Christianity is unique among world religions because it is so firmly rooted in history. Its sacred documents, collected within the New Testament (NT), are not simply the writings of a single person, nor are they just “pronouncements of divine wisdom” devoid of any historical context. Rather, the books of the New Testament are incredibly important historical documents.
They bring to us information about various peoples and societies, governments, laws, events, political conditions, and daily life during the first century. As historical documents, their accuracy can be judged against other sources from the same time period. The NT documents have been more closely scrutinized than any others in history and, contrary to some critics, they actually have a great track record for accuracy. Numerous times, critical scholars have declared them to be in error, only to be proven wrong by subsequent archeological or documentary finds.
But how did we get these documents? We’ve written quite a few articles about who wrote the gospels and other NT documents, but until now, we’ve not fully laid out the process of how the events of Jesus’ life and his teachings came to be written down.
A Game of Telephone?
Some critical scholars assert that stories about Jesus’ teachings and miracles were circulated orally in an uncontrolled manner—much like a game of “telephone”—for many decades. As a result, they say, many myths and legends evolved as people exaggerated their tales, made mistakes, or added details. Toward the end of the first century, critical scholars tell us that those myths and legends were written down in the flawed, embellished gospels and other books of the NT. As a result, we are told that we cannot trust the accuracy of those books, nor the truth of the miracles they relate.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, this view came to predominate among form-critical New Testament scholars. This view is still around, though it seems to be in retreat as the ideas of the form critics are being discredited by new scholarship,1 especially now and during the last 30 years. Nevertheless, the idea that we got the NT via some large game of “telephone” is still circulated quite a bit, and we need to set the record straight.
As we’ll see, oral traditions did play a role in passing information about Jesus down to us, but in first century Jewish culture, such oral traditions were not passed down in an uncontrolled manner. They were passed down in a highly controlled manner in a society that was very protective of oral traditions and knew how to share them faithfully. In addition, it’s likely that information about Jesus was committed to writing much earlier than many scholars had at first thought.
The Timeline of NT Document Creation
To set some context, let’s review the timeline of Jesus’ ministry and the development of the NT documents.
27-30 A.D. (or 30-33 A.D.) – Jesus’ Ministry – Jesus conducted his ministry throughout Palestine.
30 A.D. (or 33 A.D.), Crucifixion and Resurrection – Jesus was crucified and buried. He was then resurrected, according to NT documents, and appeared to his disciples, family and others. He then commissioned his disciples (apostles) to spread his teachings and the “good news” throughout the world, establishing the Church. After issuing these final instructions, he “ascended into Heaven.”
Early 30’s to early 90’s A.D. – The Apostolic Age – Jesus’ apostles taught and spread the gospel as he had instructed them, establishing apostolic churches around the known world. During these years, the apostles suffered greatly for their beliefs, and most were eventually killed. As these apostles began to die, some decided to commit their gospels to writing (more on this to follow).
About 34 or 35 A.D. – Paul’s Conversion – Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish Pharisee, Roman citizen, and zealous persecutor of Christians, had a powerful conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He changed his name to Paul and went from a hater of Christianity to one of its most enthusiastic missionaries. Paul later traveled throughout the Roman Empire to help spread Christianity to non-Jewish (Gentile) populations. He interacted with many of Jesus’ original apostles and visited, wrote to, guided, and encouraged Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire.
40’s A.D. to the early 60’s A.D., Paul’s Letters – While on his travels, Paul wrote numerous letters to the churches throughout the Empire. These letters can now be found in the New Testament. Throughout his letters, Paul makes pronouncements about how one should live their life and what is right in the sight of God. However, he was always careful to differentiate his pronouncements from those of Jesus. Paul believed his own pronouncements to be authoritative, but he did not want to put words in Jesus’ mouth.
In one of his letters, Paul wrote a passage that is particularly important. In 1st Corinthians, 15: 3-8, Paul reinforces basic teachings about Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and divine nature:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This is very important, because Paul’s treatment of this passage demonstrates that it was a core teaching that had been formulaically preserved as a creed. Notice the introduction: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance…” Paul’s introduction is, according to many scholars, indicative of a highly-controlled oral tradition, preserved and passed along as a creed. It had likely been taught for decades at the time the letter was written in about 53 or 54 A.D. This means that, contrary to some critics’ opinions, belief in Jesus’ resurrection and divinity go all the way back to Jesus himself (and were not later inventions).2
64 A.D., Paul’s Death – Paul was executed by the Romans under the authority of the Emperor Nero.
Late 50’s or Early/Mid 60’s A.D. – Gospel of Mark – The Gospel According to Mark was written. Mark was a follower of Peter, who was an original apostle of Jesus. Testimony from early church leaders says that this gospel contains Peter’s preaching, and modern textual analysis indicates that it is written from Peter’s point of view.
