Why so long before the first gospel narrative?

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by Neil Godfrey

The answer I have most commonly heard to this question is that the earliest Christians were too much on edge expecting the return of Jesus any day to be bothered or to see any need to write down the things they supposedly heard Jesus did and said.

But the odd thing about this explanation is that so many scholars like to date the Gospel of Mark as early as 70 c.e., in the midst of the Jewish-Roman war, during the siege of Jerusalem. That is, precisely at the time when the return of Jesus would have been the MOST expected any day or hour.

Some even like to date this first gospel earlier, to the 40’s c.e. when Caligula attempted to have his statue placed in the Jewish temple. Again, one would have expected even more apocalyptic fervour that much sooner after the supposed events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s not as if there were no literates among the converts all those decades. If we take the letters of Paul at face value then we see evidence of a number of individuals with scribal skills.

Given the astonishing deeds and sayings earlier believers attributed to Jesus, it beggars belief that no-one would not have been interested all those decades to be among the first to commit them to writing.

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16 thoughts on “Why so long before the first gospel narrative?”

  1. Of course.

    Being the *first* person to write about Jesus would have made you famous and given you great prestige.

    If Christians were being persecuted, surely there would have been a great need to get it down in writing, before the people who knew the stuff were killed.

  2. Well, there were the Q document, written between 40 and 80, and the Signs Gospel, dated between 50 and 80.

    My guess (I am not an expert) is that the written narratives where collected for those who had no access the direct witness of the apostles or for polemical purposes; as long as there were few “christians”, there was no need for a written account.

    1. A famous person will normally be written about in their own life time. Socrates’ student Plato and Xenophon wrote about Socrates almost from the moment he died, and Plato in particular did so as much for the interest of many who had known and remembered Socrates, other students, as for those who never met him.

      Ditto for Apollonius of Tyana — Philostratus wrote the account we have of Ap about the same distance of time between Jesus and the gospels, but he acknowledges written sources composed by those who had known Ap.

      The fact that there were Christians means there was an interest and a demand for such accounts. Does public interest in any personality today mean that “there is no need for written accounts” about such people?

      (Q and Signs, yes, and some would add the Gospel of Thomas too, and the source of the Cross that Spoke, — unfortunately all scholarly speculations that rarely get a mention among those scholars who take time to explain the “oral tradition” being pretty much the main show until finally finally a generation later . . . )

  3. You’ve neglected to mention the simplest explanation, namely that very few of the earliest Christians were literate or wealthy, and thus were not the sort of people who would have found a written Gospel particularly useful and within their means to produce. That said, many scholars believe that at least one collection of sayings was written down before this (i.e. the Q source), and some would add others (see e.g. April DeConick’s work on Kernel Thomas, for instance).

    The expectation that the end was near, as well as the ongoing existence of some of the original Christians, are often thought to be factors, with the death of the first generation, and no sign of the fulfillment of the expected end of the world, as factors. But Matthew’s Gospel seems, if anything, to heighten the expectation of an imminent end compared with Mark, suggesting that the earliest Gospels were written at a time when eschatological fervor was on the rise, not on the decline. And so it may well be that more practical reasons were paramount.

  4. ‘You’ve neglected to mention the simplest explanation, namely that very few of the earliest Christians were literate or wealthy, and thus were not the sort of people who would have found a written Gospel particularly useful and within their means to produce.’

    Who read out Paul’s letters to these illiterate people?

    And why was Paul collecting money from all these poor people?

    ‘Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.’

    A city director of public works could not commission somebody to write down the deeds of his Lord and Saviour?

    ‘My guess (I am not an expert) is that the written narratives where collected for those who had no access the direct witness of the apostles….’

    So every church had access to the direct witness of the apostles? I doubt it.

  5. Well, between Q’s probable existence, the various Gospels people like Origen refer to but which no longer exist, and Luke’s reference to “many” who’ve previously undertaken to write, maybe there was more than is extant?

    1. So what is your argument then?

      — In your first post you said that the “simplest explanation” was “that very few of the earliest Christians were literate or wealthy, and thus were not the sort of people who would have found a written Gospel particularly useful and within their means to produce”;

      — but in later comments you imply that there were enough literate and wealth among them, and that they were the sorts of people who found a written gospel useful and within their means to produce.

