Recently read: Larsen’s Gospels Before the Book

Matthew D.C. Larsen, Gospels Before the Book (Oxford: OUP, 2018).

Well, now I don’t know to teach the Synoptic Problem to my students in a few weeks. This isn’t to say that Matthew D.C. Larsen’s Gospels Before the Book has overthrown the broadly accepted Two-Source Hypothesis but he has complicated it. In essence, Larsen contends that (what we call) the Gospel of Mark is not a finished narrative like the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, but instead Hypomnemata—basically, written notes that function as the scripting of oral traditions.

Larsen begins by explaining the ‘publication’ process on antiquity (obviously, very different from the post-Gutenberg world) where texts went through several stages before being ‘ready’ for public consumption. Ancients like Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Plutarch, Galen, and others have left us examples and discussion of texts that were in process. According to Larsen, Mark is one of those texts in such a way that many first- and second-century people may not have interpreted the Gospel of Matthew as something radically different from Mark but instead a ‘public-eyes ready’ version of Mark’s ‘notes’ (hypomnemata). Chapters 2 ‘Unfinished and Less Authored Texts’, 3 ‘Accidental Publication and Postpublication Revision’, and 4 ‘Multiple Authorized Versions of the Same Work’ explain these ideas in-depth.

Chapter 5 ‘The Earliest Readers of the Gospel according to Mark’ supports Larsen’s theory that Mark is hypomnemata by appealing to how Papias, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius appear to explain Mark differently than they do Matthew, Luke, and John, hinting that they knew it was a lesser developed text, even when it begins to receive ‘book’ status by Irenaeus.

Chapter 6 ‘The Earliest Users of the Gospel according to Mark’ focuses heavily upon Matthew’s use of Mark and the aforementioned claim that many readers of Matthew wouldn’t have seen it as being something radically distinct from what we call Mark since almost every story in Mark is found in Matthew.

Chapter 7 ‘Reading Mark as Unfinished’ is the part of the book that has me scrambling for how to teach about the relation of one Gospel to another. For a few years I’ve embraced the idea that the abrupt ending of Mark is a literary device that’s part of a complicated narrative, but Larsen makes a strong argument that the organization of Mark points not to a developed narrative but five sets of notes with key words and ideas that hold them together. This means the abrupt ending is just how the fifth set ends, not some edgy, post-modern conclusion where the women don’t tell anyone of Jesus’ resurrection leaving this responsibility to the ‘reader’. Bummer.

If you’re interested in the Gospels, their composition, and their reception-history, this is a must-read in my opinion. Very thought-provoking and one of the few books out there that I would say has shifted how most scholars will write about the Gospels for the foreseeable future. In other words, it’s a ‘game-changer’.


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