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The Quest for the Mark “Community”

May 15, 2012

At this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (17-20 November, Chicago), the Mark Seminar will have as one of its foci the recurring issue of the historical provenance of the Gospel of Mark.  We’ve invited advocates of some different putative provenances to make a case, specifically showing what difference it makes to the understanding of Mark.  Partly in advance preparation for those discussions (I’m on the Steering Committee of the Mark Seminar), I’ve been studying Dwight N. Peterson’s book, The Origins of Mark:  The Markan Community in Current Debate (Leiden: Brill, 2000).

Peterson’s study involves a close and searching assessment of leading examples of three types of efforts to identify the “community” behind Mark (from which and for which it supposedly was written):  redaction-critical efforts (Werner Kelber), “sociological” efforts (Howard C. Kee), and “political” efforts (Ched Myers).  In his final chapter, Peterson also assesses Joel Marcus’ stout effort to locate Mark in a particular type of gentile-Christian “community” near Jewish Palestine.  As to overall results, a few comments from his concluding chapter.

“The Markan community has failed to provide even the semblance of a control on readings of the Gospel of Mark. . . . .The reason for this is that virtually every scholar who discovers a Markan community behind the Gospel . . . discovers a different Markan community.” (152)

NT scholars continue positing a “community” behind Mark and other NT texts because “that is what we do”, and as historical critics most operate with a sense that the provenance of a text can provide a necessary control on interpretation. (193)

The Markan “community” is “the product of highly speculative, viciously circular and ultimately unpersuasive and inconclusive reading.” (196)

Hmm.  I think that’s an author making himself rather clear!  It is a bit surprising, therefore, that (using the ATLA periodical search) I’ve been able to find only one scholarly review of the book (by C.A. Evans, Review of Biblical Literature 4 [2002], 367-69).   I rather think that this will not do, and I’ll be interested to see how advocates of a Markan provenance engage Peterson’s rather strong critique of the whole enterprise.

Also, as Peterson notes, the issue is wider than Mark.  Numerous NT scholars have posited a “community” behind various NT writings.  E.g., there is a whole industry devoted to identifying a community behind the Gospel of Matthew, and also behind the Gospel of John.  Then, there is an vigorous body of scholars eagerly positing a Q-community, and even proffering an elaborate and multi-stage social history of the community!  And all this totally (or pretty much so) on the basis of the individual text in question.  Scholarly inferences are one thing, but I do wonder if the whole enterprise has got a bit out of hand.

In addition to the other works cited by Peterson, there is an instructive essay by Frederik Wisse that, likewise, has been insufficiently noticed:   “The Use of Early Christian Literature As Evidence for Inner Diversity and Conflict,” in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity, ed. Charles W. Hedrick and Robert Hodgson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986), 177-90.  Wisse directed his cautionary attention to the positing of various discrete “communities” the various “heterodox” texts of early Christianity, e.g., a “Thomas community” (behind Gospel of Thomas), etc, proposing cogently that instead these texts likely circulated among interested individuals, loose networks of like-minded souls, and did not reflect some defined “community”.

Given the widely-shared (and entirely understandable) desire to link early Christian texts with particular provenances, it is inconvenient to have such critique and warnings.  But that’s no excuse to ignore them.  The credibility of the field just might be at stake.  And if the result is greater modesty in scholarly claims, that might not be all that bad.

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21 Comments
  1. spin permalink

    If one abandons the notion that in the early development of Christianity a text was the collection of traditions of a community, doesn’t one end up with a lone-gunman approach to gospel construction? How does that work? How does a gospel writer get a gospel in use without a community behind it?

    I wouldn’t say that we could ever know anything substantive about the community, but there was certainly someone on the Grassy Knoll. Consider Luke: did the same person who wrote in the genealogy also render it irrelevant by removing Jesus’ connection to it by the casual insertion of an ws enomizeto; did the same person put the genealogy not in the logical place in the discussion of the birth? did the same person who rewrote the hometown scene to include what had happened in Capernaum then relocate it before the events at Capernaum? There is evidence for development of the text, which does not in itself suggest a lone gunman. What sort of context is likely here?

