Why Did Written Stories of Jesus Take So Long to Appear?

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by Neil Godfrey

Sabbatai Sevi as messiah, sitting on the kingly throne, under a celestial crown held by angels and bearing the inscription “Crown of Sevi.” Below: the Ten Tribes studying the Torah with the messiah. From an etching after the title page of one of the editions of Nathan of Gaza’s writings: (Amsterdam, 1666)

Why does the first account of the life of Jesus appear as late as forty years after the crucifixion? The answer I long heard was that followers of Jesus were focused on his return and, expecting his return in their lifetimes, they did not see any need to write a historical account of his life. Scholarly texts of the gospels will explain that the ancient culture was primarily oral and word-of-mouth was the standard means of spreading news.  The same texts will assert that the first oral reports of Jesus’s sayings were written down about twenty years after the crucifixion although some brave souls have even proposed as early as four or five years later.

All of that sounds plausible enough — until one steps outside the mental bubble of those descriptions and compares with how people work in the real world.

I am at the moment reading Gershom Scholem’s exhaustive study of a widespread mid-seventeenth century Jewish messianic movement that fully anticipated the messiah to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem within a matter of a year or within a few short months. The messianic figure was Sabbatai Sevi and the years spanned from late 1665 to 1667. Sabbatai Sevi was what we would classify as manic-depressive. When he was “on fire” he was “on fire” but when the mood left him he was really down, withdrawn, out of the picture. Most of the heavy lifting of persuading others to believe he was the messiah was the work of his “prophet”, Nathan of Gaza. (Nathan was able to persuade outsiders that Sabbatai’s “down times” were signs of his messianic “suffering for Israel”. It must be added, however, that Sabbatai could also come across as one possessed with a dignified and caring demeanour.)

Now I think it is safe to say that most of the everyday lower-class Jews living in the Ottoman empire and throughout Europe at the time were not highly literate. Jewish communities did certainly possess leaders, rabbis and elders, who were literate. And persons from well-to-do business families often had the fortune of a sound education. And there is no doubt at all that believers in Sabbatai Sevi far and wide spoke, recited and sang of his wonderful deeds and sayings along with those of his prophet.

It is also clear that oral reports were never enough. Yes, there was no substitute for the presence of a visiting eye-witness who could report and be interrogated orally of their visits and observations of the messiah and those closest to him. But given that those sorts of visits were few and far between in places as far from Gaza, Smyrna and Constantinople as Leghorn, Amsterdam and Hamburg, believers in Sabbatai Sevi and Nathan craved the arrival of letters to prominent persons — “clerical” or business persons — in their communities. Believers would flock to the ports to meet ships with expected letters as they docked. And the prophet Nathan was not lax, nor were others who were closely associated with the “messiah”. They wrote and wrote to acquaintances and to acquaintances other acquaintances and contacts. Then those who received letters copied them both for preservation and sharing more widely still. People came to hear them read in public and private venues. Others were inspired by the reports of this news from a distance to write poems, hymns, prayers that they shared with fellow believers.

By such means believers were convinced that great miracles had been performed by the messiah, even raising the dead and appearing before authorities in a pillar of fire. They were also led to believe that the “lost” Ten Tribes of Israel were on the march to conquer Mecca and would soon arrive at the gates of Jerusalem. The ruler of the Ottoman empire was about to hand over the “keys of the kingdom of Israel” to Sabbatai Sevi without a fight. Many believers sold everything and left to live in Jerusalem in order to be where the action was when that day of the messianic kingdom came.

What sustained the believers in their excitement, what they loved to create and share in their thrilling expectation that the kingdom of God was to be inaugurated within a matter of mere months, at most a year? What did they share along with their singing and dancing and fellowship? Copies of letters, copies of written poems and prayers, all speaking of the great wonders and powerful words of the messiah who was about to be made known as God’s anointed to the whole world.

