Gospel Media – Nicholas Elder

Gospel Media: Reading, Writing, and Circulating Jesus Traditions by Nicholas A. Elder
Published by Eerdmans on January 4, 2024
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction
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Contextualizing the gospels in ancient Greco-Roman media practices

New Testament scholars have often relied on outdated assumptions for understanding the composition and circulation of the gospels. This scholarship has spread myths or misconceptions about how the ancients read, wrote, and published texts.  

Nicholas Elder updates our knowledge of the gospels’ media contexts in this myth-busting academic study. Carefully combing through Greco-Roman primary sources, he exposes what we take for granted about ancient reading cultures and offers new and better ways to understand the gospels. These myths include claims that ancients never read silently and that the canonical gospels were all the same type of text. Elder then sheds light on how early Christian communities used the gospels in diverse ways. Scholars of the gospels and classics alike will find Gospel Media an essential companion in understanding ancient media cultures.

How did we get the Bible? That’s a huge question and the answer is way more complicated than I went to the local Christian bookstore.” But even when we try to go deeper—to talk about the ways in which the elements of Scripture were brought together, experienced, and disseminated, we can sometimes rely on bad or outdated information. In Gospel Media, Nicholas A. Elder attempts to set the record straight and cut through the myths regarding how the ancient church experienced the Word of God.

First off, this is a thoroughly academic work. Elder’s thesis is narrow and niche. He limits himself to only the four canonical gospels and very strictly discusses only the reading of the gospels, the writing of the gospels, and the circulation of the gospels. Gospel Media contextualizes the experience and dissemination of the Gospels within its cultural context and encourages pastors and other leaders to update their knowledge and scholarship. Things that once were thought to be black-and-white are now seen in a more vibrant color. Elder’s reason for writing this book is that our knowledge and understanding has changed and so, to avoid the continued circulation of bad information, so must we. Gospel Media explicitly points out where new scholarship conflicts with old scholarship to ensure that readers understand how our knowledge has progressed and changed.

Each chapter of Gospel Media confronts a “myth” about the reading/writing/circulation of the Gospels and attempts to correct it. Part one focuses on reading practices, primarily countering the myth that reading in that age was always aloud and communal. Part two focuses on writing practices, noting that both dictation and handwriting were used extensively. Part three focuses on circulation practices, countering the myth that manuscripts were copied and moved out into a standard way.

While Elder is comprehensive, clear, and compelling, my continual thought through most of the book was “Okay…is anyone really arguing otherwise?” For example, the primary theme of the first part is that, unlike what Elder says is a common myth, people read privately and silently and not just aloud in communal places. He dives into contemporary Greek literature, discusses the neuropsychology of reading, and offers biblical and extra-biblical examples of private/silent reading. It’s an overwhelming amount of information, and the comprehensiveness is appropriate for his academic context, but I keep feeling like “Okay, I get it. I believe you. You’ve convinced me.”

Gospel Media is one of those books that is answering questions that not many people are asking and those who are asking them aren’t necessarily needing quite the amount of information given to satisfy them. It’s not often in academia you get a book that you can call the definitive work on a subject, but I think Gospel Media qualifies. Elder goes above and beyond to comprehensively and exhaustively make his case and thoroughly shut down the lingering myths regarding the way Scripture was read, written, and disseminated.