10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #8: “Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down”

Paul writing

Note: this is the eighth installment of a blog series announced here.

Recent years have seen a flurry of scholarly activity focused on the oral transmission of Jesus material within early Christianity.   Scholars (ranging from Gerhardsson to Dunn to Bauckham) have explored different models for how this oral tradition would have been preserved and delivered to each new generation.

Out of this discussion, however, a new objection to the origins of the New Testament canon has arisen.  The earliest Christians are now portrayed as being so committed to oral modes of delivery that they would have had an aversion to the written text.  Indeed, this entrenched resistance to the written word is used as an argument for why the idea of a NT canon must have been a late one—something that really didn’t take shape until the middle/end of the second century. Robert Funk uses this argument to push the date of the canon further and further back, “The aversion to writing persisted in the early [Christian] movement well into the second century.”[1]

Although the perception that Christians were averse to writing may be widespread amongst some scholars, we must ask whether there is sufficient evidence to justify such a position.  What are the reasons that scholars think Christians resisted the written word?  Let me mention three:

1. Early Christians were (largely) illiterate.

The most common argument that Christians were averse to written texts is based on their socio-historical background, namely that most of them were unable to read or write.  Such claims are based on the seminal study of William Harris which argues that the average extent of literacy in the Greco-Roman world of the first century was 10-15%,[2] and some have suggested that for Jewish Palestine the rate was actually lower.[3]

Although Harris’ numbers have been critiqued by some, I will not challenge them here.  I think he is probably correct in regard to the big picture—generally speaking, the average Christian was illiterate.  But, here is the key question:  Is broad-based illiteracy a sufficient argument for showing that Christians were averse to written texts?  I think not.  And here’s why:  even cultures that were largely illiterate could still be very connected to, and very influenced by, written texts.  Put differently, the lack of literacy is not the same thing as the lack of textuality.

Keith defines textuality as “the knowledge, usage, and appreciation of texts regardless of individual or majority ability to create or access them via literate skills.”[4]  This reminds us that a culture can appreciate and value written texts even though it is largely illiterate.  The lack of literacy does not necessarily mean the lack of textuality.  We must not confuse a mode of transmission with a cultural disposition.

Was early Christianity a culture of textuality (even though most were illiterate)?  Absolutely.   For one, it was defined by and founded by the Old Testament writings.  Christians were committed these books from the very beginning.   Even illiterate Christians could receive these written texts when they were orally proclaimed—through preaching, teaching, and catechetical instruction.  Indeed, oral proclamation is the primary means that written texts were delivered.  There was a symbiotic relationship between the two.

2. Early Christians said they were averse to writing.

A second argument used to show that Christians were averse to writing is to claim that early Christians actually said as much (ironically in their own writings!).   A key example is Papias, writing c.125: “I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of the living and surviving voice.”[5]  However, does this quote really indicate that early Christians were averse to written texts?  Hardly.  For one, Papias was busy constructing his own written account of the sayings of Jesus, Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord.  Not only that, but as Bauckham has shown, it misses what Papias is really trying to say. Papias is not addressing oral tradition at all but is simply noting a truth that was commonplace in the ancient world at this time: historical investigations are best done when one has access to an actual eyewitness (i.e., a living voice). Bauckham declares, “Against a historiographic background, what Papias thinks preferable to books is not oral tradition but access, while they are still alive, to those who were direct participants in the historical events—in this case ‘disciples of the Lord.’”[6]

Others have appealed to 2 Cor 3:6 when Paul speaks of the new covenant as “not of the letter but of the Spirit.  For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  But is the contrast between letter and Spirit here a contrast in terms of the instrument of revelation used by each covenant—as if the Old used written texts and the New used only oral tradition? Not at all.  Instead, it is a contrast in regard to the nature of the covenants themselves—one was clearly a covenant focused on law (i.e., the “letter”) and one was focused more on the heart (i.e, the “Spirit”).  This distinction is confirmed by Paul just a few verses later when he makes the same point using slightly different terminology; he calls the old covenant the “ministry of condemnation” (3:9) and contrasts it to the new covenant as a “ministry of the Spirit” (3:8).  Clearly, the point of Paul’s contrast in these verses is not that one covenant liked to write things down and the other prefers to keep things oral.  This understanding is confirmed by the many other biblical texts that make this same sort of contrast between the two covenants: Ezek 36:26; John 1:17; Rom 2:29, 7:6,  8:2; Gal 3:17-18, 4:24-26; etc.  Overall, this language in 2 Cor 3:6 is just an application of Jer 31:33 to the era of Christ: “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts.”

