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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists

16-1-4 Christ-centredness In The Early Church

Why study the early church? I want to outline what, to me, is one of the most significant reasons- that it was Christ-centred. There is what could be termed the visible church, and the invisible church. The ‘visible’ church would refer to all those who call themselves Christians, attend churches, etc. The ‘invisible church’ I use as a term referring to the true body of Christ, that group of persons who are truly in Christ and share fellowship with Him. The two ‘churches’ aren’t the same. For argument’s sake, let’s suppose that, say, only 10% of today’s ‘visible church’ are in fact also in the true church, the invisible “body of Christ”. My point is that the percentage of the earliest church who were the invisible, true church of Christ was very much higher. Whatever the figures are, only God knows, but it’s my sense that, say, 95% of the very earliest church were in fact the invisible church. There were fewer passengers, very few who got baptized simply because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do, or because those around them were doing it, or because this was the tradition of their nation or family. The high level of persecution, the social and economic difficulty of accepting Christianity, the way it was so counter-cultural, so radical, such a leap of faith to believe in the resurrection, authority and present existence of the crucified Jesus… all these and other factors made the acceptance of Christianity in the 30s and 40s of the first century something which was only for the very committed. The very early church was therefore the church as Jesus intended, what He gave birth to through His death and resurrection. It’s apparent that the ‘church’ of today, what I’m calling ‘the visible church’, is far removed from that of the earliest church. Once we’ve factored out the inevitable issues of history, changed geographical and social environments etc, there still remains a huge gap between the earliest church and that of today. It’s this gap, and the components of it, which we need to analyze and strip away, if we are to come to understand and experience the indwelling of Christ as it was in the earliest church.

That earliest church was the continuation of the band of men who followed the Lord Jesus around Galilee. There were of course ecclesias in Galilee comprised of people who had first heard the Lord teaching and seen Him healing. A case can be made that the letter of James was addressed to these Galilean ecclesias (1). They however became prototypical of all future ecclesias; for through the medium of the Gospel records, we too have as it were seen and heard Him in Galilee and have also been converted to Him. “You men of Galilee”, ‘You Galileans’, may in fact not merely be a statement of their geographical origin, but it’s been suggested that “The term ‘Galilean’ seems in early days to have been used to describe the followers of Jesus” (2). Acts 10:37 speaks of how the Gospel began to be preached in Galilee; and we note from this that therefore the content of the Gospel was the same in Galilee as it was throughout the Roman world. The Gospel was what we have in the Gospel records- not so much a list of theological propositions as the actual record of the kindness, the grace, the character, person, deeds and ethical teaching of Jesus the Galilean.

The early church was the continuation and geographical extension of those who in simple faith first heard the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee. It was not an institution. It was a fellowship of persons, who between them comprised the person of Jesus, the body of Christ, and as such were His witness to this world. They were the witness, their transformed lives, their words spoken to other persons. Not their websites, their books, their tracts, their church outreach programs- they were the witness. That group of persons experienced “the fellowship of Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:9), “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:13; Phil. 2:1). They had no “it” or “thing” in common; rather their bond was their common experience of and sharing in a person, Jesus. They were truly “brothers and sisters in Christ”. The body of Christ consisted of nothing apart from persons, each with a direct vertical link and relationship with Him, resulting in their special horizontal bond with each other. This is why it’s been observed that the true church of Christ “is unintelligible from a purely sociological viewpoint” (3)- for sociology looks at the horizontal bonding between people and groups, and has no understanding of a supernatural link between those persons and the Son of God in Heaven. This is why so many sociological and statistical analyses of the growth and behaviour of the body of Christ- e.g. why some areas respond more than others to the Gospel, why some churches grow and others fold- seem never to yield any firm pattern or conclusion. For the experience we have within the true church / body of Christ is a unique meeting of the horizontal bonds with our brethren and the vertical bonding with our Heavenly Lord. This as such defies human scientific analysis.

The Self-Revelation Of Jesus Through The Ecclesia
The definition of the church / ecclesia which I’ve suggested here impinges upon the question of where the early, illiterate believers drew their knowledge of Jesus from. For the level of their commitment to Him as a person seems somehow out of proportion to the relatively small amount of factual information which would’ve been conveyed to them in teaching sessions, public addresses and the like. I suggest the answer to this lies in the fact that the body of Christ, the ecclesia, is one form of the personal self-revelation of the person of the Lord Jesus. We don’t only and solely receive His self-revelation through accepting dogma or doctrine. It comes to us also through the way He mediates His personality to us, His self-revelation, through His body. His fullness is to be found in the church, His body- He fills “all [believers / members of the church] in all” (Eph. 1:22,23). I take this to mean that the fullness of His personal character, person, spirit, truth… is to be found in His body on earth, i.e. the community of believers. Each of them manifest a different aspect of Him. Thus “you may all [not just the elders] be prophets in turn [i.e. not just one ‘pastor’ doing all the teaching] so that all may get knowledge and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:31 BBE). This is the Biblical “unity of the spirit”- whereby the body of Jesus reveals Him consistently, as a unity, thus binding together all who share that same one spirit of Christ. This is the way to unity- not enforcing intellectual assent to dogmatic propositions. A few things come out of all this in practice. All this means that we should avoid making any distinction between ‘office bearers’ in a church and the ‘flock’ (4). We’re all in the new priesthood, all ministers (1 Pet. 2:5), all involved in the body building itself up in love, every member of the body has something to contribute to the growth of the rest (Eph. 4:16). All this is why the question of who or what is the body of Christ, what defines it, is so important. In the church of my youth, our perception of who the body of Christ is was limited to a few hundred elderly believers in South East England. When I disabused myself of that view, my experience of the Lord Jesus was so much deeper and richer- because I came to see the aspects of Him which were revealed in the members of a far larger and international community. But of course we can go too far, even as far as seeing ‘Christ’ in non-Christian religions, and thus giving us a wrong picture of who He actually is. It is where two or three are gathered together in His Name, that the Lord Jesus is somehow there in the midst of them (Mt. 18:20). Perhaps this means that He is especially manifested / revealed in the gathered together groups of believers, in a special and far different way to which an isolated believer reading a Bible may know the presence of Jesus. All this must especially be true of the breaking of bread- the only other time in the New Testament we meet the three Greek words translated “I am in the midst” is in Lk. 22:27, where the Lord comments how He is in the midst of the disciples at the first breaking of bread. Of course, mere church attendance doesn’t mean we perceive Christ there, in the midst of us; we perceive Him there insofar as we perceive the spirit of Christ in our brethren.