In the accounts of the believers in Sabbatai Sevi, one notion never arises: “that there is no point in writing anything about the man because we’ll all be in Palestine and he’ll be ruling over us all in just a few months from now.”

With that little episode in mind, one returns to the question of why it took so long for written accounts of Jesus to appear.

Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Ṣevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676. Translated by R. Werblowsky. Reprint edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

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24 thoughts on “Why Did Written Stories of Jesus Take So Long to Appear?”

  1. Good post.
    It makes me wonder also if the same interpretation of the Pauline letters as “letters” is dictated by a historicist paradigm imposed a priori on the so-called letters. In absence of a historical Jesus, the “good news” would be not necessary at all. Not even in the form of “letters”.

    1. It is interesting to note that the Sabbatai Sevi believed in by many Jews, particularly those in Poland, bore little resemblance to the real Sabbatai Sevi. Belief in a quite unreal figure — one who rode a lion, one who would transport them all to Jerusalem on clouds — took over from the reality of a man confined to a prison in Smyrna.

  2. In Chapter 13 Verse 2 of the seminal “Gospel of Mark” the fictional hero Jesus of Nazareth prophesizes the destruction of Jerusalem; an event which historically occurred in 70 CE. This, and other arguments, place the writing of “Mark” at circa 75 CE.

    The argument that these events were not written about earlier because his followers thought he was returning presumes J of N was a real historical figure. The fact that such a flimsy pretext appeared again 1600 years later regarding another matter is trivia.

    1. The ultimate desolation of Jerusalem happened after the 2nd Roman-Jewish War, the Bar Kochba Revolt of the early 130s CE, which might even place Mark after then

  3. Um…I’m thinking that that was a confusing analog.

    Why Jews? I’d say that it was the gentiles, perhaps wannabe Jews, who authored the gospels, rather than the Hebrew types. And, as for that, I’d suggest that most readers here consult Thomas Brodie’s “The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings” (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004), wherein the good father spends the first eighty pages painting a picture of the literary landscape of the Mediterranean world. This makes it clear that although the general literacy was fairly poor, there were, nonetheless, extent traditions (and pre-existing narratives) which sufficient numbers of scribal experts used and embellished upon. Brodie discounts the whole ‘oral transmission’ as specious…and, points to a definitive source of ‘Q’: The Septuagint.

  4. Certainly the early Christians contained some people of wealth and I can’t imagine one of them did not hire a scribe to write down everything any of the disciples could remember about Jesus’s teachings. Such writings would sell like hotcakes, especially in the Roman market, and would pay for effort many times over. The original effort would have been to learn as much as possible about what the wise man taught.

    Instead we get <cricket, cricket, cricket>. The despicable Paul, even though he claimed a direct revelatory pipeline to Jesus mentions nothing . . . nothing . . . about what he taught.

    1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24433089 Surely some lawyer somewhere has been struck by one loose thread in the official biography of Jesus Christ, the claim by the Sanhedrin that it lacked authority to execute him. Why didn’t the Sanhedrin execute Jesus after convicting him of blasphemy? The same legal body executed Stephen and James the supposed half brother of Jesus for the same crime. During Roman times the Sanhedrin apparently lacked authority to execute only one class of Jew–Roman citizens. All descendants of Herod were Roman citizens. Not likely that random carpenters from out in the sticks were ever made citizens in that period long before such status was watered down to the point of being meaningless.

      Then the despicable Paul must have been an scheming Herodian cousin from another collateral line later taking over remnants of a movement for use as a vehicle for his own purposes. Think of the despicable Paul as being like the propagandist Goebbels who swiftly turned a loser like Horst Wessel into a martyr for the National Socialist cause. “[Horst Wessel] did a great deal more for the Nazi image as a dead pimp than he had ever done as a live Party member.” —Alan Wykes, The Nuremberg Rallies (1970), p. 121 A dead Jesus with any distinct message or teaching stripped away was far more useful for the spin doctor Paul.

