Did Christ leave a Paper Trail?

An interview with Alan Millard, author of Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus.

For Christians and non-Christians alike, one of the mysteries of Christianity is the lack of proof that Jesus ever existed. Most of what we rely on is found in the New Testament, none of which was penned during Christ’s lifetime. Paul’s letters to various Christian groups around the Middle East were written about twenty years after Christ’s death – and Paul never met Christ while He was alive. The four Gospels all appear to date to after 70 A.D., and none of them were written by writers who ever met Jesus. So all of our main writings about Jesus even in the bible are second hand accounts. 

This begs the question of why Jesus’ followers weren’t furiously taking notes while He was alive.  Had Jesus arrived today, he would have easily entered people’s diaries, emails, newspaper articles, magazine profiles, police crime reports, probably even some television broadcasts. In short, anyone who was making this much of an impact on even a small number of people would have created a paper trail. Indeed, in Brooklyn right now, a Jewish sect called the Lubavitchers are furiously debating whether their latest rebbe, who died in 1994, is really a Messiah who will return from the dead. That debate is creating a big paper trail. Was life so different in Jesus’ time that no one took notes? Were diaries unknown? Why didn’t the Romans, a bureaucratic state with a paper obsession, at least record some details of Jesus’ death? Or is this one of those faith tests – is Jesus deliberately invisible as a test of our will to believe?

To help solve some of these riddles, The Turning spoke to Alan Millard, who has recently written a book entitled, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus.

THE TURNING: How soon after Christ’s death do scholars think the four Gospels were written?

MILLARD:  They generally assume that the four Gospels were not written until about A.D. 70.  Some people think that Mark’s Gospel may have been written a little before that.  But it’s thought that the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70 was a catalyst.  The dispersion of Christians from Jerusalem is thought to have led people to suppose that the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry would quickly disappear and it was necessary to make records of what he had said and done.

THE TURNING: Is there any evidence that the people who wrote the Gospels actually knew Christ first hand during his lifetime?

MILLARD:  Well, the tradition is that Matthew wrote one Gospel and he was Levi, the tax collector, who had been one of the disciples.  John wrote the fourth Gospel and again he is thought as being the one described in that Gospel as the beloved disciple.  Mark also was a follower of Jesus, according to the Gospel.  Luke was not and would have gained his information from presumably eyewitnesses and other people.  In the prologue to his Gospel, he says that he took great care to do his research properly and to get reliable information he could use in writing his Gospel.  It is assumed that there was relatively little writing going on in the first century  Palestine and people simply wouldn’t have been interested in writing down the records of the doings and sayings of Jesus.

THE TURNING:  Now, you were saying that traditionally people believe that these are the identities of the Gospel writers.  Are twenty-first century scholars accepting tradition or do they question it?

MILLARD:  Most 21st century scholars would follow that line and some take a very skeptical view and argue that very little in the Gospels is actually reliable information about what Jesus did or said.  They suppose that most of what we read in the Gospels was invented by the Church, in the decades after the crucification and resurrection and words were put into Jesus’ mouth to give them authority.

THE TURNING:  And what’s your view on this?

MILLARD:  Tradition with perhaps a certain amount written down, but not a Gospel as we know it. Since the nineteenth century, there’s been a general view among New Testament scholars that much of the Gospels come from the early Church, rather than from what the disciples heard Jesus say.

THE TURNING:  Now, I guess one of the things, which we’ve all heard, is the reason they didn’t copy it down was because basically the Jews of that time were essentially an oral culture and they didn’t have much literacy anyway.  But that’s not a conclusion I drew from your book.  You seem to find quite a bit of evidence that the Jews of that time of Galilee and Judea would have been reading and writing, at least some of them.

MILLARD:  Yes, I was studying some inscriptions found at Masada near the Dead Sea, written by Jewish refugees who were holding out against the Romans there from 70 to 73 (A.D.) . And I was struck by the amount of writing. Not formal monumental writing, but writing of everyday affairs scribbled on bits of broken pottery, which was the ancient scrap paper, indicating that people there in that situation were doing quite a lot of writing in their daily life.  And that led me to investigate the use of writing in Palestine in that period and it seemed to me that in the 1st century (A.D.), there was much more reading and writing going on then people had previously assumed.

