A Testament Is Born
Could Matthew take shorthand?—and other intriguing reasons the New Testament may have emerged surprisingly early.
by Carsten Peter Thiede
“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger” (John 8:6).
Here, in the story of the adulteress, we learn that Jesus knew how to write. But Jesus was a teacher, not a writer—it was left to others to write down what he said. Yet literacy was something Jesus could take for granted. The ability to write fluently and intelligibly was widespread in ancient Israel, almost as widespread as the ability to memorize long and complicated texts.
In other words, Jesus could count on this: among his followers there would be a number of people capable not only of memorizing what he said, but also of writing it down.
Furthermore, Jesus and the people around him could use more than one language. Aramaic was commonly used in daily life, Hebrew in religious life, particularly in worship and the reading of Scripture (e.g., Luke 4:16–30).
But people were aware of a third language, that of the eastern Roman Empire: Greek. Recent investigations have shown that even orthodox Jews used Greek in everyday dealings with each other—we see it, for instance, in tombstone inscriptions and in handwritten notes passed between defenders of the Masada fortress.
Jesus himself used Greek: in the dialogue with the Greek-speaking Syrian Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30), and in the dispute about paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13–17), which relies on a wordplay that works only in Greek.
But (and this is a fairly recent insight of scholarship) the first stages of a literary tradition may have been instantaneous with Jesus’ ministry—and they could have been surprisingly precise. Shorthand writing (“tachygraphy”) was known in Israel and in the Greco-Roman world. We find a first trace of it in the Greek translation of Psalm 45:1 (third century B.C.): “My tongue is the pen of a skillful writer”— literally, “a stenographer.”
Such a skill was highly necessary. Writing material was scarce: leather or parchment was highly priced; papyrus was dependent on import. Writers often were forced to use pot shards or wax tablets, which had limited room for detailed texts. Shorthand writing was the most practical remedy.
There was even a man among Jesus’ entourage who was professionally qualified to write shorthand: Levi-Matthew, the customs official. Indeed, if Levi-Matthew had heard the Sermon on the Mount before he was called by Jesus (and could react so swiftly to this call because he had already been convinced by that sermon), one may have in Matthew 5 through 7 a direct result of a shorthand protocol.
Whatever the exact reconstruction of the earliest stages may be, we do know from the prologue to Luke’s Gospel that there were more literary sources he could use than just the completed Gospels of Matthew and Mark: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–2).
In sum, though there exist theological theories about the long and slow development of the Gospels in certain ancient communities, some historical evidence suggests the first followers of Jesus may have handed down his teaching in written form.
Early Christians soon gathered such writings. They were profoundly interested in the literary world. Occasionally, they talk about it with humor: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Or they ask for writing material: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Or they are seen in the process of writing: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11).
So well acquainted were they with a literary tradition, literature was used in symbolic ways: “The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up … ” (Rev. 6:14).
This advanced interest in writing had an obvious consequence: texts had to be collected in archives and libraries, and even in stores from which copies could be ordered and supplied. Christians from a Jewish background would have known the collected scrolls of the Torah, the Prophets, the Psalms, and so forth. Those of Greco-Roman background would have known the collections of philosophers and poets like Aratus, Cleanthes, Menander, Euripides, and others, to which Paul alludes in his letters and speeches.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls helps us to understand how Jews and Jewish Christians organized their libraries.
There were three types of books: copies of Holy Scripture (what we now call the Old Testament), commentaries on Scripture, and theological writings.
For Christians, the first Scriptures they thrived on were the Law and the Prophets. These were copied and distributed since they provided the sources for one vital ingredient of the Christian message: the suffering and redemption of Jesus the Messiah had been predicted many centuries earlier.
But how should Christians interpret these sources? How should they put them into practice? How should they integrate them into the life and teachings of Jesus?
Interpretation, first of all, was given in major speeches—like those of Peter at Pentecost, and those of Stephen and Paul—collected and edited by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to his Gospel.
More important, there were the letters, all of which in one way or another interpret Old Testament stories, people, and prophecies. Some of them—like Paul’s letter to the Romans, the anonymous letter to the Hebrews, or the two letters of Peter and the letter of Jude—depend on a good knowledge of the Old Testament and other Jewish texts.