If the self-revelation of Jesus was solely through dogma, doctrine, the correct interpretation of the Bible etc, then we could merely sit at home alone with our Bibles. And sadly, that’s a growing trend. But that is Biblicism and not Christ-based Christianity. The largely illiterate first century ecclesia didn’t have that as an option; whereas in our super-literate age, reading the Bible on our laptops, it’s a strong temptation to be Biblicists rather than Christians. The Spirit of God is in the word of God, but the spirit and the word aren’t one and the same thing. “The Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power [spirit]” (1 Cor. 4:20). The Corinthians were converted “not [so much] through words of wisdom, but through the demonstration of the spirit” (1 Cor. 2:4). The essence of all this is the same today as it was then- the revelation of the person of Jesus isn’t solely through Bible reading and getting the interpretation right; it’s through a living community, His body. It is there that we will see His Spirit / personality in action. I don’t refer to miraculous gifts- but to the spirit / mind / disposition / essence of the Lord, man and saviour Jesus. And that’s why the saying is so true, that ‘the truth is caught not taught’- the community of believers, collectively and individually, propagates the faith and cause of Jesus by who they are, by their spirit, far more effectively than by the doctrines they teach. And yet there is a growing trend to follow the path of the Roman Catholic church- to replace live fellowship of persons by an institution, and to replace the faith which works by love by a cold creed. Offices, institutions etc. are of course far easier to manage, far safer for us to relate to; but their inevitable rigidity stands as a barrier to the live movement of the spirit of Christ within a community of persons. The spirit of Christ is an alive, active force, and it leads individuals to do their own thing. If, e.g., the spirit of Christ compels a sister to initiate a project to care for HIV victims, she must be allowed to go where she’s led…. whereas creeds, offices, control structures all combine to so often “quench the spirit”. The Biblical pattern of house churches is so much more able to be in tune with the Spirit’s movement than large institutionalized congregations. The apostasy of the early church was in my view largely connected with the way the ‘church’ came to be understood as an administrative institution. This has been taken to its ultimate term in Roman Catholic circles, but every Protestant group which teaches submission to an institution rather than to our personal conscience and experience of the Lord Jesus has in essence done the same. The Roman Catholics openly state that “the church of God is administered after the manner of the state”- no longer is it a live body of persons, but an institution. And all the talk of administering Protestant groups after the model of corporate businesses seems to me to be the same. The matter has gone to such an extent that my personal preference is to refer to the ‘church’ as the ‘ecclesia’- a body of persons, not an institution.


(1) L.E. Elliott-Binns, Galilean Christianity (Chicago: Allenson, 1956).
(2) Elliott-Bins, op cit. p. 12.
(3) Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding Of The Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953) p. 12.
(4) This is why ‘offices’ in the ecclesia are roles filled by those spiritually qualified to fill them, i.e. filled with the appropriate aspect of the spirit of Christ in order to do the job; being voted into them, educated for them or seconded to them by some committee isn’t a relevant qualification. Paul reminded the Corinthians that submission should be shown to elders who have addicted themselves to serving others (1 Cor. 16:15,16)- i.e. submission arises out of our perception of an elders’ spirituality, not from his mere holding of an office. Sadly, Corinth didn’t stay with this advice. At the end of the first century, the first letter of Clement to Corinth ordered them to accept bishops as having a perpetual right to their office, and that the church must respect that right. And not so long after that, Cyprian was telling them that “whoever has the office receives the spiritual grace requisite for its fulfillment”- the very opposite of the idea of being spiritually qualified for a job in church! ‘We give you the job, and God will give you the spiritual qualifications for it’. That was how quickly the live, dynamic early church became institutionalized; that’s how strong is our desire for structure and offices, rather than the more risky way of allowing the spirit of Christ free course. The Biblical evidence is that Corinth was comprised of a group of house churches; and it was again Clement who ordered that the breaking of bread could be conducted only in one central place (1 Clement 40,41). He quenched the spirit, sought to institutionalize and contain the boundless function of the body of Christ.

