Friday, May 8, 2009

St Mark and the Order of the Gospels

Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark. It is interesting and instructive to read the earliest recorded traditions about St Mark and the origins of his Gospel, all of which agree that the author of the second canonical Gospel was the companion of the Apostle Peter mentioned in I Pet. 5:13 (The church that is in Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you, and so doth Marcus my son).

Papias (60-130), bishop of Hieropolis (whom St Irenaeus recalls as "an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp"), writes:
This also the presbyter [John] said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely. (Cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15.)
Later Clement of Alexandria (150-215) confirms this tradition. He writes the following, based on the tradition he heard from an early presbyter in Alexandria, concerning the order in which the Gospels were written:
The Gospels containing the genealogies were written first. The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it. But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel. (Cited in Eusebius, EH, 6.14.6-7.)
St Irenaeus (c.115-202) writes:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Against Heresies, 3.1.1.)
Origen (c. 185- c.254) writes:
Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language. The second is by Mark, who composed it according to the instructions of Peter, who in his Catholic epistle acknowledges him as a son, saying, 'The church that is at Babylon elected together with you, salutes you, and so does Marcus, my son.' [1 Peter 5:13] And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts. Last of all that by John. (Cited in Eusebius, EH, 6.25.4-6.)
Two centuries later, the Blessed Augustine (354-430) writes:
Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world, and whose number has been fixed as four—it may be for the simple reason that there are four divisions of that world through the universal length of which they, by their number as by a kind of mystical sign, indicated the advancing extension of the Church of Christ—are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John [...] For Matthew is understood to have taken it in hand to construct the record of the incarnation of the Lord according to the royal lineage, and to give an account of most part of His deeds and words as they stood in relation to this present life of men. Mark follows him closely, and looks like his attendant and epitomizer. (Harmony of the Gospels, 1.2.3-4.)
What is perhaps most striking for the modern reader is that each of these authorities (with the exception of Papias, who is silent on the issue) writes that the Gospel of St Mark was written after that of St Matthew. Now, anyone who has taken a college course on the New Testament or read a single work of modern New Testament scholarship will recall that today it is nearly a point of dogma that St Mark's Gospel was the first to be written; this is the basic premise of nearly every modern attempt to solve the so-called synoptic problem. But it remains a stubborn fact that no one until the nineteenth century questioned that the Gospel of St Matthew, and not of St Mark, was written first. What exactly we should do with this information is a more difficult question, and one that I'm not competent to answer. If we are to take the authority of the ancient witnesses seriously – and I am convinced we should – then at the very least we should not accept the reigning (and admittedly elegant) two-source hypothesis (or hypotheses) without first giving serious thought to the witness of a tradition that dates back to the very origins of Christianity. For more on this question, see the Wiki entry on the Augustinian Hypothesis.

UPDATE: Kevin Edgecomb recommends Stephen Carlson's website for a "remarkably clear and helpful description of the Synoptic Problem." For more on the Griesbach Hypothesis (also known as the Two Gospel Hypothesis, which closely resembles the model proposed by Clement of Alexandria above, differing somewhat from the Augustinian Hypothesis, and is endorsed by Kevin and Esteban in the comments below) see here, here, and here.


Philippa said...

This is simply brilliant! I am so grateful you have posted this. Thanks be to God!

As a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy, when I learned of the Early Church Fathers prior to my reception into the Holy Church, I was very upset that no one had every told me about them. To find out that there were historical documents written by the very students of the Apostles of Christ, not the Holy Gospel writers and within 100 years was like finding a silver dollar in the middle of the beach! I was overjoyed!

Why? Because so many of my questions which were answered, "I do not know," now had an answer.

The Gospel of St. Mark is one of my favorites, if one is permitted to have a favorite Gospel, along with the Epistle to the Philippians.

"I can do all things through He who strengthens me."

orrologion said...

