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Neues Testament


Larsen, Matthew D. C.


Gospels Before the Book.


Oxford u. a.: Oxford University Press 2018. 248 S. Geb. US$ 39,95. ISBN 978-0-19-084858-3.


Phillip A. Davis, Jr

If synchronic analysis of the gospels seems to have won pride of place in contemporary New Testament scholarship, Matthew Larsen’s book, stemming from his Yale dissertation supervized by Dale Martin, would turn that state of affairs on its head. L. argues that Mark, or as he more cautiously prefers, »the textual tradition that came to be known as the Gospel according to Mark«, should not be understood (anachronistically) as a finished, published book with a singular author, but rather as hypomnēmata, unfinished notes left open for textual revision. Prior to Irenaeus, so argues L., this was precisely how Mark was read, used, and understood – by the tradition that came to be known as the Gospel according to Matthew, by the prologue to Luke, and by Papias. Accordingly, the tensions and competing Christologies found within the Markan tradition can be accounted for by its nature as a notebook; its competing Christol-ogies result from the collection of disparate traditions that became organized according to key words and themes.
The book divides into two main parts. After an orientation in chapter 1, chapters 2 through 4 lay out the ancient habitus of writ-ing hypomnēmata, comentarii, and other »unfinished and less authored texts«. Chapters 5 through 7 develop the implications of this ancient context for the gospels, but primarily Mark. An epi-logue outlining some ways forward rounds off the book.
In the first half of the book L. emphasizes the fluidity of publication in the ancient world. The writing of hypomnēmata served as written memories and, being rough, only provided the groundwork for something that could become publishable literature. Yet, not infrequently did unfinished works become published and circulated contrary to a writer’s intention, leading to the production of new versions. Writers also sought to revise works already in circulation, sometimes with success, sometimes without. In other cases, different versions of the same work have been discovered in close proximity with one another (i. e., in Qumran and Herculaneum). This implies for L. that some communities did not think in terms of the official or definitive texts of the works found in their libraries. Rather, such texts »appear open to further revision as a result of the respective ongoing projects of each community« (75). The echoes of D. C. Parker’s The Living Text of the Gospels (Cambridge 1997) are hard to miss.
In chapter 5 L. examines the earliest reception of Mark, and contends that the modern, historical-critical language of »book«, »author«, and »publication« is anachronistic when applied to first- and second-century discourse about the gospels. While Irenaeus does write of the gospels more in these terms, the prologue to Luke and Papias do not: The prologue to Luke neither mentions gospels nor authors, but suggests, according to L., that other written accounts (such as Mark) lack necessary literary order, while Luke will provide the literary elements expected of the portrayal of a character: such as information as to his parents and birth. Papias un­derstands Mark not as a gospel writer but as a »textualizer of oral tradition«, who »textualized Peter’s teaching in the form of apomnēmoneumata«, which for L. are akin to hypomnēmata (90). In the next chapter, L. moves from these early readers of Mark to the early users, arguing that Matthew and the various endings of Mark provide evidence of early polishing and improvement of »existing hypomnēmata« (120). Matthew overlaps so markedly with Mark, L. avers, that Matthew constitutes not a different book, but rather a finishing, a continuing of Mark, that irons out ambiguities and possible misinterpretations. Finally, in chapter 7 L. lays out in closer detail his understanding of Mark as unfinished notes, contending that Mark’s organization of topics and themes corresponds with organization of notes in antiquity, and that the nature of these notes as a collection allows for the various theological ten-sions in Mark due to the notes’ lack of a »singular authorial genius«.
L.’s innovative study suggests a new category for understanding a text that has proven difficult to categorize. In essence he identifies a mechanism by which to explain both why the earliest reception of Mark involved its rewriting, as well as Mark’s inconsistencies. Nevertheless, a couple of issues can be raised about the main thesis. First, it is not clear whether this is a book about the reception of Mark or about what Mark actually is. L. insists that the finishedness of a text is a question of reception and claims that he does not want to speak of the intention behind the Markan text tradition (118–119.122). Yet he does make claims about what the producer(s) of the text tradition actually did, namely »collected sets of notes to be meditated upon, to be reread, to be rewritten, to be used, to be taught, and preached« (147; cf. 144 where he speaks of their »aim«). This is a claim about intention, not just about reception, and completely changes how L.’s study should be evaluated. Second, and connected to the first, it is not clear what concrete features Mark shares with other hypomnēmata – especially those including narratives – or whether it is even possible to identify common features in »unfinished« texts. (This perhaps accounts for L.’s emphasis on reception, but returns us to our first point above.) Clarity here might elucidate how he justifies viewing Mark as a collection of notes that also has a narrative logic (134). Finally, L. misjudges the implications of his study in two ways. First, probably sensing that his study undermines the insights of Markan narrative criticism, L. suggests that narrative exegesis takes its place alongside Matthew and Luke in making meaning of Mark (147–48). But this feels like sleight of hand. Second, he suggests his approach calls into question the »validity and utility« of source, redaction, and textual criticism, as traditionally practiced (4; cf. 149). Surely this is an overstatement; his book makes precisely such diachronic questions all the more fascinating!