Did Disciples of Jesus Keep Notebooks?

One of the assumptions of Form Criticism is that the disciples did not write anything down during Jesus’ lifetime or even in the earliest years of the church. The teaching and activities of Jesus were passed along as oral tradition through teaching and preaching. The more radical / early Form Critics imagined that no one cared to write anything down because they believed Jesus would return so soon there was no time for writing books. The assumption is, Jesus wrote nothing and neither did his disciples. In fact, the disciples are often described as illiterate peasants who could not have written down his words even if they wanted to! Bart Ehrman makes this point in his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet as well has his recent How Jesus Became God. Jesus lower-class peasant followers “spoke Aramaic rather than Greek. If they did have any facility in Greek, it would have been for simply for rough communication at best…Peter and John are explicitly said in the New Testament to be ‘illiterate’” (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet, 45).

Coffee and MoleskineMichael Bird challenges the assumption that none of Jesus’s early followers would be interested or capable of writing his words down in order to help the recall his teachings later. I his recent The Gospel of the Lord (Eerdmans, 2014) Bird takes serious the possibility the disciples kept notebooks even in the lifetime of Jesus. Like Bird himself confesses, I am skeptical about the claim any of the disciples were literate enough to have written down key teachings of Jesus, let alone take notes in the contemporary academic sense. There is little evidence the disciples were “scribal literate” (to use Chris Keith’s phrase) and no physical evidence for such notebooks exists. While 2 Tim 4:13 could be read as a reference to such a notebook, it is not certain and some will object 2 Timothy is apocryphal and late.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence for listeners taking notes in order to “capture the gist of speeches” (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 148). He cites a number of ancient sources that indicate some took basic notes for the purpose of guarding one’s memory. Cicero describes Cato as wanting to “read the note-books of Aristotle” over his holiday as a way of refreshing his memory (Cicero, Fin. 3.3.10). Notebooks are not necessary neat collections of texts, some teachings of the stories were “left in the form of note-books. This distinction occasionally gives them an appearance of inconsistency” (Cicero, Fin. 5.5.12). Bird offers several other Jewish and Christian examples in addition to the Roman texts cited by Keener. The practice of testimonia, or thematic collections of scripture was used in the early Church. Justin knew of twenty-six topically arranged collections of sayings of Jesus (Dial Tryph. 15-17, Bird, 47)

These examples are more appropriate for the Gospels, since the disciples were “more like Qumran” than trained scholars in the Hellenistic world described by Cicero! Bird concludes that it is “highly probably that notebooks were used by Jesus’ own disciples and by later adherents in the early church” as a memory aide (Bird, 48). I think Bird needs to contend with the objection that even if later (post-Resurrection) followers kept notebooks, Jesus’ own disciples were by in large illiterate. I think this might be done for a few, perhaps even Peter, James and John. They were not the lowest strata of a peasant society because they appear to have owned boats and had hired men working for them. If they were followers of John the Baptist from the very beginning, perhaps they had been given some synagogue training over and above what a “lowly peasant” normally receives.

If this is the case, then jotting notes about the words of Jesus to use in later teaching and preaching is not too-farfetched. I doubt they had their hipster moleskines, anything written would have been to aide memory. The upshot of all this is that the source of the Oral Tradition sought by Form Criticism is the disciple of Jesus who listened carefully and remembered, and perhaps wrote a few notes as well.

 

29 thoughts on “Did Disciples of Jesus Keep Notebooks?

  1. I can’t find my copy of Millard but I know he suggests there was more writing going on than people otherwise assume. Is he out of fashion? (Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus.)

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    • Yes, Millard is the main text on this topic and (unfortunately) I do not have that book in my personal library. Both Michael Bird and Craig Keener are using his work. Chris Keith (Jesus against the Scribal Elite, Baker 2014) says scholarship that assumed a literate education was accessible in Jesus’ Galilee “have simply been wrong” (p. 23-24), the note to that assumption Millard among many others. Most people cold neither read nor write is Keith’s conclusion.

