Friday, September 08, 2006

Henry Owen's source theory

I have just received my own (photo)copy of Henry Owen, Observations on the Four Gospels (London: T. Payne, 1764) kindly donated to me. I am finding it quite illuminating reading from the first source-theorist to publish the idea that the Gospels were not independently composed (rather the later Evangelists "perused" the earlier ones). Owen is fully aware that the notion is new--I wonder whether beginning students would be persuaded by his logic, however. He seems to assume that the first three Gospels were written very early (early sixties) because of the testimony of the early church fathers and because

"the circumstances of things, and the necessities of the Church, seem to plead in favour of the earliest, rather than the latest dates. For we can hardly suppose, that the Church be left, for so many years as these dates imply, without any authentic account in writing of facts so highly important not only to its edification, but also to its very being." [p7]

Perhaps it is difficult for us to imagine a time when the Church had no written Gospels. But the Gospel was indeed originally a simple "message of salvation." The "word" of God was verbal/oral and the "story" of Jesus was proclaimed orally. I don't it strange that the Church survived without written accounts about Jesus. It is perhaps more strange that accounts appeared so soon--and by soon I mean by the end of the first century. I think the need for written Gospels would be felt more intensely as the Jesus/Church movement progressed more widely throughout the Greek-speaking world. I find something more local (and less "public") about the Gospel according to Mark (than Mt & especially Lk) which also suggests an earlier date to me. And I also think that having four written Gospels suggests slightly different audiences (in terms of times, places, or even genres) but also suggests some kind of independence. Obviously the author of the first written Gospel will have had no idea how many other written Gospels would be added in the future. And this is perhaps where the Owen-Griesbach theory falls down because it implies that Mk knew Mt & Lk and chopped out huge portions of material (as though criticising them). Mk is quite harsh on how dull the disciples of Jesus were and this could be taken as being a criticism of the kind of apostolic foundation portrayed by Mt & Lk. So I have to disagree with Farmer--I think putting Mk last creates more theological/historical problems (than simply putting Mt first).

And I find something suggestive about the emergence of four written Gospels in terms of suggesting a shared time-span--I suggest that the four could share a close time period of composition. Just as the mid-second-century saw a(nother) flurry of (apocryphal) Gospels, perhaps the first (canonical) four appeared within a relatively short time-span (immediately following the fall of Jerusalem) within, say, a decade (although Lk seems to have accessed even more sources which might suggest an even later date).


Anonymous said...

Actually, given that Acts ends before Paul's trial, to which the last third of the book has been building up, I find it easy to believe that the book was, in fact, finished before AD 64 or so. (This would therefore put Luke, which precedes Acts, and Mark, which Luke used, before AD 64 as well.)

Tim Lewis said...

Following your logic, would we have to place all the Gospels before the disciples even reconvened as the "Church"? (I guess its the old dilemma whether to date back as late or early as possible?
Wouldn't Luke have wanted to finish Acts on a positive (Paul bringing the Gospel to Rome)?