    • Well, I don’t get the relevance of the grassy knoll reference, but, yes, of course, early Christian texts arose from early Christians, and were written for Christian readers. Indeed, the anonymity of the four Gospels probably reflects authors who thought of themselves as serving an emerging tradition that they shared with other believers. The question is more specifically whether early Christian texts can so readily be linked with specific, localized groups of Christians who distinguished themselves from other believers. In some cases, perhaps with varying degrees of confidence; in a great many others, dubiously.

  2. Mike K. permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, thanks for this post on Peterson’s book. You make a good call that there has been a lack of scholarly interaction with it, but it seems some of the “Gospel community” advocates critically interacted with Dr. Bauckham’s proposal. I was wondering what your thoughts were on the responses of P.F. Esler, ”Community and Gospel in Early Christianity: A Response to Richard Bauckham’s Gospels for All Christians” SJT 51 (1998): 235-48 (Bauckham responds in same journal on pp 248-53); Margaret Mitchell, “Patristic Counter-Evidence to the Claim that ‘The Gospels were Written for all Christians” NTS 51 (2005): 36-79 (Bauckham responds in the Klink volume listed above); David C. Sim, “The Gospel for All Christians?: A Response to Richard Bauckham,” JSNT 84 (2001): 3-27; H.N. Roskam, The Purpose of the Gospel of Mark in Its Historical and Social Context (Leiden: Brill, 2004); Joel Marcus’ commentary, etc.

    • I’m afraid that I’ve kept current with only some of these items. Bauckham (who reads this blog site) may well have something to say better informed than I.

  3. Danny, I don’t know any full scale apologia for the community theory, but Joel Marcus has some discussion in the introduction to his Anchor Bible commentary on Mark. There is also an article on Matthew by David Sim published in NTS.

  4. This is an excellent article, which I have recommended elsewhere as well worth reading.

  5. Kathryn permalink

    Where does Richard Bauckham’s book stand in this issue?
    The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (New Testament Studies) by Richard Bauckham. Eerdmans, 1997.

    To quote from one of the reviews, “This rather modest book, just 220 pages encompassing seven individual chapters by half a dozen British scholars, deftly challenges one of the central presuppositions underlying a vast mountain of New Testament scholarship for much of the past quarter century. Once Bauckham has cut through the knots of assumptions and the clumsy misuse of “social scientific” argument, an enormous stack of scholarship – commentaries, journal articles, Ph.D. theses, and monographs – suddenly seems to be standing on the shakiest of theoretical grounds.”

    • Kathryn: Oh, I rather think that Bauckham would find implausible the idea of specific “communities” linked to any of the Gospels, with the possible exception of GJohn. For my own part, GJohn seems to have the most going for such an idea (at least as reflected in “the brothers” and the “we” of John 21:23-24, and perhaps also the reference to the “other sheep” of 10:16, which implies a group of sheep to which “other sheep” are other).

  6. Joshua WD Smith permalink

    I always thought that Bauckham, et al. The Gospels for All Christians put a pretty heavy damper on the whole isolated community thing, posing a significant challenge that the community thesis just didn’t fit with what we know about early Christianity, books in the ancient world, and so on.

    • Yes, that book did raise a real set of objections, but (1) the contributors don’t all agree totally with Bauckham, and (2) in any event people are often understandably reluctant to take on board a view that cuts across what they’ve gone into print about!

  7. Mike Bird permalink

    Larry, I had a hand at this a few years ago. See my “The Marcan Community, Myth or Maze?” Journal of Theological Studies 57 (2006): 474-86.

  8. Larry – I trust you’re aware of these books:

    Richard Bauckham ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998. (A collection of essays all arguing against all ‘Gospel community’ hypotheses.)
    Edward W. Klink III ed., The Audience of the Gospels: The Origin and Function of the Gospels in Early Christianity (LNTS 353; London: T. & T. Clark [Continuum], 2010.

