Actually, the best way for the New Testament documents to be understood by, and useful to, citizens of the 21st Century is to recognize that these documents were not directed to us. Nor were any of these documents written to convince skeptics even in that day. They were all internal documents for a first-century Jewish sectarian movement that grew and ultimately came to be called Christianity. The documents were written for various specific purposes from and to participants in that movement who had already come to a conviction by word of mouth about Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah of Israel. If it’s primary sources you want, recognize that’s exactly what you have. Even what Luke, who was himself not an eyewitness to Jesus, wrote was merely to give more precision to what participants in this movement had already been taught orally (see Luke 1:1-4).
(This first appeared as a comment on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog.)
The apostles did not hire literary agents so that they might become best-selling authors of the story of Messiah. By most scholarly accounts, the first writing of the apostles that we have was written 15 to 20 years after the first post-resurrection sermon – and even that writing was a only a short letter that went to one church in Greece, far from Jerusalem where the ministry had begun with thousands accepting the message.
To properly understand the New Testament documents we must recognize them for what they are and not try to make them something they are not. They are the byproducts of a vibrant social movement. They are not a comprehensive catalog of that movement.
Michael J. Kruger comments briefly on the Apostolic Fathers and what their writings tell us about oral tradition and about early stages of New Testament canon formation.
Timothy Michael Law blogs about his book which is due out next year from Oxford University Press: When God Spoke Greek.
Here’s an excerpt of the blog post which is an excerpt from the book, which he is still tweaking.
The liturgy was an indispensable conduit for the flow of biblical thought into the early Church, and was the means by which most encountered the Bible. The lessons, sermons, prayers, and rites were fashioned on models from the Jewish synagogue, and gatherings were far more numerous than that with which the modern worshiper would feel comfortable.
Timothy Michael Law writes in anticipation of Ed Gallagher’s upcoming Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Biblical Theory: Canon, Language, Text, due to be published next month.
Here’s an excerpt where Law describes his current thinking, pending reading of Gallagher’s book:
Canon lists drawn up by a few early Christian writers are no sure guide to establishing what was universally held as ‘scripture ‘in the early Church. There are only a few such lists to begin with, and they are not in any way representative of any kind of authoritative tradition. The stark reality is this: there was no universally recognized Old Testament canon in the early Church, and indeed the diversity persists well into the medieval period. To be sure, there was a core. I like how Michael Holmes says it: there was a ‘central core, a variable fringe, and differences in arrangement.’
Jesus did not commission His disciples to a literary enterprise. They were to preach, and so they did. The gospels we have were written many years into their ministry. How did they recall what Jesus said and did so that it could be recorded accurately in the four gospels that we have? In this 5:33 clip, Bock explains just how reliable oral tradition can be.
As historians evaluate the sources available for the resurrection of Jesus, a critical question is the dating of the sources. In relation to early testimony, historian David Hacket Fisher says, “An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” One key in examining the early sources for the life of Christ is to take into account the Jewish culture in which they were birthed. As Paul Barnett notes, “The milieu of early Christianity in which Paul’s letters and the Gospels were written was ‘rabbinic.’”
Given the emphasis on education in the synagogue, the home, and the elementary school, it is not surprising that it was possible for the Jewish people to recount large quantities of material that was even far greater than the Gospels themselves.
Church historian Eusebius (AD 263 – 339) here reports on what Papias had written in the first third of the Second Century:
“When Mark was the interpreter [or translator] of Peter, he wrote down accurately everything that he recalled of the Lord’s words and deeds—but not in order. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him; but later, as I indicated, he accompanied Peter, who used to adapt his teachings for the needs at hand, not arranging, as it were, an orderly composition of the Lord’s sayings. And so Mark did nothing wrong by writing some of the matters as he remembered them. For he was intent on just one purpose: to leave out nothing that he heard or to include any falsehood among them.” So that is what Papias says about Mark. And this is what he says about Matthew: “And so Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [or translated] them to the best of his ability.”
Source: Ehrman, Bart D. (2012-03-20). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle Locations 1513-1519). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.