      This seems at best to be arguing both ways, according to whatever argument one wishes to defend at the time.

      Similarly with the motive or circumstances occasioning the first writings:

      — On the one hand no one who believed the end of the world was nigh would have any interest in a written gospel,

      — but on the other hand the gospels first appeared when eschatological fervour was at fever pitch.

  6. Well, if I have a point (and that may be seeming increasingly unlikely), it is this: on the one hand, we don’t know that it was “so long” before the first narrative about Jesus was written, or at least before the first attempt to record some of his teachings. On the other hand, if it turned out that we had strong reason to believe that there was an unusually long period without writing, there are explanations that could make sense of that state of affairs, based on what we know of early Christianity. The number of literate individuals, in particular in the very earliest movement, may not have been enough to necessitate the recording of Jesus material in writing.

    1. Paul wrote letters and believed the same thing. I didn’t suggest that there was never a felt need to write a letter addressing issues in churches. All I suggested is that, if one is looking for a plausible explanation of why no one might have been in a particular hurry to write a life story of Jesus, the combined factors of relatively few literate people who would read it, and relatively little time left until the end of history, could make sense of this state of affairs. But human beings do exceptional things – they write when we might expect them not to, and fail to write when we expect them to, and in either case evidence gets lost with the passing of time. So the best we can do is make sense of the evidence we have.

  7. And why wasn’t Mark famous as the first Gospeller? Papias seems to know little more than his name, and a link to Peter, and gives no information about how Mark got linked to Peter, or more info about Mark.

    Surely Mark should have been famous throught Christendom. Instead he is a shadow – a name in Papias.

  8. Christianity from the beginning was grounded in a knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. Paul constantly appealed to them to authenticate his claims about Jesus. The gospel authors structured their narratives around them, and often quoted them to verify their narratives. Many scholars argue that belief in Jesus as the Messiah was only sustained after his death as a result of his disciples interpreting his life and death through the Scriptures.

    If early Christianity was so grounded in constant references to Jewish texts, can it really be that there was no motivation or need to compose matching Jesus texts from the beginning?

  9. I’m not sure how far this argument goes. Where is the contemporary biography of Theudas? Or Simon Magus? Or Judas the Gailean?

    The late date of the written gospels may well suggest that those gospels are not in fact detailed records of the life of a Jesus the Nazarene. But that is different from arguing that a Jesus the Nazarene left no memory whatsoever of himself. It may be that we will never know just what that was, or whether there really was a Jesus the Nazarene–but the late date of the gospels alone will not establish that.

    Or, to put it another way, arguing against conservative Christians is different from arguing against agnostic historians.

  10. JW:
    You are asking all the right questions. If the historical Jesus is c. 30 than why wasn’t the first Gospel “Mark” until c. 130? I have Faith that the following is a reasonable explanation:

    1) The only thing we can be certain of is that there was no Impossible Jesus and this is the key to the following.

    2) Historical witness to Possible Jesus documented possible Jesus.

    3) Paul, c. 50, rejects witness to possible Jesus and provides revelation witness to Impossible Jesus.

    4) Paul’s revelation is no match for historical witness and Paul is losing. His writings are evidence that he goes to virgin territory to teach about impossible Jesus and than historical witness follows him to clean up his shit.

    5) The destruction of the Temple ends the Possible Jesus movement which is based in Jerusalem. Ironically, in contradiction to what Christianity asserts, this event creates Judaism (Pharisee over Sadducee) and destroys Christianity (the true followers of Jesus).

    6) The Impossible Jesus movement is still based on Jesus’ death and not life so there is little motivation for a Gospel. 40 years later there is still 2nd hand historical witness to dispute an Impossible Jesus life.

    7) By 2nd century there is relatively little 2nd hand historical witness left (see Papias). The Impossible Jesus story develops as follows:

    1 – Originates with Paul revelation of Jesus’ death.

    2 – Death story expanded.

    3 – Death story expanded to Passion.

    4 – Teaching and Healing Ministry created by “Mark” to contrast with Passion.


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