Austin Marsden Farrer    1904-1968 

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Philosophically trained British theologian & biblical exegete, whose studies in the composition of the synoptic gospels laid the foundations for one of the primary alternate theories to the Two Source hypothesis. The son of a Baptist minister, Farrer was ordained an Anglican priest at Oxford where he served as chaplain & fellow of several colleges. He was warden of Keble College from 1960 until his death.

Farrer was a creative conservative. He championed classic metaphysics against the dominant schools of 20th c. British philosophy: positivism & process philosophy. In an era when systematic theology had largely become divorced from biblical analysis, Farrer challenged form & source criticism's fragmentation of the gospels by proposing that the evangelists be treated as authors rather than editors. He argued that each gospel writer functioned more as a constructive theologian than as a reporter of previous sources.

Unlike other critics of the Two Source hypothesis, Farrer took for granted the priority of Mark and argued that Mark created the gospel genre by constructing a complex symbolic network of echoed images. His 1954 study of Matthew's revision of Mark went further than redaction critics in stressing the creative strategies of the gospel writer. Farrer held that Mark was Matthew's sole literary source. He interpreted any material in Matthew that could not be traced to Mark (such as the Sermon on the Mount) as Matthew's own theological composition inspired by the Hebrew Pentateuch.

But Farrer's most influential work in biblical criticism was his 1955 article "On Dispensing with Q" [in Studies in the Gospels, ed. D. E. Nineham (Oxford: Basil Blackwell) pp. 55-88] which argued that the Q hypothesis was unnecessary if the plan of Luke's gospel could be explained as a creative revision of Mark & Matthew:

The Q hypothesis is not, of itself, a probable hypothesis. It is simply the sole alternative to the supposition that St. Luke had read St. Matthew (or vice versa). It needs no refutation except the demonstration that its alternative is possible. It hangs on a single thread; cut that, and it falls by its own weight. [p. 62]

The primary obstacle to interpreting Matthew as a source of Luke has always been the differences in their presentation of Jesus' sayings. Farrer granted that Luke could be accused of

pulling well-arranged Matthean discourses to pieces and re-arranging them in an order less coherent or at least less perspicuous. [p. 63]

But, he countered: Luke's rearrangement need not be better than Matthew's; it need only be shown to fit Luke's overall plan. Luke's plan, as Farrer saw it, had two main goals:

  • a narrative "foundation" based on Mark rather than Matthew
  • a teaching section (Luke 10-18) "quarried" from Matthew's speeches and material he had omitted from Mark.

Farrer identified Deuteronomy as the inspiration of Luke's design for his teaching section & argued that the composition of the latter was less problematic than others had claimed. All Luke needed to do was recall what material he had already used from Mark (in Luke 3-9) & not repeat passages parallel to these in his section drawn from Matthew (Luke 10-18). Farrer explained parallels to material from Matthew in Luke's first section (Jesus' sermon at the mount & his commendation of John the Baptizer) as a deliberate analogy to the Pentateuch:

But logic forbade him to gather the whole of it [Matthew's sayings] there [in Luke 10-18]. The Deuteronomy will not stand out as Deuteronomy without some semblance of a Protonomy; without a first law the second will be second to nothing. [p. 78]

Farrer contented himself with suggesting rationales that made appeal to a hypothetical sayings source unnecessary. He did not work out his interpretation of Luke in detail. In three decades since Farrer's death, however, disciples like Michael Goulder have made his hypothesis the primary competitor to the Two Source hypothesis among British NT scholars.

Other On-line Resources

[For further introduction, see E. V. McKnight, What is Form Criticism?, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.]

 

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last revised 04 August 2017

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