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.


What is Form Criticism?

Form Criticism was applied to the New Testament by K. L. Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. Their work was based on the form criticism popular in Old Testament studies which divided the text into individual sections (pericope, plural, pericopae) and determined a “mini-genre” for each pericope. These sub-genres included proverb, wisdom saying, I-saying, myths, legends, etc. Once a pericope has been determined and a sub-genre assigned, the form critic would then attempt to construct a plausible Sitz im Leben for the pericope – the “situation-in-life” that might have generated the story.  For example, a miracle story could have been invented in a situation where the divinity of Christ was in doubt. Such a “legend” attempted to give Jesus divine qualities in order to support developing Christology of the early church.

Not all form-critical studies assume stories are fabrications, it is possible a story is a genuine recollection of an event. It is possible to ask why was “a particular story was remembered, retold, and adapted for teaching and preaching in the church. Not everything Jesus said and did was recorded, the things that were served some purpose for the writer. Form Criticism is therefore a logical step from Source Criticism.  If the writers were using sources, what can we know about the sources? It is at least possible to trace the origins back to a pre-textual, oral phase. In order to achieve this, Form critics make a few assumptions.

Assumptions of Form Criticism

Oral TraditionFirst, early form critics assumed no one wrote anything down during Jesus’ life time or in the early years of the church. The assumption is that the early Christians relied on oral tradition and at all on written documents. The reason often given for this is the belief that the earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return very soon and establish his kingdom, thus there is no need to write books.

Second, oral traditions are seen as discrete, independently circulating rather than a larger narrative. The units circulated among story-tellers and teachers who incorporated them into their teaching, The model for this process is the history of oral folklore in other cultures such as European or African story telling. Since stories developed in Europe in this fashion, so to must have the Christian mythology.

Third, the material preserved had some sort of function in the life of the community that preserved it. This makes sense since it is obvious not every word Jesus said was preserved. But the situation of the community preserving the material is more important than the context of the life of Jesus. The question shifts from “what did Jesus mean?” to “how did the community use a particular saying?”

Fourth, some Form critics assumed very few details of the life of Jesus were preserved. As a result, we cannot really know much about a Historical Jesus from these stories since the oral transmission of stories tends to strip away actual biographical historical or geographical information in favor of local church contexts. Again, it is possible to use some methods and language Form critics and argue the Gospels preserve real history, but that was not the original intention of the Form critics.

Like Source Criticism, Form Criticism can be useful because it establishes a connection between the original event (Jesus tells a parable) and the eventual writing of that parable, fixing the form in a text. Like Source Criticism, the Form Critics are studying the forty or so years between the events and the writing of the Synoptic Gospels. But the assumption that the stories floated freely and were greatly adapted and changed (or created) to fit new situations is problematic. As Michael Bird says in The Gospel of the Lord (Eerdmans, 2014), if this process happens within forty years (A.D. 33-70), then there are eyewitnesses to “police” the developing oral tradition.

Oral Tradition?

What sort of traditions would the Gospel writers have used? We cannot imagine they found boxes of unused tradition stored away in the back of a teacher’s house (Michael Bird, p. 66, citing James Dunn). The traditions preserved through the early, oral period used because they were the stories used in the regular preaching and teaching of the church! While not precisely “Form criticism” in the traditional sense, scholarship has been working on the “oral period” quite a bit lately, attempting to describe how people remembered Jesus and how those memories were passed along to the next generation.

Like other forms of “higher criticism,” Form Criticism is not necessarily a destructive project. It can serve those who study the Gospels well by shedding light on the time between Jesus’ life and ministry and the writing of the Gospels.

Critical Methods and the Evangelical

In my years teaching Gospels, I have found that the single most frustrating section of the course is section on Historical Criticism.  Usually students do not see the point of the discussion and would prefer to leave it to the professionals. My purpose here is to give a light summary and definition of three key critical methods and then assess the value of these methods for the evangelical.

The dangers of higher criticism

Source Criticism is the study of the use of literary sources by the Gospel writers including the order the in which the gospels were written and the use of hypothetical sources.  It seems somewhat obvious that there is a literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels – why does Matthew look a great deal like Mark?  Why are there verses that are word-for-word the same in Matthew and Luke?

Form Criticism is the study of the per-literary sources use in the Gospels with an emphasis on the forms which these elements appeared in the “life setting of the early church.”  This is more or less a step backwards from Source Criticism since Form critics asked what elements of tradition a writer might have had at his disposal as he created his gospel.  This method begins with the assumption that no one wrote down what Jesus said and did for a very long time but people circulated stories of what did and did orally.  This units were subject to the sorts of changes that affect any folklore, so the units develop until they were eventually collected into the gospels as we know them.  The Form Critic is interested in the earliest possible “form” of a story and determining what situation might have led to the development of the original story.

Redaction Criticism is the study of the way in which the Gospel writers used their sources.  The focus here is on how they edited the sources and the individual contributions of the writers to their sources, or better, the communities in which the gospel was developed.  A position on Source criticism must be taken:  who wrote first, Mark or Matthew?  Then a Redaction critic will study how Matthew adapted mark for his (new) church situation.

Can these methods be used by evangelical scholars who have a commitment to inspiration and inerrancy? I believe that they can, but judiciously.  First, there is a literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels.  To deny that seems to me to be purposely ignoring the obvious because you are afraid of what the explanation might be.  Second, if there is a literary relationship, then it is obvious that the gospel writers used at least one other gospel as a source, and may have had other sources as well.  Luke states this in his prologue, so I see no trouble in the observation that Matthew used Mark, or Luke used Matthew.  I see no problem with Matthew using a sayings document for that matter if such a thing existed.  Third, that there were orally transmitted stories about Jesus seems equally obvious. The existence of these stories is one of Luke’s motivations for writing an “orderly account.” And it is a fact that some of the stories grew to legendary and fanciful myths, as we find in the (much later) New Testament Apocrypha.

However, just because we can use these methods does not mean we should. It seems to me that every Bible reader has to have some basic idea of the literary relationship and an understanding that the writers were highly creative, Spirit-lead individuals who sought to explain who Jesus was in a way which impacted their community.  The problem comes when we get stuck on Source, Form, or Redaction Criticism to the point that we never actually read the text of the gospel with understanding.  These methods usually obscure and distract as much as the help us understand the words of the Gospels.