Early Christian letters, in fact, were the first documents distributed as collections. We find a trace of this in the New Testament itself. At the end of Peter’s second letter, we read, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters.” The statement presupposes a collection of Paul’s letters, though not necessarily a complete collection.
Some recent scholarship has begun to “redate” 2 Peter to the lifetime of Peter (rather than regard it as a second-century work of one of Peter’s disciples); following that dating, an initial collection of letters would have existed in the mid-sixties of the first century. That makes sense: Paul’s surviving letters had all been written by then.
A few years ago, Young-Kyu Kim, a papyrologist at Göttingen University, demonstrated, I think conclusively, that p46 (an early collection of Paul’s letters) should no longer be dated about a.d. 200, as it has commonly been. Instead, Kim showed, with a variety of evidence, that it should be dated to the late first century—in other words, to the lifetime of people like John and other “survivors” of the first Christian generation.
The Final Four
And the Gospels? Again, more can be said today than a few years ago. Martin Hengel of Tübingen University, one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, provided some new insights into the process of collecting the Gospels.
Look at a modern book on a library shelf—you glean the author’s name from the spine. In New Testament times, there were no spines, since books existed in scrolls. No matter how these scrolls were stored, you would merely see the “top end,” with a handle. In order to identify the contents, little parchment or leather strips (called sittiboi) were attached to the handle.
Since space was scarce, if there existed just one book on a given subject, only the title would be given. For the Gospels, as long as there was only one, the sittibos would have said, Euangelion, that is “Good News,” or “Good News of Jesus Christ.” But the very moment a second Gospel came into existence, differentiation became necessary; the first and the second Gospel would have carried the name of the authors—“according to Mark,” “according to Matthew,” and so on.
Thus, long before the end of the first century, there was—of necessity—a systematic approach to identifying the authors and cataloguing their works.
By the beginning of the second century, the number of the Gospels and the names of their authors were therefore well established. Our first literary source is Papias, writing at about A.D. 110. None of the later so-called gospels existed yet—neither the Gospel of Thomas, nor that of Nicodemus, of James, nor whomever. Papias knows and accepts the earliest Gospels, and he gives us some anecdotal information about their authors.
For instance, he calls Mark “stubble-fingered”—what on earth does that mean? What does he mean when he tells us that Mark was the hermeneutes of Peter? Interpreter? Translator? Editor? The word could mean all three.
Or what does it mean when Papias writes that Matthew compiled the logia (sayings) of Jesus en hebraidi dialecto (in Hebrew/Aramaic dialect)? In Hebrew/Aramaic style but in the Greek language? Could he have known about Levi-Matthew’s shorthand notes of Jesus’ public addresses (i.e., logia)?
The brief quotes from Papias’s works leave many a question unanswered. The gist of it, however, remains: Papias of Hierapolis knew about a collection of Gospels as early as the beginning of the second century—and this implies the existence of such a collection at an even earlier stage. In other words, he appears to corroborate what we now know about Paul’s letters from the redating of that papyrus codex p46.
Some seventy years later, about 180, Irenaeus offers one other item that has stimulated scholarly debate. He gives for the first time the order of the four Gospels as we have it today: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In addition, he tells us that Mark’s Gospel was written after the “exodus” of Peter and Paul.
This word has been used as a tool for dating the Gospel; for if exodus means “death,” as the majority of critics have assumed, then a.d. 67, the probable date of Paul’s and Peter’s martyrdoms, would be the earliest possible date for Mark.
Exodus, however, can also mean “departure”—as in the title of the second book of the Old Testament. Does Irenaeus imply a departure of Peter and Paul from Rome some time before their eventual return and martyrdom?
Only a couple of years ago, an American scholar, E. Earle Ellis, provided an important part of the answer. He analyzed every single work of Irenaeus, and he discovered that Irenaeus never uses exodus when he means “death.” For “death,” he always employs the unequivocal Greek word thanatos. Thus, Mark’s Gospel was probably written not after the deaths of Peter and Paul but after their departure from Rome—some time before.
The Letters From Petermay have been written earlier than some scholars have assumed. The Bodmer Papyrus shown dates from the third century.