Friday, March 23, 2018

Early, Non-Extant Documents On The Resurrection

The early Christians had a lot of information we don't possess today that's relevant to Jesus' resurrection and other subjects. Few people would deny that Paul communicated some information orally that he didn't write in any of his extant letters, that James knew more about the resurrection appearance to him than what's described in 1 Corinthians 15:7, that the gospel authors only wrote about some of the information they had rather than all of it (John 21:25), and so on.

But it's often asserted or implied that the additional information the early Christians had in such contexts was communicated orally rather than in writing to an inordinate degree. We're told that oral communication is less stable than written communication, that memories and oral traditions wouldn't have held up well over the few decades that passed before the gospels were written, and so forth.

Responses to such objections often take the form of arguing for the reliability of the unwritten transmission of the information in question. Memory is more reliable than the critics suggest. The ancient cultures under consideration had developed sufficient methods for preserving information orally. The gospels should be dated earlier than the critics date them. Etc. Those responses are good as far as they go. However, we need to be careful to not concede too much about the alleged lack of written sources in these contexts.

I want to begin with some general observations, then get to some more specific examples. Factors like the lower literacy rates and lesser technologies that existed in antiquity lead us to expect the ancient Christians to have been much more dependent on oral communication than we are today in a place like the United States. But it doesn't follow that we would expect nothing to have been written before the New Testament documents or nothing else to have been written during the timeframe when the New Testament was being composed. To the contrary, even in an ancient culture that was much more oral than ours, we'd expect some writings to have been composed in the decades prior to the New Testament. In fact, the existence of the New Testament argues for that conclusion. It's unlikely that Christians would have composed so many documents during the last six or fewer decades of the first century (depending on when you date the documents), yet wouldn't have written anything, or would have written a lot less, in the earlier decades. Martin Hengel noted:

"In this connection we should not forget that simply of the second-century Christian writings known to us by title, around 85% have been lost. The real loss must be substantially higher." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], 55)

Surely a similarly high percentage of first-century documents is no longer extant. See here for some of Larry Hurtado's comments on the highly literary nature of early Christianity. Richard Bauckham writes, "Such notebooks [as ancient rabbis used] were in quite widespread use in the ancient world (2 Tim 4:13 refers to parchment notebooks Paul carried on his travels). It seems more probable than not that early Christians used them." (Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006], 288) And other general observations like these could be made. But I want to move on to some more specific examples of non-extant documents the early Christians produced that either are known to be highly relevant to Jesus' resurrection or have a lot of potential to be.

Luke refers to "many" people producing accounts like his gospel (Luke 1:1-4). His terminology is best explained if there were a lot more accounts circulating than just one or more of the other canonical gospels. And both his language and his context suggest that he's referring at least primarily to written sources, not oral ones. For one thing, Luke himself was producing a document, not an oral account, and continuity with the sources he's referring to makes more sense than discontinuity, all things being equal. He refers to how he's producing an account "as well" (1:3), associating his efforts with those of the others. Furthermore, the nature of the material being addressed makes a document more likely than an oral report. Luke uses broad language in describing what he and the earlier sources he refers to were addressing ("the things accomplished among us" [1:1]). As the length of Luke's writings demonstrates, the volume of material in question was such that it's highly unlikely that everybody before Luke was communicating orally rather than in writing. Additionally, most scholars (and an even larger percentage of critics of Christianity) believe that Mark is one of the sources Luke refers to. Since Mark is a document rather than an oral report, the nature of Mark adds more weight to the conclusion that at least some of the sources Luke refers to were documents. James Edwards writes of how a term Luke uses in 1:1 "is a 'historical-literary term which appears both in Jewish-Hellenistic literature and among Greek authors,' thus a written narrative. The various versions of the account known to Luke and Theophilus were thus written." (The Gospel According To Luke [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2015], 24)

Did the many sources Luke refers to include material relevant to Jesus' resurrection? We know that the early Christians considered the resurrection foundational to their belief system (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 15:17). And given that both Mark and Luke give so much attention to Jesus' resurrection, it seems doubtful that the other sources Luke refers to were only addressing non-resurrection issues. Most likely, the sources Luke refers to in 1:1 included material on the resurrection, and they probably addressed the subject to a substantial degree.

Luke's sequel, Acts, provides evidence of other relevant documents. The early Christians and the people they interacted with often wrote about Christianity (9:2, 15:23, 23:25, 28:21). Given how central the resurrection is in Acts in general, in Paul's testimony before government officials, etc., it's likely that the documents in question addressed the resurrection to some extent.

Paul's letters not only refer to non-extant documents that are relevant here, but also suggest there was a large number of them (a situation corroborated by the opening of Luke and passages like the ones I've cited in Acts above). Written communication was of enough interest to the Christians of Paul's day that not only did he often write to Christian communities, but his opponents who were professing Christians also had an interest in writing (2 Corinthians 3:1, 2 Thessalonians 2:2). 1 Corinthians 5:9 refers to a letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians that's no longer extant. Considering how much Paul had been discussing resurrection issues with that community (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15), there's a good chance that the letter no longer extant included some material on the resurrection.

In his commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2015), James Edwards writes about a document, which he calls the Gospel Of The Hebrews, that he believes was used as a source by some Biblical and extrabiblical authors. You don't have to agree with all of Edwards' views of the document and related issues in order to agree with him that there seems to have been some such source that was being utilized. He writes, concerning some material on the resurrection that seems to have been taken from the document in question:

"Four Fathers - Ignatius, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome - know of Jesus' invitation to 'touch me and see that I am not a phantom without a body.' Jerome refers to the saying four different times. None of the four attributes the saying to Luke 24:39, nor is the saying reproduced by any of them in a form that is obviously derived from v. 39. Ignatius reproduces the saying no later than 107 (the year of his martyrdom) but does not name its source. Since Ignatius never quotes directly from any of the Gospels, nor reveals any particular knowledge of the Third Gospel, it is unlikely that v. 39 is the source of the saying he quotes in Smyrn. 3:1-2. The three subsequent fathers reproduce the saying in a form that conforms more closely to the Ignatian than Lukan version, suggesting that they too are not relying on Luke. Origen and Eusebius claim either to be uncertain of its source or not know it, whereas Jerome, who gives the most complete witness to the saying, ascribes it to the Hebrew Gospel, which he claims more than once to having translated into Greek and/or Latin. Ignatius, who preferred oral over written tradition, is probably relying on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:2) for this saying, which, as Jerome attests, was preserved in the Hebrew Gospel. The above suggests that Luke received v. 39 from the same Hebrew Gospel as did Ignatius, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome, and probably also the material in vv. 34 and 37, which shares distinctives with the Ignatian material." (730-31)

It's antecedently probable that men like Polycarp and Papias would have received extrabiblical information pertaining to the resurrection from the apostles they met. Irenaeus provides us with an example in his discussion of a second-century controversy over the celebration of Easter, when he refers to how Polycarp had received information on the subject from the apostle John (in Eusebius, Church History, 5:24:16). In his one letter that's extant, Polycarp makes a lot of references to Jesus' resurrection. Irenaeus uses the plural when referring to Polycarp's letters (Fragments, 2), so it seems that Polycarp wrote at least one letter that we don't have.

The earliest generations of Christians had access to a lot of information we don't have access to today. That includes information on Jesus' resurrection, a matter they were highly concerned about and considered foundational to their faith. Early Christianity was a largely oral movement, but it wasn't as oral as critics often suggest. The early Christians often communicated and argued for their faith in writing, including in many documents that are no longer extant, even many (Luke 1:1) that predated the New Testament or were written during the same timeframe.

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