). It seems more probable than not that early Christians used them. It is true that the extent of literacy in Jewish Palestine is debated and may have been very small, but we should also notice that the followers of Jesus, both during his ministry and in the early Jerusalem church, were drawn from all classes of people.

There would undoubtedly be some who could write and more who could read. These would be not only members of the educated elite but also professional scribes and copyists. The old suggestion that, among the Twelve, it would be Matthew the tax collector who would most likely, owing to his profession, be able to write might after all be a sound guess and a clue to the perplexing question of the role he might have played somewhere among the sources of the Gospel of Matthew. We can be fairly confident that some quite sophisticated scribal activity, in the form of intensive work on expounding the biblical prophecies with reference to Jesus and his followers, akin to the learned commentaries produced by the Qumran community, went on at a very early date, presumably in the Jerusalem church, whence its influence can be seen throughout the New Testament writings.

Bauckham continues to explain why he believes that the early church contained at least some educated Christians who could both read and write.

The first Christians were not all illiterate peasant laborers and craftsmen, as the form critics supposed, but evidently included people who studied the Scriptures with current exegetical skills and could write works with the literary quality of the letter of James. Leaders who were not themselves literate could employ the services of other believers who were. Moreover, as Martin Hengel has proposed, it would surely have been in Jerusalem, where Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora became prominent in the Christian community, that Jesus traditions were first translated into Greek. In such a context it does seem unlikely that no one would have even noted down Jesus traditions in notebooks for the private use of Christian teachers.

Bauckham concludes:

Such notebooks would not be a wholly new factor in the process of transmission through memorization that we described in the last section. They would simply have reinforced the capacity of oral transmission itself to preserve the traditions faithfully. . . . Whether or not writing already served as a control on the transmission of the tradition before the writing of the extant Gospels, there is no doubt that with the composition of these Gospels writing came into its own as means of ensuring the faithful preservation of the Jesus traditions.

4 thoughts on “Were There Written Sources for the Gospels?”

  1. This series explores justifications based on what one would expect given the culture of the time. A question on a tangentially related topic, I’d be curious to know; do you have any thoughts on why that time and culture was chosen to begin with?

  2. It answered my question, but I’m not sure if I’d call it helpful. Presumably your referencing this is an endorsement of its contents, which answers my question of what are your thoughts. However, I find the explanations provided to be somewhat lacking.

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