        1. Per the “the teachings of Jesus the Christ.”

          It is commonly maintained that Paul wrote at least six letters (Pauline epistles) in the 50s of the 1st century CE proclaiming and commenting on Second-god. As an Apostle, Paul had a personal relationship with this god.

          NB. Caveat Emptor! The original MSS for the Pauline epistles are not extant and the reproductions are chopped, pressed, and formed like a chicken nugget is to a breaded chicken tender.

          For the next 20 to 50 years the earliest original (or else redacted) MSS from Christians are a few other letters in the New Testament; like 1 Peter, James, Jude, and Hebrews, and possibly the first letter from Clement of Rome.

          Then 70 to c. 120 (or even later..) the first gospel is written, possibly inspired by a historicised theatrical pageant about Second-god. And then a series of redactions and embellishments of the original (Euangélion katà Mârkon) with the caveat that the last (Euangélion katà Iōánnēn) is new fan fiction of the previous redactions and the original.

          The reliance of Euangélion katà Mârkon on the “original Pauline epistles” has been observed by many scholars. Carrier writes, “Mark’s whole Gospel feels like it has been inspired by Paul’s teachings. Its narrative is inordinately concerned with Gentiles and the criticism of Jewish legalism.” Some paradigmatic examples are: “The Pauline Chiasmus”, “Jesus on Taxation”, and “The Last Supper”. Dykstra writes:

          The primary intended audience would then be the same as for the epistles: established Christian communities in which the battle between the competing gospels [in the sense of the message] continued to rage. The primary purpose of the [Markan] gospel narrative would then be to assert that Paul’s gospel was correct, that Paul’s interpretation of the significance of the person of Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection was the correct one, and that Paul’s opponents were wrong even though they could boast of close personal connections to Jesus while Paul could not. [Dykstra 2012, pp. 37–38. ISBN 978-1-60191-020-2.]

    2. “Instead we get <cricket, cricket, cricket>. The despicable Paul, even though he claimed a direct revelatory pipeline to Jesus mentions nothing . . . nothing . . . about what he taught.”

      I don’t agree with your statement, so go ahead and tell us, what did Jesus teach?

      1. “…what did Jesus teach?”

        • The end is nigh! Repent!

        Per the historical personage Jesus b. Joseph/Pantera, whom I have given the moniker Yesus. Bart Ehrman holds the viewpoint that Yesus was a Jewish preacher and teacher crucified during the reign of Pontius Pilate. Ehrman indicates that he believes that Yesus was born into poverty and was either a carpenter or a carpenter’s son. He began his public ministry while trapped in a poverty-stricken lower-class life. He was an “The end is nigh! Repent!” type of preacher. He was baptized by John the Baptist. He “raised the ire of Pharisees,” causing a ruckus in the Temple but not at the scale depicted by the Gospels. Pilate personally ordered his crucifixion after a brief trial at the beginning of Pesach, the holiest holiday of them all. Roman soldiers flogged Yesus on his way to the Cross, and he was dead within six hours.

  5. The tradition of the hadith (prophet’s sayings and doings) and other historical works about the birth of Islam were only written a century or more after the presumed death of Mohammed [Jebus’s schizo stoner brother from another mother who overindulged in the bhang or hashish and so heard an angel whisper to him in a cave] and yet most everyone in the west including scholars seem to accept it all at face value. https://www.quora.com/Why-did-the-writers-of-The-Simpsons-have-Homer-refer-to-Jesus-as-Jebus-What-is-the-backstory

    https://www.tingismagazine.com/editorials/koran-redux-2/ Maybe the Tangier born Anouar Majid is more balanced and acceptable to you. https://www.tingismagazine.com/editorials/islam-the-arab-religion/

  6. Yes, the model of Sabbatai Ṣevi does apply to the supposed historical Jesus. We should see texts including creative writing from the first century, independent of Mark’s gospel.
    I see the timeline as this: Mark’s Gospel is stored in the Roman congregation’s archives. Marcion gets a copy when he goes to Rome, realizing that it provides the concrete story about “Jesus” that can supplement Paul’s cosmic Christ for evangelizing the common people. Marcion revises Mark’s story for his own use. Marcion has found a winning formula that combines Jesus and Paul’s Christ. God-fearers flock to Marcionism (which may have had Samaritan roots). In desperation, Judean-sympathizer “Luke” revises Marcion’s version of Mark, and writes Acts. The orthodox campaign against Marcion is underway, and the efflorescence of creative writing follows.

