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.

Understanding the synoptic gospels without Q

What’s at stake in the challenge mounted by Mark Goodacre and a few others against the hypothetical Q document?  Q is a major theoretical pillar of modern New Testament source criticism, and we can be sure there is a mass of academic ego on the line, and great stacks of painstaking research and interpretation threatened with obsolescence.  In other words, the discussion isn’t going to happen.  Because those stakes are too high.

Modern criticism is now so heavily invested in the Q-romance of an imagined “lost” gospel containing primitive logia of Jesus that any general acceptance of Goodacre’s argument might cause a crisis in NT hermeneutics.  I believe that the gospels would be just fine in the exchange, but I think it would be a long time before the failed theological ties to the imaginary Q were sorted out, and scholars became adept at re-interpreting this double-tradition as simply that portion of material new to the author of Matthew which Luke also saw warrant to repeat in his own Gospel.

I am in general agreement with Goodacre and with Austin Farrer (1955) and Michael Goulder (1989), because I think Luke’s dependence on Matthew explains the common material between them better than Q-theory.  With the object of fortifying myself in this regard, I have had Goodacre’s book, The Case Against Q (2002), home from the library since early April.  But I have been distracted by the Johannine passion, Historical Jesus, N. T. Wright, reading Kant, priority of Mark, and other interests.

In a comment I made over at Near Emmaus yesterday, however, I cited my rejection of Q in support of a point I was making about the dating of Matthew.  Well I started to feel the need for some study of the problem in depth, because I didn’t want to be hanging out there with nothing but a personal preference for Luke’s dependence on Matthew.

The last straw came this morning, however, when I sat down with Ernst Fuch’s 1960 Berlin lecture, “Jesus’ Understanding of Time” (Studies of the Historical Jesus, SCM Press, 1964, p.104).  I’ve had Fuchs’ book home only a week, wanting to give the post-Bultmann scholars of the New Quest – and Fuchs in particular – a fair turn.  However, from the first paragraph it became apparent that I could not follow the author’s thesis without possessing an utter faith in the existence of Q (a faith which I don’t have).  After four pages, I put the book down and reached for Goodacre.

I want to nail this argument now, and will post a short review series on The Case Against Q in the near future.

Luke, John, and the trials of Jesus (Part 3)

Here I want to place Luke and John in closer relation to Mark’s 20 verses on the period between the arrest and the trial before Pilate, and to changes in Mark introduced by the author of Matthew

To me it seems unusual that Mark has recounted everything he has heard about this night as if it happened at a single location.  The confinement of Jesus, the denial of Peter, the first Jewish trial, the spitting, mocking, beating, and taunting, and the second, early morning consultation of the council – everything seems to occur at the same Jerusalem address.  One  reason to doubt the authenticity of this feature in Mark is, as I  suggested in a previous post , the fact that Luke contradicts Mark’s single-location storyline, and is  supported by the author of the gospel of John.

Attention to details of location is a characteristic quality of a good eyewitness report.  If we can believe Luke and John, Mark’s sources have missed an important change of scene. For the purpose of retelling the events which he has in hand, Mark has pretty good control of his ‘collapsed’ singularity of location.  However, when the author of Matthew blithely accepts Mark’s single-location story but attempts to flesh it out with additional facts and assumptions, the results are even less acceptable to John and arguably to Luke as well (For signs of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew’s passion, see Michael D. Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm,1989, pp. 6-7, etc.).

The Gospel of Matthew adds to Mark’s opening verses two new things (Mk14:53-4/ Mt 26:57-8).  First, in 26:57, is the  assumption that the location to which Jesus was taken immediately after his arrest was the residence of Caiaphas.  This addition, which seems at least to be a  reasonably well-educated guess,  is not confirmed by Luke and is flatly contradicted by John. Next, in 26:58, is the elimination of Mark’s courtyard fire, and the addition of a specific intent of Peter to ‘see’ the result of the trial.  This could be an attempt to raise Peter’s status as eyewitness, but more to the point, the implied darkness and outerness of Mark’s fire-lit courtyard is gone in Matthew – we now appear to be in an indoor court.  I think it is very interesting that Luke and John, who do not follow Matthew in this matter of identifying the residence with Caiaphas, retain Mark’s outdoor fire.

Too often I think modern critics of the gospels ascribe to the apostles and evangelists unworthy aims and ulterior motives in their writing.

Duccio di Buoninsenga - Jesus before Annas/Peter's first denial

But I find three practical and historical inducements for the author of John to make changes in the recorded history of events immediately following the arrest of Jesus: 

(1)  Correction of the tendency  of Matthew’s  additional matter to alter events remembered differently by his own sources;

(2)  Support for Luke’s tradition of a second location for the Jewish trial over the single-location version of Mark (followed by Matthew);

(3)  Introduction of eyewitness material  which builds on Luke’s two-location story by correcting the location of Peter’s denial – in the courtyard of Annas before Jesus is taken to Caiaphas for the official trial.

Note:  The right of Annas to interview Jesus before trial seems indirectly confirmed by the report of the historian Josephus (Ant.xviii.2.1 f) – that the wealthy former high priest was long a power in Judaism after the Romans arbitrarily removed him as high priest (an office traditionally granted for life).  I think Edersheim has evidence that Annas retained rule over the temple trade in animals and coin (I’ll confirm that).

