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Dom Bernard Orchard (1910-2006)

 A Celebration of His Final Years

Note: Dom is a title of respect often used to prefix the names of Dominican monks.

Many obituaries have drawn attention to Dom Bernard’s achievements in education, his life-long enthusiasm to promote Sacred Scripture and his personal humility. But his most precious work, which crowned his long life of 96 years, is often missing. This is due to a failure to be aware of his achievement in biblical studies during the last years of his life. He fulfilled his ambition of establishing a credible alternative to the Markan Priority theory, regarding the order in which the Gospels were composed.

Although Dom Bernard studied Economics and History at Cambridge University, his love of Scripture was soon to be seen. From 1939-1945 he taught the New Testament at Downside Abbey where, in 1932, he had became a monk and, in 1939, a priest.

The Encyclical: Divino Afflante Spiritu issued in 1943, encouraged the understanding of Scripture by recognising ‘literary criticism’ as an excellent tool for research. Dom Bernard gave an immediate response, in that same year, by starting work as the General and NT Editor of: A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.

Published in 1953, this was the first such Catholic Commentary in one volume. In this way, he was taking the lead in promoting Catholic study and use of the Bible throughout the English-speaking world.

It was widely recognised that the ‘Revised Standard Version’ of the Bible was the clearest and most accurate available. It was based on the Protestant King James, Authorised Version. Dom Bernard negotiated with the authors of the modern revised edition and had the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, available for publication by 1956. But the Catholic authorities refused an Imprimatur.

In November 1965 the Second Vatican Council issued the Dogmatic Constitution: Dei Verbum and, in the new atmosphere, Dom Bernard quickly obtained an Imprimatur. With Father R. C. Fuller as joint editor, the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published in 1966 by the London, CTS.  In its red jacket, it became a major feature of British Catholic life.

Dom Bernard was active in other ways during these years, such as lecturing during 1969-1970 on the New Testament at the Totteridge Missionary Institute in London. Also, in 1969, he was a founding member and first chairman of the ‘World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate’ and, the following year, became its General Secretary.

After four years as Spiritual Director at the Beda College in Rome, he became: ‘Visiting Professor of New Testament Studies’ at the University of Dallas, Texas.  He also became a Trustee and Chairman of the: ‘Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain’ and a member of the ‘Studiorum Novi Testament Societas’, Great Britain.

Following the Second Vatican Council the need was felt to revise: The Catholic Commentary of Holy Scripture. So an editorial board was established and he became its chairman. But the editorial committee, appointed Markan Priorists to write the commentaries on the Gospels. This was a sad time for Dom Bernard.

For years he had devoted himself to promoting the Scriptures. Yet now, Catholic scholars were claiming that the freedom of research, permitted by Dei Verbum, justified them ignoring the historicity which the Church was maintaining.

They were adopting, as if proved, the Markan Priority theory held by Rationalists and liberal Protestant. They asserted that the first Gospel to be written was that by Mark, and that none of the four were written by an author who had known Christ. A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture was published in 1969.

From this time we see Dom Bernard centring his mind on upholding Dei Verbum and searching for a well-founded theory, which would accord with modern literary/textual analysis, while not conflicting with traditional teaching. His stand against Markan priority was not popular and he knew he would be treading a lonely path. It is this late period of his life, which has not been understood and recognised by writers of obituaries.

Providentially, his Order had prepared Dom Bernard for this mission. A fellow Benedictine, Dom John Chapman (1865-1933), had examined the priority of Mark theory with care and found it lacked supporting evidence. Chapman’s findings were published in: Matthew, Mark and Luke (1937). Another Benedictine, Abbot (later Bishop) Christopher Butler (1902-1986) continued this work in:

St. Luke’s Debt to St. Matthew in Harvard Theological Review 32 (1939) 237-308,

St. Paul’s Knowledge & Use of St. Matthew - Downside Review 60 (1948) 363-383.

The Originality of St. Matthew, Cambridge, 1951 (book).

Dom Christopher Butler had also contributed an article regarding: The Synoptic Problem to the 1969, A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. In this he provided a history of the problem, but was not responsible for the articles regarding individual Gospels.

For years, Dom Bernard had lived close to these two far-sighted fellow Benedictine Scripture scholars. So he was immune from the post-Vatican II Catholic rush to accept Rationalist and liberal Protestant theories.