    Klink’s book updates the debate started in the volume I edited. Klink himself discusses Peterson’s book briefly on pp. 10-12. Martin Hengel was also very sceptical of ‘Gospel communities’.

    When I and others published the 1998 book, we wanted to start a debate that had never been had. People had just assumed, without argument, that Gospels were written for specific communities. We hoped to provoke people unpersuaded by our case to provide substantial arguments for that view of Gospel audiences, and have been disappointed that most scholars have simply ignored the challenge.

    Our point, of course, was not to deny that Gospels were written in specific places (though it is quite conceivable that an author like Luke composed his Gospel over a period of time while resident in a number of different communities). The argument was that, while Mark wrote in a specific location, he did not address the community he lived in, but the many churches around which his Gospel would likely circulate – a very general Christian audience. Most arguments for provenance rely heavily on assuming that the Gospel was addressed to the community in which it was written. Without that assumption, there is far less to go on (though arguments like Hengel’s from Latinisms could still be offered).

    • Yes, Richard, both are in my database, but thanks for mentioning them. And thanks also for putting your personal note on the setting and purpose of the volume you edited. I think you’re right in your comments. And, of course, another implicit reason for positing communities is that identified by Peterson: Historical-critical scholarship has tended to think that the setting and destination of a work helps us read it in its own context. So, there is a desire to try to find something as specific as possible. But in this case perhaps, zeal outstrips bases for the task.

      • Drs. Bauckham and Hurtado,

        Do either of you know of any work that’s been done to provide an apologia for the community theory? Many thanks.

      • Danny, The book by Peterson I mentioned in my post is an in-depth analysis of the advocacy of a Mark-community, probing the warrants and bases, and giving detailed engagement with three major examples of advocates.

  9. If the number of ancient communities alleged for each text more or less corresponds with the number of different ‘communities’ of scholarly hermeneutics, we are not far from being able to postulate the existence of each of our present-day scholar-communities without need of historical knowledge of their existence. :)

    But I notice a fourth community of scholars has recently found good reason to postulate the presence of a lively and reality-based awareness of Jesus’ divinity among those who first worshipped in his name and wrote about him.

    Could it turn out that this astonishing idea of a pre-existent Son is the only object of hermeneutical study able ultimately to resist the projections of those who behold him with studious intent?

    • John, I’m not sure what your first sentence says. And I’m also not clear what your subsequent sentence says either. Finally, an early cultic devotion to Jesus doesn’t necessarily involve “a pre-existent Son”. “Pre-existence” isn’t really the most crucial or innovative idea in the history of ancient religion. But in the Jewish context of earliest Christianity, treating Jesus as bearing/sharing divine glory and as mandated by God to receive cultic devotion . . ., well, that’s without parallel.

      • I’m sorry, awkward to be the only one with a grin on my face.

        If I may, I was just playing with a definition of ‘community of scholars’ as a group that has ‘gathered’ around a preferred hermeneutic principle which each member agrees is controlling – whether socio-economic, political, or redaction.

        I got a sense from the post that at least some of the theories about provenance for Mark and Q, etc. are not pointing to actual ancient Markan or Q communities, etc., but are merely creatures of a present-day scholar-community’s creativity and hermeneutic preference.

        The joke was, that for some theories of provenance, we might say that the only thing the theory actually predicts is the existence of the present-day scholarship community that sponsors it.

        Sorry again, I was too much in my coffee maybe, and deleted a middle paragraph to make the comment shorter, and it lost the spin.

        As for the rest of my gaff… not unless there are questions.

  10. That should be an excellent session at SBL. Looking forward to it.

  11. Bobby Garringer permalink

    In general — as an interested non-scholar — it seems to me that New Testament theorists tend to be too specific and certain in speculations about lots of things beyond Mark alone.

    A study of didactic and preaching materials, as we have in the New Testament, may have great potential for general conclusions of historic background and value. But when the experts press for much more than this, the move doesn’t seem justified — at least to an educated, nonspecialist like myself.

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