Matthew Larsen. "Gospels Before the Book." New York: Oxford University Press, 2018 (JETS 62.3 pg. 641-645).
The following post is taken from the text of my JETS review, minus the chapter summaries. Since the JETS review guidelines limit the word count of the reviews I was unable to quote the text of the cited primary sources. I decided to repost the evaluation portion of the JETS review and include the primary source quotations in order to allow readers to better follow the critical engagement.
The main thesis for "Gospels Before the Book" is largely built upon the idea that first-century notes (hypomnēmata) were not considered “bookish” or “finished" and would often be refashioned at will by users of these texts (or “authored,” to use Larsen’s term). However, when the primary sources cited are given a closer reading, they actually push back against this idea. For example, Larsen refers to the hypomnēmata of Cicero’s consulship, stating that the “goal was to script unfinished pre-literary raw material” and that this material was not meant “to be thought of as public” even though these hypomnēmata “were in circulation” (pp. 13–14). He uses the example of Cicero and Caesar’s Gallic Wars (which were also notes) to argue that these hypomnēmata were really considered “pre-books” by ancient readers (p. 14). Yet, in both the letters to Atticus, Cicero referred to these very same notes as a completed book (Latin, liber) (Att. 1.20; 2.1).
"Of my writings I send you my consulship in Greek completed. I have handed that book to L. Cossinius. My Latin works I think you like, but as a Greek you envy this Greek book. If others write treatises on the subject I will send them to you, but I assure you that, as soon as they have read mine, somehow or other they become slack." (Att. 1.20)
"On the 1st of June, as I was on my way to Antium, and eagerly getting out of the way of M. Metellus's gladiators, your boy met me, and delivered to me a letter from you and a history of my consulship written in Greek. This made me glad that I had some time before delivered to L. Cossinius a book, also written in Greek, on the same subject, to take to you. For if I had read yours first you might have said that I had pilfered from you. Although your essay (which I have read with pleasure) seemed to me just a trifle rough and bald, yet its very neglect of ornament is an ornament in itself, as women were once thought to have the best perfume who used none. My book, on the other hand, has exhausted the whole of Isocrates's unguent case, and all the paint-boxes of his pupils, and even Aristotle's colours. This, as you tell me in another letter, you glanced over at Corcyra, and afterwards I suppose received it from Cossinius. I should not have ventured to send it to you until I had slowly and fastidiously revised it. However, Posidonius, in his letter of acknowledgment from Rhodes, says that as he read my memoir, which I had sent him with a view to his writing on the same subject with more elaboration, he was not only not incited to write, but absolutely made afraid to do so. In a word, I have routed the Greeks. Accordingly, as a general rule, those who were pressing me for material to work up, have now ceased to bother me. Pray, if you like the book, see to there being copies at Athens and other Greek towns for it may possibly throw some lustre on my actions." (At. 2.1)Cicero also requested Atticus to make copies to be distributed in Athens and other Greek towns so that these transcripts could be read as a completed standalone composition (Att. 2.1). Cicero had previously sent copies to others, such as Posidonius, in order to use as material for a more “polished" piece. Despite this, Cicero appears to treat Posidonius’s history (if he were to have authored it) as a potentially separate work. This history would have had a different author with recognizable additions and alterations to his own notes (Att. 2.1). Cicero would not have considered Posidonius’s history the same writing as his own notes (though altered), which Larsen appears to be arguing. The same can be said about the conclusions drawn from Pliny the Elder’s annotations and the poet Martial. Pliny the Younger gave an account in one of his letters concerning his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Apparently his uncle had kept copious unpublished notes (commentarii) of all his reading and studying. These texts were offered to be purchased by Larcius Licinus for the astonishing sum of 400,000 sesterces (as observed by Larsen, pp. 17–18).
"Such was the application which enabled him to compile all those volumes I have enumerated, and he left me one hundred and sixty commonplace books, written on both sides of the scrolls, and in a very small handwriting, which really makes the number of the volumes considerably more. He used to say that when he was procurator in Spain he could have sold these commonplace books to Largius Licinus for four hundred thousand sesterces, and at that time they were much fewer in number"(Pliny, Ep. 3.5)Apparently, Martial helps explain why such an enormous sum was offered for Pliny the Elder’s commentarii. In Epigr. 1.66, Martial complained that someone had stolen his writings and exhorted the thief that instead of stealing his work this person should have looked for “unpublished poems and raw pieces of writing, which only one person knows” (p. 18).
"You are mistaken, insatiable thief of my writings, who think a poet can be made for the mere expense which copying, and a cheap volume cost. The applause of the world is not acquired for six or even ten sesterces. Seek out for this purpose verses treasured up, and unpublished efforts, known only to one person, and which the father himself of the virgin sheet, that has not been worn and scrubbed by bushy chins, keeps sealed up in his desk. A well-known book cannot change its master. But if there is one to be found yet unpolished by the pumice-stone, yet unadorned with bosses and cover, buy it: I have such by me, and no one shall know it. Whoever recites another's compositions, and seeks for fame, must buy, not a book, but the author's silence." (Martial, Ep. 1.66)For Martial, one should attempt to publish someone else’s work as their own only when that work had never circulated, this is because, according to Martial, “A famous book cannot change its master” (p. 18). Rather than supporting Larsen’s thesis here, Martial reveals that commentarii and hypomnēmata (or any other written piece) could be refashioned into a different composition by another author only when this material had not yet gone into circulation and become known. This was because the author would have considered this misappropriation a theft and not the normal use of texts already in circulation (as Martial did in Ep. 1.66). This is why Licinus offered such a large sum for Pliny the Elder’s material; they were unpublished and thus no one would know that Licinus was not their author. Therefore, Martial actually reveals that the publication and circulation of a writing was a definitive point at which a text became more or less fixed, not more fluid. The physician Galen provides a good example of this phenomenon. In his On My Own Books he describes how many of his lecture transcripts were given to his friends and students for their own personal use and edification (De libr. propr. 19.10). These notes were circulated widely without his consent and were altered, misappropriated, and plagiarized by others (De libr. propr. 19.10). His students informed Galen of the situation, gathered these aberrant copies, and gave them back to Galen so that he could then correct them (De libr. propr. 19.10).