Dom Bernard was encouraged by the work of William R. Farmer, an American Methodist lecturer in Biblical Studies. After teaching Markan Priority for years, Farmer came to realise that the arguments he was using to teach his students, were unsound.

In his The Synoptic Problem (1964), Farmer acknowledged how he had been persuaded against Markan Priority by the arguments put forward by Abbot Butler. Farmer’s book was limited to showing the errors of the theory. But in an expanded edition published in 1976, he made known his full support for the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence of composition.

During the same year, Orchard published: Matthew, Luke & Mark. This book was the opening shot in a thirty-year campaign. On the first page he wrote:

 “This book is the fulfilment of a long–standing ambition. Viz. to follow up the work begun over forty years ago by Dom John Chapman, and continued by Bishop B. C. Butler and by Professor William R. Farmer, …” “The two-Document Hypothesis and the Priority of Mark are still only hypotheses, not infallible dogma; and they have stood secure for so long chiefly because no one has been able to offer any satisfactory alternative”.

 Finding this alternative was Dom Bernard’s ambition for the rest of his life.

During 1987, Dom Bernard and Harold Riley, an Anglican priest, published The Order of the Synoptics – Why Three Synoptic Gospels? This set out the reasons for supporting the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence, based on literary/textural analysis and the evidence provided by the early historians.

In the Downside Review for July 1990, Dom Bernard published: Dei Verbum and the Synoptic Gospels. This showed the difficulty of conforming to the teachings in Dei Verbum while accepting the Markan priority theory.


About this time Orchard became interested in the way Mark’s Gospel sounded like the verbatim transcript of a shorthand reporter. Many scholars, including B.H.Streeter, had commented on this in the past, but it was by Orchard applying this aspect to the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence that brought out its importance.

In 1990 Orchard’s pamphlet: The Evolution of the Gospels, was published by the CTS, London. In this he not only upheld the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence, but also proposed that Peter had given a series of five talks to conflate the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Orchard claimed it was Mark’s record of these five talks, taken down by Mark in Greek shorthand, which had become known as Mark’s Gospel.

In 1991 E. R. Richards in: The Secretary in the Letters of Paul confirmed that Greek shorthand, as well as Latin shorthand, was used widely at the time Peter was in Rome. This strengthened the basis upon which Orchard had built his theory.

In 1993 Dom Bernard explained his ideas in Annales Theologici. When an English OFFPRINT version was issued, it was made available to a wider public as: The Making and Publication of Mark’s Gospel. The same year, he re-issued an expanded edition of his 1990 pamphlet under the title: The Origin and Evolution of the Gospels.

So by 1993 Orchard had established and made known his hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel had not been written in a secluded study using ‘poor Greek’. It was a shorthand account in Koine [Common Greek], of public talks given by Peter when conflating together the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Orchard had produced a theory of Gospel composition consistent with the evidence of the ancient historians, with literary/textural analysis, and with what the Church was maintaining.

But by 1993 Markan priorists were well entrenched in the educational and publishing establishments. Dom Bernard was 83 years of age and didn’t found an organisation to continue his work. He concentrated on consolidating his researches with the intention of publishing them in a final book entitled: The Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis.

His death in 2006 prevented the work being published, but we have articles (available on another part of this site), outlining his ideas:

Dei Verbum and the Synoptic Gospels (1990).

The Making and Publication of Mark’s Gospel (1993).

The Origin and Evolution of the Gospels (1993).

Dom Bernard also promoted: Bismarck and the Four Gospels by W.R.Farmer (1992). It showed how politics had greatly influenced the establishment of the Markan Priority theory in German universities.

Some of Orchard’s long term achievements are not widely realised.  His RSV-CE version of the bible is the one most accepted for accuracy within the Catholic Church.  It was used to provide the biblical quotations in, ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church’, and in English translations of other Church documents. The popular: ‘The Ignatius Bible’ is a RSV-CE, second edition. ‘The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible’, edited by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, is based on it. Translations of the works of Cardinal Ratzinger (and as Pope Benedict XVI) have used both the RSV-CE and the RSV-CE second edition.

This Celebration of Dom Bernard Orchard’s final years has been composed by: Dennis Barton.

21st October 2016

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