The Origin Of The Gospel Message

Reading Luke and Acts through together, it becomes apparent that the author [Luke] saw the acts of the apostles as a continuation of those of the Lord Jesus. This is why he begins Acts by talking about his “former treatise” of all that Jesus had begun to do, implying that He had continued His doings through the doings of the apostles (cp. Heb. 2:3, Jesus “began” to speak the Gospel and we continue His work). The Acts record repeatedly describes the converts as “the multitude of the disciples” (2:6; 4:32; 5:14,16; 6:2,5; 12:1,4; 15:12,30; 17:4; 19:9; 21:22), using the same word to describe the “multitude of the disciples” who followed the Lord during His ministry (Lk. 5:6; 19:37). There is no doubt that Luke intends us to see all converts as essentially continuing the witness of those men who walked around Palestine with the Lord between AD30 and AD33, stumbling and struggling through all their misunderstandings and pettiness, the ease with which they were distracted from the essential…to be workers together with Him. Luke describes the Lord and His followers as ‘passing through’ and teaching as He went (Lk. 2:15; 4:30; 5:15; 8:22; 9:6; 11:24; 17:11; 19:1,4); and employs the same word to describe the preaching of the apostles in Acts (8:4,40; 9:32,38; 10:38; 11:19,22; 12:10; 13:6,14; 14:24; 15:3,41; 16:6; 17:23; 18:23,27; 19:1,21; 20:2,25). He uses the same word translated ‘preach’ in both Luke and the Acts [although the other Gospels use it only once]. In Luke we find the word in 1:19; 2:10; 3:18; 4:18,43; 7:22; 8:1; 9:6; 16:16; 20:1; and in Acts, in 5:42; 8:4,12,25,35,40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:7,15,21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18. Luke clearly saw the early ecclesia as preaching the same message as Jesus and the apostles; they continued what was essentially a shared witness. This means that we too are to see in the Lord and the 12 as they walked around Galilee the basis for our witness; we are continuing their work, with just the same message and range of responses to it. Lk. 24:47 concludes the Gospel with the command to go and preach remission of sins, continuing the work of the Lord Himself, who began His ministry with the proclamation of remission (Lk. 4:18 cp. 1:77). Acts stresses that the believers did just this; they preached remission of sins [s.w.] in Jesus’ Name, whose representatives they were: Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18.  

Luke describes the “amazement” at the preaching and person of Jesus (Lk. 2:47,48; 4:36; 5:26; 8:56; 24:22), and then uses the same word to describe the “amazement” at the apostles (Acts 2:7,12; 8:13; 9:21; 10:45; 12:16). This is why the early brethren appropriated prophecies of Jesus personally to themselves as they witnessed to Him (Acts 4:24-30; 13:5,40). The same Greek words are also used in Luke and Acts about the work of Jesus and those of the apostles later; and also, the same original words are used concerning the deeds of the apostles in the ministry of Jesus, and their deeds in Acts. Thus an impression is given that the ecclesia’s witness after the resurrection was and is a continuation of the witness of the 12 men who walked around Galilee with Jesus. He didn’t come to start a formalised religion; as groups of believers grew, the Holy Spirit guided them to have systems of leadership and organization, but the essence is that we too are personally following the Lamb of God as He walked around Galilee, hearing His words, seeing His ways, and following afar off to Golgotha carrying His cross. Luke concludes by recording how the Lord reminded His men that they were “witnesses” (23:48); but throughout Acts, they repeatedly describe themselves as witnesses to Him (Acts 1:8,22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39,41; 13:31; 22:15,20; 26:16). This is quite some emphasis. This Christ-centredness should also fill our self-perception; that we are witnesses to the Lord out of our own personal experience of Him. They were witnesses that Christ is on God’s right hand, that He really is a Saviour and source of forgiveness (5:32); because they were self-evidently results of that forgiveness and that salvation. They couldn’t be ‘witnesses’ to those things in any legal, concrete way; for apart from them and their very beings, there was no literal evidence. They hadn’t been to Heaven and seen Him; they had no document that said they were forgiven. They were the witnesses in themselves. This even went to the extent of the Acts record saying that converts were both added to the ecclesia, and also added to Christ. He was His ecclesia; they were, and we are, His body in this world. 

Preaching Christ

The Gospel records, Mark especially, often paint a broad scene and then zoom in upon the person of Jesus. Mark does this by using a plural verb without an explicit subject to paint a picture of the disciples or crowd generally; and then follows this by a singular verb or pronoun referring specifically to Jesus (1). Here are some examples: "They came to the other side... and when He had stepped out of the boat" (Mk. 5:1,2); "when they came from Bethany, he was hungry" (Mk. 8:22); "they went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples..." (Mk. 14:32). The grammatical feature is more evident in Greek than in English. If the writer of Mark had been a cameraman, he'd have taken a broad sweep, and then suddenly hit the zoom to focus right up close upon Jesus Himself. This is what is being done with words, and it reflects the Christ-centredness of the whole narrative and preaching of the Gospel, of which the Gospels are transcripts.

The early believers spoke constantly in their preaching of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:21,23; 3:13-15; 5:30,31). The logical objection to their preaching a risen Jesus of Nazareth was: ‘But He’s dead! We saw His body! Where is He? Show Him to us!’. And their response, as ours, was to say: ‘I am the witness, so is my brother here, and my sister there. We are the witnesses that He is alive. If you see us, you see Him risen and living through us’. In this spirit, we beseech men in Christ’s stead. Paul in Galatians 2:20 echoes this idea: " I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me”. The spirit of the risen Christ lived out in our lives is the witness of His resurrection. We are Him to this world. The cross too was something which shone out of their lives and words. They sought to convict men of their desperation, the urgency of their position before God, the compelling nature of the cross, that they were serious sinners; that a man cannot behold the cross and be unresponsive, but rather must appropriate that work and gift to himself through baptism. The urgent appeal for repentance was quite a feature of their witness  (2:38; 5:31; 7:51; 11:18; 17:30; 18:18; 20:21; 26:20; Heb. 6:1). May I suggest there needs to be a greater stress on repentance in our  preaching, 20 centuries later. This is why baptism was up front in their witness, for it is for the forgiveness of sins; thus in 22:16 they appealed for repentance and baptism in the same breath. And this was the implication of the Lord’s parabolic command to His preachers in Mt. 22:9: “Go ye therefore [cp. “go ye therefore and teach all nations”] unto the partings of the highways” (RV) and invite people to the wedding feast of the Kingdom. The point from which He foresaw us making our appeal was a fork in the road. We are to appeal to men and women with the message that there is no third road; that it truly is a case of believe or perish. There is no example of apologetics in their preaching, but rather an utter confidence that they were holding out to men the words that gave eternal life. Their words, lives and body language reflected their deep sense of the peril of those outside of Christ. By preaching, they were freed from the blood of men (20:26); evidently alluding to how the watchman must die if he didn’t warn the people of their impending fate (Ez. 3:18). In line with this, “necessity is laid upon me…woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). Paul felt an ineffable sorrow and personal responsibility for the unbelieving Jews, to the point that after the pattern of Moses he would fain have given his salvation for theirs (Rom. 9:1). This was quite something. And it would have been noticeable in the style of his witness, and such a level of love would surely have found response. This alone would have convinced the hearers of his genuineness. Paul had a debt to preach to all men (Rom. 1:14). But a debt implies he had been given something; and it was not from “all men”, but rather from Christ. Because the Lord gave us the riches of His self-sacrifice, we thereby are indebted to Him; and yet this debt has been transmuted into a debt to preach to all humanity. Reflection upon His cross should elicit in us too an upwelling of pure gratitude towards Him, a Christ-centredness, an awkwardness as we realise that this Man loved us more than we love Him...and yet within our sense of debt to Him, of ineffable, unpayable debt, of real debt, a debt infinite and never to be forgotten, we will have the basis for personal response to Him as a person, to a knowing of Him and a loving of Him, and a serving of Him in response. If we feel and know this, we cannot  but preach the cross of Christ. 