What I had discovered was that no one had collected the information together.  The writings of the Jewish Rabbis from the 3rd century give the impression there was very little writing, that pupils were not supposed to put their master’s teachings into a book, probably in case it was confused with scripture. And so it was generally deduced that it was an oral culture. But, what I discovered, not only those scribblings from Masada but other graffiti and inscribed potsherds, and writings of different sorts on nonperishable materials, showed that there was quite a lot of writing going on for ephemeral day to day purposes .

And then the Dead Sea scrolls showed a library, I think we can call it a library, of books that had belonged to a group of Jews that lived near the Northwest corner of the Dead Sea in the 1st century BC and 3rd century AD. They had copies of the book, of the Hebrew bible, in some cases they had multiple copies, and they had other books, books they had written themselves, and other books that came from elsewhere.

And not far from where they lived, further down the shore of the Dead Sea, were some more caves, which had been occupied by Jewish rebels who tried to shake off Roman rule between 132 and 135, called the 2nd Revolt or the Bar Kochba Revolt.  Refugees from the Romans had hidden in the caves by the Dead Sea at that time.  They died there with their possessions and when archaeologists discovered these caves, they found quite a number of documents written mostly on papyrus , which had survived because they were dehydrated.  A lot of them are in Greek, some of them are in Napatian, language of the kingdom East of the Dead Sea at the same time.  These are legal deeds, deeds of loan, wills, divorce and marriage documents, letters from the early 2nd century and some of them date back into the 1st century.  There’s one that dates as early as 66, I think, which show the sort of legal documents that were current in the 1st century as well as in the 2nd century.  And Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that when the rebellion broke out against the Romans in AD66, one of the first things the rebels did in Jerusalem was to burn the archive building, which held all the death notes and other documents which could be used against them.

THE TURNING:  So, let’s imagine if we had a time machine, and we could go back to the time of Christ.  If someone were taking notes about Christ after they met him, what form would those take?

MILLARD:  I think probably they would have written the notes on little wooden tablets coated with wax, which were the common notebooks of the time, often small enough to hold in the palm of one hand.  You scratch the writing on with a pointed stylus and either transfer it to a leather or papyrus roll or if you don’t want it, simply smooth over the wax and use it again.   I can envisage people taking notes like that.  Some of them might have been priestly people, religious people, who sent their information to Jerusalem to priests there who were opposed to Jesus.  Others might have been people like the soldiers whose son or slave Jesus healed and he might have sent a letter to his brother serving in the army in another part of the world, telling him what had happened.  I think too, that the people who heard and saw the remarkable things that went on made notes for their own benefit or for their family’s benefit and some notes could have formed the basis for some of the Gospel writer’s works.


THE TURNING:  I guess for most of us, we assume that the book, that thing with pages that you open up, that’s got a cover on each side is something that’s been around forever. But in the 1st century, are we really talking about a book as we know it?

MILLARD:  No, no, we’re talking about a leather or papyrus roll or scroll.  The Dead Sea scrolls, for example, are simply long rolls of leather.  The most complete one is the copy of the Book of Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible and it’s about twenty-four feet long, eight meters long.  So, to read the book, you have to unscroll the leather with one hand and roll it up with the other and a long book, like Isaiah was a long roll, the average roll would only be twelve to fifteen feet long.  The Isaiah roll is about eleven inches high.  We shouldn’t imagine these ancient rolls were as big as the scrolls you see in a modern synagogue for example.  Some of them were much smaller, only five or six inches high and you could quite easily put one in the fold of a coat, cloak and carry it along with you.

THE TURNING:  So, if there were scrolls in the synagogues, which obviously were rather official kind of documents-

MILLARD:  That’s right, yes.  Synagogue scrolls today are ornamental and official as you say for public reading.

THE TURNING:  But  if the some Jews bumped into Christ and were impressed by what they were hearing, they would be scribbling it down on those wax and wooden tablets, so why not scribble it down on a scroll?  Was there something about who was doing the scribbling that determined how they were writing it down?

