Why Were The Gospels Written So Late? Part 1
Often, people think that because the Gospels were written down so long after the events happened that legend must have creeped in. As a result, they say that we cannot trust that what we read in the Gospels accurately reflects the real events.
I could argue that they were not written down that late. When we compare the Gospels to other ancient sources that we trust, they are far closer to the actual events. However, others have done this, and I would rather go a different direction anyway.
I argue that we have no reason to expect the Gospels to have been written before the mid to late 1st century. This post will focus on the first of two reasons why I think this, namely, that oral communication was more important than written communication.
In the ancient world, most people were illiterate.
The best estimates suggest that no more than about 10% of people in the ancient world could read (and even less could write). If you were composing a Gospel and trying to make it have the widest reach possible, why would you write it down? At best, 10% of the population could read it.
We might ask “Well, how did they communicate content if they couldn’t write?” It’s a fair question, but remember, we live in a world in which reading and writing are a given. From the beginning of history until relatively recently, the vast majority of the world’s population could not read and write (and in quite a lot of places, that is still the case today).
Because most people could not read, oral communication was the standard.
As a result, people had better memories because they had to remember things all the time. But, even beyond that, information was put into forms that were easy to memorize, such as stories and parables, and people told and retold them until they became ingrained into both the individual’s and the group’s memories.
However, if we had been present in the middle of the first century and had been able to ask one of the Gospel authors why they did not write down the Gospels, they would have been confused.
In the ancient mind, oral communication was superior to written communication.
This might seem confusing to us, but there are actually good reasons to think this - beyond the fact that 90% of people couldn’t read (which is a really good reason all by itself). For starters, there were always questions of authorship with a written document. Anyone could say that "this is the Gospel according to John." But, how do you know that? However, if you're talking to someone who you know was a disciple of John, then you know where your information is coming from.
Another plus to oral communication was that it was interactive. Suppose you're going through the story of Jesus and you have a question. What do you do? If someone is telling it to you, you could just ask them, because people can answer questions. However, if you're reading the story of Jesus and you have a question, you're out of luck. You cannot ask a piece of papyrus anything. It doesn’t talk back.
Because most people couldn’t read, and writing was considered inferior anyway, the Gospel authors were in no hurry to write anything down. For them to use a sub-par form of communication, they must have had a good reason. We will look at why they did eventually write the Gospels down in Part 2.