Mark – An Initial Effort Toward the Formation of a New Canon?

Mark – An Initial Effort Toward the Formation of a New Canon?

Walter P. Weaver, in his commentary on Mark (Basic Bible Commentary – Mark, Vol. 18), proposes that the gospel may represent an initial effort toward the formation of a canon (page 8).  Weaver draws this conclusion from observations that he has made regarding why the gospel was written.  He reports that the customary dating of Mark is around 70 A.D. (page 7).  However, the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia suggests, “ancient testimony is sharply divided” regarding the date of composition.  The ISBE reports “The Paschal Chronicle puts it in 40 AD.”  Nelson’s Bible Dictionary suggests a date in the late 60s.  Conditions for the Christians in these different time frames might not have been the same.   It would seem likely then that the condition at the time of writing would cast a certain light upon its recording; and understanding those conditions would lead us to different conclusions as to why the gospel was written.

Weaver relates the writing of the account to conditions that “were severe for some Christian communities” (page 7).  In particular, he cites that the persecution of Christians in Rome “under the lunatic emperor Nero,” in the sixties, may have led to the composition (page 8).  In addition, Weaver writes that Mark was responding to a problem in the church, wherein the oral tradition of Jesus was “getting out of bounds” (page 8).  Weaver, without documentation, writes that Mark took a “large slice” of the oral traditions and committed it to writing (page 8).  If one embraces the thought pattern of Weaver, and the conclusions he makes, it would follow that Mark was trying to separate fictional story material from historical fact, and provide his readers with a single, reliable account.  This is likely what Weaver meant when he wrote that the gospel of Mark may have been “an initial effort toward the formation of a canon” – I am not so certain.

As evidenced above and below, Weaver’s commentary lacks documentation, leaves gaps in logic and reaches conclusions that might lead to questions concerning his theology.  I believe this kind of writing lacks intellectual integrity, and should be read with great caution.  Therefore, I am reluctant to agree with the conclusions he makes.

Weaver admits that the traditional understanding of the gospel is, as reported by a fourth-century witness, the writing of John Mark, based on the recollections of Peter (page 7).  He then writes that it “does not seem likely” that this tradition is reliable (page 7), yet fails to provide any documentation for the reader to make up her/his own mind whether it is indeed unreliable.  He goes on to say, without documenting footnote, that the gospel does not have the character of “an eyewitness piece of work.”  Citing the tradition that the account is based on the recollections of Peter, Nelson’s reports that the “gospel has many characteristics of an eyewitness account, for which Peter would have been responsible” (emphasis mine).  The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in Mark 1:29 – 31, is an example provided byNelson’s.  I have personally examined the gospel and, guided by my thirteen years of employment as a licensed Private Investigator, have found details consistent with those of an eyewitness account – namely Peter’s.  These examples include the vivid detail provided throughout the book, as well as insight into Peter’s own thinking that could only come from Peter (Mark 9:6 & 11:21).

Weaver writes that “Mark seems to be aware of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70” when the account was written (page 7).  Weaver cites Mark 13:2 as proof of this observation.  That passage records Jesus telling his disciples that the temple will be destroyed.  This does not prove Mark was aware of the destruction when the gospel was written.  It does, however, cause me to raise a number of serious questions about Weaver’s thinking, and his theology: Does he believe the author of Mark, not being an eyewitness, put words in Jesus’ mouth that He may not have spoken?    Does he believe Jesus was capable of prophecy?  Does he believe the author of Mark properly discriminated between the historical fact of Jesus, and the oral tradition that was “getting out of bounds?”  Does he believe Mark’s account is reliable?

In citing sources for the later gospels of Matthew and Luke, Weaver emphatically writes that they both used the gospel of Mark (page 8).  As typical, he does not tell us how he reaches that conclusion.  Also, as if he himself were a witness, Weaver dogmatically reports that in addition to using Mark, Matthew and Luke had another source, “Q” (page 8-9).  Weaver admits that we do not have this source today, but his own confession does not hinder him from blurring the distinction between fact and scholarly theory.

If the assignment for this paper required that my colleagues and I interpret a verse from the Bible, we would be expected to become familiar with the surrounding text in which the verse is found (class handout from July 13, 2002 – A Process for Exegetical Study).  It stands to reason that if we are to interpret a sentence from a commentary book, and understand what the author was thinking, we should apply the same principle of exegesis.  However, the difficulty in ascertaining Weaver’s intentions from the sentence in question, is his consistent lack of supporting documentation or example, and the theological issue raised by Weaver’s assessment of Mark’s knowledge of the Temple destruction.  Were these issues simply missed by the editor?  Did Weaver believe his audience had already accepted some of these ideas, and that they did not need to be supported?  Or does Weaver have an agenda in mind that might not withstand critical thinking?

In a letter dated July 29, 2002, I wrote to Weaver requesting that he comment on the apparently omitted documentation and his reasons for certain statements.

In a correspondence dated August 3, 2002, Dr. Weaver responded.  In his opening paragraph, he expressed surprise that his work had “found its way into a seminary course,” stating that the commentary was designed for local church workers and not for “scholars or experts in the field.”  Based on the author’s stated intentions for the book, and the questions yet unanswered regarding its content, I would suggest that the continuation of this book as part of the class curriculum be reconsidered.

Unfortunately, Dr. Weaver did not address, to my satisfaction, some of the deeper issues brought to light by a study of his work.  Does the gospel of Mark represent the initial attempt toward the formation of a canon?  Possibly so.  But Basic Bible Commentary – Mark, Vol. 18, builds too weakly upon itself, leaving an unstable platform from which to ascertain an answer to this question.

The dictum of Aristotle might lend some insight: “The benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated to the critic himself.”