For a treatment of the problem from a strictly synoptic viewpoint, without the help of the Fourth Gospel, see Matthew D. Larsen’s series on the Jewish trials.

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.]

Luke, John, and the trial[s] of Jesus (Part 2)

My aim in this series is simply to demonstrate an example of how the Gospel of John can contribute to the solution of problems of historical detail in cases where the synoptics offer conflicting or confusing reports of events in the life of Jesus – in this case the events occurring after the arrest of Jesus and before he is brought to Pilate.

For analysis of the synoptic side of the problem I am glad to have Matthew D. Larsen’s three recent posts on the Jewish trials only a click away. 

Larsen illustrates the matter and degree of Luke’s divergence from Mark and Matthew in his account of this night’s events, and offers an explanation of this divergence on the basis of the synoptics alone.  For my part, I wish to show that the Fourth Gospel narrative holds a key to a better explanation of Luke’s differences.

Modern criticism has long taken note of the uncanny similarities between Luke and John in some particulars of their accounts following Jesus’ arrest.    The point is not that Luke follows John here (hardly possible), but rather that John, knowing the work of all three predecessors, lends support to Luke’s version by contributing to the story a key fact to which he alleges himself an eyewitness.

I will start with the first two particulars of the Luke-John resemblance and continue with some others in my next post.

1a. In Luke 22:54 Jesus is brought after arrest ‘into the high priest’s house’ (Caiaphas is not named by Luke) with Peter following afar off, but there is no report of an official trial until Jesus is moved to a different location.

1b.  In John’s narrative (Jn18:13), ‘they led him away to Annas first’ (the former high priest), with Peter (and John) following him there.  There is no report of an official trial at this first location (only an interview between Annas and Jesus).  From here Jesus is taken to a different location (to Caiaphas).

2a. In Luke, it is at this (unnamed) high priest’s house that Peter’s denial takes place, and not in a location associated with a trial.

2b. In John it is the walled courtyard (Jn18:16) of the house of the high priest Annas (not any place associated with a trial) that Peter’s denial of Jesus takes place.

The Johannine tradition of Peter’s denial separates it spatially and temporally from the trial before Caiaphas.  If Luke has also heard of this two-location tradition, and judged it closer to the truth, it would explain his stubborn rejection of Mark’s single-location setting for Peter’s denial and the official trials and abuses, etc., of Jesus.

[to be continued]

Part 1 of this series can be found here

The Gospel of John meets NT Wright at Wheaton

This morning’s studies have been illuminated by the ongoing Wheaton Conference blogging of Nijay Gupta especially the link I found there to the conference videos and MP3

Needless to say I was very much edified to listen in full to Marianne Meye Thompson’s talk on “The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God.”  Thompson gives a convincing recommendation of the value of John’s Gospel as a supplement (and more than a supplement) to the ostensibly limited synoptic views of NT Wright’s book.

I doubt Wright will contradict, although I haven’t been able to find interaction between him and Thompson yet. 

Thanks to Brian LePort at Near Emmaus for the initial link to Nijay’s post.

Luke, John, and the trial[s] of Jesus

I have been looking on at Matthew D. Larsen’s blog as he analyzes the differences between the synoptic versions of the Jewish trial[s] of Jesus.  Matt has made it pretty clear that Luke differs too much here to call this part of the story a ‘synoptic’ view of events.  I think the synoptics fail here to deliver (as a threesome) a cohesive ‘history’ of events between Jesus’ arrest and his appearance before Pilate.

Mr. Larsen has exercised his critical right to attempt an explanation of why Luke isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Mark and Matthew at this point.  Now I want to suggest that – not in all cases but in this particular case – when the synoptics are in conflict, an examination of the Fourth Gospel is warranted before attempting a solution based upon the synoptics alone.

Recently I was pleased to find a very early modern example of a fruitful resort to the Gospel of John to solve the riddle of Luke’s diversion from Mark and Matthew in the matter of these trials.  F.D.E. Schleiermacher applies the text of John to the problem of this particular synoptic conflict in his lectures of 1832 on the life of Jesus (The Life of Jesus, Eng 1975, p.395-401).  And Schleiermacher was not ignorant of the modern criticism of John’s historicity – neither Strauss nor FC Bauer had yet published, but he knew and rejected Karl Bretschneider’s early (1820) attack on John (Ibid, Introduction, p.xxxi).

John’s account differs significantly from the account in Mark by its rejection of Mark’s report of an immediate appearance before Caiaphas.  And this is a place that Luke differs from Mark as well.  John states that Jesus (with Peter and ‘another disciple’ following) was first taken to the house of Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law to Caiaphas.

Could John be here offering an eyewitness account which enables this synoptic ‘problem’ to be solved?  Schleiermacher thought so (p.398).  Is John’s claim of relation to the high priest (whether by business or marriage) absurd for a son of Zebedee of Capernaum? And is it fair to assume that ‘another disciple’ (18:15) is an authorial reference?  In future posts I want to examine what special characteristic of ‘eyewitness’ accounts scholars have noticed in John.

In my next post I will show how huge this material from John can be for a better understanding of events which transpired between the arrest of Jesus and his appearance before Pilate.  Larsen has done his work by showing how tenuous our ground of resort to the synoptics is (since Luke differs so much from the other two).