      In general, I agree, but suggest here (and in the post above) that some of Jesus’ disciples were not “most people.”

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  2. It seems skeptical that all of Jesus’ disciples would have been illiterate, like you mentioned, Professor Long. They had boats, men working for them, and one was even a tax collector (Matthew 4:18-20, Matthew 9:9 John 18:15 – and many more verses). The question still remains as to whether or not the disciples would have taken notes. There has been extensive study during this time on the oral transmission of events, but is it likely that stories would have been accurately passed down to us had there not been any note taking? From personal experience and research, it is said that you retain very little of the information if you hear it just once. Did Jesus repeat his stories frequently enabling his disciples to remember more accurately, or did they keep notes to give us the details we have today in the Gospels? Being that at least some of the disciples look to have been literate, was note taking a high possibility to remember the details we have today? It might be very possible there was documentation of stories and happenings of Jesus’ life. “It is likely that some stories were written down at an early age” (Strauss, 59). With that likelihood, is it now a question of the disciples ability to preserve the documents?

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  3. My first thought that came to mind while reading this post is, if the disciples did have journals and wrote down a few things that Jesus said, wouldn’t you think we would have found some evidence of these journals by now? We have found ancient documents from back then, I could be wrong but, I would think we would have found at least some trace of a journal here or there. If we do look into scripture about this in Luke 1:2-3, it says that they were handed down to us from those that were first eyewitnesses, and then in verse 3 Luke says that he will write an accurate account too. It sounds like there could have been journals that disciples wrote, but Strauss says, “Since the earliest likely date for any of the Gospels is the mid-50’s of the first century, there must have been a period of twenty years or more which was primarily oral” (Strauss 44). So is there a chance that disciples wrote journals during their experience with Jesus’ ministry? Yes, but there is also not a whole lot of proof out there that did say they did. Either way if they did wrote journals it would be cool to read them today.

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  4. I think the idea of the disciples keeping note books is a very good thought. It is one that I have never had before. There are two ideas that came to mind while reading this, both are just things I have heard and don’t know how factual they are. The first is that I have heard shepherds would record things like battles on their rods/staffs. That makes sense to me so why wouldn’t the disciples who are following the Messiah do something similar. Maybe they weren’t writing what he said in words but in pictures/symbols they understood. The second is that I have heard Rabbi’s teach in an interesting way. I have heard they repeat themselves and don’t change lessons until their student understands what is being taught. If this is true maybe Jesus repeated his teachings over and over until his disciples could understand and remember. I don’t know how true these points are, but it is what I thought of while reading.

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  5. If you’ve ever read the Gospels, you’re probably aware of how often nitwitted and downright dumb Jesus’s disciples were. They would never fully understand (it seems) Jesus’s parables and often ask the questions to rather obvious answers (yes, there are such things as dumb questions). The real question though, is whether or not Jesus’s disciple were smart enough to take notes during his teachings. Were travel notebooks a must have item back in the New Testament era? If not, what was a legitimate way people were able to record valuable insight while on the go so much; and especially if one is not the most scholarly. One again, along with redaction criticism, we are allowed to stab away at the authenticity of the Gospels and how these recordings actually came to be. History and research eludes to the idea that Jesus’s disciples probably kept notebooks but, “were in by large illiterate.”(P. Long, Did Disciples of Jesus Keep Notebooks?) Whether or not these disciples were able to maintain a scholarly lifestyle, I do believe that they were able to develop an effective “note taking” process particularly for Jesus’s teachings and his diving authority (Matt. 24:35, Mark 8:38) in order to effectively transcribe it. They’re not that nitwitted.