I'm wary of a lot of critical theory for the simply fact that we don't know how much primary data we have or don't have. There's the old story of the blind philosophers and the elephant, and there is the play "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard, both of which tell the tale of stories built on wrong guesses based on partial knowledge. They are good as far as educated guesses go, but are of limited value or reliability (potentially) in the end.

orrologion said...


Mark is one of my favorites, too. There was a turn of phrase in a recent reading that just surprised me so much in Mark. Of course, as a Protestant, I was more enamored of the Pauline Epistles and arguments about Genesis, so perhaps I simply missed most of the Gospels growing up - except in paraphrase.

Matthew said...

The Liturgy of St. Mark is going to be served tomorrow at the English Mission Chapel of St. Sergius of Radonezh located in the Synod building in Manhattan, NY. This is the first time ever that it will be served in English. The translation was done by Bishop Jerome who will be serving the Liturgy. For the last three years it has been served in Slavonic at Holy Trinity Monastery through the labors of some seminarians and Abbot Luke. This Slavonic translation was also done by Bishop Jerome.

orrologion said...

I remembering reading of this Liturgy's approval by ROCOR, but wondered why. Is it, like the Liturgy of St. James, still served in the Orthodox world or is it being truly revived from having fallen out of continuous use? Is there a particular ethnic group or local church that ROCOR is trying to reach? is it very much like the Western Rite or any other Liturgy used in contemporary Orthodoxy?

I'll be in NYC tomorrow, but at 2nd Street for my name day Liturgy and the baptism of a Muslim convert.

Felix Culpa said...

Tomorrow, and not today?

Esteban Vázquez said...

It is a happy development that the Two-Gospel (or Neo-Griesbachian) Hypothesis--i.e., that described by Clement above, Mt-Lk-Mk--has experienced a revival in recent years. Some of us swear by it, and can assert that we've never been Q-tards, or even Marcan priorists! ;-)

Matthew said...

Yes, tomorrow and not today. I can only speculate that more people will be able to attend tomorrow instead of today hence the timing.

It was translated in 1997 by Bishop Jerome into Slavonic and English. Holy Trinity Monastery first used it in 2007 and Holy Cross also celebrates the feast of St. Mark with it. For Bp. Jerome's skills as a linguist note this short interview

The service is the original, traditional liturgy of the Alexandrian Church, used by the great hierarchs of Christ Athanasios, Cyrill, Makarios, Dionysios and others. Manuscript texts of this liturgy date back to the fourth century, but more ancient fragments exist. The most recent text (dating to 1585 during the time of the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria Meletios Pigas) was approved and published by St. Nektarios of Aegina.

As far as I know it's not being revived for use as a weekly liturgy and I haven't heard that it is being used to reach anyone, although it is interesting that it has been translated into English.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Such joy and enthusiasm is a delight to see, Philippa!

I concur with Esteban. I will add to the recommendations of our esteemed and reverend host, in directing people to the remarkably clear and helpful description of the Synoptic Problem in the website of Stephen Carlson. He provides descriptions of all the various suggestions, with (I find) very helpful graphics.

Due to a relatively recent experiment, I myself am 100% convinced of the accuracy of the Griesbach Hypothesis, also known as the Two Gospel Hypothesis: Matthew first, then Luke using Matthew, then Mark using both Matthew and Luke. The Augustinian organization differs slightly in placing Luke in last place, drawing on both Matthew and Mark. Aside from the fairly abstruse textual issues, Matthew is precisely the kind of writing that we should expect to have been the first Gospel, one that reflects strongly the culture of Judea and its literary and intellectual heritage.

Felix Culpa said...