This is why those who heard the message wanted baptism immediately; they had been convicted by the preacher of a Christ-centred message, not just intellectually teased (Acts 8:36; 9:18). Lydia, the Philippian jailer, Paul, the Ethiopian eunuch, the crowds at Pentecost…were all baptized immediately. The Lord added daily to the church (2:27; 16:5)- they didn’t tell candidates for baptism to wait even until the next Sunday, let alone for a few months ‘to think it over’. They understood the first principle: baptism is essential for salvation. Believe or perish. They saw the absoluteness of the issues involved in the choice to accept or reject the Son of God. “Beware, therefore…” was their warning to their hearers (Acts 13:40). They made no apologies, they didn’t wrap up the message. They taught the need for repentance more than seeking to prove that they were right and others wrong (although there is a place for this in our witness in the right contexts). They made it clear that they were out to convert others, not engage in philosophical debate or the preaching of doubtful interpretations. They spoke with a boldness and freedom (Acts 2:29; 2 Cor. 3:12). They weren’t interested in giving good advice, but rather good news. They were pressed in their spirit, that they had to appeal to men (13:43; 18:13; 26:28; 28:23; Gal. 1:10). They persuaded men, convinced and confounded the Jews, reasoned, testified and exhorted, disputed and converted (8:25; 18:13,19,28; 2:40). In short, they so spake that multitudes believed (14:1). Paul was not against using persuasion; he didn’t just ‘preach the truth’ and leave it for others to decide. Agrippa commented: “With but a little [more] persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that whether with little [persuasion] or with much, not only thou but also all that hear me this day, might become such as I am” (Acts 26:28,29 RV). Paul wasn’t against using persuasion to bring men unto his Lord, and neither should we be. He realized the methodology we use with people can affect their conversion. And he knew that personal contact was by far the best. “For this cause therefore did I intreat you to see AND to speak with me” (Acts 28:20 RV). He called men to have a personal meeting with him, rather than just to hear the theory. Not just to hear him, but to see him… for we are the essential witnesses.


(1) This grammatical feature is explained at length by C.H. Turner, 'Notes on Marcan usage', in J.K.Elliott, ed., The Language And Style Of The Gospel Of Mark (Leiden: Brill, 1993).


The Implications Of Illiteracy

An Oral Culture

We need to reflect upon the implications of the fact that the vast majority of the early Christians were illiterate. Literacy levels in first century Palestine were only 10% at the highest estimate(1). Some estimate that the literacy level in the Roman empire was a maximum of 10%, and literacy levels in Palestine were at most 3%(2). Most of the literate people in Palestine would have been either the wealthy or the Jewish scribes. And yet it was to the poor that the Gospel was preached, and even in Corinth there were not many educated or “mighty” in this world within the ecclesia. Notice how the Lord said to the Pharisees: “Have you not read?” (Mk. 2:25; Mt. 12:5; 19:4), whilst He says to those who responded to Him: “You have heard” (Mt. 5:21,27,33). His followers were largely the illiterate. As the ecclesial world developed, Paul wrote inspired letters to the ecclesias. Those letters would have been read to the brethren and sisters. Hence the great importance of ‘teachers’ in the early churches, those who could faithfully read and transmit to others what had been written.

It’s hard for us in this century to understand what it would have meant to live in a largely illiterate society. We inevitably assume that written text, be it printed or electronic, is the only way in which important things can be explained, or significant words recorded and shared with others. When we want to learn about what happened in the past, we think of what we can read about that time. But the early Christians lived in an oral culture rather than a literary one. News, theories, history, was passed on by orally recounting it within a group. Some are concerned that there must have been a gap between the actual words of Jesus as He spoke them, and the day they were written down. Our belief in Biblical inspiration means that this isn’t an issue for us; but it’s worth pointing out that several societies have had their folklore analyzed, and the accuracy of transmission of the stories is amazing, over centuries. Albert Lord made his life’s work a research into the folktales and sagas handed down in communities within the former Yugoslavia. He found amazing accuracy of transmission over centuries; very little was ‘lost’ in transmission(3). The same has been found in studies in Africa(4). And yet there was a gap of at the most 50 years [probably far less] between Jesus actually speaking His words and them being written down. So there is no reason to think that somehow the Gospel writers didn’t accurately have the record of the actual words of Jesus.   