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  6. It’s interesting, I admit, to picture for a moment Jesus’ disciples carrying around with them their “hipster moleskins” like you’ve said, Professor Long, but in a more serious note, it’s strange to think of the disciples taking notes as to the happenings and sayings of Jesus in general. I suppose that is because I have always assumed that these things were passed down by “word of mouth” as is suggested by form criticism. Form criticism, in it’s basic definition doesn’t not look at the written sources, but strives to look further at the “earlier oral forms of the Gospel” (Strauss, 55). Not to sound, general in my interpretation, but I think it is probable that the disciples both used written words (perhaps from themselves directly), but also the oral words that had been passed down. Looking at the Synoptic Gospels alone, the sources are vague, but Luke states that he has chosen to write down those things which he has investigated including the accounts of the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-3). It is important to note, that the disciples at many times were ignorant or confused by Jesus’ teaching, so it seems accurate that they would keep an account of it to discuss and wrestle over at a later time. At least, personally in my humanness I am drawn to do this with things which I do not understand. In the case that the disciples were illiterate, which is probably the case, I find it necessary to point out that this would have made them more effective communicators orally. Think about it for a moment. You are not able to write or perhaps read, thus your only form of communication is by speaking and listening. Think then how much more you are going to want to retain the words of the man you believe to be your Savior. For that reason alone, I feel as though Form Criticism is crucial to our understanding of the New Testament as a whole with an emphasis, currently, on the Gospels. Mark L. Strauss, notes also that the passing down of these stories would have been primarily in individual units, making each unit remember smaller stories that add up to the whole (59). In other words, Strauss, states that the story, such as the prodigal son, could be seen as a single story, or a small part of a bigger story. Perhaps this is why Jesus spoke in the way He did because He knew much of His audience was illiterate. How much easier it is to remember a “short story” than it is to remember a long story. It is clear to me that whether or not the disciples wrote down what happened or what they heard as they went, their passing down of these things through oral traditions is just as valid as the written word. Thankfully, however, the Gospel writers penned these things so that we are able to cling to and learn from the Words of Christ as well!

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  7. It is an interesting to think about the disciples taking notes on Jesus’ teachings when it is often assumed and taught that all of the stories were passed down orally. Form criticism often encourages this assumption because it theorizes that “between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, there was an oral period when the sayings and stories of Jesus were passed along by word of mouth” (Strauss, 55). This is often in conjunction with the belief that many of the disciples were illiterate and therefore were unable to write down notes on Jesus’ teaching. However, there is still the possibility that some were able to write down some of his teachings or notes on them that were later used when writing the Gospels or other books. Whether Jesus’ teachings were passed down orally or through taking notes, it is more important that we focus on what they say and what we are able to learn from them.

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  8. I had a similar thought to Danae that it would be hard to imagine that the disciples didn’t right anything down. However, once I thought more about it, I began to realize reasons that they may have not. The disciples never really seemed to know what was going on or the importance of Jesus’ work and ministry. It’s not that they thought Jesus’ work wasn’t important but they could not see the bigger picture. Even in the gospels, at the last supper Jesus told the disciples what was going to happen to him and they still did not understand. It’s not that they were stupid, even if they were peasants, but God’s plan was not evident to them. “Most people were not members of any group but were poor farmers, craftsman, and merchants,” (Strauss). Jesus’ followers were not the scholars of the day; they were just the average people, following the God that they loved. When you go about your daily lives you never stop to say, maybe I should write this down in case it will become a valuable part of history. Writing things down just didn’t occur to them at the time. I also agree what Professor Long said, that they may not have written anything down because they thought that he was coming back right away, and was then no need to right things down for the future generations. I think that eventually when people began to realize that it would be a while before he came back, that they then began to write down what had been orally passed down. It seems to me that probably at least some of the disciples must have been literate but just never thought to write anything down.

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  9. In one sense I agree with Bird, since some of these men had boats and hired help it seems like they would need something to keep records like some type of notebooks. But then again as Craig Keener said there has never been any evidence to back this up. And I also have always just assumed that things were just passed down through word of mouth.