Kevin and Esteban (and whoever else wants to weigh in):

What's your take on the contention that St Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Well, I figure it might just be an inference from the very Septuagintal Greek that it's written in. There's no trace of an authentic Hebrew version. I suppose it's possible, but it would have to have been translated into Greek so quickly after the Hebrew was written for us to end up in the situation that there is really only the single text-tradition of Greek Matthew to deal with. If the Hebrew had existed and been spread abroad, we would have evidence of alternate translations of Matthew. It's much more likely that Matthew was written in a very Hebrew-reflective Greek, and that later authors considered the strong similarity of its style to the Septuagint works which were translated from Hebrew to be probative of its origin as a Hebrew document.

That's the direction I'm leaning. Esteban will need to plunk something out using his onscreen keyboard, as the inimical bodiless forces (and/or their favorite operating system, Windows Vista) have made all keyboards inoperative with his laptop.

Felix Culpa said...

Thank you for your insights. Your approach certainly makes a good deal of practical sense. I myself have always wondered what happened to the original Hebrew text if there ever was one.

To shift the subject just a bit, I've been reading parts of John A. T. Robinson's "Redating the New Testament," in which he famously argues for a pre-70 dating for all the books of the NT. The late Carsten Thiede made same claims, albeit based on different evidence, in various of his works.

What do you think of Robinson's book, and more generally of arguments dating the composition of the books of the NT before the destruction of the Temple? (I know that's a big question.)

I wonder if you have anywhere on your site a sort of guide for those perplexed by modern Biblical scholarship (both of the OT and the NT). Where, for instance, does one turn for a no-nonsense treatment of something like the Documentary Hypothesis? Unfortunately I can't think of a single Orthodox Biblical scholar that I can trust, and I often have no real idea of where to turn when looking for sensible treatments of questions of Biblical scholarship, treatments that neither simply follow the latest fashionable whims of fancy nor retreat into reactionary fundamentalism - yet all the while written in a language that a non-specialist could understand. I know that's a tall order, but is there any chance you could send me somewhere that could fill it?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Yes, Father, the Robinson book is quite good, and quite convincing. The direction that Robinson's work is taken by E. Earle Ellis in his History and Interpretation in New Testament Perspective is, I think, probative of pre-70 origins for the Synoptic Gospels (John still being quite a bit later). The book partly relies on an earlier work of Ellis' (The Making of the New Testament Documents, in which he tracks evidence of "pre-formed traditions", and suggests that there were several missionary centers in the early church, and that each of the Gospels can be related to these: Matthew to Jerusalem under James, Mark to Rome under Peter, Luke to Paul at Antioch and elsewhere, and John at Ephesus. The Luke-Paul connection is almost trivial, it's so obvious. Mark to Peter relies upon not only tradition, but the anti-apostolic attitude displayed in Mark (i.e., the senior apostle looking back in an attitude of "How could we/I have been so stupid?!"). The Matthew and James at Jerusalem is obvious on consideration, and is receiving greater support, particularly when the Epistle of James is, as lately, coming more often to be considered authentic. I've got what looks like a great volume which should provide one of the first synthesized treatments of this in Huub Van De Sandt and Juergen K. Zangenberg, Matthew, James, and Didache: Three Related Documents in Their Jewish and Christian Settings. I've yet to read it, but am looking forward to it. I think it's absolutely the case that, time-wise, the three Synoptic Gospels were written pre-70, and in fact pre-66, before the Revolt really took off. Matthew must predate 62, as that is the date that Luke-Acts appears to have been composed, and Luke clearly used Matthew. Mark would then date sometime 62-65. How early Matthew was written could be as early as the late 30s or early 40s, as I think Ellis suggested, and which is perhaps reflected in Mt 24.15, at a time when Caligula was insisting that his image was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, up until 41. Claudius, of course, cancelled such plans. So, there are some rather plausible possibilities: Matthew circa 40, Luke-Acts circa 62, Mark circa 62-65. I waver on John, though. I still lean toward its being written later, in the nineties, though I'm willing to be convinced. It's the strong similarity to the Epistles of John ("the old man"), coupled with all of tradition on the matter that it was a later gospel rather than an earlier one, that influence me on that score.

