Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark A Critical Assessment of Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel -- By: Larry W. Hurtado

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 07:1 (NA 1997)
Article: Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark A Critical Assessment of Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel
Author: Larry W. Hurtado


Greco-Roman Textuality and
the Gospel of Mark
A Critical Assessment of Werner Kelber’s
The Oral and the Written Gospel

L. W. Hurtado

University Of Edinburgh

Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel set forth an ambitious and bold thesis concerning the Gospel of Mark as the revolutionary document that subverted the “orality” of the pre-Markan Jesus tradition and replaced it with “textuality.” However, his characterizations of the nature of orality and textuality are not appropriate for the Greco-Roman setting of Mark and his proposal cannot, therefore, serve us well in understanding the appearance of the written Gospels and the intentions behind them. In this essay two main matters not given enough attention in previous assessments of Kelber’s study are discussed: (1) the nature of Greco-Roman literacy, and (2) several relevant aspects of textuality in the Greco-Roman period, with particular reference to the Gospel of Mark.

Key Words: Kelber, orality, textuality, Gospel of Mark, literacy

Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel1 (hereafter referred to in the body of this essay by page numbers in round brackets) set forth an ambitious and bold thesis concerning the Gospel of Mark as the revolutionary document that subverted the “orality” of the pre-Markan Jesus tradition and replaced it with “textuality” (e.g., pp. 90-139). By this, Kelber meant much more than the widely shared view that Mark was the pioneer written account of Jesus’ ministry that set the precedent for several subsequent written accounts. Kelber’s thesis was that the Gospel of Mark introduced a radically new way of thinking of Jesus, the “linear hermeneutics” of writing and reading over against the earlier “oral hermeneutics” of the pre-Markan tradition. There are a number of components in Kelber’s case that could be addressed critically, including his exegetical

handling of the Gospel of Mark itself.2 But Kelber’s case does not really rest upon or derive from an exegesis of Mark. Instead, his book depends almost entirely on his characterization of “orality” and “textuality” and his application of these conceptual categories to the Greco-Roman world of the Gospel of Mark. His discussion of the contents of Mark (chaps. 2-3), as well as his characterization of Q and Paul, are driven by and depend upon his orality/textuality categories.

In this paper, I shall argue that Kelber’s characterizations of the nature of orality and textuality are not appropriate for the Greco-Roman setting of Mark and...

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