New College, University of Edinburgh

What Is “Gospel Textualization”?: Navigating Media Studies and the Gospels

As the flurry of scholarship applying media studies to gospel research continues unabated, it grows all too easy to get lost in the torrent of specialized methodology and in-house terminology – some of which has yielded disputed degrees of interpretive payoff. Whether you deem topics like performance criticism, sound mapping, or book culture obfuscating or enlightening, the growing body of research utilizing media studies undoubtedly demands attention. Accordingly, I will here take up just a single dimension of this multifaceted field with the intention to broadcast it to a wider audience. Within the diversity of media culture studies, a recent paradigm advocated by Chris Keith stands out as strikingly helpful and relatively unexplored: “gospel textualization.” My brief overview thus posits the question, what is gospel textualization? – and furthermore, why should we care?


An implicit segregation of oral and textual media in the first century context long undergirded gospel research in various guises, most notably transparent in the pursuit of oral traditions as extricable “puzzle pieces” laying behind the consequently discrete rendering of textual gospels. This dictum of form criticism, which assumed an inevitable, linear evolution from oral to written, was in due course countered by Werner Kelber’s pioneering corrective to such a cursory gloss over the media transition.[1] However, this inception of modern media studies overtly applied to the gospels in many ways swung the pendulum to the opposite extreme with ensuing hypotheses of a strongly disjunctive break between a pervasive and dominant oral culture and the supposedly rigid binding of orality in textual form.[2] It is in more recent years that these too often isolated conceptions of “orality” and “textuality” in the compositional milieu of the gospels have given way to proposals of a more nuanced and integrative relationship between the two. Increased attention to the dynamic between orality and textuality in the first century has suggested that the two were in many respects mutually influencing rather than dichotomous. Yet, the challenge left to current scholarship is consequently how to articulate this complex relationship in a way that accurately and profitably shapes our approach to gospel research.


I suggest that the framework of “gospel textualization” offers a solution to this difficulty by providing a concise paradigm within which to understand the relative import of both orality and textuality in gospel composition. In terms employed by Chris Keith, who has proposed and developed the concept of gospel textualization:


“…scholarly assessment of the possible reasons for, and significance of, Mark’s transition of the Jesus tradition from the oral medium to the written medium must account for the aftermath of that decision…the explosion of Gospel literature in early Christianity and the new genre’s prominent role in the formation and maintenance of early Christian identity…”[3]


Gospel textualization thus pinpoints the initial composition of written Jesus tradition as a distinctive development from its oral counterpart and implicitly generative of a new stream of gospel reception history that is necessarily received and interpreted according to the socio-cultural norms governing its textual medium. While the concept of gospel textualization does not imply that textuality overrides the importance of orality, neither does it allow oral influence in composition or oral performance of the text to remain the extent of insight offered by media studies. Rather, what this precise terminology does highlight is the substantial impetus that would drive the first gospel author to deem use of the written medium necessary or at the least beneficial in some way. By casting the composition of written gospels as a distinctly and intrinsically textual phenomenon, without divorcing it from the oral tradition it emerged from, the paradigm of gospel textualization provides much needed balance to tempting preoccupation with first century orality and highlights early Christian textuality as far more significant than is often acknowledged. The textualization of written gospels was neither the certain result of oral tradition nor the disruptive imprisonment of orality in a fixed textual form; it was rather the spark of innovation that birthed an entirely new reception history for Jesus tradition.


Returning to the question of why this particular construal of media deserves further attention, I underscore in closing two key implications that gospel textualization has for the study of early Christianity.


1) While orality has received considerable treatment in gospel scholarship, textuality as an equally informative medium is due compensatory interest. Applying the framework of gospel textualization would open the door to increased understanding of how the gospels were treated as physical, artifactual manuscripts. Since this manifestation of early Christian “book culture” necessarily differs from oral tradition, which “cannot play the visual and aesthetic roles in reading communities…that a physical manuscript is capable of playing,”[4] gospel textualization can therefore explicate how textual manuscripts distinctively shaped early Christian identity formation.