The Origin Of The Gospel Records

One point that all the referenced studies make is that the stories were passed on in a collective form- it was groups of people and communities who told and re-told the stories, and this was how the transmission was so accurate(5). We can imagine what happened in the first century. The groups of people who believed in Jesus told and re-told the Gospels. It’s likely that each of the Gospel writers wrote their records for a specific group of their converts, who had been telling and re-telling to others the record which under inspiration the writers ‘wrote up’. This is why each Gospel has its own themes and characteristics, based around the same authentic words of Jesus. Hence the Gospels were initially a body of tradition and later documents which were used not only for maintaining and clarifying the beliefs of the earliest ecclesias or groups, but as a vehicle for preaching that Gospel to others. We have mentioned studies in Europe and Africa, but most significant of all is the 30 years work of Kenneth Bailey in exploring the oral culture of village groups in the Middle East(6). He likewise found very little lost in transmission over centuries; but he draws attention to the vital importance of the haflat samar, the gathering of the village at the end of the day to re-tell stories and traditions, especially stories of what had happened in the village or to the villagers in the past. It seems likely that in the same kind of gatherings in first century Palestine, those who had believed in Jesus told and re-told the Gospel records. We can imagine that this would especially have happened in the villages where the Lord Jesus had taught and healed. This was how the earliest ecclesias would’ve developed, how the Gospel would first have been preached in a systematic way, and here surely is the beginnings of the Gospel records as we have them. Lk. 1:4 mentions that the history of Jesus was something in which a new convert was “instructed” or [Gk.] catechized, as if the Gospel record was learnt by repetition. Luke as a serious historian mentions his sources, describing them as "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word". The Greek hyperetes which translates "ministers" is the Greek form of the Hebrew hazzan. The word recurs in Lk. 4:20, about the "minister of the synagogue". The task of the minister was to look after the scrolls- "the chest with the books was brought in to the synagogue when required from an adjoining room and brought back there afterwards" (7). Luke's idea is that instead of humping a bunch of scrolls around, the 'ministers' were the eyewitnesses who recited what they had heard of Jesus. But because they would die out, there was a need for people like Luke to compose documents which recorded their testimony.


All this has major implications for our church today. In that oral culture, there was obviously no written statement of faith. The average Christian heard and remembered what they heard. Some could probably quote a Gospel and maybe some letters of Paul from memory. But at the point of conversion their memory would have been limited. They heard a message and believed it. But it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to answer a detailed set of say 300 questions as some give candidates for baptism today, nor would they have had detailed grasp of an intricate ‘statement of faith’. Even today in the mission field, it’s evident that illiterate people have a far simpler understanding of doctrine than those who are literate. It’s very hard for people to enter into the mindset of the illiterate, like it’s so hard for sighted people to enter into the world-views and perceptions of the blind. One thing is clear. The understanding held by an illiterate first century Christian convert was likely far simpler, less detailed and more elastic than that held by many 21st century converts to Christ. And yet the basis of the Gospel, the basis of salvation and entry into the body of Christ by valid baptism, has of course not changed. The phenomena of widespread literacy has led us to have a more detailed and even more ‘correct’ understanding of many things than they would’ve had then; but we can’t insist that therefore there is now a far higher level of knowledge required for baptism than there was then. Many of the finer points of Biblical interpretation over which our community has divided simply wouldn’t have been points of division in the first century illiterate church. And they are our example, rather than us pretending that we are their example, and seeking to rewrite our perception of their history so that they had the same level of knowledge of the Gospel as ourselves. For a start, the ‘Gospel’ which they believed was the good news of the work, teaching, demands, story, death and resurrection of Jesus- the sort of thing we find in the Gospel records.  

So we can imagine our brethren hearing the Gospels and Paul’s letters, and believing what they heard. But we have to ask whether illiterate people would have understood and interpreted that oral material in the same way or to the same detailed extent as we analyze and accept the written word.  Christianity in its earliest form therefore was a question of recounting, meditating and reflecting upon the basic message of the Gospel records, the actions and teachings of Jesus. The New Testament letters were to communities formed around these very things (8); but sadly at our distance from the first century, our Christianity can so easily become about so many other things apart from the essence of the Gospels.

The emphasis in the New Testament upon teachers is understandable- their duty would have been to recite accurately the teachings of Jesus as they are recorded in what we now have as the Gospel records. And there was a Holy Spirit gift available to enable the apostles to remember what Jesus had said and done. All this further explains why the Gospel records are comprised of what have been termed ‘blocks of tradition’- parables and accounts of miracles are recounted [especially in Mark] in ‘blocks’. This would’ve had its origin in how the material was recounted by those telling the story in the first place. And we can imagine how it would’ve been recounted countless evenings in the villages of Palestine, where there were people present who’d actually known Jesus or met Him. The Gospel records, therefore, were initially transcripts of preaching material.

