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What’s New

January 25th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

What’s New for March, 2009

First, I am adding the epistles of the younger Pliny to this site, as a resource for others.  I have benefited so much from the ancient authors who have already been published online, that it seems only right that I give something back. I believe that the Hardy and Melmoth translations are both public domain, and they are both currently available as Google books in a ‘pdf’ format.  But it might be worthwhile to have these translations available as searchable text,  thus providing a more usable resource for research. If anyone has thoughts on this, I would appreciate the feedback. These epistles may be found under the tab ‘Lagniappe’. Just use the dropdown to go to ‘Pliny II’.

Also, I have collected most of the research material for the new essay treating the use of written materials by the early church.  The research is not yet complete, but I am working on it as I may.  As we discussed in January, we are trying a different approach with this essay:

I am posting the work as it develops, so that you may watch the  “work in progress”  unfold.  This gives everyone else the chance to think about how they would approach the problem, and to form your own conclusions independently as I form mine. Please feel free to “chime in”  with your point of view, or references from period literature that you find significant. Please remember that,  while trying to keep the ancient author’s perspective in view,  How to Live Forever accepts testimony from all ancient sources:  Roman, Greek, Jewish, Christian, Egyptian, etc.  So anyway, without further adieu,  here is the beginning (last revision was in February):

The Use of Written Materials in the Early Church

14Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
.     18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
.         because he has anointed me
.         to preach good news to the poor.
.         He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
.         and recovery of sight for the blind,
.         to release the oppressed,
.        19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (- Isaiah 61:1 – 2a)

20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

- The Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 4 (NIV)

It is remarkable that the author of Luke finds nothing unusual in this anecdote concerning Jesus of Nazareth. According to the story, it was customary for Jesus to both read Scripture and expound upon its meaning in the Jewish synagogues in Galilee. We know that Jesus was the son of a Galilean carpenter or builder (τέκτων [tektōn])[1], a man of common upbringing. Yet here he is portrayed as confident in his ability to read and understand texts that are difficult for many well educated persons today. The Synoptic Gospels add additional corroboration in favor of Jesus’ literacy[2]; and each of the four canonical Gospels record Jesus performing exegesis of Jewish Scripture on divers occasions using the formula “it is written”[3]. If the Gospel writers thus took Jesus’ literary prowess for granted, does this also imply that a high level of literary attainment was normal among Jesus’ followers and the members of the early church? Or was Jesus’ ability in this regard an enigma, another miracle to be marveled at?

Of course, the previous evidence depends upon the value of the canonical Gospels as authoritative historical documents; a matter of some dispute in the modern world. If they were written early, either by the eyewitnesses themselves (in the cases of Matthew and John)[4] or based upon the testimony of such witnesses (in the cases of Mark and Luke), then they become the written affidavits of men who observed the miraculous. If they were written late, based upon oral traditions which were embellished over time, then they are mere legendary accounts – on par with other ancient myths.

So we have a sort of “chicken or the egg” scenario developing: Given that the earliest Christians were predisposed as a consequence of education and culture to the writing of letters and reports, then obviously some of them would write about an event as miraculous as the resurrection; On the other hand, assuming that Christ and his followers were illiterate peasants who wrote nothing, and the Gospel accounts are later embellishments of a garbled oral tradition, then the attitude toward literacy in the Gospel accounts is anachronistic, a projection of the educated point of view of each author onto the characters of legend. It does seem strange that all four Gospel authors would fall into this same trap, but the key is determination of whether Jesus’ followers were possessed of a literary tradition. All depends on the likelihood that these church documents are genuine artifacts emanating from actual eyewitnesses to Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Jesus and many of his early disciples were raised and educated under the precepts of the Jewish culture during the Second Temple period. That this civilization had a rich tradition of ancient sacred writings, no one will deny. The oldest Hebrew writings, known as the Pentateuch, are traditionally assigned to the authorship of Moses[a] in the thirteenth century B.C., (within a hundred years, more or less). References abound throughout the pre-exilic (587 B.C.) Hebrew literature to the Book of the Law[5], the Book of the Covenant, the book of the annals of the kings of Israel, the book of the annals of the kings of Judah, etc., thus indicating a very early corpus of national literature. To put these dates in perspective, consider that the writings of Moses occurred approximately 400-500 years before the beginnings of the Greek alphabet[6]. The rest of the pre-exilic Hebrew literature was already composed by the time the Greeks were just starting to write poetry and philosophy[7]. But this should be no surprise, for Herodotus recognized around 440 B.C. that the Greeks derived “letters” from Semitic (Phoenician) sources[8].

