The Gospel as Manuscript | Book Review

Title: The Gospel as Manuscript: An Early History of the Jesus Tradition as Material Artifact
Author: Chris Keith
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2020
Price: $74 (amz)  
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 296

In this volume, Chris Keith seeks to push back on the notion that illiteracy and the predominance of orality in the ancient world meant that texts and manuscripts were relatively unimportant. Rather, even in the midst of this social situation, texts and their physical manuscripts played a highly significant role in the transmission of the Jesus tradition. Noting that many scholarly approaches have “assigned a subsidiary role to the written word in the transmission of the Jesus tradition,” Keith aims to provide a “fuller portrait of textuality” that reckons with the functional and social dynamics of manuscripts in the earliest Christian communities (5–6). 

Keith’s work provides a compendium of several currents in New Testament research. Central to these is the “material turn” in the study of early Christianity. He highlights the nature of the “textualization of the tradition” and the implications of this transition from a spoken to written medium. One of Keith’s contributions to this well-established field of general inquiry is his specific focus on the writing and reception history of the Jesus tradition in the earliest churches.

Two primary conceptual resources Keith employs are the “theory of ancient reading cultures” developed by William A. Johnson and the notion of “cultural texts as cultural memory” developed by Jan Assmann (13). Alongside these starting points, Keith articulates the prominence of manuscripts in various social contexts (manuscripts as required elements of the reading culture) and also the strategic function they had in influencing the reception of the Jesus tradition (manuscripts as socially significant cultural texts).

The development of the “gospel” to the “Gospels” in the years that followed Jesus’s resurrection is a historical reality that requires careful consideration. Throughout his study, Keith explores the profound implications that this decision to commit the story and teachings of Jesus to writing had on the reception history of the gospel. In this regard, Keith draws out the implications of something contemporary readers take for granted: the textuality of the gospel story in written form. 

After explaining the parameters of his study, Keith first establishes the significance of Mark’s narrative as the initial textualization of the Jesus tradition (chapter 3). In this social context, the composition of the Gospel of Mark represents a radically influential moment. As a written text, Mark actualizes an “extended situation” that enables “a limitless number of reception contexts, giving new life to the tradition beyond the confines of orality” (96; on the concept of an “extended situation,” see 26–32; 85–96). Keith also emphasizes the way that Mark’s Gospel portrays itself with a strong “textual self-consciousness” (98). After Mark’s narrative is written, the textualization of the Jesus tradition develops in earnest. 

Keith next traces the proliferation of written texts about Jesus that followed Mark’s narrative. Subsequent works about Jesus’s life and teaching positioned themselves in relation to Mark’s Gospel and also sought to draw attention to the textual nature of their work. Keith focuses on what he calls the “competitive textualization” that occurs in texts that draw directly upon Mark’s narrative but also modify the tradition in ways that require explanation (see 103–105). He discusses the ways Matthew, Luke, John, and the Gospel of Thomas position their literary work in direct relation to other written texts (chapters 4–5). 

In the last part of his book, Keith examines two of the social factors that enabled the earliest churches to function as a textual community. The public reading of the Jesus tradition is a practice that is well-established in the fourth century but begins in the first century (chapter 6). In turn, this public reading included a central role for manuscripts of biblical texts and played a key role in the self-perceived identity of the early Christian community (chapter 7). 

A clear pattern throughout this study is Keith’s move away from explaining the origin of an ancient practice to demonstrating its resulting history of reception. There is an initial focus on the origin of the textualized tradition, but also a clear move to analyze the effect of that textualized tradition for writers and readers who were aware of its presence. For Keith, this focus on Mark’s “impact instead of his intentions” allows one to explore “not why [Mark] moved the Jesus tradition into the written medium but what difference it made” (12–13; cf. 73–99). This shift from motivated intention to effective history means that Keith’s overarching claims are minimal and tied to historical evidence that is more straightforward than hypothetical reconstructions (e.g., his tentative rejection of a “Q” source, 75–77). 

The historical and hermeneutical significance of texts, textuality, and the use of the written medium among the earliest churches are of perennial concern for the study of the New Testament. Some readers will likely disagree with elements of Keith’s historical-critical approach to the reception of the Jesus tradition in early Christianity (e.g., around issues of authorship and the nature of conflict entailed in some cases of “competitive textualization”). However, because of the carefulness of Keith’s historical analysis, the modesty of his central claims, and the comprehensive scope of his scholarly engagement, this work should not be neglected.

Book Review
May 1, 2021


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