Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Was the Gospel of Mark So Popular?


            “It looks like GMark suffered an almost total eclipse in the second century CE.”  So said Dr. Larry Hurtado last month (February 2013).   (“Gmark” means the Gospel of Mark, and “CE” is secularese for “Common Era,” better known to Christians as “A.D.,” that is, Anno Domini, the year of our Lord.)  He went on to say that in the 100's, the Gospel of Mark was "practically lost from sight, submerged from view."
            Why has Dr. Hurtado proposed that the Gospel of Mark was used only sparingly in the 100’s, compared to the other Gospels?  His reasons are basically two:  (1)  Only one manuscript of Mark (P45) from the first three centuries is extant, whereas from the same time period, we possess remnants of over 12 copies of Matthew, 16 copies of John, and seven copies of Luke.  (2)  In patristic writings of the first three centuries, there are fewer clear quotations from Mark than there are from the other Gospels.
            Neither reason justifies Dr. Hurtado’s conclusion.
            Let’s first consider the evidence from extant manuscripts.  It is arbitrary to assume that a fragment of Matthew, when pristine, was part of a manuscript of only the Gospel of Matthew, and not a part of a manuscript of the four Gospels that included Mark.  As far as I know, not a single second-century manuscript of any Gospel can be shown to have initially been part of a volume that contained only one Gospel-account.  So what can a fragment, containing a dozen verses from Matthew, or three verses from Luke, tell us about the relative popularity of Mark?  In its current condition,  it tells us nothing about Mark’s 16 chapters that it is not telling us about 27 chapters of Matthew, or of 23 chapters of Luke:  those chapters have not survived.  That is not the same as telling us that those chapters were not there when the manuscript was in pristine condition.  There is simply not enough evidence to say one way or the other.
            If we don’t want an assumption of single-Gospel volumes to predetermine our conclusions, then we cannot validly treat small fragments as indicators of a Gospel’s relative popularity, any more than we can treat a fragment of Matthew chapter 1 as an indication that Matthew 1 was much more popular than Matthew chapter 2.  Removing early fragments of Matthew from consideration means removing all of the manuscripts of Matthew upon which Dr. Hurtado built the premise that Matthew was more popular than Mark in the 100’s.
            In addition, Dr. Hurtado’s manuscript-evidence, besides being very fragmentary, is chronologically too broad and geographically too narrow.  The manuscript-fragments which form the main basis of his case include several from the late 200’s or early 300’s, a period which he acknowledges to be “toward the end of, or perhaps beyond, the period of our concern here.”  If fragments such as P39 (200’s), P53 (200’s), P80 (200’s), P95 (200’s), 0162 (200’s or 300’s), and 0171 (c. 300) are to be in the equation, then so should manuscripts from the 300’s and 400’s – including, besides the well-known uncials that contain Mark, fragments such as 0313 (containing Mark 4:9 and 4:15) and 0315 (containing Mark 2:19, 21, and 25, and 3:1-2), inasmuch as these copies had second-century ancestors too.  And because the fragments enlisted by Dr. Hurtado come from approximately the same place (Egypt, and mainly Oxyrhynchus), they cannot tell us about the relative popularity of the Gospel of Mark in other locales.  Meanwhile, wherever there is anything to see, we observe the Gospel of Mark being given the same treatment as the other three canonical Gospels in early versions of the Gospels, whether Sahidic or Latin or Syriac.
            What about the patristic evidence, or rather, the alleged lack of evidence of much use of Mark in the 100’s?  Here we must begin by considering two things about the Gospel of Mark:  (1)  it is shorter than Matthew and it is shorter than Luke, and therefore, fewer quotations from Mark ought to be expected, because Mark has fewer words from which to quote.  (2)  While Matthew and Luke both have large sections which are unique to each one, about 90% of the Gospel of Mark is paralleled in either Matthew or in Luke.  As a result, unless a patristic writer specifically says something like, “Now I am reading from the Gospel of Mark,” it is difficult to confidently identify, as quotations from Mark, quotations of passages which appear in both Matthew and Mark, or in both Mark and Luke, or in all three.  Because Mark has so much less distinct material than Matthew and Luke, Mark has a special disadvantage:  short quotations from almost 90% of Mark, unless they are specifically identified, are impossible to confidently identify as quotations from Mark.

(Students of the Synoptic Problem wishing to indulge in a little mental exercise may wish to test Dr. Hurtado’s case for the unpopularity of Mark in the 100’s by seeking out patristic quotations, from that century, from the parts of Matthew and Luke which overlap, and attempting to specifically identify which Gospel is being used.  I suspect that they will find that Dr. Hurtado’s approach will yield the strange conclusion that those passages were similarly unpopular – not because they actually were unpopular, of course, but because they, like unspecified quotations from Mark, are difficult to confidently isolate as quotations from one specific Gospel.)

            So:  the reasons why there are more identifiable quotations from Matthew and Luke than from Mark in patristic writings of the first three centuries of Christendom are (1)  because there is more of Matthew and Luke from which to quote, and (2) because there is much more unique material from which to quote in Matthew and in Luke than there is in Mark.  (A third reason is because Origen's commentaries on Matthew and John are (mostly) extant; this one factor is capable of tilting the statistics.)  When these two considerations are not ignored, the proposed support for the idea that Mark was less popular than Matthew or Luke disappears.
            In addition, the second-century uses of Mark are not trivial:  Papias (c. 110) tells us about the setting of its production; the anonymous author of Epistula Apostolorum (c. 150) shows familiarity with Mark; Justin Martyr (c. 160) refers to the unique contents of Mark 3:17; Tatian incorporates the Gospel of Mark into the Diatessaron (c. 172); Irenaeus (c. 184) quotes from Mark 1:1 and 16:19 in Against Heresies Book 3.  Irenaeus also mentions that a group of heretics existed which used Mark especially.   In the early 200’s, Clement of Alexandria very loosely quotes from Mark chapter 10; Hippolytus uses Mark, and Origen refers to Mark 2:14, stating that he found a statement that Levi was one of the apostles “in some of the copies of the Gospel according to Mark.”  The manuscripts used by these writers have not survived, but their statements plainly imply the existence of at least ten copies of Mark, all produced no later than 250.  So, when we consider the special conditions that are required to identify a patristic quotation of Mark -- the writer must either say that is he quoting from Mark, or else he must quote something from Mark that is different from the parallels in Matthew and Luke -- the evidence for patristic use of Mark compares very well against the evidence for patristic use of Matthew and Luke.
            So is there any real evidence that the Gospel of Mark was relatively unpopular in the 100’s, compared to Matthew, Luke, and John?  No.  When statistical mirages and the oversimplified manipulations of fragmentary evidence are rejected, nothing stands in the way of the idea that the Gospel of Mark was as popular in the 100’s as the other three canonical Gospels.

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