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  10. This was a very interesting post and it was on a subject that I have never really thought about before. I think I just assumed that everything was passed down from oral tradition, but I liked reading this and think that there is a solid chance that some of his disciples took notes. I can’t say for sure and it is hard for anyone to be truly sure, but it is cool to think of them taking notes to be able to further write it down and pass it on. They may not have been the highest or smartest people of their time, but I think it is safe to say that the disciples were not very dumb.

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  11. It is always nice when we are able to share our opinions on things, because then we are pretty much never wrong. I have no idea if the disciples kept journals, but I do think it would be extremely interesting if they did to read what some of them had to say! I agree with what Megan had to say about how most the time the disciples did not know what exactly Christ was talking about, or they would just do what he said, but that wouldn’t stop them from writing about it necessarily. whether or not they took notes, I think they definitely talked about what they saw with other people, mainly because I know I would. “Since the earliest likely date for any of the Gospels is the mid-50’s of the first century, there must have been a period of twenty years or more which was primarily oral” (Strauss 44). This quote does not prove that they only talked about what went on in the gospels, and I still think things were written down at some point in that era. Sadly there are things like fire, and water, and other elements that could end a journal or writing of one of the disciples, and most likely many writings were probably lost to the elements of the earth. With lack of evidence, all I am able to say is that I think at least one of the disciples probably took notes, or had some sort of journal, but that is only an opinion of mine.

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  12. I would have to agree with the form criticism assumption on this one. I don’t think the disciples wrote anything down because they were always going back to Jesus and asking him what He meant about this or that. One big case of this is when Jesus had to time and time again explain His having to suffer and die on the cross. They never really fully understood it. If they would have taken notes they could have seen that he mentioned this to them on a few occasions and their understanding of this event would have been clearer to them. Or, my speculation is that they would have certainly asked Jesus for further explanation on the how, when, where, or why of the cross. Two verses come to my attention when I believe they were not keeping notes. John 12:16 says “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.” John 14:26 says “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you.” These two verses tell me that rather than the disciples taking notes to understand Jesus, they needed constant reminders or confirmations of Jesus’s teachings. Then when they were intercepted by the Holy Spirit, they recalled all the things they were told.

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    • John 14:26 is a good point, Jacob. I think it is possible some would object because John was written later, after the earlier Gospels, but the verse reflects the belief of the earliest Christians that the Holy Spirit will help them remember what Jesus said.

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  13. Jake I have to agree with you. It seems that the disciples were uncertain enough to have to ask Jesus for clarity so many times. To me, I feel that if the disciples were adamant enough about understanding Jesus’ parables, prophecies, and miracles, that there would be some clear evidence that they were in fact taking notes. It could be that a lot of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, and they were not educated enough to where they were even able to write. But, on the other hand, that doesn’t speak for the disciples that may have been literate enough. There is a plethora of verses in the Gospels where the disciples refer to Jesus as “Teacher” (John 3:2, 13:13, Matt. 7:29…etc). Could it be that the disciples saw Jesus as more of a teacher than God in the flesh? Did they view themselves as students who found it necessary to take notes and record what they have learned from Christ? Matthew, a former tax collector, may have obtained the education needed to be able to write because of the area of work he was in. As a tax collector, one had to be able to keep record, which means there must have been some sort of eligibility. Who knows. Just because one guy was not the brightest crayon in the box, doesn’t mean that the next guy couldn’t write novels.

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  14. The disciples were chosen by Jesus for a reason. I don’t believe that Jesus was concerned at the time whether or not they were literate or not. He saw them for their potential in the Kingdom. However, I take a stand that the disciples would have taken some sort of notes on Jesus teachings. “Nevertheless, there is some evidence for listeners taking notes in order to “capture the gist of speeches”” (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 148). The question of skeptics of the life of Jesus linger from the fact that there is no definite evidence of the stories of Jesus. I have no real answer for their questions either. Sine those who use form criticism intend to unravel the stories of Jesus. They desire to decipher which ones Jesus actually acted out and which ones were made up by the early church. (Strauss 58). I take a stance of faith on the scriptures and read them as though God had placed the words on the page Himself, 2 Timothy 3:16. He has a purpose for each word that is written in the Bible. The moment that we start wondering whether or not the disciples took notes or whether the oral tradition of Jesus’ actions were falsely passed down is the moment where we surrender our faith to a quest for knowledge and understanding.

