Mark. Vol. 2 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

By Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds.
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1998). 281 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. F. David Farnell
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 253-255

Thomas Oden, Professor of Theology at Drew University, is the general editor of the new twenty-seven volume series entitled the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Arranged by the books of the Bible according to chapter and verse and encompassing both the Old and New Testaments plus the Apocrypha, the project offers selective excerpts from the patristic fathers as to their exegesis, exposition, interpretation, and commentary on all sixty-six books the Bible. Its goals are “the revitalization of Christian teaching based on classical Christian exegesis, the intensified study of Scripture by laypersons who wish to think with the early church about the canonical text, and the stimulation of Christian historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral scholars toward further inquiry into scriptural interpretation by ancient Christian writers” (xi).

The series explores the patristic writings from the second to the mid-eighth century and includes the writings of such ancient greats as Clement of Rome, Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, Theodoret, Marius Victorinus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Jerome, to name a few. This vast project is largely ecumenical, drawing on the resources and expertise of an international team of scholars from the Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic traditions.

The first volume to appear in this series is Mark (vol. 2 of the New Testament section), edited by Oden and Christopher A. Hall. Hall is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. (Another volume, Romans—vol. 6 in the New Testament series, edited by Gerald Bray, is scheduled for release in September 1998.)

On the whole, this anthology holds great promise to commend itself to laypersons as well as Bible students and teachers, especially since it seeks to fulfill the Reformation goal of ad fontes (“to the sources”). It provides Bible students with a much neglected opportunity to explore the writings of the early church fathers as to how they understood and interpreted Scripture. For too long, Bible students have unthinkingly allowed historical criticism to dictate highly dubious interpretive methodologies as well as conclusions in both Old and New Testament scholarship. Those who stood closer to the events upon which they comment surely must have priority over any Enlightenment latecomers whose conclusions now dominate biblical studies.

Its underlying philosophical approach has some very commendable aspects, operating from a foundational premise: “This is an underlying premise of this whole series: We are not here trying to correct the ancient Christian writers from the viewpoint of modern historical criteria, but to listen to them reason out of their own premises on such questions as the authorship of Mark” (xxi).

The “General Introduction” refreshingly notes that “[a] commentary dedicated to allowing ancient Christian exegetes to speak for themselves will refrain from the temptation to fixate endlessly upon contemporary criticism. Rather, it will stand ready to provide textual resources from a distinguished history of exegesis which has remained massively inaccessible and shockingly disregarded during the last century” ( xi). This assertion causes the reviewer to ruminate on the following: could it be that Enlightenment-spawned historical criticism has so systematically ignored the early fathers because they stand as manifest contradictions to its cherished dogmas, or might it also reflect intellectual arrogance displayed by much of modern scholarship?

Interestingly, by appealing to the ancients, the series circumnavigates such sacrosanct, as well as highly erroneous, historical-critically cherished icons originating out of source, form, tradition, and redaction criticism, revealing some interesting contradictions of post-Enlightenment assertions. For instance, the volume on Mark reveals that the early church fathers overwhelmingly neglected Mark, rarely producing a sustained commentary on Mark. Instead, Matthew and John received most attention. Though one could argue that they held Matthew and John in high esteem because they were apostolic, one still wonders why, if Mark was really the first written gospel as so ardently maintained by source criticism (i.e., the Two-Document Hypothesis), did the fathers so persistently neglect it. Moreover, the volume also reveals that the fathers consistently maintained that Mark (not some unknown “evangelist” as maintained by historical criticism) actually wrote Mark and that it reflected Peter’s preaching rather than being a condensation of Matthew and Luke (contra the Two-Gospel Hypothesis). The conclusion the work reaches is astoundingly refreshing: “It had always been evident that Mark presented a shorter version of the gospel than Matthew, but the premise of literary dependency was not generally recognized. The view that Matthew and Luke directly relied on Mark did not develop in full form until the nineteenth century” (xxix). Such a perspective also indicates that the fathers regarded Matthew, not Mark, as the first gospel to be written. From this reviewer’s perspective, by a priori reading into the church fathers of these two recent synoptic hypotheses, recent NT scholarship has moved from acute speculation to enslaving dogma.

Some cautions are in order, however. Since the work is ecumenical, including scholars from such broad theological and interpretive backgrounds (including Roman Catholics), it invites the reader’s caution to detect any preconceived biases of the volumes’ editors. Heightening this concern is the selective, not exhaustive, nature of the series. Such selection may skew the views of the church fathers to conform to a preconceived approach cherished by the editors rather than accurately reflecting the fathers’ viewpoints. For the work to be useful, it must represent faithfully the fathers’ positions, not a preconceived agenda of the editors. Another drawback is that the original languages are not included, meaning that the reader must rely on the translation supplied rather than consulting the originals as a check against bias or inaccuracy. Finally, the series’ philosophical approach openly admits to “empathizing” with ancient allegorical interpretation (xxxii). In reply, merely because some church fathers allegorized does not legitimate such an approach for exegesis. Perhaps on a more positive note in reference to the series, including such examples for the reader to examine would have functioned as notable instances that militate against legitimizing allegorical interpretation.