2) The paradigm of gospel textualization can uniquely pursue the relationship between the unprecedented, initial moment of written gospel composition and the “distinctive and powerful reception-history for the gospel tradition wherein manuscripts nurtured, shaped, and maintained various (often competing) Christian identities in ever-new expressions.”[5] This kind of constructive project would elucidate why the initial textual gospel was not only read by early Christians but was furthermore imitated by continued use of the textual medium for gospel composition. Gospel textualization thus underscores the significance of the initial “watershed moment” of textualization for each subsequent written gospel’s discrete contribution to the emerging early Christian construal of textuality.


In summary, gospel textualization forces us to think about written gospels in terms other than simply how textuality should be juxtaposed with orality by instead asking what early Christians intended text itself to be and do. Among the manifold means by which we reconstruct early Christianity, seeking to understand their distinctive “media culture” serves as an exciting new research venue with considerable promise.


Written by Julia Lindenlaub



[1] Werner H. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983). Though Kelber’s views developed substantially from this initial publication, it was this first work that truly defined the parameters of the subsequent conversation.

[2] For critique of this position, see for example: Larry Hurtado, “Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark: A Critical Assessment of Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel,Bulletin for Biblical Research 7 (1997): 91-106.

[3] Chris Keith, “Prolegomena on the Textualization of Mark’s Gospel: Manuscript Culture, the Extended Situation, and the Emergence of the Written Gospel,” in Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity: A Conversation with Barry Schwartz, Semeia Studies 78 (ed. Tom Thatcher; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2014), 162.

[4] Keith, “Prolegomena,” 180.

[5] Chris Keith, “Early Christian Book Culture and the Emergence of the First Written Gospel,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism: Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, Library of New Testament Studies 528 (eds. Chris Keith and Dieter Roth; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 38. For Keith’s presentation of “competitive” textualization among written gospels, see also: Chris Keith, “The Competitive Textualization of the Jesus Tradition in John 20:30-31 and 21:24-25,” Catholic Bible Quarterly 78.2 (2016): 321-37.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 15th February 2017


  • Bryant J. Williams III, 15th February 2017 at 9:09 pm | Reply


    Interesting and intriguing article. It would seem to me that there is a considerable misunderstanding of the way oral and written cultures work. It would also seem that illiterate and literate cultures are misconstrued as well. The “assured results” of historical, source, form, redaction and narrative criticism have been found to be wanting. It is more complex and yet simple.

    Take Israelite society. The Israelites seem to be more literate than other cultures. They had a oral culture yet also a written culture. The Israelite society communicated in oral form yet put a high premium on written documents. Thus, a person who is illiterate would still place a high value on written documents even when he could not read or write.

    With regards to documents of a more literary nature, i.e. the Tanakh, or Old Testament and the New Testament. There is more to those texts than first meets the eye. It is quite apparent that a very high premium was placed on those who knew how to read and write to do so in written form whether or not the targeted audience was able to read or write also.

    I could say more, but I think that you get the gist.

    • Julia Lindenlaub, 16th February 2017 at 1:30 pm | Reply


      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I certainly agree with you that cultures functioning with high levels of orality can place a premium on the status and function of written texts as well. In writing this post, I intended to call attention to the relationship between oral and textual media that you have rightly noted, and I hope that gospel textualization has provided a profitable way of framing the conversation. I’m glad the emphasis came across and appreciate the interaction. 


  • Chris Keith, 17th February 2017 at 2:58 am | Reply

    Julia, I was very happy to stumble across this brief description, with which I obviously agree. I look forward to seeing what you produce in your work.

    • Julia Lindenlaub, 18th February 2017 at 1:31 am | Reply

      Professor Keith,

      So glad you came across this! I really appreciate your work and enjoyed reflecting on it. I’m grateful for the response and look forward to sharing more of my research as it progresses.

      All the best,


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