Are the Gospels Finished Works?
An explosive new book from a scholar at Princeton makes the argument that the Gospel of Mark was more like a rough draft or collection of notes than a book.
Many modern American Christians believe that that the Bible is inerrant. That is to say, it contains no mistakes, no inconsistencies, and no inaccuracies. Of course, believing that the Bible has no mistakes assumes that the Bible is a complete and fully polished collection of works. But a new book on the writing of the Gospels blows this assumption out of the water and suggests, for the first time, that the gospels—the books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life–were not finished products. One of the versions that we have—the Gospel of Mark, the earliest one–might never have been intended for publication and was more like a rough draft or collection of notes than a book.
In Gospels Before Book, Matthew Larsen, a member of the Society of Fellows at Princeton, examines ancient writing and “publishing” practices. Most scholars believe that the four New Testament Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—were written between 70-120 A.D. Larsen discovered that prior to the second century people didn’t talk about the Gospels as “Gospels” or books. In fact, he says, “the very idea that there are four separate, finished, and fully authored books called the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” is one of the “more significant ideological invention[s]” of the late second century.
During the course of his research Larsen ran across dozens of texts in the ancient world that were published without authors, as rough drafts, accidentally, or were even revised post-publication. Writing rough drafts or collections of notes that might find their way into the hands of other authors was a relatively common practice in antiquity. One Roman author, Pliny the Younger, was offered the vast sum of 400,000 sesterces (Larsen equates this to the amount of money needed to become a Roman knight) for a collection of notes and excerpts amassed by his uncle.
Other texts were circulated without the permission of their authors before they were complete. Not everyone objected to this practice: the first-century B.C. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, the author of a lengthy Library of History, tells us both that some volumes of his work were stolen and “published” before they could be corrected and completed and also expresses the desire that anything he wrote “in ignorance meet with correction at the hands [of others].”
The upshot of these discoveries is the realization that in the ancient world some texts were very fluid. While publication is a bit of an anachronistic term for ancient literature, which had to be painstakingly copied by hand, texts could find their way into circulation before they were finished. Lecture notes might be distributed without the consent of the lecturer. Other texts seem to have been tentatively published, without authorship per se and with the intent of being revised by others in the future.
There’s no better example of Larsen’s hypothesis than the Gospel of Mark. Mark, as we know it, is considered by historians to be the earliest Gospel, and is often criticized for its poor literary style. Ancient Christian readers, Larsen shows, seemed to have seen Mark more as a collection of notes (like those described by Pliny) than a fully formed book. The second-century bishop Irenaeus, for example, describes the “publication” of the Gospels of Matthew and John for specific audiences but does not seem to have viewed Mark in the same way. Another second-century writer, Papias, also envisions Mark as a kind of note taker, writing that Mark wrote down everything the apostle Peter had remembered but did not make “an orderly arrangement” of them. “Early readers,” Larsen told The Daily Beast “often regarded the Gospels in general and the Gospel according to Mark in particular not as books published by singular author-figures but as unfinished, unpolished, and open textual traditions that not ascribed to authorial figures.”
In particular, the conclusion to Mark bears the hallmarks of a draft. Historians will tell you that the oldest manuscripts (and, we thus say, the earliest “original” version) of Mark finish at Mark 16:8, with the women who had come to the tomb running away in fear. But there are at least four other endings to the Gospel in the ancient manuscripts, which serve as evidence of early Christian readers’ efforts to revise, polish and improve the text. Larsen concludes that Mark was “a powerful text that was not ‘finished’”; it was, he writes, more like a rough draft. Later texts, including the Gospel of Matthew, added additional resurrection stories and prologues to the text and constantly repurposed this collection of notes.
Larsen’s isn’t the only academic challenging the way we think about the books of the Bible. His work develops that of pioneering Hebrew Bible scholar Eva Mroczek. In her book The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity, Mroczek, a professor at UC-Davis, demonstrated that modern concepts of “books” and “Bible” are anachronistically applied to ancient Jewish writings. There was, for example, no “Book of Psalms” while the second Jerusalem Temple still stood. Instead of a book there was a very fluid, unregulated, and unbounded set of textual liturgical traditions. David is not the author of the “Book of Psalms” but, rather, is a figure that gradually colonizes an increasing number of texts. Mroczek told The Daily Beast “If we look at some of the manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection put together by a Jewish community near the time of Jesus, we can see that scribes kept adding to and reworking versions of some biblical books. Some books (say, Genesis or Deuteronomy) were more uniform, but others weren’t.” She added that while we might be concerned about this, it wasn’t a problem for ancient Jews, “it was just how scribes worked as they rewrote and sometimes expanded their culture’s most precious writings. The book of Jubilees (about 200 B.C.) instructs Jacob’s descendants to ‘preserve and renew’ the books of their ancestors, and that seems to be exactly what they did.”
What all of this means is that at least some of texts that make up our modern Bibles may never have been intended as set-in-stone “books.” Moreover, there wasn’t always a strong sense of an individual as “the author” of a text. Larsen and Mroczek’s writings have large ramifications for how we think about biblical literature in general, but also for the way that we think about the practice of reading and interpreting religious literature. “Scripture,” Larsen told me, “is an open, changing, living part of the tradition.” Rather than assuming that there is a solid text (whether inerrant or not), they suggest that some of the books we hold as sacred scripture were fluid and amorphous textual traditions that were not only open to augmentation and interpretation; they in fact demand it. At the same time, we don’t have to think of these open-ended compositions as forgeries. Mroczek told me, “It’s a bit like Chanel clothes are still made, even though Coco Chanel is no longer around, or new Star Trek series still put the late Gene Rodenberry in the credits.”