“[M]y books have been subject to all sorts of mutilations, whereby people in different countries publish* different texts under their own names, with all sorts of cuts, additions, and alterations—I decided it would be best, first to explain the cause of these mutilations, and secondly to give an account of the content of each of my genuine works. Well, as for the fact of my books being published by many people under their own names, my dearest Bassus, you know the reason yourself: it is that they were given without inscription to friends or pupils, having been written with no thought for publication, but simply at the request of those individuals, who had desired a written record of lectures they had attended. When in the course of time some of these individuals died, their successors came into possession of the writings, liked them, and began to pass them off as their own.[ . . .]* Taking them from their owners, they returned to their own countries, and after a short space of time began to perform the demonstrations* in them, each in some different way. All these were eventually caught, and many of those who then recovered the works affixed my name to them. They then discovered discrepancies between these and copies in the possession of other individuals, and so sent them to me with the request that I correct them.”(De libr. propr. 19.10).This account effectively acts against Larsen’s thesis. Though these copies were crude and had no title or name affixed, Galen and his friends and students took issue with their alteration and appropriation by others. Even though they were mere “notes” he still considered them his own writings. Larsen attempts to use Galen as an example of this type of material being treated as fluid texts (pp. 29–30). Though his compositions were misappropriated and altered by others, these were considered corruptions, clear additions to Galen’s definitive writings, and his students worked hard to correct these alterations. This would not have occurred if this type of alteration and appropriation of notes was a culturally acceptable practice as Larsen attempts to argue. Despite these difficulties, Larsen goes on to apply to the Gospel of Mark his unique reading of the primary sources, declaring that “[t]here is no evidence of someone regarding the gospel [Mark] as a discrete, stable, finished book with an attributed author until the end of the second century CE” (p. 1). A few lines later he states that “there is no evidence of the idea of gospel as a gospel book with an author until much later” (p. 2). Despite this claim being an argument from silence, Justin Martyr provides early second century evidence that Mark was likely considered a separate and distinct composition referred to as a “Gospel.” In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin makes a clear reference to Mark 3:16–17 (Dial. 106).
"And when it is said that He changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of Him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder."(Dial. 106)Larsen agrees that Justin does appear to make reference to Mark, “[h]e does not, though, call the text ‘the Gospel according to Mark’ nor even use the name ‘Mark’” (p. 92 n. 52; p. 180). This is not entirely correct, however, for in his First Apology Justin does refer to these writings as the “memoirs [ἀπομνημονεύματα] of the apostles” that were also called “Gospels” and these texts were handed down from previous generations (1 Apol. 1.66).
“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them.” (1 Apol. 1.66)
Contrary to Larsen’s claim, something like the Gospel of Mark was read by Justin and referred to as a “Gospel” that had recognizable contours as a distinct composition. It was passed down from former Christians and was read alongside the writings of the prophets in Sunday worship services in the first half of the second century (1 Apol. 1.67).
"And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things." (1 Apol. 1.67)Concerning Papias’s statements about the composition of Mark and Matthew preserved in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, Larsen claims that Matthew did not write “a separate gospel” from Mark, rather, he merely placed Mark’s copying of Peter’s preaching “in an interpretive arrangement” (p. 92).
"But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel.
This also the presbyter said:
"Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely."
These things are related by Papias concerning Mark.
"But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able."" (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39)
This highly speculative reading of Papias is largely based upon the “ancient writing practices and modes of authorship” discussed earlier (p. 92). As analyzed above, however, the ancient sources do not support the thesis concerning hypomnēmata. A simple reading of Eusebius’s quotation of Papias reveals that two distinct authors with two distinct writings are in view. Overall, Larsen’s thesis that hypomnēmata were textually fluid holds true only for those texts that remain uncirculated (as Martial reveals in Ep. 1.66). Once released and disseminating, whether intended by the author or not, the written material becomes “fixed” and distinctions between the initially released text and alterations are often made known in the community of readers (as Galen reveals in De libr. propr. 19.10). Therefore, Larsen’s conclusions ring hollow, that “[n]ew theories and frameworks must be developed that take textual fluidity seriously and do not rely on notions like author, book, or finished versions of text” (p. 154). The primary sources referenced in Gospels Before the Book reveal that first and second century figures actually did interact with texts in the ways that Larsen attempts to argue against. In other words, they did interact with writings using concepts “like author, book, [and] finished versions of text” (p. 154). Though most of the work remains unconvincing, there are one or two aspects of Gospels Before the Book that might commend it to those who lack knowledge of ancient publication. The monograph does survey an array of Greek, Roman, and Jewish primary sources. These could instruct those who are uninformed on ancient practices of composition and circulation as they relate to Gospel studies and textual criticism.
Cicero's Letters to Atticus English translations taken from here
Eusebius Church History English translations taken from here
Galen, "Selected Works" (P. N. Singer, trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Justin Martyr, "First Apology" English translation taken from here
Justin Martyr, "Dialogue With Typho" English translation taken from here
Martial's "Epigrams" English translation taken from here
Pliny he Younger's Letters English translation taken from here