Reviews of

Gospel as Manuscript

In Chris Keith, Gospels, Jonathan Rowlands, Manuscript Studies, Manuscripts, Oxford University Press, Transmission history on December 28, 2020 at 6:40 pm

2020.12.21 | Chris Keith. The Gospel as Manuscript: An Early History of the Jesus Tradition as Material Artifact. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. ISBN: 9780199384372.

Review by Jonathan Rowlands, St. Mellitus College.

Chris Keith is Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, and Director of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. His previous single-author monographs have examined the pericope adulterae, Jesus’ literacy, and his conflict with the scribal elite. Now, in The Gospel as Manuscript, Keith turns his attention to the study of manuscripts as material objects and its implications for New Testament studies.

Keith’s thesis is that “among a variety of other factors, the competitive textualization of the Jesus tradition and the public reading of the Jesus tradition demonstrate that the reception of the Jesus tradition that unfolded in the first three centuries of the Common Era would not have happened in the precise way that it did without manuscripts” (p. 9). He describes his project as a “pushback against Socrates, Paul, Papias, and their modern counterparts” (p. 6), against those who suggest the written text was the “lesser” counterpart to the spoken word. Instead he advances “an invitation to view the relationship between the oral and the written from a perspective that focuses upon how the largely illiterate and oral context of antiquity did not so much diminish the value of the written word as—in some contexts—create it, enable it, and accentuate it” (p. 8).

Keith’s work is divided into three parts: (1) “The Gospel as Manuscript,” (2) “The Gospel as Gospels,” and (3) “The Gospel as Liturgy.” Part I, “The Gospel as Manuscript” comprises chapters 1 and 2 of his study. In chapter 1, Keith lays a methodological foundation for his project by discussing key differences between oral and written transmission processes, building upon work by William A. Johnson and Jan Assmann. In so doing, Keith concludes that “the textualization of tradition creates the possibility of limitless reception contexts, allowing the tradition to be carried through space and time” (p. 34). In chapter 2, Keith engages the issue of what prompted the initial textualization of the Jesus tradition, situating his own research amongst three trends within scholarship on Jewish and Christian book cultures. 

In Part II, “The Gospel as Gospels”—chapters 3, 4, and 5—Keith discusses what he terms the “competitive textualization” of the Jesus tradition (a term he coined in his 2016 CBQ article on John 20.30-31; 21.24-25). Keith begins in chapter 3 by examining the textualization of Mark and its creation of an “extended situation” (zerdehnte Situation, employing Assmann’s terminology) which “enabled a limitless number of reception contexts, giving new life to the tradition beyond the confines of orality” (p. 96). Following this, Keith examines the Synoptic (in chapter 4), Johannine, and Thomasine traditions (in chapter 5), and the manner in which they claim to be in competition with Mark’s first textualization of the Jesus tradition. He discusses Matthean alterations to the Markan incipit (pp. 115–23), and Luke’s competitive reference to other textualizations of the gospel in 1.1-4 (pp. 123–29). For Keith, the synoptic tradition witnesses to an early “textual self-consciousness and competitive textualization” (p. 129). This remains true, also, of the Johannine tradition (pp. 131–54) and the Gospel of Thomas (pp. 154–57), which similarly “demonstrate that textual self-consciousness and competitive textualization were widespread and pronounced features in the written Jesus tradition from its beginning” (p. 158).

In Part III, ‘The Gospel as Liturgy,’ Keith discusses public readings of the Jesus tradition in the first three centuries (chapter 6) and examines this phenomenon of public reading as a continuation of synagogue liturgy (chapter 7). He suggests that the public reading of the Gospels “steadily came in the Christ assembly to express ritually the status of the Gospel texts that were being read. In this way, the manuscripts as a material artifact became the primary means by which that status was displayed, separately from but related to the content of the narrative on its pages” (p. 199). Or, as he later writes, “what Christians did with manuscripts of the Gospels was an articulation of early Christian identity separately from, though ultimately in conjunction with, the narrative content of those manuscripts” (p. 230, emphasis original).

