Fact: There are libraries in the world today that have security bats living inside of them. That’s right, bats! Why? Because bats eat book-damaging bugs. During the day, these bats sleep; but at night, they become an army of vengeance upon these pesky insects. The only downside is the clean-up in the morning (but in my opinion, no upside can make up for that downside).
Fact: The oldest library in the world dates from the 7th century BC. It was established in Ninevah (now modern-day Iraq) by Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668–c.630 BC), and housed over 30,000 cuneiform tablets. Not a fact: The oldest librarian in the world dates from 7 to 9 pm on weekends.
Fact: Overdue books bring in big bucks. In 2016, the San Jose Public Library reported collecting $6.8 million in delinquent fees. Apparently, 39% of its members were guilty of not returning their books on time. Some libraries, however, waive fees under certain circumstances. For instance, no charges were issued when a man’s granddaughter returned, The Microscope and Its Revelations, 120 years after it had been borrowed! Evidently, it is never too late to return a book.
Fact: We believe libraries ought to be quiet places; but in the ancient world, libraries were filled with sounds because people who could read, did so aloud. And this was the practice until roughly the 17th century. In fact, one scholar (D. Vance Smith) stated, “The default assumption in the classic period, if you were reading around other people, you’d read aloud and share it. For us, the default is we read silently and keep it to ourselves.”
Today, is the last post in our series on how the gospels came into existence. We’ve covered a lot of ground, but we still have one major hurdle to get over. Here’s the problem: We think of the whole process incorrectly. See, we think in books, but the ancients thought in stories. John Walton and D. Brent Sandy wrote in the introduction to their book, The Lost World of Scripture, these words that really struck me:
“Understanding the oral and manuscript galaxy of the biblical world – before the watershed of print culture – is essential for grasping how the Bible was written. Before there were books and handwritten copes, there were only oral texts. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, before anyone wrote it down, was an oral text. Texts came into existence and were passed along differently in a world dominated by hearing. Brains were wired differently.”
That’s right, to understand how the gospels came to be gospels, we have to think differently. We need to stop thinking about writing and publishing and begin to think about sharing stories.
Rachel Held Evans was always extremely insightful and thought provoking. I think she hit the nail on the head when she wrote these words: “We may wish for answers, but God rarely gives us answers. Instead, God gathers us up into soft, familiar arms and says, ‘Let me tell you a story.’” The disciples had that same mentality (but we can relax, they learned it from some pretty reliable sources). See, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not just apostles, they were primarily pastors, and pastors of four (or more) very different congregations. And as they encountered problems or questions and struggles within their churches, they wouldn’t say, “Let me read you something,” but instead, “Let me tell you a story.” The good news was, there was never a shortage of stories about Jesus. And over time, there were so many stories that someone decided to collect them; but here’s the point, they all started out as “oral texts.” They all started out as stories. And from those stories, came sermons; and from those sermons and sayings, came traditions. And then, finally, after many years, they became books.
But even then (and this is hard for us to grasp), these books didn’t replace the stories (aka, the oral tradition that was passed down). See, books in the ancient world, weren’t necessarily written down to be read, they were written down to be preserved. The idea of disseminating the book was clearly a secondary purpose. Five pieces of evidence prove this to be true. (Side note: my arguments below are certainly true for the way the Old Testament period viewed documents, perhaps a little less so for New Testament days; but we must remember that both periods were heavily dominated by the priority of oral and not written testimony. How do we know? Here are five lines of proof.) First of all, very few people in the ancient world could read or write. In fact, the average person saw no need to do so. If you needed something recorded, you would hire a scribe to write it down for you, but very few people ever needed the services of a scribe. Second, the vast majority of texts that were written in the ancient world were for religious purposes. They contained prayers and rituals and magical spells and secrets of divination and spells to ward off evil. All of these were written down as offerings to the gods because writing was seen as a mystical way to communicate with the gods. In other words, these religious documents were not written so that other people could read them, but for the gods to read them. Third, “books” were not written for individuals to read privately, but for readers to “perform the book” in front of hearers (think of Phoebe “reading” the book in front of the various house churches in Rome). Fourth, for most people, the written document was nothing more than a symbol of the authority of the author and not something that was to be read. In the ancient world, kings would have inscriptions written on monuments all over their territory, not because they wanted their people to read these words (remember, they couldn’t read), but because these inscriptions stood as a symbol of the king’s power. Last, most documents that were written down were placed in archives where they would be kept (but rarely referred to), even as the oral text of that document circulated and spread.
