Ancient Concerns

Must we accept the popular modern theory that the disciples of Jesus were unable or unwilling to publish a Gospel within the earliest years of the church?

  • Would the earliest audiences have found the gospel message more trustworthy if published early?
  • Read ancient concerns over the reliability of aging memories.

Here are the voices of those who lived within roughly a century of Jesus and the apostles, who expressed concern over the reliability of aging memories and mental faculties.

Philo (20 BC to AD 50)1

Concerning the World, 4.

Therefore, the outward sense, as its very name in my opinion shows, is a certain imposition which represents to the intellect the things which have appeared to it. … it impresses on them its own character, or else the rival of memory, forgetfulness, having softened the impression, at least makes it very dim, or else entirely effaces it.

Philo, Philo Judæs, trans. Charles D. Yonge, vol. 4 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855), 187
That God is Unchangeable 43

And the mind, being like wax, having received the impression, keeps it carefully in itself until forgetfulness, the enemy of memory, has smoothed off the edges of the impression, or else has rendered it dim, or perhaps has completely effaced it.

Philo, Philo Judæs, trans. Charles D. Yonge, vol. 1 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), 351
On the Cherubim 68–69

Your daughters now, tell me — and they are the arts and sciences of the soul — do you say that your daughters are your own property? How so? In the first place did you not receive them from the mind which taught them? In the second place it is naturally possible for you to lose these also, as you might lose anything else, either forgetting them through the greatness of your other cares, or through severe and lasting sicknesses of body, or because of the incurable disease which is at all events destined for those who grow old, namely old age, or through ten thousand other accidents, the number of which it is impossible to calculate.

And what will you say about the sons ? — and the sons are the reasonings which take place in portions of the soul, — if you pronounce that the sons belong to you, are you speaking reasonably, or are you downright mad for thinking so? For melancholic thoughts, and follies, and frenzies of the mind, and untrustworthy conjectures, and false ideas about things, and empty attractions of the mind, resembling dreams, and bringing with them convulsive agitation, and the disease which is innate in the soul, namely forgetfulness, and many other things beyond those that I have mentioned, take away the stability of your master-like authority, and show that these are the possession of some one else and not of you.

Philo, Philo Judæs, trans. Charles D. Yonge, vol. 1 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), 192.

Cicero (106–43 BC)

De senectute 35–36

And so we must, dear friends, fight still against old age, and all its faults. Endeavour to make good by taking pains: fight it, as we would fight disease … Nor is the body all: that must be cared for, but far more than it. The soul, the intellect; unless you feed them like a lamp with oil, they soon go out when age comes on. By constant exercise the body grows more heavy, but the mind more light and nimble. When Caecilius speaks ‘Of the old comic fools,’ he means the men who’re easily deluded, credulous, forgetful: these are not old age’s faults, but of an old age that has gone to sleep, is idle, lazy. Just as wantonness and dissoluteness are the faults of youth, and not of age, yet not of every youth, but of the bad; just so that senile dotage which we call imbecility belongs to the old who are lightheaded, not to all.

Tullius Cicero, On Old Age, trans. Robert Allison (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1916), 22 
Epistulae ad Atticum 12.1

Just as I was folding up this letter, your courier arrived late at night with a letter from you. I have read it : I am, of course, very sorry to hear of Attica’s feverish attack. Everything else that I wanted to know I learn from your letter. As to your saying that ” a little fire in the morning is an old man’s luxury ” — it is still more an old man’s way to be a trifle forgetful !

M. Tullius Cicero, The Letters of Cicero, trans. Evelyn Shuckburgh, vol. 3, 4 vols. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1908), 148

Pliny, the Elder (AD 23–79)

Natural History 7.24

Nothing whatever, in man, is of so frail a nature as the memory; for it is affected by disease, by injuries, and even by fright; being sometimes partially lost, and at other times entirely so. A man, who received a blow from a stone, forgot the names of the letters only; while, on the other hand, another person … and so it is, that very often the memory appears to attempt, as it were, to make its escape from us, even while the body is at rest and in perfect health.

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, ed. John Bostock, trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley, vol. 2 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855), 165

Josephus (AD 37/38 to early second century)

Jewish Antiquities 12.172

So Ptolemy saluted him first, and desired him to come up into his chariot; and as Joseph sat there, he began to complain of the management of Onias: to which he answered, “Forgive him, on account of his age; for thou canst not certainly be unacquainted with this, that old men and infants have their minds exactly alike; but thou shalt have from us, who are young men, everything thou desirest, and shalt have no cause to complain.”

Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, ed. A. R. Shilleto, trans. William Whiston, vol. 2 (London: George Bell and Sons, 1889), 319

Plutarch (before AD 50 to after AD 120)

Quaestionum convivalum 3.3.1 

For as floods of water glide over the close grounds, nor make them slabby, but quickly sink into the open and chapped fields ; thus wine, being sucked in by the dry parts, lies and works in the bodies of old men. But besides, it is easy to observe, that age of itself hath all the symptoms of drunkenness. These symptoms every body knows; shaking of the joints, faltering of the tongue, babbling, passion, forgetfulness, and distraction of the mind; many of which being incident to old men, even whilst they are well and in perfect health, are heightened by any little irregularity and accidental debauch. So that drunkenness doth not beget in old men any new and proper symptoms, but only intend and increase the common ones. And an evident sign of this is, that nothing is so like an old man as a young man drunk.

Plutarch, Plutarch’s Morals, ed. William W. Goodwin (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1878), 270

Juvenal (second century AD)

Satires 10.219–236

All kind of diseases, the names of which were you to ask, I could sooner unfold, how many adulterers Hippia has loved, how many sick Themison has killed in one autumn … One is weak in his shoulder, another in his loins, another in his hip, another has lost both his eyes, and envies the blind of one … But, than all the loss of limbs, that want of understanding is greater, which neither knows the names of servants, nor the countenance of a friend, with whom he supped the night before, nor those whom he hath begotten, whom brought up.

Juvenal, Juvenal and Persius, trans. M. Madan (Princeton, NJ: George Thompson, 1850), 83-84

Suetonius (ca. AD 70–130)

Vespasianus 5

His father, Sabinus, encouraged by these omens, which were confirmed by the augurs, told his mother, “that her grandson would be emperor of emperor of Rome”; at which she laughed heartily, wondering, she said, “that her son should be in his dotage whilst she continued still in full possession of her faculties.”

Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, ed. T. Forester, trans. Alexander Thomson (London: George Bell & Sons, 1896), 446

Given these ancient concerns about the reliability of aging memories and faculties, would not the apostles have recognized the increasing skepticism that they would face, the longer they delayed the publication of a Gospel?

  1. Dates are per Craig A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005). ↩︎