By the fourth century, B.C., Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus described the Jews as a “race of Philosophers[9].” His contemporary Hecataeus of Abdera knew that Moses had codified the Jewish law (i.e. in written form) and provides an almost direct quotation from the Hebrew Bible[10]. The Septuagint Greek translation of the Bible was begun in the third century B.C., during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus[11] of Egypt. From this point onward the literature of the Hebrews was available to the world at large.

But this literature also contained the Jewish Law, as ordained by JHWH. And the Hebrew people were commanded to understand and obey this law, and to teach it to their children. So how was this to be accomplished?


1.) Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of International Bible Society.

NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of International Bible Society. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of International Bible Society.

[a] By the time of Christ, Moses was accepted as the author of these books throughout the pagan Graeco-Roman world “Having been wont to flout the laws of Rome, they learn and practise and revere the Jewish law, and all that Moses committed to his secret tome…” (Juvenal, Satire XIV, 100-102). However, Moses was known as early as the fourth century B.C. in Greece (Hecataeus of Abdera) and the third century B.C. in Egypt (Manetho).

[1] Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3

[2] Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31; Mark 2:25; 12:10, 26; Luke 6:3; 10:26

[3] Matthew 4:4, 7, 10; 11:10; 21:13; 26:24, 31; Mark 7:6; 9:12, 13; 11:17; 14:21, 27; Luke 4:4, 8; 7:27; 10:26; 18:31; 19:46; 20:17; 21:22; 22:37; 24:44, 46; John 8:17; 10:34; 15:25

[4] Papias, as preserved in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. III, xxxix, 14-16; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. III, i, 1; Clement of Alexandria, Comments on the First Epistle of Peter, (From the Latin Translation of Cassiodorus); Hypotyposes, Book VI, as cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, II, xv; also Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI, xiv; Origen, First Book of the Commentary on Matthew, as cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI, xxv ; Muratorian Canon

[5] Book of the Law: Joshua 1:8; 8:31; 8:34; 23:6; 24:26; II Kings 14:6; 22:8, 11; II Chronicles 17:9; 25:4; 34:14; (post exilic) Nehemiah 8:1, 3, 8, 18, ; 9:3; (N.T. ) Galatians 3:10

Book of the Covenant: II Kings 23:2, 21; 34:30; ; II Chronicles 34:30

book of the annals of the kings of Israel: I Kings 14:19; 15:31; 16:5, 14, 20, 20, 27; 22:39; II Kings 1:18; 10:34; 13:8, 12; 14:15, 28; 15:11, 15, 21, 26, 31; II Chronicles 20:34

book of the annals of the kings of Judah: I Kings 14:29; 15:7, 23; 22:45; II Kings 8:23; 12:19; 13:12; 14:15, 18; 15:6, 36; 16:19; 20:20; 21:17, 25; 23:28; 24:5

[6] William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy, Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 45.

[7] Ibid., p.47.

[8] Herodotus, The Histories, V, 58-61

[9] Theophrastus, On Piety, as preserved in Porphyry, On Abstinence 2.26

[10] See note 2, p. 1106, M. Stern, The Jews in Greek and Latin Literature, Chapter Twenty Four, Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, Section One, The Jewish People in the First Century, Volume Two. The note compares Lev 26:46; 27:34; Num. 36:13 to Hecataeus, as preserved in Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica XL, 3, 6, as preserved in Photius, Bibliotheca, 244.

[11] The Letter of Aristeas; Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 12.2

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