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Mark and the Emergence of Early Christian “Book Culture”

December 8, 2014

Chris Keith’s contribution in the volume of essays given to me recently is an informative and stimulating discussion focusing on the Gospel of Mark, particularly as (probably) the first manuscript-form of Jesus-tradition.  He writes, “Mark’s textualization of the narrativized gospel tradition remains an unprecendented event in early Christian book culture” (38).  He also postulates, “Mark’s textualization of the oral Jesus tradition gave birth to a distinctive and powerul reception-history for the gospel tradition wherein manuscripts nurtured, shaped, and maintained various (often competing) Christian identies in ever-new expressions” (38).  Chris Keith, “Early Christian Book Culture and the Emergence of the First Written Gospel,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 22-39.

In other words, Keith emphasizes the physicality of the Gospel of Mark, as a written text, a manuscript, and the significance of this for the Jesus-tradition.  Among the subsequent effects, he argues, was the practice of reading Gospel-texts “liturgically in the manner that non-Christian Jews read the Hebrew sacred texts in synagogue and elite Romans read their classics in the context of meals” (8).  So, he concludes that we are dealing with “Mark’s creation of a Gospel-reading culture in early Christianity” (39).

As a context for his own essay, Keith refers to Werner Kelber’s oft-cited book, The Oral and the Written Gospel (1983) and two essays of mine in which I engaged Kelber’s theses critically:  “The Gospel of Mark:  Evolutionary or Revolutionary Document?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 40 (1990), 15-32; “Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark:  A Critical Assessment of Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel,Bulletin of Biblical Research 7 (1997), 91-106.  Essentially, he judges that Kelber’s 1983 book raised important questions (esp. why did Mark write this pioneering narrative of Jesus?) but offered dubious answers, and that I’ve made valid critiques of Kelber’s early work (and I should note here that Kelber has moved his views since that 1983 book) but have failed to address Kelber’s “foundational question.”

In slight self-defence, I should point out that my criticism of Kelber’s 1983 book was directed mainly against two of his claims (and these were his major ones):  (1) that the composition of the Gospel of Mark represented some major theological development, and (2) that as a written text the Jesus-tradition was thereafter frozen and no longer had the flexibility it supposedly had in its “pre-Mark” form.  I reiterated my own judgement of these matters briefly in my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ (272), describing Mark there as “a significant new development in literary genre,” adding, however, “But, as with nearly all innovations, so with this pioneering effort, the author drew upon, and made his own contribution to, a prior and larger body of tradition and Christian activity, including previous writings about Jesus.  The canonical Gospels [Mark the pioneering one] are thus not really revolutionary, but instead constitute a significant evolutionary development, innovative more as landmarks in the literary history of early Christianity than as revolutionary theological statements.”  They were “a new kind of Christian writing, a literary genre of considerable historical significance and subsequent influence” (274).  (Though examples of a Roman-era “biographical” genre, their specifics derive from early Christian proclamation and teaching.)

Keith’s essay poses the question of whether this goes far enough, whether Mark’s influence/impact (whatever the author’s intention) may have been more than “a significant evolutionary development.”  That will bear further pondering, at least for me.  In any case, I’m pleased that some of my work has been stimulating for Chris, and also proud that he is free and able to develop his own views and offer some critique of mine.

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  1. Robert permalink

    “… previous writings about Jesus.”

    Are you thinking of a pre-Markan passion narrative or perhaps other or additional texts that were known to Mark. Have you addressed the question of pre-Markan texts in detail anywhere or do you perhaps follow a specific analysis of someone else? Thank you!

    • I was simply referring to the widely-held scholarly view that there were likely written collections of Jesus’ sayings, perhaps collections of miracle-accounts, and even passion-resurrection accounts. I haven’t myself focused on these matters, but, in principle, they seem fully cogent ideas to me.

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