Mid- to Late 60’s to about 70 A.D. – Gospels of Matthew and Luke – The Gospel According to Matthew (as we know it today) was completed. Matthew was an apostle of Jesus, and there is some evidence that he may have written a shorter version of his gospel (in Aramaic) prior to Mark’s gospel.
Luke was a companion of Paul. He wrote his gospel after interacting with apostles and other eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life.
85-90 A.D. – Gospel of John – John, the last surviving apostle, wrote his gospel after followers and friends convinced him to commit his experiences to writing while he still was alive. There is compelling evidence that John wrote most of his gospel, but may have died as it was nearing completion. The end of his gospel seems to indicate that it was completed by his followers, but no one can know for sure.
Passing Along Formal, Controlled Oral Traditions
So, given the timeline above, we have about 20 years from the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection until we see the first written records and testimony regarding him (Paul’s letters). We also have the creed in Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthian church. It’s obvious that 1st Corinthians 15:3-8 is referring to an older tradition that goes back much further. That tradition—and others–were likely passed down orally, though they may also have been written.
Jewish culture at the time had very clear methods for preserving and passing down oral history and teachings. Memorization was a well-developed skill, and rabbis often framed their teachings in ways that lent themselves to easy memorization (for example, using rhyme, meter, alliteration, and so on).
In fact, when Jesus’ words in the gospels are translated back into Aramaic from the Greek texts, it becomes clear that he actually used such methods to help his followers more easily retain his teachings.3 Also, it’s important to note that his disciples were with him for three years, often hearing him preach the same messages and tell the same parables repeatedly, further aiding in their retention of the information.
It’s also likely that the disciples took notes on what Jesus did and said, as it was not uncommon for students or disciples to record their teachers’ words in notebooks made from wax tablets.4 Most likely, these notebooks did exist and were later used by the disciples to aid in memorization. Those writings may also have been preserved on papyrus and later served as references when the gospels were written.
So, the teachings of—and stories about—Jesus were initially captured by eyewitnesses and then passed down primarily in an oral fashion for about 20 years before the first surviving writings begin to appear.5 Twenty years is, according to some scholars, far too short a period for legend and myth to develop—and for the core historical truth to be lost—in such a culture, especially when one remembers two things:
- The oral traditions were most likely passed down in a controlled, formal manner. They were not passed down in any way that resembled the childish game of “telephone” that elementary school students play today. Jewish culture at that time was highly skilled at passing along oral histories in a highly consistent, accurate manner that preserved the integrity of the accounts. This process involved known caretakers of the history, and not anonymous “communities” as some have suggested.
- For the entire 20-year period, and for many years after that, the disciples (apostles) themselves were actively preaching in the churches. As eyewitnesses they, themselves, were a strong control on the accuracy of the oral traditions. Form critical scholars in the past century vastly underestimated the key role that the apostles would have played in keeping the oral traditions accurate and consistent. That role is now being much better understood.
It wasn’t until the original apostles began to die off that some of them saw the need to commit the gospel to writing. Matthew and John, for example, knew that they wouldn’t be around forever to give their firsthand accounts, and decided to write it all down. Likewise, Mark took on the job of capturing Peter’s teachings, and Luke interviewed a range of eyewitnesses.
During the first century, the general sense was that “real” history was best reported by the eyewitnesses to the events themselves. Such an attitude is different from today, where a historian can write about events that took place hundreds or thousands of years ago and still be considered credible. That’s why, as the apostles were dying off, it became extremely important for their direct testimony to be committed to writing while they were still able to provide it.6
The early leaders of the church (in the immediate post-Apostolic age) did not put any stock in non-eyewitness accounts, and ignored historical accounts regarding Jesus that were not known to have come from known individuals.7 That’s why the current NT canon stands today: Those books were the only gospel accounts by known apostles (or their close associates) that met the requirement of capturing eyewitness testimony.8
So what does all of this mean? It means that the information about Jesus in our four NT gospels:
- Originated in the direct memories and notebooks of Jesus’ original disciples
- Was formulated into formally-controlled oral teachings (not informal, uncontrolled oral myths)
- Was preached orally by the disciples (apostles) and their followers
- Was committed to writing by the apostles themselves or by those in direct contact with them
It also means that the belief that Jesus was divine, died, and was resurrected came about very early (probably immediately) and was
- Supported by eyewitness testimony
- Accurately transmitted
Like it or not, the story of Jesus is as airtight as any history from that era can be. It is not a late-developing, embellished myth. It is history. Millennia of scrutiny have only served to strengthen it.
- Bauckham, Richard, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge, U.K., 2006, p. 300
- Strobel, Lee, The Case for Christ, Zondervan Publising, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998, p. 35 (Interview with Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.)
- Bauckham, p. 282
- Richards, E. Randolph, Paul and First Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2004, pp. 55-56
- Bauckham, p. 287
- Ibid, p. 310
- Ibid, pp. 294-295
- Jones, Ron (2014), Who Wrote the Gospels?: The Historical Evidence for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Kindle E-Book, ECF Books, Lakewood, CA, 256-264