Finally, Keith concludes by noting that “the Gospel book, and what one did with it, became a physical space on which Christian standing with the rest of the world was negotiated” (p. 235). The final words of Keith’s monograph reinforce the thesis outlined in its introduction: “the transmission of the Jesus tradition was not confined to the written medium, but without the Gospel as manuscript, we would not have the reception history of the Jesus tradition that we have” (p. 235).

There is much to commend in Keith’s work, not least its scope and ambition. As he has already demonstrated in his earlier works, Keith is a careful exegete, welcoming of nuance and happy to acknowledge the epistemological limitations of his argument(s), where necessary. At no point does one perceive Keith to be overstating his position or making hopeful claims to advance his thesis; every point is hard-won. 

Also worthy of praise is Keith’s willingness to engage and grapple with issues of fundamental importance for New Testament studies. That the texts of the New Testament are just that—texts—is an observation worth pursuing. Keith writes that “many readers will no doubt congratulate me for having stated what is patently obvious to just about everyone working in this field” (p. 9), but he rightly notes “as a first step toward an appropriate reorientation, one must recognize that the decision to place the Jesus tradition in the written medium was neither logical nor inevitable” (p. 10). The textualization of the Jesus tradition was no foregone conclusion, and examination of the motivation(s) and impact(s) of this textualization process is too frequently taken for granted, rather than reflected on critically and thoughtfully. For encouraging us to think again about the origins of our discipline’s sources, Keith is to be heartily congratulated. 

Those who find themselves in disagreement with Keith will likely do so on the issue of competitive textualization, for numerous reasons. First, no doubt some Johannine scholars will reject the presupposition that “John” knows and interacts with the Synoptic tradition, regardless of whether they would also agree that this interaction consisted of competitive textualization. Moreover, although Keith makes the case with rigour, many will remain unconvinced by the claim that John 21 is “a constituent part of the early text of the Gospel of John” (p. 132). Understandably, Keith cannot engage these issues in the detail some might like in this study, and there are some who simply will not agree with either of these claims. 

Second, one of Keith’s more contentious claims is that Mark conceived of his own textualization of the Jesus as in competition with the Jewish scriptures. Keith’s claim that Mark “displays a soft or muted form of competitive textualization with the Jewish scriptures, by which it enlists those Scriptures in order to establish its own location in their reception history” (p. 129) already suggests that this competitive textualization is not quite of the same kind as would later be evidenced by the Synoptic tradition. However, even the language of “soft” or “muted” competition will lead to pushback from those who would prefer that language of, for example, “continuation” with Jewish Scriptures. 

Third, and more broadly, Keith’s project would benefit from a more clearly defined conception of what constitutes competitive textualization, over against other forms of textualization. Keith briefly defines competitive textualization as “[the] various ways in which the tradents of the Jesus tradition drew upon its material form—and parasitically upon prior instances of the Jesus tradition in its material form—in order to assert a particular position within a reception history, which was often characterized by claims of superiority” (p. 8). But this raises further questions. For example, if an author wishes to add to a tradition without claiming superiority over other texts within that tradition, might we call this supplementary textualization? At what point would supplementary textualization become competitive textualization? Does competition necessitate discontinuity? Can such distinctions easily be delineated in the first instance? As far as I can tell—and I am happy to be corrected on this—Keith does not clearly demarcate the “competitive” aspect of competitive textualization, either here or in his early work on the matter, beyond the brief definition mentioned above. I do think his project would be strengthened by such an expanded taxonomy, not least because it might very well ease concerns about some of the specifics of Keith’s argument (for example, that Mark “is in competition” with Jewish scriptures). 

But these concerns are minor compared to what Keith has achieved in this study. The Gospel as Manuscripts is surely essential reading for anyone interested in the Gospels and the emergence of early Christianity. 

Jonathan Rowlands
St Mellitus College
jonny.rowlands [at]


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