Our earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, was probably written sometime in the early or mid50s, approximately 20-25 years after Jesus ascended to heaven. Many have wondered why it took so long for Jesus’ followers to commit His teachings and deeds to writing. The most common answer is that they did not feel the need because they expected the imminent return of Christ. If Jesus was coming back soon, why bother? This answer is not adequate, however. First, it presumes that Jesus’ followers expected His imminent return. This is debatable. More importantly, we know from experience that groups expecting an impending apocalypse are often voluminous writers. Consider the Qumran community in Jesus’ day. They were expecting the imminent Day of the Lord, and yet they produced an abundance of written materials. An even more pertinent example is modern believers who espouse to a pre-tribulation, “at-any-moment” understanding of the return of Christ. Few have hotter print-presses than this group!
Why, then, did they not write sooner? Perhaps they did, but those documents were not preserved. Luke tells us that “many have undertaken [the task] to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us,” and he utilized at least some of those sources in the production of his own gospel (Luke 1:1-4). Luke’s gospel was probably written in the late 50s or early 60’s. For Luke to be aware of these other writings, they must have been written much earlier, possibly much earlier than Mark’s gospel.
It’s even possible that Jesus’ disciples took notes during His ministry. This was a common practice among rabbinic students. Given the high rates of literacy among Jewish males, it is quite plausible that some of Jesus’ disciples were capable of, and did take notes on Jesus’ teaching. Surely Matthew was literate given his previous experience in the tax collection business. Robert Gundry writes:
The only hypothesis with enough flexibility to meet the requirements is that a body of loose notes stands behind the bulk of the synoptic tradition. The wide use of shorthand and the carrying of notebooks in the Graeco-Roman world, the school practice of circulating lecture notes and utilizing them in published works, and the later transmission of rabbinic tradition through shorthand notes support this hypothesis. As a former publican, the Apostle Matthew would have been admirably fitted to fill a position as note-taker in the band of uneducated apostles.
Indeed, the early second century church father Papias seems to have identified Matthew as having produced a collection of Jesus’ teachings. He writes, “Matthew collected the oracles [ta logia] in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.” While many have understood Papias to be referring to Matthew’s Gospel, this is unlikely since this “collection” is said to consist of “oracles/sayings” of Jesus (whereas Matthew’s Gospel includes narrative as well) and to be written in Hebrew/Aramaic (Matthew’s Gospel was written in Greek). Papias is quite plausibly referring to a collection of Jesus’ teachings Matthew probably produced from his (and perhaps other disciples’) personal notes transcribed during Jesus’ ministry. If so, then there was never a period of time when the church lacked written sources regarding the teachings of Jesus!
Arguably, we cannot be certain as to the source of the sayings Matthew collected (whether they were Matthew’s personal notes, others’ notes, or a mix of both), when these sayings were committed to writing (during Jesus’ ministry or some time afterward), when Matthew produced his collection (immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, or 30 years later), or even the contents of this collection (Matthew’s Gospel or a “sayings document” similar to Q). For the sake of argument, let’s assume Matthew did not produce his collection of Jesus’ sayings for at least a couple of decades following Jesus’ ministry. We’ll also assume that the other gospels Luke refers to were all written within 10 years of his own gospel. This would leave us with a gap of at least 20 years between Jesus’ resurrection ministry and the first written accounts of His ministry. Why would the church wait so long to put pen to papyrus?
There are three possible reasons for this possible delay. First, theirs was a very oral culture. Oral tradition was authoritative, reliable, and often viewed as preferable to written sources—particularly when the eyewitnesses were still alive to deliver that tradition. This is evidenced by Papias who wrote, “If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders—what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.” (Eusebius, History of the Church, III.39.3-4)
Second, but related to the first, perhaps some did not consider a written record of the eyewitnesses’ testimony important until some of those eyewitnesses began to die through both natural means and martyrdom. Only after some of the apostles and other eyewitnesses were no longer alive to be consulted did a practical need arise for a written source of their testimony.
Thirdly, given the persecution the church experienced, they might have been more concerned about staying alive than producing tractates of Jesus’ ministry!
In summary, it is doubtful that there ever was a substantial period of time in which the early church was without written accounts of Jesus’ ministry, but if there was, it was a relatively short period of time, and given the availability of the eyewitnesses and the reliability of oral tradition, there was no practical need for such sources to be produced immediately following Jesus’ resurrection.
Robert Gundry, “The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel,” Brill, 1967: xii.
Written materials, when used, often served as aids for the rehearsal of the oral tradition.