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  15. I think that the biggest problem anyone would have with the idea of Jesus’ disciples keeping notes it the overplayed notion that the disciples were a bunch of idiots whom Jesus dragged all over the countryside ministering. It is pretty obvious, to me, when you look at who some of these men were; that they were anything but idiots. I mean one of them is said to have been a tax collector, and while tax collectors were often seen as “evil”, they didn’t get to their position by being dumb and illiterate. In fact, I imagine that one of the main ways tax collectors took advantage of people was by using their own literacy to their advantage over illiterate commoners. But, I digress. As Jake pointed out, Jesus had something in mind when he chose each of those disciples to follow him. If Jesus intended these disciples to continue his mission after he was gone, and if the disciples had any clue of that intent (which seems a little unlikely), it would be a good reason to believe that they took notes of his teachings in order to use them in the future. However, in spite of the fact that the disciples may not have known Jesus plan for them, he was their Rabbi, and as such the whole point of their following him was to gain an understanding of who he was so they could become like him. (Seems like a beautiful picture of what Christianity ought to be to me.) In that case, it makes a lot of sense to think that “it is likely that some stories were written down at an early age” (Strauss, 59). Regardless, these disciples already had some serious practice with memorization, in regards to the memorization that most Jewish children grew up practicing. So, even if they didn’t “jot down notes in their hipster moleskines”, they probably took the time to memorize things that Jesus was saying, in order to use them in the future.

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  16. The assumption that Jesus’ desciples did not write anything down seems very strange to me. With all the time the disciples spent with Jesus and listening to His teachings, I guess I just find it rather hard to believe that they did not write anything down. Or Jesus for that matter. I don’t know, I obviously had some preconceived idea that Jesus and His desciples were of the scholarly sort and wrote absolutely everything imaginable down. I never would have given the thought of ANY of them being illiterate the time of day. However, given the lack of any evidence to any journals the disciples might have had actually existing, I suppose it could be a possibility.
    As it is told in our text (Strauss, 55) “form critics believed there to be an oral period where stories of Jesus were passed along by word of mouth (Strauss, 55).”
    While, yes stories passed down by word of mouth is most certainly one of the most common and most prevalent ways of telling stories, I do find it hard to believe that even back then they did not bother to document some things that they saw or heard. I also understand the question of whether or not we would or should have evidence of notebooks or such from the disciples, but then again, just because certain other documents have survived does not mean EVERY document written back then will automatically survive. So I find that argument a little thin, but then again what do I know. That is just my opinion and initial thought on the matter.

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  17. It seems a huge jump to say Aristotle had note books to saying a disciple of Jesus would have used such a thing. We are a long way removed from the circles Aristotle or Cicero moved in. Stretching a might long bow here

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    • I agree; as I said above, I think the testimonia from Qumran are a better analogy. These are far from “notebooks,” but lists of verses. A similar collection could be made of Jesus’ sayings around topics, accounting for thematic collections in Q.