MILLARD:  The scroll was a bit more expensive as the writing material, the papyrus had to be imported from Egypt.  It was a manufactured paper and the leather scroll again had to be prepared so it was more likely that they would have written on wax tablets.

THE TURNING:  And one of the points you make in your book is that some people ask, ‘well why don’t we have some original documents from the 1st century that show Jesus was alive? But how much original material do we have at all from that period, including Roman records and that kind of thing?

MILLARD:  Well, the Dead Sea scrolls are an unusual and unexpected find because in most parts of the Roman world, the soil is damp and if you have leather or papyrus documents in a ruined building that’s buried, they’ll rot away quite quickly just as a newspaper would if you buried it in your garden.  But the area around the Dead Sea is extremely dry and these documents are simply dehydrated.  The same happens in Egypt, the Egyptian papyri that we see and the thousands of Greek papyri from Egypt survived because they were either buried in tombs in the desert or they were in rubbish dumps of Roman villages, which were abandoned when the water supplies dried up and so the rubbish dumps were dehydrated and in the 19th and 20th centuries, people recovered the waste paper in effect from them.

THE TURNING:  So it sounds like the stuff which survives is actually in some ways exceptional rather than the run of the mill sort of things, which the Romans and the Jews would have been dealing with in the 1st century.

MILLARD:  That’s very true.  One of the things I’ve pointed out in my book is that we have no administrative archives from the city of Rome and throughout the Roman Empire, there is nothing.  We know where the archive building was.  The archives have all disappeared and they’ve been burnt when Rome was sacked or they simply rotted away or people have used them as waste paper and simply discarded them.  It’s only in unusual circumstances that theses documents do survive and so we’re very, very fortunate to have things like the Dead Sea scrolls.

THE TURNING:  So I guess if the Romans had say criminal records of this fellow Jesus, who had been brought in after having made a ruckus in the temple, that stuff could have well existed, but could it have survived do you think?

MILLARD:  It could have existed, but I don’t think it could of survived because records that were kept in Jerusalem were probably destroyed in revolt in the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans.  There is a Christian writer in the end of the 2nd century who assumes in one of his writings that you could go to Rome and find records of the trial of Jesus under Pontius Pilot in the imperial archives there.  But we don’t have those archives to be able to check. 

THE TURNING:  I guess the next question is then, if lots of people could have been taking notes, and those notes were destroyed, why is it that we have the Gospels at all?  Why did they end up getting written if everything else was sort of getting thrown into the dustbin of history?

MILLARD:  Well, the Gospels were written and like many other ancient Greek and Roman books, they’ve been preserved because people were interested in them, went on copying them all over the Roman world and some of those copies were handed down, recopied and handed on and recopied until it survives until today.  One of the remarkable things of the New Testament books is that we have copies found dehydrated in Egypt. Many of them, many of them not complete, which go back to the year 200 or even before.  Whereas for most of the famous Roman’s books like Caesar’s Gallic Wars or Cicero’s speeches, we have to rely on copies made in the early middle ages.

THE TURNING:  So in some ways, it was the dedication of the early Christians in terms of-

MILLARD:  That’s right.  They believed that this was inspired scripture.  It contained the words of the Saviour.  They copied them and disseminated them quite widely which is why I think there are many copies.

THE TURNING:  Now, we talked about earlier that people were writing things down on waxen tablets as well as if something really mattered, they put it down on scrolls, but of course the Christian tradition has Bibles.  It has books.  How did that transition happen?  Why didn’t we have a bunch of scrolls?

MILLARD:  It seems the book with pages was beginning to be used in the 1st century.  There’s a Roman writer called Marshall, who says to his friends, this idea of having books written on pages rather than scrolls is very convenient if you’re traveling; it’s easier to use such a book.  It’s also more economical because scrolls were usually only written on one side whereas with a book, you use both sides of the page.  This sort of book seems to been used for possibly technical handbooks in the 1st century.  And in the 2nd century, there are just a few examples from Egypt of Greek literature written in this form and they are mostly legal texts and things like that.  It’s possible that it is a form of book that’s more common in Rome than in Egypt in the 1st and 2nd centuries, but we simply don’t have any examples from Rome.  The ones found in Egypt might be written outside the country.  It’s impossible to tell and I think the Christians thought this was a very convenient, economical form of book.  They may also thought that it was less likely to draw attention to itself than a scroll in situations where Christianity, being the illegal religion, owners of Christian books might well be persecuted.

