Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Markan Priority, The Modern Critical Text, and Evolution

Here’s one more follow up from David Black’s Why Four Gospels? (Energion, 2001, 2010):

In reflecting on how the theory of Markan priority managed to overturn the pre-critical view of Matthean priority and how it has tenatiously held sway in the scholarly community since the 1800s, Black observes:

The stubborn adherence to Markan priority in the face of all its weaknesses compels one to conclude that it has been regarded almost unconsciously as a dogma of scholarship over against the claims of the church to control the dogmatic interpretation of the Scriptures, for the critics seek always to offer an alternative explanation to that of church tradition and belief (pp. 42-43).

With this quote also comes an intriguing footnote which references W. R. Farmer’s The Synoptic Problem (1964).  Black recalls Farmer’s suggestion that the nineteenth century theory of Markan priority was accompanied and influenced by the rise of evolutionary thought (p. 43, note 25):

He notes that defenders of Markan priority were influenced by theological positions and “that ‘extra-scientific’ or ‘non-scientific’ factors exercised a deep influence in the development of a fundamentally misleading and false consensus” (190).  While rejecting a conscious connection between Markan priority and evolutionary social theory, he nevertheless concludes “that the Marcan hypothesis exhibited features which commended itself to men who were disposed to place their trust in the capacity of science to foster the development of human progress” (179).

Indeed, the theory of Markan priority is based on the assumption that the shortest Gospel (Mark) would be the most primitive and that Matthew and Luke would have expanded and added to their Markan source as the Gospel tradition evolved.  It also operates on the assumption that modern "scientific" methodology would allow researchers to uncover the origins of the Synoptic tradition and their primitive sources (Mark and Q). 

A similar suggestion might be made regarding the overthrow of the traditional original language text of Scripture in the nineteenth century in favor of the modern critical text.  It was based on the similar assumption that the lectio brevior (“shorter reading”) is the more primitive (original) and that the ecclesiastical text evolved through harmonization and expansion.  Scholars, then, using "scientific" methodology may recover the original text.  Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, Holzmann’s Die synoptischen Evangelien in 1863, and Wescott and Hort’s The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881.  Can it be that we are still dealing with the lingering influence of nineteenth century evolutionary thought in textual and Gospel studies?

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