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  18. My opinion is the same with Claude Tresmontant’s. He writes:

    However that may be, it is established and certain that there were some educated men among the actual disciples of Jesus. Certainly there were also educated people among those who followed and observed him, who listened to him, and who, on occasion, challenged and criticized him.
    It would also seem to be evident a priori, indeed wholly certain a priori, that among the educated people who heard Jesus at first hand, some would at some point have taken down some notes. This would have been the most natural thing in the world for those who spent virtually their whole lives studying the sacred Hebrew texts. Some of the immediate disciples of Jesus were of that number.
    The hypothesis that no one actually hearing Jesus could or would ever have taken down any notes is simply absurd—psychologically as well as historically, especially when we consider the Jewish milieu of the time and the unusually high density of men in that milieu who knew how to read and write.
    The oracles or preaching of the ancient prophets, of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the others, were all set down in writing, either by the prophets themselves or by their disciples.
    How is it possible to imagine—why would anyone want to imagine—that among the disciples of Jesus who knew perfectly well how to read and write and who, indeed passed a good part of their lives studying the holy Scriptures, there would never have been even one who was moved to take down anything of what he had heard from the lips of the Galilean rabbi? The notion is even more incredible when it is remembered that this Galilean rabbi came to be considered by them not as just another prophet in the category of the ancient prophets, but as much more than just another prophet. All four of those who did take down notes—notes that were translated from the original Hebrew into the Greek of the Gospels we have ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—expressly recorded the conviction that Jesus was more than just a prophet.
    It is an a priori absurdity to assume that disciples such as these never took down any notes, were somehow constrained or forbidden or prevented from taking down any notes. They considered their Galilean rabbi to be greater, much greater, than Amos, Hosea, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Yet the words of all these prophets had been taken down.
    ***
    These notes or collections of notes were written in Hebrew because Hebrew was the written language, the sacred language. In the eyes of the educated disciples of the Galilean rabbi, the words, acts, and gestures of their master were nothing if not sacred and holy; they were in the tradition of the holy prophets of the past, whose words and oracles were all noted down and preserved. In the eyes of the disciples, however, this rabbi, Yeshua ha-nozeri (a phrase that we forbear from translating as, simply, “Jesus of Nazareth”) was a great deal more than a prophet. He was, in Aramaic, bar elaha, that is, the Son of God. If all the words and oracles of the ancient prophets were duly noted down and preserved, those of the rabbi who was none other than the expected “son of David” himself were all the more likely to have been noted down and preserved.
    It is completely absurd to suppose that disciples of Jesus who were educated would not have written down something about the acts and gestures, the teaching and hence the actual words, of their Lord and Master.
    ***
    We know that crowds of people, common people, flocked to see our Lord and to hear him speak; many of these people no doubt knew neither how to read nor how to write. Nevertheless we also know that some of the disciples of Jesus were learned men, students of the Book. The author of the fourth Gospel depicts some of these educated disciples. It is a priori impossible that those disciples who did know how to read and write, and who spent their lives in the study of the sacred Hebrew Scriptures, would never have taken notes on what Jesus said, or written down what he did. The sayings of the ancient Hebrew prophets had, after all, been set down in writing. And the disciples of Jesus considered him to be much, much greater than any of the earlier prophets. Thus they would surely have written down his words, his teachings and his actions almost as soon as they had issued from him.
    It is the opposite hypothesis that is unthinkable and absurd, namely, that nothing was ever written down about Jesus by his contemporaries, especially when we take into account the milieu in which our Lord lived and worked. He did not appear among some primitive Amazon tribe; the Jewish people probably boasted the highest literacy rate of antiquity when we consider the seriousness with which the Jews studied the Hebrew sacred Scriptures.
    Claude Tresmontant, The Hebrew Christ: Language in the Age of the Gospels, pp. 4-7, 192, 193.

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  19. Everyone and their brother has commented on this one, so I might as well chime in. If Jesus’ disciples were all illiterate peasants, then it is hard to believe that they wrote anything down. I don’t have a problem with this being the case. They very well could have listened intently to Jesus’ teachings, memorized it, and written it down. And as these writings were passed down, we know that the Holy Spirit was involved in this process. I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that people like Luke and Mark were more wealthy, well-educated than disciples like Matthew and John. If this was the case, which may or may not have been, than some of these people could have definitely written what they heard. Whatever the case, the teachings of Jesus were written down, and have stood the test of time for us to be able to read it as well.

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