    1. Interesting. I like your inclusion of Marcion in the mix, as I’m of the opinion that his meddling set a reaction in motion. But, I think it was the genuine ‘Pauline’ materials and an ur-Luke which were the materials Marcion either tampered with, or had a voice (and hand) in their production. The Luke we have is an Orthodox re-tampering of the ur-Luke with which Marcion had tampered.

      1. Agree about the Pauline materials. But if Marcion tampered with ur-Luke, who wrote ur-Luke? Why? How did they get a copy of GMark? How did they even know about GMark?

        The simplest scenario is Marcion wrote, not tampered with, ur-Luke. He was in the right place with the right motivation to obtain a copy of GMark.

        1. How do speculative fanzine writers get the writings of other writers? They pass them around amongst themselves and their tight little communities of other writers. If we posit that only some five percent of the general populace was literate, who are the literate going to rely upon to read their materials? Scribal communities sharing their works.

          1. So someone wrote ur-Luke in a “scribal community” for the purpose of impressing other writers? No religious motives at all? This person got a copy of GMark to work from because Mark was also a member of this community? If Mark was already dead, who saved GMark and who gave it to the writer of ur-Luke? Complications and empty spaces are multiplying rapidly. Apply Occam’s razor. My scenario is simpler.

          2. While actual “readership” of works was small those who were exposed to them was much larger. In the case of Sabbatai Sevi many people listened to readings and discussions of the contents of letters and written statements about Sabbatai Sevi. The enthusiasm was not limited to the educated elite.

    2. The author of ‘Mark’ almost certainly if not indeed certainly used the Pauline epistles (and more of the LXX. A lot of the NT Jesus is based on Paul)

    3. Re: Marcionism having Samaritan roots Does that colorful guy from the circus Huller have anything to say about this being as he is buddies with the Samaritan gatekeeper Benny Tsedaka?

  7. https://gotherefor.com/offer.php?intid=28549&changestore=true

    If John is Elijah, is Jesus then Elisha?

    Yeah, sure. And lots of interweaving of stories. Jesus, and the entire cast of the gospels, is a literary construct. I suspect it was amongst Grecophonic gentiles impressed with their diaspora Hebrew neighbors’ community, who, when spurned by the Jews, decided to give flesh to their hoped for savior (this is per Burton Mack’s early christian communities). Paul had ‘a vision’ and had included them. So, they clung to Paul’s writings, and invented some new ones, and decided to fill the backstory. They took to the very source they’d been drawn to by their Jewish neighbors….The Septuagint, a veritable treasure trove of Hebrew sacred history. If one quote mines the Septuagint for scripture indicating the Christ, particularly when looking for what they missed (the savior had come and gone and only Paul and a few others knew this), then some storylines are going to suggest themselves. The whole Elijah and Elisha narrative would form a fairly decent structure upon which all of the prophecies could be appended which suited their needs. Basically, a ‘midrash’ by those gentiles who thought they were doing it right…Once launched, and refined, it caught on in certain literate gentile circles, who reinterpreted it so that it was…better…more ‘right’. Like fanzines. Embellish and uplift. It would engender an entire galaxy of prolix fabulous, but heartening, stories that would anchor many communities, which would proceed to squabble with each other for millenia.

    Is that so hard to believe? Thomas L. Brodie’s The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004) leads me to think that the Jesus figure is a literary construct, not an historical entity.

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