Oral Performance Of The Gospels

It's difficult to enter into the mind of the illiterate first [or twenty first] century Christian. People communicated differently in the first century- just as in our own era, the online generation communicate differently to those who don't have internet access. We are used to mostly silent reading of the Biblical text, involving the eye and brain. But "First-century literary works were almost always heard in a communal setting rather than read silently by individuals... an oral performance involves the ear, the eye, and whole body. The meaning of the Gospel in its original setting would not be found in the text. It would be found in its performance within a community" (9). For most of our generation, the meaning of the Bible is found through our reading of the text; but for the illiterate, that's not the case. Time and again, churches and individual relationships have sundered over a different reading of a few texts [e.g. Paul's words about women and headcoverings]. Division over matters of close textual interpretation are unheard of in illiterate communities. Yet those believers were and are legitimate and valid before God. The basis of their fellowship and relationship with God wasn't on the basis of a text read and dissected in accurate detail; and therefore we shouldn't think that such intellectual exercise is vital to relationship with God and each other. Revelation, Thessalonians and Colossians contain specific statements that the material was to be read out loud to the [illiterate] church members (Rev. 1:3; 1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16); but the contents of those books require quite detailed analysis, which we tend to wrongly assume can only be given by reading the text. The processes of occasional listening to a text [employed by most first century believers] and reading a text [employed by many twenty first century believers] are quite different. We can go back to a text, re-read it, re-access it at will. Someone who occasionally hears a passage read, and who maybe only heard parts of the New and Old Testaments read once or twice in their lives, simply relates to the text differently. Further, the nature of the reading of the text, the delivery of the speaker, would've played an important part in the interpretation of it by the illiterate hearer- hence the greater responsibility of teachers in the first century than today. For the illiterate audience, the message was tied up with the messenger to a huge degree. Hence Timothy is told to pay attention to his [public?] reading, preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13). It has been observed that oral performance of texts like e.g. the Gospel of Mark was designed towards producing an emotional impact upon the hearers. We who read the same text and seek [quite rightly] to understand from it doctrine and practical commands for living somehow miss much of this; we inevitably subject the text to intellectual analysis, whereas the first century audience would have felt from their performance an appeal to convert, to accept, to feel something in response towards the Man Jesus who was presented there. Perhaps this is why a reading of the Gospels produces less response in us than that from a first century group hearing the same Gospels read / performed to them. Thus a first century reciter / listener would have paid special attention to the way Mark indicates the emotional state of Jesus as He said His words- angry (Mk. 3:5), compassionate (Mk. 1:41), snorting like a horse (Mk. 1:43 Gk.), troubled and distressed (Mk. 14:33). Likewise Mark's constant use of the term "immediately..." in his early chapters would've created a sense of urgency, fast flowing narrative, perhaps matched by the reciter speaking quickly. The changes of tense in the Gospel records suggest an eye witness telling the story. Take Mk. 4:37: "And there arises a great storm of wind , and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling" (RV). But the rest of the account in the surrounding verses is in proper past tenses- e.g. "He arose, and rebuked the wind, and said..." (Mk. 4:39). The impression we have is of the author getting carried away with the memory of the event, and telling it as if it's happening. And this is especially fitting if in fact the Gospels were performed live rather than coldly memorized as prose.

I have made the point elsewhere that the Gospels are transcripts of the preaching of the Gospel by, e.g., Mark or Luke; and that the texts were memorized by the believers. This would be in line with the way that "the ancient Mediterranean cultures valued oral performance... as a result, texts were generally memorized for performance" (10). Oral performances or recitations were done in the Roman world just about everywhere- on street corners, in the baths etc. We are therefore to imagine the texts of the Gospel being recited aloud by Christian preachers and performed before an audience- e.g. when the text says that the Lord spoke with a loud voice or looked around in anger, the preacher would do likewise. And in doing so, he would be a manifestation of Jesus to the world around Him; preaching was and is all about incarnating the Lord Jesus in our own flesh and words and body language. And this process would've required the performer to meditate upon the body language and likely facial expressions of the Lord Jesus in order to accurately render them to the listeners. The unusual thing about Christianity, however, was that those who accepted the message were also expected to memorize and perform / recite / relate the Gospel text to others. Perhaps in all this we have a little recognized partial explanation of why the Gospel spread so powerfully and so quickly amongst the illiterate in the first century.

It's noteworthy that public recitations were something that women were allowed to participate in; hence Paul's advice not to waste time listening to the fables / recitations told by old women (1 Tim. 4:7- cp. wasting our God-given time watching soap operas today). Slave women especially were known to make such recitations to the women of a large household, including the female freewomen. This doubtless laid the basis for the phenomenon [portrayed on some frescoes] of female house churches, with slave women leading the gatherings even when their mistress was present.

Mark as the Disciples’ Gospel
Mark repeatedly uses the Greek term “on the way” to describe how the disciples and converts to Jesus followed Him in His way (Mk. 8:27; 9:33; 10:32,52), which was to Jerusalem, to death and thereby to glorious resurrection. The account is punctuated by reference to the various stages of the journey, the areas and towns along the Jerusalem road. Like all the Gospel writers, Mark writes in such a way as to carry the readership along with actual involvement with the disciples and the people Jesus is recorded as meeting, so that we too may be the followers of Jesus in our day and context. The Gospels are therefore intended as encouragement to those who have already believed to keep on following; and also an attempt to persuade unbelievers hearing the story for the first time to identify with those who first followed Jesus through the streets and lanes of Palestine so long ago. The tradition that Mark’s Gospel had to be recited by heart by baptismal candidates therefore has the ring of truth about it, as does the suggestion from literary analysis that Mark’s Gospel was first intended to be read out loud in public places as a true ‘evangelism’ of the Gospel. The Gospel opens with a purposefully ambiguous genitive: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ”. It could mean ‘the Gospel about Jesus’, or, ‘the Gospel [told] by Jesus’. In hearing the words of the preacher, performer or reader of Mark’s record, the audience were and are hearing Jesus telling His own story.

Mark emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, giving focused in pictures of His body language and facial reactions; and stresses His preference to speak of Himself as “Son of man” rather than “Son of God”. Thus Mark records how when asked at His trial if He were the son of God, Jesus replied that He was “Son of man”. Mark likewise in his choice of material develops the theme of suffering being an inevitable result of following Jesus. Further, he seems to highlight those who failed under pressure- the disciples, the way Mark’s Gospel gives more attention to Peter’s denials than the other Gospels. We can identify with this, and perhaps Mark’s initial audience could likewise. It has been argued that Mark was in passing also addressing an early heresy of Jesus being a theios aner , or ‘divine man’ (11); an idea which would finally come to term in the doctrine of the Trinity. Likewise from early on in the Gospel, Mark brings out how the shadow of the cross was always there for Jesus. Those who have heard the message of Jesus all down the centuries have always been tempted to evade and play down the element of suffering which there has to be in the experience of following Christ. This has been manifest in attempts to make Jesus out to have been so Divine that He wasn’t really and genuinely human; for this thereby demands so very much of us who as humans seek to follow the Son of Man. Mark seeks to address this tendency of ours, by presenting Jesus as so human, and yet carrying us along in the narrative to identify with the disciples who followed Him. For this is indeed how even modern writing works- the success of the writing depends upon getting ordinary people to feel able to identify with the characters.

