Readers and listeners
- re Eutychus in Acts 20. I am not sure that the presence of many candles
is proof that people needed them for reading and note-taking. However,
it is a good point.
re: Listening and remembering. I seem to recall that Socrates did not
write anything down. His words were recorded by Plato and probably other
students. I also recall that 'Homer' did not write his two poems down.
They were committed to writing several generations later from oral
memories. The early Greek dramas were not written down. The writers
worked with actors who memorised their parts and passed them down to
other actors. They were written down much later. I don't think this is
anything like modern examples of people who worked very hard to commit
passages to memory. The early Methodists knew all the Wesley hymns by
heart. Most of the believers were not very literate, which was why the
Wesleys wrote hymns about the essentials of the faith. I was simply
making the point that the whole communication context of the ancient
world was fundamentally different from ours, and that we must be careful
lest we unconsciously read back our world context when trying to get at
the process of the writing of the gospels.
re: Intention of FG. I have commented before on John 20:30-31. The NRSV
does acknowledge that the verb for 'believe' is present subjunctive in
some important mss and not aorist subjunctive. It is the presence or
absence of the sigma that makes the difference. Which form did the
author/s of the FG use? The verb for 'have life' is present continuous.
This is rarely brought out in English translations.
The difference is quite crucial. If the present form was used, then the
aim of the FG was not evangelistic but aimed perhaps at halting the
slide of believers back into paganism. 'But these have been written down
(perfect tense) so that you people may continue to believe that Jesus is
the Christ, the son of God, and in order that, as you continue to
believe, you may continue to have life in his name.'
In my opinion the force of the present continuous for 'have life' gives
much more force to the present form for 'believe'. However, scholars
will want to argue about that. Our translations generally are weak by
not emphasising the continuous force of the present, future and
What it does mean, though, is that we cannot be all that certain about
the intention of the FG based on this one verse. My own view is that the
FG as a whole reads better as a recall to basic faith rather than as a
call to first-time faith.
re: Where the FG was read aloud. I deliberately did not use the word
'church' to describe the contexts in which the early gospels were read
aloud. I did not mean to imply any forms of liturgical worship either.
Most gatherings of believers occurred in households, anyway. There were
few, if any, public buildings suitable for believers to go to, let alone
worship in. It would be quite a while before any Christian documents
were available anyway. Oral memories from early missionaries and
visitors from other communities would have been the basis of most of the
information available to them. I am also not sure how available the LXX
scrolls would have been for them. Would the synagogue leaders be happy
to pass on copies to people they saw as competitors, and who were
Gentiles with ritually unclean hands? What believers heard formed the
basis of many years of their faith.
Was the FG designed for world-wide, or even country-wide distribution?
How much did each community of believers know about other communities of
believers in other parts of the Empire? Certainly Paul was kept well
informed about congregations he founded. Certainly people travelled a
great deal, even if slowly by today's standards. The only evidence we
have about this comes from much later. It is not easy to come to any
firm conclusions. I tend to take a more conservative approach because of
the limited knowledge we have of some of these basic processes of
communication in the ancient world.
I have to have a wry smile at scientific tests done on twentieth century
brains to establish how memory works! Even birds have shown the ability
to change the way they 'remember' based on changing dangers in their
environment. Indigenous trackers can 'see' things and react
instinctively to their local signs in ways that differ from their
fellows in other countries where the environment throws up different
survival needs. Human brains develop. We are seeing rapid changes in how
people learn because of the involvement of computers early in their
learning process. Let's find a first century human frozen in an iceberg
before dying from another cause. Let us bring that person back to life
and then test that brain. I wonder what differences and what
similarities we might find!
I guess I want to give more credibility to oral memories in an oral
society than so many scholars from a visual society seem prepared to
grant. Different gospel accounts of what Jesus said can be understood
just as easily as that Jesus did not always use the same words every
time he told a parable. From some commentators you would think that
Jesus told the parable of the Sower and The Seed only once. Yet Mark
uses the imperfect when he introduces this parable. 'He used to teach
them many things in parables, and in his teaching he used to say...'
Clearly, this was not the only time Jesus told this parable. After all,
he did travel all around Galilee. I bet he told this parable in every
town he went through. So each of the gospel writers may have had
different oral sources rather than having a written version of Mark
Archaeologists and cultural anthropologists keep on turning up new
information about the way the ancient world worked. I hope we are all
adaptable enough to modify deeply held views in the light of new
Ross Saunders from DownUnder.