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Bifolio from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the end of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and the beginning of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, from a codex containing the Pauline Epistles. Greek on papyrus. Egypt, c. 200 AD. CBL BP II ff.15&90, University of Michigan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In Philippi around 50 C.E., Lydia, the jailer, his family, and the other converts there were transformed by the witness of Paul and his companions during their stay in the city (Acts 16), but as the apostle traveled on to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1), to whom did the Philippian church turn to grow in their faith? After this inspiring experience, how could they learn more about Jesus and how He wanted them to live?
For us, the answers are easy. At our fingertips, we have the Old and New Testaments and a myriad of tools to help us understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the life of the early church. On the internet are many Bible translations, commentaries, and study materials to guide us daily. What did the early first-century Gentile Christians have available to them? The earliest New Testament writing, Galatians, may have been written around 49 C.E., and would have been circulated to be read to churches at some point in time, but besides these important letter readings, how did these early disciples learn about Christ’s life and teachings?
Let’s imagine the founding of the Philippian church to ask, “How did the earliest disciples learn about Jesus?” Specifically, what resources did they have, perhaps even before the letters of the New Testament were written down? This article will consider some tools accessible to these Gentile Christians and possible lessons for us as disciples in Hong Kong today.
Bibles for All?
Unknown Author, The Nash Papyrus (2nd century BCE) contains a portion of a pre-Masoretic Text, specifically the Ten Commandments and the Shema Yisrael prayer, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
To begin, we must remember that the earliest Christians, who were Jewish, had access to a written text, the Hebrew Bible. As the Jews would establish synagogues where an adequate number of males resided, proselytes living near a synagogue or those wealthy enough to travel like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) could have access to hearing Scriptures such as Isaiah 53:7-8, the passage that he pondered over before Philip told him about Jesus (Acts 8:32-35). Other passages used to tell hearers about Jesus Christ include Joel 2:28-32 and Psalm 110:1, both referenced in Peter’s speech in Acts 2. For sure, the apostles and early disciples cited passages from the Psalms and the Prophets to proclaim Jesus, and these writings were taught in synagogues scattered across the region.
But these facts beg other questions. The first is, what about places like Philippi, which Luke’s record suggests lacked ten Jewish men to establish a synagogue? As more Gentiles were converted, were they all in cities with a welcoming synagogue? Acts actually records that many Jews began to oppose Paul in many places (e.g., Acts 17:5-9, 17:13-14, 18:6, 20:3).
An Oral/Aural Culture
As we understand the historical milieu, another related question comes to mind: Is it reasonable to assume that Gentile Christians could read, as the court official of Candace could? In fact, there’s research that suggests otherwise: “recent New Testament research has recognized that first-century Mediterranean societies were predominantly oral/aural cultures in which probably no more than three to five percent of the people were able to read or write.” Another study limits the literacy rate at no more than ten percent. Such research suggests that most Gentile believers in the first-century were probably not as educated as the eunuch, and probably could not read or write Greek.
Since Mediterranean societies were oral/aural, the majority of those who came to believe had to rely on hearing an account of Jesus as told by others, whether in a synagogue or in other settings (Remember, we are imagining resources besides the reading of Paul’s letters). Stories or other memorable means were how the message was conveyed. The Gospel of Mark is considered an “oral/aural composition” and has been described as follows:
It has become clear that Mark’s story was presented from memory, told all at one time, probably in houses, in marketplaces, at meals, at evening gatherings, and at synagogue-like assemblies. In modern English, it takes about two hours to recount Mark’s Gospel, not an unusual length of time for an ancient storyteller to recall or for an ancient audience to embrace.
This description of Mark’s story likely represents the oral/aural culture of the first century, before the gospel was copied down in written form. People gathered to hear someone orally present a message or account.
Pre-Biblical Materials such as Hymns
Let’s recap so far what we have surmised about the earliest Gentile Christians. First, they may have heard prophecies about Jesus from the Psalms and the Prophets. They may or may not have had access to a synagogue and as they were mostly illiterate, they relied on hearing oral messages.
