Before The New Testament Was Written

Written by gregdenham on July 23rd, 2009

There is strong evidence that the first Gospel written, the Gospel of Mark, was penned some THIRTY YEARS after Jesus rose from the dead.

Obviously, thirty years is a long period of time for eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus to remember the kind of details that are recorded in the Gospel of Mark as well as the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.

This point raises many questions that we will be exploring in future blogs such as, “What is the meaning of ‘Inspiration’ and ‘Inerrancy’?”

However, at this time, I want to focus on the following question: “How was the message of Jesus communicated by the first Jewish believers before the New Testament was officially written and circulated as a source for doctrine and Christian growth?”

There are THREE important perspectives to keep in mind when answering this…

#1)  The Gospel was initially communicated by those who were eyewitnesses of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus! Prior to the literary works of the New Testament being circulated throughout Christian communities as a source for doctrine and Christian growth, the message of the Gospel came from “Apostolic Authority!”

This is seen on the day of Pentecost- fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead – when Peter preached to thousands of his Jewish countrymen and remarked, “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses!” (Acts2:33)

Their eyewitness authority is also seen when Peter and John stood before the ruling council of Israel – who had threatened the Apostles and called for them to stop teaching in the name of Jesus – Peter answered, “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20)

Acts 2:42 says that the early church “continued in the Apostles doctrine” which was based upon their own personal experience of the life, miracles and teachings of the Lord Jesus. This gives perspective to Ephesians 2:19-20 which says “…you are …fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles …”

Did the Apostles have divine help with what they remembered?  You bet! 

Jesus said in John 14:26, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you!” 

#2) The early church began in Jerusalem and to the early Jewish followers of Jesus, their faith did not come from a vacuum, but was rooted in the person and work of Jesus and in the inspired literary work of the Tanach – the Old Testament. On the day of Pentecost, a day where God’s active presence was clearly visible for thousands to see, the Apostle Peter substantiated the unique experience by quoting from the prophet Joel! By doing so, the early church was proclaiming their belief that what was written about in the Old Testament was in the process of being fulfilled! Jesus even said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17)

So, when the question arises, “How was the message of the Jewish followers of Jesus communicated before the New Testament was written and circulated as a source for doctrine and Christian growth?” – the answer is, orally! It was communicated orally by the Apostles whose authority was based upon their own personal experience in the life and ministry of Jesus, and upon the Scriptures that had already been given in the Old Testament.  Personal experience in Christ, combined with the writings of the Law and the prophets were the key elements that made up the “the Apostles doctrine”. (Acts 2:42)

#3) It is important to have proper perspective on the significance of oral tradition in Jewish culture. Author and Professor Timothy Paul Jones, did a great job researching this subject in his book, “Misquoting Truth!” (Intervarsity Press) He wrote, “We live in a time when printed records define our culture. This was not the case in first century. In the world of Jesus and Mary and Simon Peter, written records were secondary to spoken narratives.”

There are a number of reasons as to why spoken narratives were more authoritative than written records in the first century.

First of all, the majority of the Roman Empire was illiterate. Secondly, the character of the person who was putting forth information deeply mattered to the ancient people.

Timothy Paul Jones writes, “At the end of the first century A.D., some Christian leaders still relied on oral accounts of Jesus’ life alongside the written Gospels and apostolic epistles. Papias of Hierabpolis put it this way: “If anyone who had served the elders came, I asked about their saying in detail – what, according to the elders, Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s followers …. For I perceived that what was to be obtained from books would not profit me as much as what came from the living and surviving voice.”

Furthermore, there is strong evidence in New Testament writings that the early church benefited from EARLY oral history. In fact, it is believed that I Cor. 15:3-7 was a proclamation that was celebrated and repeated orally after being passed down from the Apostles. It reads: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.”

With regard to this passage, Timothy Paul Jones writes, “So, how can scholars know that these words actually came from early oral history? In the first place, Paul introduced this summation with the two Greek words that clearly indicated it was oral tradition. These two words were “paradidomi” (“handed over”) and “paralambano (“received”). Ancient readers understood these two words – when used together – to imply that the writer was quoting words that he or she intended to become oral tradition. In this way, Paul clearly informed the Corinthians that he was about to pass on oral tradition.”

Some might say, “Everyone knows that when people pass along information orally, it is less than perfect and the stories are bound to change”!

Actually, oral history in Jewish culture was a proficient and effective discipline and was a reliable process in passing along important information. One way this was accomplished was through the use of rhythmic, repetitive patterns in memorizing information. It’s like memorizing the lyrics of a song. I still can recall lyrics learned in grade school – especially when accompanied with melody or rhythm. The melody helps me remember the words on the drop of a dime!

Stay tuned for more …

4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Frank Daves says:

    Really enjoy this series, pastor Greg! Keep them coming. GOd Bless you and your family.

  2. Bonita Thompson says:

    Pastor Greg,
    I am sharing these blogs with my family and they are very helpful to understanding the power of the Bible. See you Sunday!

  3. Pam Goldbeck says:

    I have been enjoying your blogs while away from home. Sharing with family members. You are a blessing.

  4. Donovan Tekin says:

    You wrote:
    “Oral history in Jewish culture was a proficient and effective discipline”

    hmmm…I wonder how far this discipline dates back? Moses’ account of Genesis is pretty amazing, considering he also would have relied on oral tradition. He talked to God directly, so I wonder what part that played in writing the book.

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