For whom were the Gospels written? The community of the faithful or something else? And to which genre of ancient literature do they belong? These are the two fundamental questions that Robyn Faith Walsh, assistant professor of the New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Miami, Coral Gables addresses in her 2021 volume The Origins of Early Christianity: Contextualizing the New Testament within Greco-Roman Literary Culture (Cambridge University Press). Weighing in at around 250 pages, Walsh’s work seeks to not only undermine the idea that the Evangelists were written solely to Christ following communities but also to place their writings as not only bioi (“lives”) but specifically as “subversive biographies.”
Following a discussion of Thomas Jefferson and his mangled edition of the New Testament, Walsh contends that Jefferson’s belief that the Gospel writers had managed to supplant while supplementing Jesus’s teachings with pagan ideas meant that they were no longer writing history but something else is fundamentally correct. “Their literary choices rendered an idealized vision of Jesus and his life using details more strategic than historical,” she writes (p. 4). To illustrate this point, in ch. 1 she talks about the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, writing that “[i]f the gospels and Acts function as myths that Christianity tells about itself, scholars must be careful not to reinscribe those myths as history” (p. 21). For example, whereas the letters of Paul suggest an early Christ-following movement beset with conflict and controversy, the Acts of the Apostles “spackles over the messiness of Paul’s real-life mission…and instead offers him a prominent role on par with the disciples in the establishment of the Jesus movement” (p. 34). Later in this chapter, Walsh shows that the canonical Gospels exhibit few of the signs of social formation in religious communities. The view that it was to and for communities of Christ-followers that the Gospels were composed originates with German Romanticism, a subject covered in depth in ch. 2.
In ch. 3, Walsh turns her attention to the work of writing and the training it took to become an author in antiquity. “Any act of writing requires a certain institutional structure, training, and other ‘social conditions,’ both to legitimize and to support the specialists involved,” she writes (p. 113). This meant not only training in rhetoric but also a network of like-minded artists who could read and promote the work. The Evangelists, Walsh contends, would have been no exception. They must have had access to “the same relative levels of education, necessary training, and associated social networks” as other ancient authors (p. 121). Additionally, as she argues in ch. 4, the Gospels engage with many of the same motifs and issues brought up in contemporary literature. She spends several pages comparing them to the Latin composition Satyrica, noting that (among other things) both it and the Gospels contain stories of anointing, a crowing rooster, crucifixion, and missing bodies. Their significance in the context of “paradoxography” is explained later in the chapter.
In the final chapter of The Origins of Early Christian Literature considers the Gospels as a subset of the bios genre – “subversive” biography. Examples of this kind of biography are offered (e.g., Plutarch’s bios of Alexander the Great) and Walsh thinks that the Gospels’ depictions of Jesus fit well within this mode. At the very least, she writes, the Gospels “are the products of creative literary activity” (p. 194). This may not sit well with some readers, but she is no doubt correct. The Evangelists were not merely receiving a tradition and putting it to paper. We know, for example, that Matthew, Luke, and probably John used the Gospel of Mark as a source for their own accounts. The way they handle Mark is evidence for their creativity as authors. They rearrange, replace, and otherwise revise what he had to say about Jesus of Nazareth. In so doing, they necessarily create their own version of the Jesus story. This is the work of authors, not mere redactors.
Walsh’s contribution to the issue of Gospel origins and the workmanship of the Evangelists is fascinating. Despite being unfamiliar with a range of ancient works she discusses, I found her style as readable as it was scholarly. Her discussion of the influence of German Romanticism on the field of New Testament studies, warts and all, is a must for those who want to know where some of scholarship’s most cherished ideas have come from. In the span of just a few hundred pages, Walsh has given me a lot to chew on.
7 thoughts on “‘The Origins of Early Christian Literature’ by Robyn Faith Walsh: A Brief Review￼”
“This is the work of authors, not mere redactors.” Interesting. And I don’t necessarily disagree in the sense that the writers are writing paraphrases of Jesus’ life while certainly taking some poetic license. Does this mean you lean more towards the Mark directly to Matthew directly to Luke theory over theories that use a Q source of some sort? And if so, does this mean that when the gospels were first written, any oral tradition that inspired them had not necessarily become crystallized into a sacred tradition yet?
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I am no longer in the Q camp (i.e., the Two-Source Hypothesis). I think Matthew and Luke (and John, by the way) used Mark and that Luke used Matthew as well. As for oral tradition standing behind these texts, it’s hard to say. I do think that some of the stories must have gone back in some form or fashion to the historical Jesus but I am growing less confident that we can accurately discern them. What we do have in the Gospels are stories about Jesus – whatever their original sources – creatively presented in ways that suggest authorship.
Really, even John? That’s particularly interesting as there are so many things missing in John compared to the Synoptics. Does this mean that you no longer believe that parallels in all 4 gospels can be used to trace back to a pre-Markan passion narrative? And this would imply a lot about the writing of John, namely that quite a bit of Mark was either ignored or completely changed, on a much higher level compared to what Matthew and Luke did with Mark.
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I’ve never been a huge fan of a pre-Markan Passion narrative and today I’m in the camp of scholars like Helen Bond who have pretty much dispensed of it entirely. Even if there was such a narrative, Mark has so obviously reworked it that getting back to its original reading is probably beyond us.
As for John’s use of Mark, there was an excellent edited volume put out on the subject entitled ‘John’s Transformation of Mark.’ It is an excellent overview of Markan influence on John. If you haven’t read it, you need to pick it up. I think you’d enjoy it! The essays by Mark Goodacre and Helen Bond are worth the price of the volume alone.
I’ll have to look into that volume it certainly sounds interesting. Regarding Luke using Matthew… I’m wondering how the vastly different nativity narratives would work assuming that Luke had access to Matthew as we have it. Are you suggesting it is more likely that Luke just decided he didn’t like Matthew’s nativity narrative so he tried to come up with a more plausible one? Or do you still think there is a possibility each nativity narrative developed independently?
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I’m inclined to think that Luke just didn’t find Matthew’s version of events either useful or credible (or both). After all, in Luke’s prologue (Luke 1:1-4) there is the suggestion that he can do a better job of telling the Jesus story than his predecessors. Otherwise, why not just hand over to Theophilus the Gospels of Mark and/or Matthew? I think that Luke thought he could do a better job.
I also think it’s important to remember that these “books” were all floating around in different areas and different times. I think the gospel writers had a certain freedom to take their own creative license since they never imagined the four books would be sewn together in one volume where they could be compared, studied, taken apart exegesis-style.
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