Monday, October 11, 2004

Austin Farrer Centenary

Today is the centenary of the birth of Austin Marsden Farrer on 11 October 1904. Farrer, who died in 1968, was a fine philosopher and religious thinker, in the words of Rowan Williams "possibly the greatest Anglican mind of the twentieth century". His thought has been celebrated already at a special conference in honour of his memory in Oxford (Austin Farrer Centenary Conference) and another is due to run in the USA in November (Captured by the Crucified).

Although a fine theologian, Farrer had another string to his bow and was also a brilliant and much underrated Biblical scholar. What follows is a very warped personal appreciation, warped because it is partly mediated through others and is dependent on my own limited encounters with his work.

My own encounter with Austin Farrer's work has been mediated through at least two other people, Michael Goulder, whose own contributions to Biblical studies began by taking on his mantle, and John Muddiman, my doctoral supervisor, who was also a student of Farrer. One of Farrer's most well known contributions to New Testament Studies was his seminal article, itself now almost half a century old, called On Dispensing with Q, in which he made one of those great intuitive leaps that only the finest minds are able to make but which, alas, often only bear fruit many years after the genius's death. By suggesting that it is possible to "dispense with" Q, while holding on to Marcan Priority, on the grounds that a good case could be made for Luke's direct knowledge of Matthew, Farrer paved the way for the serious working out of the theory in Michael Goulder's work, almost all of it after Farrer's death. I have a personal stake in this, but would like to add that I can't help thinking that the tide is beginning to turn on the Synoptic Problem; people now seem so much more willing to acknowledge the strength of Farrer's alternative.

But On Dispensing with Q represents a minor, if interesting, part of Farrer's output on Biblical Studies. Indeed it was essentially the outcrop of his having found, when working on Matthew, that he simply could not find the Q theory plausible, in spite of the fact that it was held by all his Oxford colleagues and much of the rest of the guild. And his work on Matthew is well worth reading. I return to it regularly, and gain a little more from it on each return. I am thinking here of St Matthew and St Mark (Westminster: Dacre, 1954). I am happy to say that there is a Birmingham link here too. This book was given as the Edward Cadbury Lectures 1953-4 here in Birmingham. The Cadbury Lectures are still going strong over fifty years later; in my time here we have had Heikki Räisänen and Ed Sanders. But St Matthew and St Mark is a remarkable book in that it essentially realises that understanding Matthew provides a key to understanding Mark, and vice versa. Farrer saw Matthew, rightly in my view, as a systematic explicator of Mark's dark mysteries. Read the introduction to that book -- it has some of the best material you will read on either Matthew or Mark.

The other thing that is striking about St Matthew and St Mark is that it is essentially a development of, a reworking of an earlier work of Farrer's, A Study in St Mark (Westminster: Dacre, 1951). I remember reading this as a student and finding it fascinating in some respects but in others unconvincing. In particular, there is a problem with the extent of Farrer's attempts to understand the Marcan symbolism of numbers. And Farrer himself was not convinced and revised his thoughts in St Matthew and St Mark, though he still convinced few even in the fresh format. But what I admire here is Farrer's understanding and appreciation of the questing nature of Biblical studies (my term). I reckon that if more of us were prepared to experiment in the way that Farrer did, and if fewer of us were worried about being seen to change our minds in public, scholarship might be much more interesting. One gets the feeling when reading Farrer that if only he had long enough to meditate and work through all of this, that in the end he would get there and crack Mark's code.

One other legacy from Farrer's Biblical criticism has stayed with me from the first moment I encountered it in a library in Oxford some years ago, and it is his wonderful and disparaging use of the term "paragraph criticism" as a means of describing the work of the form-critics. Farrer was really well ahead of his years here, not only in showing some scepsis for the obsession with pericopae that characterised the work of the form-critics, but in anticipating not only redaction-criticism but also narrative-criticism, as Jeff Peterson recently argued. But I should also mention his work on Revelation, which I have never myself studied in the way I might have done because I have never spent as much time on Revelation as I might have done, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St John's Apocalypse (London: Dacre, 1949).

A little later, I will point to some web resources on Farrer to help out in celebrating this, his centenary.

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