Eric Eve’s Writing the Gospels: Composition and Memory is a meticulous and persuasive investigation of the role memory may have played in the shaping of the Gospels as we possess them, and a powerful argument for memory as a major category in scholarly work on the texts. Overall, the book is engaging, informative and handles swathes of complex theory with a light and deft touch.
The book begins with a survey of reading and writing practices in the era of the New Testament, including material conditions, social stratification and perceived functions of writing. It then considers the Gospels as compositions, comparing them with available models, their avowed purposes and possible place in literary culture, concluding that “biblical bioi” is the most effective shorthand for their apparent status. There follows a survey of the materials available to the Evangelists such as written materials, oral traditions and eyewitness accounts, along with a discussion of compositional techniques and an evaluation of how far oral-tradition hypothesis might be useful or applicable.
Eve considers memory from a social-scientific point of view, drawing on scholarship around both individual recall and neuropsychology and the social and collective models of memory descended from Maurice Halbwachs’ work. These perspectives are then applied to the question of composition, the possible source and influence relationships between the Gospels, and the larger implications for continuing scholarship around Biblical criticism and Historical Jesus research.
The book is written with precision and clarity, giving ample accounts of the previous scholarship in the various fields it brings together. Because of the variety of material Eve draws on, this means that a good portion of the book is concerned with surveys of these topics, presenting the models generally in use and evaluating their usefulness. The argument can therefore seem a little obscured by the fairness and thoroughness with which the fields are sketched, but that same thoroughness does ensure that readers have a solid grasp of the surrounding concepts. It also gives readers a chance to appreciate the contingency of the conclusions at each stage, if they are not specialists in a particular area.
There is a great deal of absorbing material presented along the way to Eve’s argument about social memory: I was particularly struck by the accounts of material writing and compositional conditions. I also appreciated Eve’s insistence on making sense of the Gospels’ genre via reference to other forms, rather than declaring them entirely sui generis, a conclusion which he rightly points out would make them simply unreadable. The discussion of oral-traditional poetry was balanced and nuanced, though at times I wondered if the compositional issue might be further elucidated by considering the potential performance contexts. There were moments when “performance” seemed to be a bit confined by reference to histrionic impersonations or bardic on-the-spot composition, and some consideration of the other ways in which the Gospels were performed might have reflected back onto the shapes discernible within them which provide hints as to composition. However, this may be because of my own interests in performance: I appreciate that a work bringing s many complex fields together has to delimit its scope quite carefully.
Speaking of my own interests, I was intrigued by Eve’s use of a non-Biblical text as a long-running example and comparison. Shakespeare’s Richard III appeared so many times, to demonstrate the issues with reading from manuscripts, the processes of social and collective memory, and other concepts, that it nearly acquired the status of a dialogue partner within the monograph. This was partly due to the historiographical intricacies of the play, which Philip Schwyzer has so brilliantly expounded, but I did note the ways in which Eve’s use of the play went beyond Schwyzer’s analysis. This could have been for consistency’s sake, to show the multiple angles to a single complex text when different theoretical lenses are applied, but it is another placing of a Shakespeare text in continuous parallel with a set of Biblical texts, and it caught my interest.
Eric Eve, Writing the Gospels: Composition and Memory (SPCK: May 2016) ISBN: 978-0281073405. I am grateful to the publishers for providing a copy of the book for review.