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Published at: 10/08

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Origins of the New Testament Gospels

The collective wisdom of academic scholars about how the scriptures of the Bible came into being is that there was a series of early documents from which the final document was eventually collated. Much of the early part of the Old Testament was supposedly written in Babylon during the period of exile there. The New Testament gospels were derived from a "Q" document and other documents that were an assortment of recollections and writings about Jesus and his disciples who, according to Bart Ehrman, were uneducated peasants who could not have known how to read or write. The starting point for Professor Erhman's scepticism seems to be his concern about discrepancies (or variations) in the New Testament accounts as we have them from manuscripts that unsettled his thinking about what might constitute the Word of God.

Bart Ehrman on authorship of Bible

The underlying assumption is that a group of individuals for some reason had collaborated to create writings that tried to express a coherent account of a superhuman person from which they could base their religious faith but who are no more worthy of belief than Meghan Markle.

What do we know?

My interest has been piqued by rereading The Jesus Papyrus

Spreading the Word

The possibility of a new expression of faith spreading from a small group of uneducated Jewish believers in the first century to the world's largest global religion does seem remarkable. As the book The Jesus Papyrus explains,there are some favourable circumstances for spreading the Word at that time. The Romans had built a first class road system across their empire, they were heavily dependant on shipping and trade on the Mediterranean Sea, and they were frequently responsible for dispersing Jewish people around their empire and beyond. So rapid dissemination of letters and manuscripts across great distances was easily accomplished.

Technical Advances in Writing Materials

Traditionally writing had been on papyrus or vellum scrolls. Rolling and unrolling scrolls made it difficult to traverse through the document unless going from start to finish. Since the Roman Empire, or at least Rome, was heavily dependant on Egypt for grain supplies it would also have been a heavy consumer of Egyptian papyrus, parchment made from reeds in the Nile, for writing materials rather than using vellum. Papyrus lent itself to being made into sheets rather than a scroll.

Early Christian writers were early adopters of the new technology of the codex which had two major advantages

  • writing could be on both sides of the material
  • the sheets because they were of similar size, could be sewn on one edge to make in effect, a book

Having plenty of writing materials and easy transport to move copies around is all well and good, but were the early Christian believers able to write or were they dependent on oral transmission of the sacred message? Hence Paul writes

2 Timothy 4:13

When you come, bring the cloak with you which I left with Carpus at Troas, and the books (especially the parchments).

The word 'parchments' (Greek membranes) refers to the square sheets of papyrus sewn together on one side like a modern book.

Oral Tradition

Oral Torah was one expression of ancient socities establishing much of their most important learning in oral form. Education in Egyptian, Greek (e.g. Homer) and many other societies involved memorising verbatim large bodies of knowledge or culture in the form of storytelling. This would have been an ideal way of transmitting the gospel message to those who could not read but also it was a way of making the storytelling vibrant by acting out the story and keeping the content fresh.

Holding Fast to the Word

Philippians 2:16 It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

The early Christian church had an urgent mission to spread the Word of Life as far and wide as possible in the shortest possible time. To do this they were highly organised with at least three classes of people responsible for the production and dissemination of the Word.

  • the apostles who claimed divine inspiration to put into writing what they had seen and heard from Jesus directly
  • the amanuensis who listened as the apostle and wrote down the text
  • the huperetes or helper

Tertius the amenuensis of Paul as he writes a letter to the church at Rome in Romans 16: 22 I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.

Huperetes

Luke 1: 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants (huperetes) of the word,

Acts 13:5 When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper (huperetes).

John Mark the huperetes goes with Paul and Barnabbas on the missionary journey. He is often in English translation described as a helper, giving the impression he was a bag carrier, when in reality he was in charge of the oral teaching by rote of the Christian faith, a catechism, if you will. Paul probably only had one copy of some of the gospels or other writings with him to enable a copy to be made whenever they established a new church. John Mark's job was to teach the new disciples in groups to learn by heart the creeds and stories that would enable the church to grow despite a lack of a full set of New Testament books. Mark was thus a minister of the Word.

1 Corinthians 4: 1 Servants of Christ Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants (huperetes) of Christ and stewards (managers, administrators) of the mysteries of God.

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