Why Four Gospels?

Is Mark the first?

By David Alan Black
Kregel. 118 pages
ISBN 0 8254 2070 9

As an undergraduate student of theology nearly 30 years ago, I was introduced to the work of W.R. Farmer and his theory that the assumption of Markan priority (for all its popularity) lacked proof and that the order Matthew, Luke, Mark was equally possible in the light of the internal data of the gospels themselves. Since then I have been suspicious of the two-source theory for gospel origins and increasingly convinced that a theory which assumes an earlier dating for the authorship of the three Synoptic Gospels and an order akin to Farmer's is more plausible.

Black builds upon the work of both Farmer and especially B. Orchard and, in a popular treatment, argues that Matthew was the first Gospel produced in the early fifth decade of the first century and designed to meet the apologetic needs of the Jerusalem church. Luke is 'Paul's Gospel', commissioned by the apostle as a revision of Matthew and suited to the Gentile world. Mark is based on notes of Peter's addresses which used both Matthew and Luke (and thereby offered authentication to the latter which was, otherwise, the work of two non-eye-witnesses). All three were produced by the deaths of the two apostles, although the final form of Mark may have been published after Peter's death: a theory which might explain the early variant endings to Mark's Gospel.

Black's theory is carefully crafted around both internal evidence and the testimony of the early Fathers of the Church and assumes the basic integrity and reliability of their witness. He argues, plausibly as it seems to the reviewer, that this combination of interna1 and external evidence offers a more methodologically secure route to determining the relationship between the gospels.

His arguments might be supplemented by the discussions on redating the New Testament pioneered by J.A.T. Robinson and the papyrological data assembled by C.P. Theide, which seems to point to the earlier publication of the gospels than critical orthodoxy assumes. At the very least such discussions raise serious challenges as to the methodological rigour of the popular two-source theory. Still more so, since they plausibly place the gospels within the lifetime of apostolic and other eye witnesses, they demand that a greater respect is given to their historical validity.

All this is expressed by Black in a self-consciously popular style. Few readers would find its discussion inaccessible. For pastors, A-level candidates and undergraduates faced with the apparently impregnable wall of Markan priority, this is a must.

Stephen Dray,
Moorlands College