3.      Early Christians thought the world would end in their own lifetime.

One of the most-oft repeated ideas about the earliest Christians is that they believed that the Kingdom of God would come (apocalyptically) within their own lifetime.  If Christians thought the world would end in their own lifetime, then, it is argued, they would not have been interested in composing new scriptural books.  Thus, the idea of a canon must be a later ecclesiastical development.

Now, I already addressed this issue in a previous blog post here.  But, I will repeat some of it for this post. First, it is by no means evident that early Christians believed Jesus would necessarily return in their own lifetime.  Schweitzer’s views have been largely rejected–and rightly so.  But, let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that Christians did have this apocalyptic mentality.  Does that mean they would have resisted the composition of new books, focusing instead on only oral methods of delivery?  There appears to be little reason to think so.  Ironically, Paul is put forth as one who believed that Jesus would return in his own lifetime (as supposedly indicated by texts like 1 Thess 4:15-17), but yet we only know about this belief because Paul wrote it down in a letter!  And Paul viewed this letter, as all his letters, as authoritative (2:13) and to be read publicly to the church (5:27). Such a scenario indicates that apocalyptic beliefs are not necessarily incompatible with the production of written, authoritative texts.  Moreover, we have examples of apocalyptic communities that were prolific producers of literature, namely Qumran.  On the basis of Qumran, David Meade argues that apocalypticism in the early Christian communities, far from preventing literary activity, actually “provides the ideological basis for the extension of Scripture” (“Ancient Near Eastern Apocalypticism,” 308).

In conclusion, there are few reasons to think that the earliest Christians were averse to written documents.  Sure, they transmitted Jesus tradition orally.  But, they were also marked by a distinctive textuality—they were committed to written documents as the foundation for their religious devotion.

[1] R.W. Funk, “The Once and Future New Testament,” in The Canon Debate (ed. L.M. McDonald and J.A. Sanders; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 544.

[2] W.V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[3] Meir Bar-Ilan, “Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries C.E.,” in Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society (ed. S. Fishbane, S. Schoenfeld, and H. Goldschläger; Hoboken: KTAV, 1992), 46–61; and Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001).

[4] Keith, Jesus’ Literacy, 87.

[5] Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.4.

[6] Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 24.


10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #8: “Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down” — 9 Comments

    • Thanks, Chuck. Yes, I read this article with interest just a few days ago. I think Porter scores some points here. However, whether or not the literacy rates are high or low, I think Christianity can still be understood as a culture of “textuality.” And this alone refutes the idea that it was predominantly oral.

  1. Dear Michael,

    Excellent article and argumentation.

    The frequently repeated phrase, “as it is written,” then quoting the OT passage would not even closely make sense if the commitment to orality was true. The authors of the NT, and Jesus Himself, used the WRITTEN OT to prove what they were arguing for or against. I would say that Jesus was responsible the references in the Gospels and Acts to His divinity, purpose and mission, cf. Luke 24.

    I would also add that Paul’s command to read the Colossian letter and the Laodicean letter in churches does not make any sense if there was a commitment to orality in the 1st Century AD. Of course, there is also the problem of I & II Corinthians which referred to several letters written by Paul to the church at Corinth. Again, it does not make sense to have the letters “written” if there was a commitment to orality.

    Finally, the makarism in Revelation 1:3 especially does not make sense since it refers to “reading (out loud)… and hearing…and keeping the words of this prophecy.”

  2. Dr, Kruger, thanks so much for this series. Will you be providing the links to all of the posts on a single page at some point? I’d like to point people to the series when it’s complete, but it would be helpful if there was one page with all of the links. Thank you. Blessings.

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