Now that strikes us as odd. Certainly, once people saw the benefits of literacy, we surmise, they would run to learn how to utilize these skills. But we may be wrong. Plato, at least, thought written texts were a bad idea. In his dialogue known as “The Phaedrus,” Socrates (it’s really Plato, but let’s not quibble) relates a story of an Egyptian god who invented writing. This god then brought this precious gift to the king, saying that this invention will make then wiser. Here is the Egyptian king’s response:
“For those who learn to use this invention, it will result in forgetfulness, for they will no longer need to use their memory. You have discovered a medication not to increase memory but to increase dependence on being reminded. Thus, you offer to your students only the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. For they will read much, but not be taught; they will appear to be knowledgeable, but on the whole they will be ignorant.” [see Walton and Sandy for the full story.]
In short, Plato believed that words written down in a document or a book would not provide opportunity for real learning since there was no author present to clarify his or her meaning, to answer questions, and to give further explanation. Instead, written texts were only helpful to remind people what they had already heard. Why did Plato feel this way? Because he felt the transmission of oral tradition was considered the best way to communicate ideas in a reliable, relational and engaging way. Orality was the preferred way to go.
All that to say, the books in our Bibles didn’t first break onto the scene as books, but as “oral texts” that were passed down from person to person until they were inscripurated. The books of the New Testament were all written by the end of the first century, but most “Bible teachers” chose to transmit the message of the apostles orally well into the second century. Now, that makes us nervous, but remember this fact: Jesus never wrote a book or instructed his disciples to take notes about what he was saying; instead, he chose to speak everything he wanted to say, and he required his disciples to listen. And since that is true, that should give us great confidence in the oral transmission of God’s Word because, certainly, if Jesus considered writing to be the best way to broadcast his words, you would have thought he would have penned a gospel. But he didn’t. He trusted his followers to transmit his oral message faithfully and clearly.
But we are still nervous because we’ve all played telephone and have witnessed how a simple message can get really messed up in the shortest amount of time. But if I asked you to recite the pledge of allegiance right now, I bet you could do it and do it without a single mistake, so oral transmission is not completely flawed. Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey studied contemporary Middle Eastern culture and proposed a model based on his observations. Even today, some cultures transmit the story of their history and values orally. As they gather together as a community, an elder will “tell the story.” Then others will tell the same story again in his presence. As these new story tellers do so, they are allowed some freedom to tell the story their way, but only to a certain degree. The whole community acts as judges, giving only so much leeway to the speaker, before requiring him or her to start again so as to get the story right. This informal, yet controlled transmission allows for differences in minor areas, but strict subscription to all the important elements of the story. Now, think about that. The disciples were with Jesus for three years. Isn’t it feasible to think that they spent many of their evenings in the presence of Jesus reciting Jesus’ words and message so that they could share it with others without any doubt that they were speaking his very words? I think it is even likely. And as Walton and Sandy argue, “It is safe to believe that God empowered faithful followers to pass along oral texts of divine truth. God spoke oral texts, entrusted them to faithful followers and commissioned the followers to pass them on to others.”
How did the gospels come into being? Jesus spoke and his disciples listened. And then in community, they “preached” Jesus’ words to each other. And when they were ready, they went out and shared with others all that Jesus said and taught. And after Jesus’ ascension, they went out and proclaimed the risen Lord to new audiences. Some in these audiences, believed and formed new communities. Matthew had his Jewish community. Mark had his Gentile church. Luke spoke to a mixed community. And John had his own community. And each of these churches had their own particular questions that needed a tailor-made response. And so, their pastors shared the story of Jesus with them in a way that truly spoke to their unique circumstances and struggles. These stories were shared orally for years, but then to preserve these traditions, Mark wrote down his stories in one flowing narrative; and the first gospel was born. But even though it was now written in a book, you can’t help but to hear the “living voice” of Jesus in those pages. And if you haven’t heard that voice, today is a good day to pick up one of the gospels and read it. And if you don’t have one, I bet the library does. Just watch out for those bats!