In this case, the characters with whom we are led to identify are the disciples and those who were healed by Jesus; perhaps this is why Mark rarely gives the names of the healed, and uses the ambiguous word sozein to describe the healings, meaning as it does both ‘to heal’ and ‘to save’; and he often links the word with the idea of living or coming to life (Mk. 5:23,28,34; 6:56; 10:52). Likewise forgiveness of sin and healing are associated in Mk. 2:1-12, and ‘cleansing’ both from leprosy and sin in Mk. 1:40-45. Whilst in this dispensation such miracles no longer occur, this is not to be a barrier between us and those healed folks; for we too are cleansed and saved from sin by the same Lord. And yet Mark portrays the followers of Jesus as failing and ungrateful, as weak in behaviour and understanding, and yet their basic loyalty shining through in the end by God’s grace. And we can easily identify with this. Note too how Mark makes a point of recording how many events and teachings of Jesus occurred in homes- perhaps because the community for which he was initially writing met in homes. These early house churches were thus invited to see themselves as continuing in the spirit of those who first encountered the Lord in homes.

What It Means For Us Today

The idea that the Gospels are transcripts of the early preaching of the Gospel becomes more obvious when we start to probe how the Gospels would have originated. As accounts and rumours about Jesus and His teaching began to spread around, some would have been sceptical. Those who had met Jesus would have wished to persuade their neighbours and friends that really, what they had seen and heard was really so. People who had met Jesus would share their impressions together and reflect upon the striking things He had said and done. The beginnings of the Gospels were therefore rooted in preaching the good news about Jesus(12).  

The Lord speaks of us abiding in His word (Jn. 8:31) and yet also of His word abiding in us, and us abiding in Him (Jn. 15:7). I suggest this refers in the first instance to the new Christian converts reciting over and over in their minds the Gospel accounts. In all situations they were to have the ‘word of Jesus’ hovering in their minds. To abide in Christ was and is to have His words abiding in us. Paul’s evident familiarity with the Lord’s words is an example of how one of our brethren lived this out in practice. We have to ask how frequently in the daily grind the words of the Master come to mind, how close they are to the surface in our subconscious… for this is the essence of Christianity. It’s not so much a question of consciously memorizing His words, but so loving Him that quite naturally His words are never far from our consciousness, and frequently come out in our thinking and words. No wonder it seems the early church made new converts memorize the Gospels. Perhaps 1 Jn. 2:24 has this in mind, when we read that what the John’s community of converts had heard from the beginning [i.e. the words of the Gospel of John?] was to abide in them, so that they in this manner would abide in Jesus. And perhaps too 1 Jn. 3:9 has similar reference- the seed of God [the Gospel- of John- which the converts had first heard] must abide in the convert, so that he or she doesn’t [continue in] sin. The continual meditation upon the Lord’s words as we have them in the Gospels will have the same effect upon us. This is the real way to overcome sin and to achieve genuine spiritual mindedness, to know the mind of Christ; in this way the Lord Jesus abides in us by His Spirit (1 Jn. 3:24). Abiding in the word of Christ, His words abiding in us, abiding in love, abiding in the Father and Son (1 Jn. 4:16) are all parallel ideas. Jesus Himself ‘quickens’ or breathes life into us (Jn. 5:21)- but His Spirit does this, in that His words ‘are spirit’ (Jn. 6:63). Again we see how His personal presence, His life and Spirit, are breathed into us through His words being in us. In the mundane monotony of daily life, doing essentially the same job, travelling to work the same route, the alarm clock going off the same time each morning… there can be breathed into us a unique new life through having His words ever abiding within us. And this ‘quickening’ in daily life now is the foretaste of the ‘quickening’ which we will literally experience at the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:22- ‘made alive’ is the same Greek word translated ‘quicken’ in Jn. 5:21; 6:63).

We shouldn't be unduly phased by the idea of the early Christians memorizing the Gospels.Even today in the Islamic world, students in religious schools are expected to memorize the entire Koran, which is roughly the same size as the entire New Testament. There are reports of this even being achieved by a seven year old (13). The whole structure of Mark's Gospel seems designed for memorization- the material is arranged in triplets, and the sections have chiastic structures [e.g. material arranged in the form ABA, ABCBA, ABCDCBA]. Even within the triplets, themes often occur in triplets- e,g, the three experiences in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:32-42), Peter's three denials (Mk. 14:66-72), three wrong answers about the identity of Jesus (Mk. 6:14-16; 8:28). The use of triplets and tripilisms is common in folk stories- to aid memorization. And the actual Greek text in Mark often has a rhythm and rhyme to it created by similar sounding words. Just one example from Mk. 1:1:

Ar-khay tou you-ang-ge -lee-ou Yay-sou Khrees-tou whee-ou the -ou.

The 'ou' endings are somehow rhythmical. Especially do we see this rhythmical quality in the phrase used for "Jesus Christ the Son of God" in Mk. 1:1: "Ieso-u Christo-u huio-u Theo-u".

