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Review of The Clementine Gospel Tradition by Dennis Barton

Review by Daniel Iglesias Grčzes

The Church Fathers and other Christian writers of the first five centuries of the Christian Era who dealt with the order in which the four canonical Gospels were written agree on two facts: The Gospel of Matthew was the first and the Gospel of John was the last. However, there were two traditions within the great Tradition of the Church about the other two Gospels: one held the Matthew-Mark-Luke-John order and the other the Matthew-Luke-Mark-John order. Eventually the first tradition (sometimes called Augustinian) prevailed, especially since St. Augustine and St. Jerome, perhaps after some hesitation, leaned in their favor. In particular St. Jerome adopted the Matthew-Mark-Luke-John order in his translation of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), which was enormously successful. Of course that is the order in which the four Gospels appear in all Bibles of our time. However, the other traditional order of the Gospels, often called the Clementine Tradition because its oldest known witness is St. Clement of Alexandria, also merits serious consideration.


What might perhaps have been a minor issue, of interest only to historians and exegetes, nevertheless became a very important issue for the following reason. The great majority of exegetes who, from the 19th century on, practiced the modern historical-critical study of the Bible, while maintaining John as "the fourth Gospel", decidedly discarded Matthew as "the first Gospel", placing Mark in that privileged position. The theory of the Priority of Mark first prevailed among German Protestant theologians and then spread from Germany to the rest of the world, attracting the adherence of a vast majority of exegetes: first Protestants and then (especially after the Second Vatican Council) also Catholics. This theory, complemented by the Q source hypothesis, is today the most popular "solution" to the "synoptic problem", that is, the problem posed by the similarities and dissimilarities between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the so-called "Synoptic Gospels".


Despite the waste of ingenuity of its supporters, the two-source (Mark and Q) hypothesis did not really solve the synoptic problem. Furthermore, the theory of Markan priority did serious damage to Christian apologetics, because it helped to spread widely the belief in the late composition of the Gospels. Today the most common dating of the Gospels is like this: Mark in the 70s of the 1st century, Matthew and Luke in the 80s and John in the 90s. Therefore, the Gospels would have been composed two or three generations after Christ. The rationalist and liberal exegetes who promoted the priority of Mark viewed the evangelists as creative theologians, not as credible witnesses to the life and teaching of Jesus. According to them, the canonical Gospels would not allow us to access the historical Jesus, but rather the "Christ of Faith", a legendary or mythical character.


A minority exegetical current that defends the Clementine Tradition was initiated by Henry Owen (1716-1796) and continued by other British scholars. In the last decades of the 20th century, the main figure of this trend was Bernard Orchard OSB (1910-2006), a Catholic priest, a Benedictine monk and a prominent biblical scholar. As if putting the parts of a puzzle together, Orchard finally offered a satisfactory solution to the synoptic problem, which has the following main advantages: a) it reconciles the Clementine Tradition and the Augustinian Tradition, explaining how the order of composition of the Gospels was Matthew-Luke-Mark-John and its order of publication was Matthew-Mark-Luke-John; b) it annuls the theory of Markan priority, placing again Matthew in his traditional position as the first Gospel; c) it combines the historical data of the oldest church tradition with the literary analyses of the historical-critical method; d) it strongly supports the healthy current trend to revert to early dating of the four Gospels.


Unfortunately, Father Orchard passed away in 2006 without being able to fully expose his theory. That is why Dennis Barton, a disciple of Orchard, published The Clementine Gospel Tradition in 2013, presenting the fundamental ideas of his teacher and adding his own contributions. Barton offers a very understandable solution, accepted by Orchard himself, to the problem of the end of the Gospel of Mark.


Dennis Barton passed away in 2017. The second edition of The Clementine Gospel Tradition was published that same year. That's the edition I translated into Spanish, with permission from Mark Alder, a friend of Dennis Barton's who took over his very interesting Church in History website (http://www.churchinhistory.org). Both that Barton site and Alder's site, Chistendom Awake (http://www.christendom-awake.org), have high-quality and very interesting content, although they are little known.


I published my translation of Barton's book chapter by chapter throughout this year on my blog (https://www.infocatolica.com/blog/razones.php). Now I offer the entire book in PDF format. It can be downloaded for free at this page: Dennis Barton, La tradición clementina de los Evangelios.


If you speak Spanish, I highly recommend you to download and read La tradición clementina de los Evangelios by Dennis Barton. Besides, I ask your help to spread this valuable book as widely as possible.

 Daniel Iglesias Grčzes

Version: 14th January 2022

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