History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis

Written by H.-H. Stoldt Reviewed By H. Bigg

This book is a major contribution to the vexed question of synoptic relationships. It is especially remarkable for two reasons. First, the author is a retired school administrator who in retirement has produced an important critique of the hypothesis of Marcan priority. Second, the book has been translated into English within four years of its initial publication in Germany. T. and T. Clark are to be congratulated on their initiative in undertaking the publication of the book in English at the bargain price of £7.95. No serious student of the synoptic problem can afford to ignore it.

Stoldt’s purpose is simple: to document from original German sources the rise and dominance of the so-called Marcan hypothesis and to demonstrate its total falsity. He is a fervent supporter of the rival Griesbach hypothesis which states that Mark is in fact the latest of the three synoptic gospels and is dependent on both his predecessors Matthew and Luke who wrote in that order.

The substance of the book is divided into three main sections preceded by a chapter on the state of the problem. Section 1 deals with the genesis of the Marcan hypothesis as seen in the writings of its principal founders. In section 2, Stoldt analyses the ‘proofs’ of the hypothesis and in section 3 sketches in the ideological background against which the hypothesis established itself.

The story begins with C. H. Weisse who along with C. G. Wilke put the hypothesis firmly on the map. They both published books in 1838 but apart from agreeing on the priority of Mark, they had little in common. It was Weisse who posited a logia source to account for the common material in Matthew and Luke in addition to their use of Mark. Thus, he was the originator of the two-source theory—Mark and the logia. Here, we encounter a problem that has persisted through all attempts to establish the two-source theory—how to identify the content of the second source. Was it first a sayings source, or did it contain narrative as well? Weisse found himself in such severe difficulties in insisting the logia source only contained sayings that he was forced to resort to desperate remedies to accommodate such common material as the words of the baptist (Mt. 3:7–12 par), or the story of the centurion at Capernaum (Mt. 8:5ff. par). In 1856, he published a ‘correction’ of his earlier views, but the problem remained.

The next major figure to emerge was H. J. Holtzmann whose book on the synoptic gospels appeared in 1863. Aware of the problems left by Weisse, he suggested two principal sources, A. and L. A he calls Ur-Mark and L turns out to be the Lucan travel narrative (9:51ff.). His scheme is ingenious but it fails to tackle the basic question of the direct relationship of Matthew and Luke to Mark by burying the latter in source A.

By 1899 Holtzmann had abandoned Ur-Mark but nevertheless he considered himself vindicated by P. Wernle’s book on the synoptic question. Wernle’s chief importance lies in the introduction of ‘Q’ as the common source of Matthew and Luke. By this, he intended a written sayings document which of course prejudges the question. But by so doing Wernle added momentum at the cost of proper objectivity in considering other possible solutions. Indeed, by the time of Bernhard Weiss’s book Leben Jesu of 1902 he can already say that ‘Q gradually grew from a series of sayings to be a semi-gospel’.

The historical section ends with Wernle and B. Weiss and Stoldt turns in the second main section to assess the so-called ‘proofs’ of the Marcan hypothesis. Each one receives a chapter as follows: (a) Common narrative sequence, (b) Uniformity, (c) Originality, (d) Language, (e) Doublets, (f) Petrine origin, (g) Psychological reflection. Here, a great deal of loose argument is exposed especially in the chapter on narrative sequence (the celebrated ‘Lachmann fallacy’ pointed out by B. C. Butler in The Originality of St Matthew). These chapters are essential reading.

The final main section looks at the ideological background of the rise of the hypothesis. D. F. Strauss is the enfant terrible who in his Leben Jesu (1835) accepted the Griesbach solution and wrote off Mark as historically impossible to take seriously. Hence, the need to give Mark an unassailable historical veracity. Strauss’s own theories of the gospels as myth have long since ceased to be important in the form propounded by him but the Marcan hypothesis has continued until very recently to be the dominant one, and Stoldt’s book represents a fundamental challenge that cannot be brushed aside.

Stoldt’s book is polemical but on the whole his criticisms are well judged. Nevertheless, by exposing the weaknesses of the Marcan hypothesis he does not make out an open-and-shut case for Griesbach. That must be argued on its own merits and so far the arguments put forward have not been persuasive either in their broad sweep or in detailed studies. Can we really believe that Mark would have ended his gospel in that enigmatic way in full knowledge of the other two accounts? For conservative students and others, the question is ‘What of Redaction Criticism if Mark was the last to be written?’ This reviewer’s belief is that synoptic relationships are more complex than is usually allowed, but our thanks are due to Herr Stoldt for this stimulating book. At the time of writing, Dr C. M. Tuckett’s book on the Griesbach hypothesis in the nineteenth century is not yet available. His conclusions on the writers treated by Stoldt are keenly awaited.

H. Bigg