On the idea of a website, I don't really know of such a creature, nor have I ever really thought of such a thing before, oddly enough. I'll put some things together and run them by you. It would be a fun project for the summer, and of some utility, it seems.

Felix Culpa said...

Fascinating, thank you. This is all very helpful. It's not at all difficult to find good studies of patristic exegesis, but I've never had any sense of confidence in discerning who among biblical scholars can be trusted. These are helpful points of orientation.

While this can certainly wait, I'm equally interested in similar questions with regard to the OT. I confused myself a great deal while in the hospital by reading a number of books of fashionable but questionable scholarship. Here the question of dating becomes even more confusing to the layman. Whereas dating of the NT may not vary more than half a century, with the OT it can be up to a millennium! Maximalists and minimalists seem to be on entirely different planets reading entirely different Bibles. The most level-headed volume I came across, and read with great appreciation, was K. A. Kitchen, "On the Reliability of the Old Testament." But I'm still left with a headfull of questions and half-digested notions. It would really be enormously helpful - not just to myself, but to many others, I'm sure - to have some sort of canon of reliable scholarship.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

You're very welcome, Father.

The trick with any canon of modern scholarship relating to the Bible is that none of the presentations of these authors is entirely without exception. For instance, the very good Kitchen book is marred, I think, by his flawed argumentation (traditional to the field on this score and nothing innovative on his part) regarding a thirteenth century exodus. It is certainly to be placed in the fifteenth century. And though his work on chronology of the kings is excellent, there are a few minor quibbles which need correction from elsewhere. And this is the case with every scholar's work.

Last night I started putting together an outline for a page (perhaps someday a book--it's been in the back of my mind for some time now) providing introduction to issues regarding the OT and NT and the so-called Apocrypha, with special emphasis on presentation for an Orthodox audience. I intend to describe academic consensus issues and present the reasons for dissent when necessary, which is almost certainly in every case.

I've been reading on the OT issues for over two decades now. In addition to Kitchen, an effective and direct response to the minimalists is found in William Devers What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. The minimalists are generally characterized by shoddy scholarship, notably misprision of sources whether primary or secondary (a failure I have directly experienced, in interaction with one of the Great Grand Poobahs of the Minimalistii). Post-modern scholarship has obviously finally allowed the sub-mediocre to meet with success, in this as in every other field that its poisoned.

Even so, outside of academic Biblical Studies, much great work is going on, and I intend to highlight at least some of that work (much of it of impeccable quality, from a variety of fields). I intend as well to provide a short list of essential books which will be of use for a student of the subject. Having read through so much of it over the past two decades and more, and having read with discernment throughout that time, I'll be able to recommend them with proper provisos where necessary.

I'll email you a draft of the outline once I've completed it (in a few hours, likely). I'd find your input very helpful in refining its direction.

Felix Culpa said...

I look forward to all of this with great anticipation!

Esteban Vázquez said...

As Kevin notes, my keyboard problems persist and, regrettably, I am unable to meaningfully engage the discussion. I'll try, however, to contribute a few notes:

On the dating of the Synoptics:

For my money, the single most outstanding contemporary case for an early date is John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity, 1992). Wenham argues for the Augustinian hypothesis, but his fresh, daring, and brilliant argument is otherwise somewhere near completely convincing.

On whether Matthew had a Hebrew original:

I concur with Kevin. Further, it has always seemed to me that Papias' Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ is better rendered as "in a Hebrew manner of speech" (i.e., abounding in Semitisms and Semitic enhancements) rather than "in the Hebrew language." For a concise exposition of this view, see Robert H. Gundry, Mathew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pages 619-620.

On the maxi/mini wars:

Dever's penchant for overstatement makes me uneasy, but I do believe he's squarely in the ballpark. Davies, Lemche, Thompson et al. are not read unprofitably, but sometimes I lose my patience.

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