Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why a Written Gospel?

The question is sometimes asked as to why the Gospel tradition was ever written down in the first place. Writing may have obvious advantages to those of us who live in Gutenberg’s world, but some contend that those living in largely illiterate cultures where orality dominates would have felt differently.

Let the reader understand.
This came up yesterday in the NT seminar here where Chris Keith was presenting an interesting paper on the reading of the Gospels in early Christian worship services. During the Q&A, he mentioned that it remains a real question as to why Mark decided to write an account of the Gospel in the first place. The oral tradition had been humming along nicely up to that point, so why the need for a new form?

I find myself on the side of those who see distinct advantages to written transmission and I think some of these hold true even in an oral culture. Christian Vandendorpe summarizes three of these advantages in his book From Papyrus to Hypertext (p. 5):
A listening situation is defined by three constraints: (a) listeners cannot determine the time of communication; (b) they do not control the rate of delivery, but are dependent on the pace chosen by the storyteller; (c) they cannot backtrack and choose to review content that particularly interests them, but must follow the thread of the narrative, which is necessarily linear because it is inscribed in time.
If you add a concern for a connection with eyewitnesses, then a written narrative of the Gospel seems near to an inevitability. Obviously there are distinct advantages of oral communication over against written, but I still find myself unsurprised that the Gospel story was “textualized” as the nascent Christian movement matured and spread.


  1. I'm not sure I want to accept a dichotomy between orality and writing literacy as a good starting point for this discussion.

    1. Where would you start? When did the conversation get framed in this way? For me I was drawn attention to this with Kelber. What alternative(s) would you propose?

    2. Peter Head,
      I agree. The common perception that orality and writing could not or did not coexist in the earliest church period is anachronistic. The evidence seems to suggest that there was more literacy than we commonly believe. Plus the scriptural evidence indicates that the written record was intended to be read out loud.


  2. A wonderful topic. If Mark felt the need to write a Gospel, then when would it make sense for him to do so? Perhaps in time for Paul to take along on his journeys? I don't follow the basis for the presupposition behind this statement - "The oral tradition had been humming along nicely up to that point..."

    Dan M. (I appreciate the blog!)

  3. The multiplication of churches creates the need for a written version of the (oral) traditions about Jesus. If you have one church and one authoritative tradent, then the three stated disadvantages of the oral tradition listed do not apply (since the tradent is available for repetition, confirmation, further information etc.). But once the authoritative tradent has to travel to visit other churches the problems with the oral tradition emerge.

  4. Exactly. And with it only taking a week to transcribe Mark's Gospel, an abundance of copies could be produced during the missionary journeys. Thus, meeting the needs of Jewish believers accustomed to reading from the Hebrew scriptures every Sabbath, and of the educated Greeks and Romans.

    This helps explain Mark's intended role as ὑπηρέτης, overseeing the replication of the manuscripts as they visited each synagogue.

    Dan M.