Friday, June 11, 2021

Ancient Tablets, Notebooks, and Speeches in the Writing of the Gospels

Roman scribe with his stylus and tablets on his tomb stele at Flavia Solva in Noricum

In Book 6, Letter 5 to his friend Ursus, Pliny the Younger (ca. 61-113 AD) vividly describes a senate hearing. He mentions that during the proceedings two figures were debating each other; Licinius Nepos and Juventius Celsus. Apparently, Nepos re-opened a case that had been previous resolved and gave an untimely speech dealing with the matter that those present considered to be a breach of protocol. This is when the Jurist Celsus stepped in.

“The praetor Juventius Celsus vehemently upbraided him in a long speech, in which he taunted him with seeking to reform the senate. Nepos replied; Celsus answered him back, and neither spared reproaches and insults. I do not wish to repeat the words which pained me when I heard them spoken, but I blame even more some of our number who kept running first to Celsus and then to Nepos, according as one or other was speaking, in their desire to hear every word. At one moment they seemed to be encouraging and inflaming their passions, at another to be seeking to reconcile them and smooth matters over, and then they kept on appealing to Caesar to take the side of each, or even of both, just as actors do in a farce. What annoyed me most of all was that each was told what his opponent was going to say, for Celsus replied to Nepos from his note-book, and Nepos answered Celsus from his tablets. The friends of each kept talking to such an extent that the two disputants knew exactly what each was going to say, as though it had all been arranged beforehand.” (Ep. 6.5)

What caught my interest was the reference to “note-book” and “tablets,” both figures were referencing notes that they had obviously prepared beforehand. Celsus is described as making his reply to Nepos from a “note-book” which is translated from the Latin word “libellus.” And Nepos is depicted as referencing his “tablet,” which is translated from the Latin word “pugillaris."

The term "libellus" in this context is likely referring to "a book written in pages, and not in long rolls," especially some kind of legal brief or case notes (From Lewis and Short). This could be either papyrus or parchment. Though if it was a parchment codex the Latin word "membranis" would have more likely been used (Quintilian, Ins. Or. 10.3.31). Therefore this is likely referring to individual sheets stacked together.

P.Oxy 3929 a third century libellus or certificate of sacrifice for the Decian persecution 

The word "pugillaris" is a reference to a type of smaller hand held writing surface that was made from thin board hollowed out and filled with wax. This could then be inscribed upon by a pointy stylus and then erased easily by smoothing out the wax.

Teacher's Example Above, Student's Writing Below. Wax Tablet, II CE. (British Museum MS. 34186)

I find it fascinating that Pliny specifically mentions that these two figures are making their speeches directly from notes on writing materials rather than from rote memorization. This made me think of the intersection of early Christian "preaching" and the giving of public speeches in the Roman Senate. Irenaeus tells us that the Gospels of Mark and Luke first began as preaching events.

"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia." (Haer. 3.1, ANF)

Also, Eusebius hands down to us a tradition that the Gospel of John also first began as the oral preaching of the Jesus story. Only after he was urged by the Christian community did he write down the gospel of John in his old age.

"For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence. And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry." (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.24.6-7, NPNF).

After thinking about the incident recounted by Pliny of Celsus and Nepos giving speeches while consulting their notebooks and tablets, I immediately thought about the apostles using notebooks and wax tablets as references and guides in their preaching. Perhaps these kinds of preaching notes were what was contained in Paul's mysterious "notebooks" (μεμβράνας, membranis) mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:13. If so, then perhaps some of these materials were in mind when Luke mentioned "many have undertaken to compile a narrative" (Luke 1:1-4). In the same way, perhaps some of Peter's preaching notes were used by Mark and arranged and ordered by him as Eusebius quotes Papias recounting (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15). John too may have had these types of written notes when he proclaimed the Gospel story orally (as Eusebius recounts) and could have used them in the composition of his Gospel as well.

Of course this is all wild speculation, and there is no way to explore this further. However, considering the few snapshots that we have from contemporaries of the Evangelists like Pliny the Younger, this type of speculative scenario is not outside the realm of possibility.


Latin text and English translation of Pliny’s Letter taken from Pliny: Letters - Book 6 (