Scholars have pointed out that pre-Biblical materials were also used to carry the message of Jesus Christ to early believers: “there also seem to have been creeds, hymns, confessions, prayers, and other things written down or memorized and used in the period before Christianity actually formally had its own sacred texts.” In fact, the New Testament seems to contain fragments of such material. Consider I Timothy 3:16:
Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
One commentator describes this passage as a “fragment of the triumph-song of the early churches.” Others simply note this appears as a “hymn” or as “…very probably accounted for by supposing it to be part of one of the earliest of the Christian creeds or hymns.” Other passages viewed as pre-Biblical material, perhaps written or sung, include 2 Timothy 2:11-13, seen as “…an early creed set to meter” and Philippians 2:6-11.
So, before the earliest writings now found in the New Testament came to be, Christian teachers probably were using hymns or prayers or similar materials to convey the core meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to believers. Some of these materials seem to have found a place in the New Testament as well. Given the general illiteracy of Mediterranean society in the first century, we as historical observers two thousand years later can imagine how important conveying the message in a memorable way would have been.
Chinese New Testament by Archimandrite Guri (Karpov): Our Lord Jesus Christ’s New Testament Bible, 1864, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Throughout history, many have died so that today we can hold God’s Word in our hands. How blessed we are to have the Bible translated into our own language and so many materials to help us understand it, more than we could ever read in a lifetime. How fortunate we are to have been born when education for all (especially for women) has been the growing norm. We have briefly explored how first-century disciples learned about Jesus’s life and teachings. Theirs was an oral/aural culture. They listened to a missionary or the reading of a letter by Paul, and also learned about Jesus through accounts told in gatherings and hymns or sayings about Him. It probably helped if these shorter oral materials were made more memorable with rhythm or in song. And, of course, we would be sorely remiss if we were to discount the witness of fellow believers and the Holy Spirit adding to and enriching their knowledge of Christ. This writer admires the faith of Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and the thousands of early disciples whose names we do not know. I pray that we who benefit from so many resources today can live lives worthy of theirs.
Some questions or practical suggestions for you to consider:
- Devote prayer time to thank God for all the education you have received in your lifetime. Express gratitude as well for all the Bibles you have owned and all the study materials you have used to understand God’s Word.
- Listen to the audio recording of an entire New Testament letter or the whole Gospel of Mark (see an English version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVFQfPTJPq8), either individually or in a group. How does the experience differ from reading them verse by verse?
- One of my favorite hymns is “What Can Wash Away My Sin” (see an English version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztsJ8Go-3XY ). Do you have a favorite hymn, maybe one you sing when you are walking alone? Share with others why it means so much to you.
- Study out 1 Timothy 3:16, 2 Timothy 2:11-13, and Philippians 2:5-11 on your own. How are they similar? Look into the topic of early, pre-Biblical materials. Can you identify other such passages in the New Testament?
 Ben Witherington III, The New Testament Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 48.
 I thank Steve Chin for pointing out that letters were circulated to be read to the churches and citing Thessalonians 5:27, 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Galatians 1:2, and Colossians 4:16 as references for this early church practice. His inputs on this article have improved it significantly.
 For more information on the differences between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, see Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D, “Jewish and Christian Bibles: A Comparative Chart,” at https://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Heb-Xn-Bibles.htm .
 “A synagogue could be formed wherever ten men wanted to organize one.” Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 546.
 W.E. Nunnally, “Proselytes,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 1089.
 Witherington III, The New Testament Story, 6.
 David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2012), xii.
 H. Gamble, “Literacy and Book Culture,” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2000), 645, found in Ben Witherington III, The New Testament Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 6.
 Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie, Mark as Story, xi.
 Joel Marcus, “Mark, Gospel of,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by David Noel Freedman et al, 859-861. See this entry for a discussion on when the gospel may have been written.
 Witherington III, The New Testament Story, 17.
 BibleHub, “I Timothy 3:16,” in Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, found at https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_timothy/3-16.htm, accessed February 22, 2023.
 Donald Guthrie, “I Timothy,” in New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1299.
 BibleHub, “I Timothy 3:16,” Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, found at https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_timothy/3-16.htm, accessed February 22, 2023.
 C. Michael Patton, “A Short Exegesis of 2 Timothy 2:11-14 – An Early Christian Creed,” found at https://credohouse.org/blog/a-short-exegesis-of-2-timothy-211-14, accessed February 23, 2023. For more discussion, see BibleHub, “2 Timothy 2:11,” found at https://biblehub.com/commentaries/2_timothy/2-11.htm. See also Mark Kiley, “Hymns, Early Christian,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by David Noel Freedman et al, 621-622.
 Witherington III, The New Testament Story, 17.