If we “keep” in mind the Lord’s words, we will never “see death” (Jn. 8:51)- death itself will be perceived differently by us, if our hearts are ever with Him who conquered death, and is the resurrection and the life. If our view of death itself, the unspoken deepest personal fear of all humanity, is different… we will be radically different from our fellows. ‘Abiding’ is a major theme in John. Several times he records how the Lord Jesus ‘abode’ in houses or areas during His ministry (Jn. 1:38,39; 2:12; 4:40; 7:9; 10:40; 11:6), culminating in the Lord’s words that He was still abiding with them, but would leave them soon (Jn. 14:25). And yet the repeated teaching of the Lord is that actually, He will permanently abide in the heart of whoever believes in Him. And all the stories of Him ‘abiding’ a night here or there prepare the way for this. Those hearts become like the humble homes of Palestine where He spent odd nights- the difference being that there is now a permanent quality to that ‘abiding’, “for ever”. This is how close and real the Lord can come to us, if His words truly abide in us. So why not try to learn at least part of a Gospel? (14). But above all, to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, affecting our very core values and every aspect of human character, perception and sensitivity.


(1) A. Millard, Reading And Writing In The Time Of Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) pp. 223-229.

(2) See C. Hezser, Jewish Literacy In Roman Palestine (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001); W.V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

(3) His work is summarized in A.B. Lord, The Singer Of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978). Note especially in our context chapter 5.

(4) See R. Finnegan, Oral Literature In Africa (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970); I. Okpewho, African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character and Continuity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).

(5) See M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1992).

(6) K.E. Bailey, Poet And Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976). In another book, Bailey makes the significant point that "Although he wrote nothing, Akiba (first and second centuries) is quoted more than 270 times in the Mishnah alone"- K.E. Bailey, Jacob And The Prodigal (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) p. 29. This shows how verbal statements were accurately recorded and later produced in written form. It's not therefore too much to believe that the words of Jesus of Nazareth were likewise recorded.

(7) S. Safrai, 'The Synagogue', in The Jewish People in the First Century (ed. M. Stern and S. Safrai), (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) Vol. 2, p. 915.

(8) It's worth noting the evidence that the entire New Testament was written before AD70:

- If any of the Gospels were written after AD70, their total silence as to that cataclysmic event is strange. The synoptics all record a prophecy of the events of AD70, and yet there is no reference by any of them to its fulfillment; whereas the Gospel writers aren't slow to comment on the way the Lord's words came true. Mt. 24:20 speaks of those events as being in the future- "Pray that it may not be winter when you have to make your escape". Surely there'd have been some reference to the fulfillment of the Olivet prophecy, if the records were written after AD70? Jn. 5:2 speaks as if Jerusalem and the temple area were still standing when John was written: "Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool". The record of the Jews' proud comment in Jn. 2:20 that Herod's temple had taken 46 years to build includes no hint nor even presentiment that it had now been destroyed.

- Paul on any chronology died before AD70, so his letters were all before that. We need to marvel at the evident growth in spirituality and understanding which is reflected within Paul's letters, and realize that he grew very quickly.

- Hebrews speaks of the temple and sacrifice system in the present tense, as if it were still operating (note Heb. 10:2,11,18). The 40 years of Israel's disobedience in the wilderness are held up as a warning to an Israel approaching 40 years of disobedience after the death of Jesus (Heb. 3:7- 4:11). "You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood" (Heb. 12:4) sounds like Nero's persecution hadn't started.

- The letters of Peter warn that a huge calamity is to come upon the Jewish churches, couched in terms of the Olivet prophecy. Thus they were written before AD70. 2 Peter also speaks as if Paul is still alive at the time.

- Acts stops at the point where Paul is living in his own house in Rome quite comfortably, and spreading the Gospel (Acts 28:30). And yet we know from 2 Tim. 4 that ultimately he died in Rome, presumably after being released and doing more work for the Lord. The obvious conclusion is that Acts was written before Paul died. Acts also implies that Jews were living at peace with Rome (Acts 24:2; 25:1-5; 15:13- 26:32)- a situation which didn't apply after AD70.

- This leaves James, which is widely regarded as the earliest letter- the Christians are still meeting in a synagogue, there is no reference to any division or false teaching, and there are many allusions to Stephen's speech and martyrdom. A good case can be made that James was written as a follow up to the Council of Jerusalem- there are some marked similarities [James 1:1 = Acts 15:34; James 2:5 = Acts 15:13; James 2:7 = Acts 15:17; James 1:27 = Acts 15:29].

- A pre-AD70 date for Revelation has been well argued by J.A.T.Robinson, H.A.Whittaker and Paul Wyns. John would've been pretty old if it was indeed given in AD96 as claimed by some. The many connections between Revelation and the Olivet prophecy and 2 Peter 3 all suggest that it too is a prophecy of AD70. The historical connections are too great to ignore, and seem of little value if the book is simply alluding at a later date to what happened in AD70. Rev. 17:10 speaks of the leadership of the Roman empire, speaking of “five that are fallen”- clearly referring to:
1. Julius Caesar the first Roman Emperor (44 BC-26 BC).
2. Augustus (27 BC – AD 14).
3. Tiberius (AD 14 – 37).
4. Gaius (AD 37 – 41).
5. Claudius (AD 41 – 51)

The leader who "is" would therefore refer to Nero (AD54-68), and the context of persecution would then be that of his reign.

(9) Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming The Gospel (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2003) p. 1.

(10) Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming The Gospel (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2003) p. 4.

(11) On this see Ernest Best, Mark: The Gospel as Story (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983), p. 46.

(12) This point is well developed in Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form (London: S.C.M., 1987).

(13) See D. Ben-Amos and K.S.Goldstein, eds., Folklore: Performance and Communication (The Hague: Mouton, 1975) p. 156. Other examples from the first century are to be found in Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1992) pp. 113-127.

(14) See

'Dr. Thomas once remarked that the elementary truths regarding redemption were few and simple and no reason could be given for them beyond “the fact that God wills them”. If a candidate for baptism revealed a sound knowledge of these simple truths and of this simple explanation of them, we should not dare to “forbid water”.'

Islip Collyer, Principles And Proverbs