Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus

08.01.00 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Alan Millard

    A review of Alan Millard's, "Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus.," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.

    Millard, Alan. Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. The Biblical Seminar 69. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000. Pb. 288 pp. $ . ISBN #1-84127-070-9.

    The most recent Sheffield catalogue inexplicably lists this book as one of a handful labeled not for sale in the United States. That is a pity because it will make it that much more costly, on top of Sheffield's already exorbitant prices, to order it directly from the U.K. I bought my copy this summer at the Moore College bookstore in Sydney, Australia. The advance publicity for it I had heard about from fellow academics was well-founded. It is one of the most important works for Gospels scholarship to appear in a number of years and has the potential for revolutionizing the paradigm by which we understand their formation.

    Millard, long-time evangelical professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages in Liverpool, has brought together here a wealth of information from little known sources which would not otherwise normally be accessible to New Testament scholars or students. Chapter one stresses how fragmentary the evidence is that has survived of written sources in antiquity and surveys the surfaces on which writing took place—papyri, parchment, ostraca, and the like. Of particular importance were the wooden and waxed tablets on which informal documents were scrawled or temporary notes taken. Chapter two enumerates the various categories of the oldest surviving Christian documents; prior to Constantine legalizing Christianity in the early 300s; these, too, were more likely to be lost or destroyed than preserved. En route, Millard adds his critique to those of others who have refuted C. P. Thiede's claims that Qumran fragments represent very early copies of Mark and that the Magdalen College, Oxford, papyrus of Matthew should be dated to around A.D. 50 rather than to around 200.

    In chapter three, Millard discusses the shift from the use of rolls (i.e., scrolls) to the codex form, especially from the second to third centuries. Although the development predated this change of centuries, it was given significant impetus by Christian practice, which itself demonstrates, among other things, the largely “non-literary” nature of the New Testament writings. A particularly detailed chapter follows, itemizing the most important evidence for the pervasiveness of written Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin in Herodian Palestine, all more deeply embedded in Jesus' world than most scholars acknowledge. Chapter five discusses the significance of this “polyglot society,” noting the likelihood that Jesus was partially trilingual, working in Hebrew with his Scriptures, Aramaic in everyday life, and Greek with those who could not speak one of the Semitic languages. The Aramaic words transliterated in the Gospels are of such a nature and distribution to suggest authentic reflections of the historical Jesus, not the touches of a historical novelist.

    In chapter 6, Millard demonstrates that W. Harris' recent and oft-cited work on literacy in the first-century Greco-Roman world considerably underestimates the evidence that a broad cross-section of the populace had some ability in either reading or writing. Of greatest interest for Jesus research is the development and use of various kinds of “shorthand” that would have made it quite possible for someone hearing Jesus speak, even in a fairly lengthy address, to jot down notes about the major contours of his speech and perhaps several particularly memorable proverbs, quite soon after actually hearing him. Nor was Galilee the cultural “backwater” of the empire that would have made literacy any less prevalent there than in other Roman provinces, again contrary to the “received wisdom” of much biblical scholarship. Chapter seven surveys the ancient statements concerning preference for oral tradition vs. written records, noting that these do not prevent the ancients from preserving more informal written notes in numerous public contexts, including formal education and the transmission of a revered teacher's words, even if the process was often more informal and less exact than the Mishnah later suggests. And massive evidence contradicts the Jesus Seminar's claims that the “oral tradition was incapable of handling anything longer than one- or two-line sayings or very short stories” (p. 197).

    Finally, Millard turns to a chapter on “Writing and the Gospels,” focusing especially on the relevant comparative material from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of particular importance here is the recently translated MMT (Miqsat Ma'aseh Ha-Torah), a document that contains first-person speech of perhaps a minority tradition even within Qumran, carefully preserving its teacher's informal interpretations of Torah with striking parallels to the Sermon on the Mount and related canonical material. Combined with the evidence of Paul and the pre-Pauline creeds, and the teachings of Qumran's “Teacher of Righteousness” in the Damascus Document, the likelihood increases that numerous short, written documents with outlines of Jesus' major sermons, lists of some of his most memorable sayings and notes concerning his major deeds, would have been produced at a very early date, some even during Jesus' lifetime. These would then have formed a significant basis for the later, fuller Gospels and Gospel sources now discernible from the extant data. As he concludes, Millard sketches a helpful hypothetical Galilean village scene that sums up numerous contexts of reading and writing in Jesus' world (pp. 225-26).

    I noted a handful of typographical errors. The close quotation mark is missing before n. 25 on p. 69. Macquarie University is spelled “Macquairie” on p. 77. The scholar, Stanley Stowers, is called “Towers” (pp. 82, 287). There is a superfluous indefinite article (“a”) on p. 100. F. Rehkopf is called “Rohrkopf” (pp. 148, 286). Bultmann's first name is spelled as “Rudolph” rather than “Rudolf” (p. 186). And “Jesus” is missing an apostrophe on p. 223.

    This work deserves a wide readership. Despite the continued appearance of studies (e.g., Bart Ehrman's 2000 Oxford book on the historical Jesus) that rely on the simply errant assumptions of an uncontrolled early oral tradition, “the material evidence and related arguments set out in these chapters indicate far more weight than has been allowed should be given to the role of writing in preserving information about Jesus of Nazareth from his lifetime onwards and so in forming the Gospel tradition” (pp. 228-29).

    Craig L. Blomberg
    Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    Denver, CO
    August 2000

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