THE TURNING:  So it’s sort of the original pocketbook, in a sense?

MILLARD: Yes.

THE TURNING:  Now is there any sense of when the 1st book, Christian book, may have been put together?

MILLARD:  The oldest pieces we have probably date from 150.  The dating is only done on the basis of the form of handwriting and comparing the form of handwriting in these manuscripts we’ve dated legal deeds and letters.  So the dating is not very precise.  But there’s a fragment in the University library of Manchester from a page from the Gospel of John.  It’s certainly a page, it has writing on both sides, which says this type of book was already in use by the Christians in Egypt and not in Alexandria, the capital, but someway up the Nile by 150.  So I think it would been in use in a more sophisticated center like Alexandria earlier than that.

THE TURNING:  So do we thank the Christians for having promoted the idea of the book or would the Romans have got there on their own?

MILLARD:  I think they helped to popularize it certainly, yes. And when in the 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion, it then became easier for Christians to have quite large books and put all the books of the Bible into one or two volumes.  Previously, they may have had the four Gospels together, Epistles together as single volumes, but we don’t have any evidence for a complete New Testament and certainly not for a complete Old Testament before the 4th century.

THE TURNING:  Now as scholars go through the Gospels and the rest of the writings in the New Testament, are there any hints from there of possibly preexisting texts that they were referring to that we just don’t have anymore?  You’d said that people could easily written down more than we’d got because things perish so easily.

MILLARD:  In the opening verses of Luke’s Gospel, he refers to the research he’s done.  He doesn’t refer specifically to books, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he had access to the notes that people had made during Jesus’ lifetime.  He says many took to draw on account of things being fulfilled among us just as they were handed down to us by those who were eyewitnesses.  So it suggests that before Luke’s time, there were people writing from a sort of Gospel.

THE TURNING:  Do you think there’s any chance we’ll ever come across one of those notebooks, say in an archaeological dig or something?

MILLARD:  Well, one of the attractions of archaeology is you never know what you’re going to find next.  It’s possible.  It’s very unlikely because as I’ve said it’s only in extremely unusual circumstances that such documents can survive.

THE TURNING:  I just wanted to ask you, has this research changed your perspective on Christianity or your faith in anyway?

MILLARD:  It’s what shall  I say a support.  I don’t think my faith depends on this sort of discovery, but it helped by such information and I think that scholars who’ve argued at a lot of what we read in the Gospels, invented after the death and resurrection of Jesus, have argued partly in a vaccum because they thought that there was no original material and so at early times as the lifetime of Jesus.  My argument is that there could well have been, and  once material written down.  It’s much harder to alter.  Of course, it can be changed, but it’s that much harder to alter.  And so I think we can argue that this sort of research leads to a greater reliability in the Gospel text.

THE TURNING:  I guess one argument people could make is that the way a text survives is through recopying,  then that means every copy is an opportunity to change the text.  But is that the way Jews would say, the 1st century, were dealing with their own sacred texts?

MILLARD:  Oh, they were extremely careful to be accurate.  We find in the Dead Sea scrolls that they did make mistakes.  We find they read through the texts and corrected a lot of the mistakes.  Some still crept through.  Anyone who tries to copy out the Book of Isaiah, all sixty-six chapters, I think will soon find that they’re making mistakes.  But when we compare different copies of the same book, it’s easy enough to see mistakes.  Often they are quite elementary mistakes described, I may jump from the first word of one line to the first word of the next line, which happens to be identical and you miss out on words in between.  But wherever we can check, the Jewish scribes seem to be very careful and certainly at a later date in the early middle ages, they had a lot of regulations to help them to absolute accuracy in their copying and I think we can see these regulations have much older roots.

 

 
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