Gospels Before the Book

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Matthew D. C. Larsen
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Gospels Before the Book, Matthew D.C. Larsen contends that “bookish” assumptions—Gospels were produced by authorsas books—have contributed to the neglect of an important discourse framing the Gospels as an open-ended, textual tradition rather than as closed, bound, and authored books. Larsen locates this early discourse in key primary sources and, through a thick description of an understudied aspect of ancient literary culture, reorients readers of the Gospel tradition(s) accordingly.

In the introduction, Larsen problematizes approaches to Gospel texts as authored and published books.Ancient publication practices are not similar to our own; the texts they produced were often fluid texts that were subject to change in transmission. For Larsen, a less “bookish” comparandum for the Gospel according to Mark is the ancient form of writing called hypomnēmata or commentarii. The second chapter discusses these writings and contextualizes them in terms of ancient practice and use by writers and readers. Hypomnēmata and commentarii are collections of notes or a skeletal framework for a larger work to be written; “[t]hey are inchoate, provisional, and often exist specifically for the creation of other texts” (11). In ancient sources, Larsen finds examples of such texts being used for the production of larger works meant for public consumption (e.g., Galen, Celsus and Lucian). Larsen moves to compare hypomnēmata and commentarii withthe Gospel according to Mark, drawing comparisons to the textualization of the early Gospel tradition (36).

Such unfinished, unauthored texts tempted some to put reed to papyrus and complete that which was originally unpublished and inchoate. In chapter three, Larsen surveys examples of accidental publications and postpublication revisions in antiquity. Cicero, for example, complains of a “deep” cut caused by the accidental publication of his speech before he was ready (39) and bemoans his inability to control his manuscript tradition (50). Working through these and other examples, Larsen contextualizes the production of texts in antiquity in terms that do not match the sometimes “bookish” anachronisms we apply to them, such as “authorship” and “publication.” The following chapter tracks a related phenomenon, multiple authorized versions of a single work. A key example: the Community Rule document, which existed at Qumran in multiple versions. One version was not prized above the other as “original” or determinative; instead both versions appear to have enjoyed use as instances of the same tradition. “Textual use,” Larsen suggests, “shows textual multiplicity to be an expected part of the life of the tradition” (66).

Having nuanced ancient writing culture through sustained attention to unpolished, unauthored, and multiply finished hypomnematic texts, Larsen then recontextualizes the earliest surviving discourse of the Gospels against that backdrop in chapter five. He attempts a “native theory” to account for the production and reception of the textualized Synoptic tradition (79-80). The Gospel according to Luke emerges as an early attempt at polishing, ordering, and finishing Mark’s rather more unpolished, disorderly text (83-87). Larsen revisits Papias, who narrates the composer of Mark as producing a document strikingly similar to a hypomnēma: a collection of Petrine remembrances of things said and done by Jesus, to which Mark “did not add any arrangement” (91). Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius are all given similar treatment. In each case, “we find the early readers of the textual tradition we now call the Gospel according to Mark speaking of it as unfinished, unpolished textual raw material” (98). In short, Larsen shows that the earliest discourse on Mark is strikingly hypomnematic.

Larsen moves into intra-Gospel relationships in chapter six, where he frames the Gospel according to Mark as a textually fluid hypomnema that the Gospel according to Matthew finishes. Matthew emerges not as a discrete text, bounded and different from Mark, but rather as a version of Mark (101). Like other multi-versional texts, the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew should be viewed as “overlapping, growing textual traditions” (105). The Gospel according to Matthew certainly becomes its own recognizable, bounded narrative of Jesus later, but against the backdrop of hypomnēmata and commentarii, Larsen is correct to suggest the likelihood that the earliest audiences would have received Matthew as a version of Mark—a performanceof the tradition.

In the final chapter, Larsen discusses Mark as a hypomnematic text: a utilitarian compilation of Jesus stories for use in the preaching, teaching, and liturgy of the early church. Here Larsen finds agreement with some conclusions drawn by the form critics, but he comes to it through a sophisticated cultural-historical approach that the form critics lacked. Larsen posits that Mark is not simply a compilation of stories, but has an internal structure to it. Under Larsen’s reading, the Markan hypomnema is thematically organized into five loosely narrative sections: [1] Sabbath and synagogue; [2] the Twelve and their mission; [3] bread and eating; [4] “on the way” and seeing; [5] temple and Jerusalem (129). These are narrative sections but, in Larsen’s view, it goes too far to read Mark as an “episodic narrative” (127). Rather, Larsen takes Mark as “an unfinished collection of notes withnarrative logic” animating its sections (134).

The central thesis of the book—that the textualized Gospel tradition emerged hypomnematically and that this is witnessed in the primary sources—is provocative, well-researched, and judiciously argued. It should be welcomed in Gospels studies, and celebrated for the manner in which Larsen intervenes. He views his contribution as an “exciting opportunity” for conversation with others rather than “the final word” (154). To continue the conversation, I offer some critical, collaborative engagement beyond summarization. 

While I find the argument that the textual Synoptic tradition emerged from a Markan hypomnēma compelling, I am not convinced that the question of whether Mark as we have it is a coherent narrative has been settled. Indeed, I do not think the debate has transpired. While hers is not the only narrative approach to Mark, Mary Ann Tolbert’s commentary, Sowing the Gospel, has set the terms for many working in Markan narrative criticism. Larsen frames narrative critics as “tak[ing] the unfinished collection of notes we now call the Gospel according Mark and attempt[ing] to make something meaningful and helpful in their present context” (148). However, this is not what Tolbert claimed to do in her commentary, which she opened with the punchy declarative: “[t]he Gospel of Mark is a narrative” (Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective, Fortress, 1996, 1). Tolbert’s argument was an exegetical one, as are many others posited by her inheritors. It is unfortunate that her commentary does not receive any treatment in this book. Yet, just as Larsen concedes that it would require another book to offer up a sustained exegesis of Mark as hypomnēmata (135), perhaps it would require another book (or an SBL panel?) to litigate the question of Mark’s narrative character. Even if Mark is taken as hypomnēmata, the question is still open as to how the Markan composer may have organized his loose, unpolished notes into something with an arguably narrative structure. The conversation, like the Gospel tradition itself, is open and unfinished.

I commend this book to a wide reading audience, especially within the guild. All serious readers of Mark—especially those of us who read it as story—should engage this book. It invites fresh consideration of the emergence of the Gospel tradition in textual form.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Danny Yencich is a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology, where he is writing his dissertation on the Gospels as tradition.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Larsen is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. He is a cultural historian of religion whose work focuses on the lived experiences of Jewish and Christian communities in antiquity and late antiquity. Matthew's research has been published in the Journal for the Study of Judaism, the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, and various other venues.


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