The Quest for the Mark “Community”
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 , 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.