Living in a Culture of Memorization
Remembering Jesus would not have been as difficult for the apostles as we might imagine today. We don’t live in a culture of memorization in the twenty-first century West. On the contrary, we depend tremendously on the internet being at our fingertips to double-check just about anything that comes up. We pull out our iPhones to run the numbers on simple math instead of doing the calculation in our minds. Most of us have to pause to recall even our own telephone numbers. [“I never call myself.”]
This wasn’t always the case. Even a decade ago, people memorized more phone numbers, more dates and times of events, more grocery lists—all the things we relegate to our mobile devices now. Just a few decades ago, the memorization of multiplication tables, terms, and dates was held in higher regard in the formal education process of our culture. So generally, we don’t pause to consider life in a non-electronic world, or for that matter, life in a pre-printing-press world!
Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, however, was indeed a culture of memorization. And it was not simply that each individual memorized many things. People relied on the collective memory of the village or of the nation. Yes, there was writing, and many Hebrew children learned to read the scriptures. Some were bilingual (Hebrew and Greek, or Hebrew and Aramaic) or even trilingual, but I digress. Rabbis had young students repeat scripture verses literally hundreds of times. People committed entire books of the Tanakh (Old Testament) to memory.
Jewish culture at the time of Jesus was, also, extremely committed to being able to accurately recount the history of their people. Genealogies were committed to memory. Events were recounted over and over. And who do you suppose stood as the guardians of historical accuracy? The community did. If someone recounted an episode incorrectly, those who had heard the account over and over were there to say, “No, that’s not the way it happened.” The same would have been the case with the events related to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. People—some of them quite influential—were there to correct any falsely publicized stories about Jesus.
Built-In Memory Help
Aids to memorization were built into ancient Jewish culture. Unless a person is a scholar in the field of biblical languages, it’s quite unlikely that it would ever occur to us just how much of Jesus’ teaching involved wordplay (like assonance, alliteration, rhyming, etc.), making it easier to memorize more than just the gist of what he had said. [Hey, “just the gist”—that’s a play on words!]
A good deal of the oral history of Jesus was committed to poetry, creeds, or hymns immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some of these hymns and creeds are found in the text of the New Testament that we have today (Ex: 1 Corinthians 15:3-7; Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16). This shows that the text of the New Testament was already taking shape even before it was written down by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Jude, or Peter.
All Write Already!
Now the sharp ones among you already may have asked, “Why didn’t the apostles just write down Jesus’ biography and teachings immediately after the resurrection instead of waiting decades and risking forgetting the details?” Great question! Recall a couple of facts, though. First, what had Jesus instructed his apostles to do? Jesus had commanded them to go and make disciples, teaching and preaching throughout all the world. Jesus had not told them to sit down and write first. And with the staggering explosion in the number of believers—3,000 in one day in Acts 2:41; 2,000 more by Acts 4:4; so many more by Acts 6:1 that the apostles had to bring on additional leadership—the apostles hardly had time to write in those early days of the church.
The writing of the Gospels would come not long thereafter when the martyrdom of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry became a distinct possibility. Mark wrote down Peter’s account of the life of Jesus, Luke visited and interviewed other eyewitnesses, and the apostles Matthew and John drafted their own records of the life of their Christ.
With their cultural training and their constant preaching of the message of Jesus, with surviving witnesses to cross-check the facts, with the very real threat of execution for proclaiming the gospel, it is hardly plausible that that the New Testament writers got it wrong. (And that doesn’t even take into account John 16:13.)
For Further Reading: