Early Christian Literature
Dennis R. MacDonald
No writing survives from Jesus or his disciples. When early Christians transmitted their memories of him to others, they did so primarily by word of mouth, setting in motion a dynamic process of oral tradition whose energy still had not been spent until the end of the second century. There is good reason to presume, however, that many of Jesus' first followers, like many other Jews in first-century Palestine, were literate. One can easily imagine individuals recording Jesus' teachings, or writing up their interpretations of Jesus' life and tragic death in the light of the Jewish scriptures. Unfortunately if there were such writings, they no longer exist, except perhaps as sources absorbed into later documents.
During the centuries that followed, however, Christians composed hundreds of documents. In addition to those in the New Testament, the church preserved early letters, gospels, acts, apocalypses (books of revelations), church manuals, hymns, martyrologies, sermons, commentaries, and philosophical treatises. We also know of many other books, but only by their titles or through quotations by later authors. Fortunately, the arid sands of Egypt have protected fragments of many works, including the spectacular cache of thirteen fourth-century Coptic codices (or bound books) discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Over a thousand pages of text contain some forty documents otherwise unknown, many of which had been composed by Christians centuries earlier. This wealth of documentation allows scholars to situate the New Testament more precisely in the context of early Christian literary activity. The story of Christian writing begins not in Palestine but in the Aegean basin (the region now occupied by Greece and Turkey) around the years 40–60 C.E. with the composition of letters, or epistles.