The Markan bombshell

The evidence that Mark is the oldest of the canonical gospels was not examined systematically until the 1830s, but the argument has by now gained general acceptance among non-fundamentalist scholars, and I have endorsed the principle of Markan priority here and here .

There is a tradition that believers at Rome rejoiced to have Mark’s account – they were, after all, over 30 years removed from the living ministry of Jesus and had only recently been deprived of the presence of Peter and Paul (if we accept the view which places Mark late 60s AD, probably after the death of Peter).

However, as I suggested in an earlier post, the date of Mark’s ‘publication’ (i.e. the day a first copy was sent to Ephesus or Jerusalem) might be called one of those “good news / bad news” days for God and the church. Think of it – this abbreviated record, suddenly authoritative at Rome, is dumped into the laps of other tradition-communities by a writer who has failed to consult with them about their own traditions before going public with an epoch-making narrative about an epoch-making career. In these apostolic communities I think Mark must have had the effect of a literary ‘bombshell’.

[Note: the next two paragraphs are a revision of the original, re-written Nov 23, 2011]

The canonical status of Matthew, Luke, and John is equal to that of Mark, and this only affirms a basic condition of all testimony – that somebody must go first, and that it would be absurd to argue from the literary priority of testimony to its primacy over later testimony with regard to fact.  We should not be surprised if a large amount of narrative and logia was still ‘out there’ when Mark ‘hit the streets’ – and I think we can trust that most of it is represented by what we find in the three later-appearing gospels.

So Mark’s priority in time gives it no a priori privilege over the theological or christological content of the three later-appearing Gospels.  We might even question the motive and good faith of anyone who would attempt to finesse the literary priority of Mark’s threadbare account into an implied authority for a ‘minimalist’ interpretation of Jesus based on Mark alone (or on Mark and an imagined ‘Q’ document). I would certainly question the motive and good faith of a non-christian writer like Adam Gopnik for example, who has indulged his sophisticated New Yorker editors and readers with a very uneven and gently mocking article, What did Jesus do? (May 24, 2010), based very strictly on Mark alone.

For better or for worse (and I touched on some of Mark’s ‘positives’ in an earlier post), we should view Mark’s narrative premiere as a kind of material antithesis of the Incarnation, an epochal event which sets in motion an inevitable dialectical process by which three additional compilations of equal authority appear within about 35 years.

Priority of Mark (2) – What it means for the other Gospels

St. Mark - French XV Cent. - Rosenwald coll.

Last week I called the principle of Markan priority a good place to start in NT criticism.  That post probably sounded naïve to anyone not joined with one of the Christian inerrancy cults.  Because the priority of Mark is a very well-established principle in mainstream Christian hermeneutics, and there would seem to be no need to belabor that.  In fact, I realize now that my post was a kind of outreach, over the head of the mainstream, toward those who would gladly accept a key to NT criticism by which they may extract themselves from the fundamentalists without losing their religion.

There are two substantial reasons why I think the priority of Mark is a critical principle suitable for all Christians and compatible with a living faith in all four gospels.

First of all, it is a source theory which concerns a real text, itself canonical, rather than an imaginary one such as ‘Q’.  The hypothesis of Q is not required as a condition for accepting the priority of Mark.  These two elements of what is called the “Two-Source Theory” are completely independent from each other.  And I find it easy to reject both Q and the Two-Source Theory, with adequate scholarly support for my rejection (although it is a minority view).  Yet I can find no compelling grounds for the rejection of Mark’s historical priority among the four gospels.

Secondly, literary or historical priority is a principle which does not create or require a theological bias for Mark over against the other gospels.  Placing Mark’s Gospel text first in time gives his material a special critical interest in relation to its effect upon the writers of the other three Gospels, but this value does not give Mark’s theological content higher status than the content of the other three.

The Four Evangelists - Carolingian miniature

Nor would the fact that the other writers used Mark as a source make their later gospels inferior to Mark, or further removed from ‘the original’ than Mark.  If God lives, if the Spirit and the Son still dwell with mankind, there are no logical grounds for basing spiritual priority or authority on the fact of a document’s historical priority.  That would be a fundamental category error.

Having said that, it remains a fact that the truth about any historical person, event, or idea often lies a little loosely to the narrative structure when encountered in its first recording; truth often benefits from exposure to a wider sample of experience and a longer period of reflection on the facts.  Later writing therefore often represents riper fruitBut neither does this suggest that placing Mark first in time takes something away from the value of his unique contribution to the record about Jesus – A gospel’s truth is measured at the circumference of a circle whose center is not a text, but a living and speaking Jesus.

With these preliminaries out of the way, I want next to introduce a view of Mark in a context of gospel history which is not much celebrated by scholars, but will I think be of increasing interest to the next theology.

Priority of Mark – the foundation of a faithful literary criticism

Markan Priority is the dominant critical theory used to explain the fact that Mark, Matthew and Luke exhibit a certain conformity of content and narrative superstructure – despite all their differences.  The theory dominates for good reason – because it really does offer the best of all possible explanations for this conformity among the three gospels called the synoptics.

To my evangelical friends who would suggest that the Holy Spirit was the likely source of this conformity, I want to say we are talking about a very human type of conformity here which has its share of contradiction and confusion.  I question the need of invoking the Spirit to secure such a plainly human outcome, when a perfectly natural explanation is available.

The four Evangelists - Carolingian miniature

In a nutshell, Markan priority goes like this:  A comparison of all three synoptic gospels in unison shows that the Markan structure and language is usually the default position for Matthew and Luke when either one disagrees with the other in content or chronology covered by Mark.   This does suggest that these later writers very likely had a copy of Mark’s writing before them, and incorporated as much of this original account into their work as seemed warranted to them by the demands of their own unique material.  This editorial process included mostly retention and revision of Mark, and some outright rejection (without much re-arrangement of Mark’s order).

According to my English authority, Vincent Taylor (The Gospel According to St. Mark, 1953), Markan priority was first enunciated in this very general way by C. Lachmann in 1835 and was soon elaborated by C.G. Wilke (1838) and C.H. Weisse (1838).  It was finally established as a convincing element in the solution to the synoptic problem by the work of Bernard Weiss (1886) and H.J. Holtzmann (1901).  The theory began to attract the attention of British and American critical scholars at the end of the first decade of the 20th Century, but was not treated adequately in a major commentary, according to Taylor,  until that of Rawlinson in 1925 (Taylor, pp.10-12).

[NOTE 25 April: as early as the 1907 ICC commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, I find author W.C. Allen making a thorough application of Markan priority to his subject – to brilliant effect.]