What did the Experts say?


In the past many Catholics were told: “The experts say Mark wrote the first Gospel”.  Some may remember the American Fr. Raymond Brown and ‘The Jerome Commentary’, of 1968, being mentioned.

But, while Fr. Brown, its main editor gave unqualified support to Markan priority, the 1968 Jerome Commentary didn’t. The New Catholic Bible Commentary, issued the following year by English experts, also refused to give support the theory. To understand what was happening, we need to recall the situation at that time.                                                

When the Markan priority theory was gaining wide acceptance in Germany, Pope Leo XIII, in 1893, wrote Providentissimus Deus: There has arisen a … method … which … judges each book from internal indications alone. It is clear … that in historical questions such as the origin and handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance, … internal evidence is seldom of great value, except as confirmation. (Section 17 – Vatican website).

Pope Leo called for archaeological and linguistic research to solve the challenge. But in 1912 the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) under Pope Pius X, wrote: It is not permitted to depart from the opinion that Mathew, Mark and Luke were composed in that order. This pre-judgment brought Catholic research to a halt.

In 1943 Pius XII permitted scholars freedom to examine the Gospel texts and to form their own opinions. But the restrictive attitude of the PBC persisted. (While the Council was taking place, two Belgium students were expelled from their Seminary for exercising this freedom of opinion. Pope Paul had to intervene to reinstate them).

So in 1965, when Vatican II called for a Biblical revival, Catholic Scriptural experts to lead it, were few. The Jerome Commentary summed up the effect of Catholic stagnation: Over-all Catholic NT scholarship has consisted in a judicious selecting and combining acceptable elements in Protestant scholarship; it is not yet finding its own paths. (Page 19:71).

So the authors of the Jerome Commentary had to depend on the theories argued by the Protestants and Secularists. The editors concluded that only two orders of dependence have really been able to hold ground: Matthew-Mark-Luke, and Mark as the source of Matthew and Luke. (Page4: 13).

Faced with this very limited choice the three authors chose the second.  This choice was reluctant, conditional and provisional. (It was the same for many Protestants).

Fr. Frederick Gast o.c.d., illustrated this in his article in The Jerome Commentary. It was specifically devoted to the Synoptic problem and its concluding paragraph reads: We are still a long way from a completely satisfactory answer. Perhaps the problem will never be totally solved. The challenges however still remain and will continue to be accepted by dedicated scholars. (Page 6: 25).

Joseph Fitzmyer s.j., was one of the three editors of the Jerome Commentary. Two years later in 1970, he published ‘Jesus: Man’s Hope’. He wrote that he believed in Markan priority but, at the same time: “The synoptic problem is practically insoluble”. (1: 132).

Fr. E. J. Mally s.j. commented on Mark. He was aware of outstanding difficulties with the Markan priority theory. He wrote: “It is presupposed in this commentary that Mk was the earliest written canonical gospel and served as one of the sources of Mt and Lk. There are certain sections of Mk, however, that appear to reflect a later development over what is found in Mt, ….  But he then stated that they appear not to contradict the basic view of Markan priority. (Page 22: 5) This indicates a less than full acceptance of the evidence for the theory.

J. L. McKenzie s.j. commented on Matthew. “ The Synoptic theory adopted in this commentary is the simplest and most widely accepted theory…. But its adoption here does not imply that it is the final solution; it must be considered subject to revision, and therefore any conclusions that rest upon it should be considered as provisional. (Page 63: 5).

L. C. Stublmueller c.p. was less cautious in accepting Markan priority but he did write: The question is still open whether Luke depends on a text of Mark’s Gospel anterior [previous] to the one we now possess. The dependence of Luke on Matthew is still more complicated. Narrative sections seem to have come at times from Matthew through Mark. (Page 118: 16).

The New Catholic Bible Commentary was published during 1969 in England. It was very reluctant to accept the Markan Priority theory. The editors were in agreement with the American judgement that neither the Matthew-Mark-Luke sequence, nor Markan priority was satisfactory. So they avoided making a choice. The chairman of the editorial team was Fr, Bernard Orchard o.s,b.

Abbot Christopher Butler o.s.b. wrote the chapter on the Synoptic problem, He was seen by many as the greatest Catholic Scriptural expert in the English speaking world. He had studied the issues when, as an Anglican, he attended Oxford University. . In 1951 he had published a book defending the priority of Matthew.

In 1962, as President of the English Benedictine Order, he attended the 2nd Vatican Council as a full member. Butler played a major part in the formation of Dei Verbum, and was a driving force in calling for full freedom of research to enable Catholics to find a third way. (An outline of his life is available on: www.vatican2voice.org).

In his article in the Commentary, he wrote:  In seeking a solution … simple solutions are to be preferred to more complicated ones and their conjectural, or non-existing sources. (Pages 815c and 821c). This would eliminate theories dependent on such presumed documents such as Q.

Three years had past since the Council called for a Biblical revival. Catechists throughout the English speaking world were keen to produce new teaching materials. They couldn’t wait indefinitely while researchers were looking for a third way. They had to make a decision. On one side were the Catholics and Protestants who fully accepted Makan priority together with those who provisionally accepted it. On the other side were those who rejected all the positions put forward and said that a third way needed to be found.

It is easy to see why the educationalists accepted the first position. To explain why they did so, they said: ‘The majority of the experts favour Markan priority’, and this is what was taught. Its effect on teaching was outlined in Chapter 21 of our main book, available above, reference as [G 200].

After half a century, a third way - The Clementine Gospel Tradition - has been found. It is based on both the external and internal evidence. It is in conformity with Dei Verbum, which reads:

The Apostles handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him and from seeing what He did. (Section7).  The Apostles preached and, afterwards, they and apostolic men’, handed on the four Gospels in writing. (Section18).

Note: Fr. Raymond Brown was blamed by some for the confusion in teaching which followed the Council. He was accused of being a heretic. This was not just. He was a loyal open minded Catholic doing his best in very difficult circumstances

The Foreword to the Jerome Commentary was written by Cardinal Augustine Bea. Cardinal Sheehan so admired Brown’s knowledge and keen mind that he chose him and the other editors of the Commentary to pass the Nihil Obstate judgement, on their own book!

Scientific examination of the Gospel texts seemed to point to Mark writing prior to Matthew and Luke. Fr. Brown’s logical mind persuaded him that Christians should accept the unwelcome fact. The order of writing of the Gospels is not part of the Faith that Christ left us, so Brown’s position was not heretical. For details see: [G 309].

In 1971 The Pontifical Biblical Commission was transformed into a purely advisory body. From 1972 Brown served a five year term on it. He acknowledged that his membership did not mean papal approval for his ideas (RB 27). In 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger said at a news conference in New York: “I wish we had many scholars like Father Brown”. (Pope Benedict XVI by John Allen, Page 317). Brown was reappointed to the PBC in 1996 but died two years later. Brown spent much of his later life trying to reconcile Markan priority with Church teaching. In 2002 Cardinal Ratzinger admitted that the PBC had impeded exegesis. See:[G 305].




[G 304] 7/05/2015