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Dom Bernard Orchard (1910-2006) – A Celebration of his final years

Many obituaries have drawn attention to Dom Bernard’s achievements in education, his life-long enthusiasm to promote Sacred Scripture and his personal humility. But his most precious work, which crowned his long life of 96 years, is often missing. This is due to a failure to be aware of his achievement during the last years of his life. During these years he fulfilled his ambition of establishing a credible alternative to the Markan Priority theory regarding the order in which the Gospels were composed.

Although Dom Bernard studied Economics and History at Cambridge University, his love of Scripture was soon to be seen. From 1939-1945 he taught the New Testament at Downside Abbey where he had became a monk in 1932, and a priest in 1939.

The Encyclical: Divino Afflante Spiritu issued in 1943, encouraged Scriptural understanding by recognising ‘literary analysis’ as an excellent tool for research.

In that same year Dom Bernard gave an immediate response by starting work as the General and NT Editor of: A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.  Published in 1953, this was the first such Catholic Commentary in one volume. In this way he had taken the lead in promoting Catholic study and use of the Bible throughout the English-speaking world

In November 1965 the Second Vatican Council issued the Dogmatic Constitution: Dei Verbum.  Again, Dom Bernard came to the forefront of those promoting biblical knowledge and reading. In 1966-1967, with Father R. C. Fuller, he became editor of the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  In its red jacket, as a CTS publication, it has become a major feature of Catholic life.  This publication was followed in 1973 by its ecumenical counterpart: The Common Bible.

He was active in other ways during these years, such as lecturing during 1969-1970 on the New Testament at the Totteridge Missionary Institute in London.

Also in 1969 he was a founding member and first chairman of the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate and, the following year, became its General Secretary.

After four years as Spiritual Director at the Beda College in Rome, Dom Bernard became: ‘Visiting Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Dallas, Texas. During the same years he was a Trustee and Chairman of the: ‘Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain’ and a member of the Studiorum Novi Testament Societas, Great Britain.

After the Second Vatican Council the need was felt to revise: The Catholic Commentary of Holy Scripture. So an editorial board was established and he became its Chairman.  In a short time, A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture was published in 1969.

Although he had been chairman of the editorial committee, it had appointed Markan Priorists to write the chapters on the Gospels. This would have been a great and sad disappointment for him. He had devoted himself to promoting the Scriptures and Dei Verbum, but now found English speaking Catholic scholars claiming that the wide freedom of research permitted by Dei Verbum, justified ignoring its doctrinal teaching. Dei Verbum was a ‘Doctrinal Constitution’

His colleagues were adopting, as if proved, the theories held by Rationalists and liberal Protestants. These were that Mark wrote the first Gospel and the Gospels were not written by anyone who had been a companion of Christ.

From this time we see Dom Bernard’s mind concentrating on upholding Dei Verbum and searching for a theory of Gospel composition. He saw the need for a well-founded theory, which would accord with modern literary/textual analysis, while not conflicting with traditional teaching.  His stand against Markan priority was not popular and he knew he would be treading a lonely path. It is this period of his life, which has not been sufficiently understood and recognised by writers of obituaries.

Providentially, his Order had prepared Dom Bernard for this mission. A fellow Benedictine, Dom John Chapman (1865-1933), had examined the priority of Mark theory with care and found it lacked supporting evidence. Chapman’s findings were published in: Matthew, Mark and Luke (1937).  Another Benedictine, Abbot (later Bishop) Christopher Butler (1902-1986) continued this work in:

St. Luke’s Debt to St. Matthew in Harvard Theological Review 32 (1939) 237-308,

St. Paul’s Knowledge & Use of St. Matthew -Downside Review 60 (1948) 363-383.

The Originality of St. Matthew, Cambridge, 1951 (book).

In 1969 Butler contributed The Synoptic Problem article to A New Catholic Commentary, London. In this he provided a history of the problem, but he was not responsible for any of the articles on the individual Gospels.

Orchard, living with these two far-sighted fellow Benedictine Scripture scholars, had become immune to joining the post-Vatican II Catholic rush to accept the theories held by most Rationalist and liberal Protestants.

Dom Bernard was encouraged by the work of William. R. Farmer, an American Methodist lecturer in Biblical Studies. After teaching Markan Priority for years, Farmer came to realise that the arguments he was using to teach his students, were not valid. In The Synoptic Problem (1964), he showed how he had been persuaded by the arguments against Markan Priority put forward by Abbot Butler.

Farmer’s book was limited to showing the errors of the Markan priority theory. But in an expanded edition published in 1976, he announced his full support for the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence of composition.

During the same year, Orchard published his book: Matthew, Luke & Mark. And this was the opening shot in a thirty-year campaign. He wrote on the first page:

“This book is the fulfilment of a long –standing ambition. Viz. to follow up the work begun over forty years ago by Dom John Chapman, and continued by Bishop B. C. Butler and by Professor William R. Farmer, …”  “The two-Document Hypothesis and the Priority of Mark are still only hypotheses, not infallible dogma; and they have stood secure for so long chiefly because no one has been able to offer any satisfactory alternative”.

Finding this alternative became his ambition for the rest of his life.

In 1982, with Farmer, he jointly founded the International Institute for Gospel Studies, to be known under the title of 2gh (Two Gospel Hypothesis).

During 1987 Dom Bernard and the Reverend H. Riley, an Anglican, published The Order of the Synoptics – Why Three Synoptic Gospels?  This set out the basis for supporting the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence based on literary/textural analysis and the evidence provided by the early Christian historians.   

In the Downside Review for July 1990, Dom Bernard published: Dei Verbum and the Synoptic Gospels. This showed the difficulty of conforming to the teachings in Dei Verbum while accepting the Markan priority theory.

Orchard achieves his ambition.

About this time Orchard became interested in the way Mark’s Gospel sounded like the verbatim transcript of a shorthand reporter. Many scholars, including B.H.Streeter, had commented on this in the past, but it was by Orchard applying this aspect to the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence that brought out its importance.

In 1990 Orchard’s pamphlet: The Evolution of the Gospels, was published by the C.T.S, London. In this he not only upheld the Matthew-Luke-Mark sequence, but also proposed that Peter had given a series of talks when conflating Matthew and Luke.

Orchard claimed that it was Mark’s record of these five talks, taken down in Greek shorthand, which had become known as Mark’s Gospel.

In 1991 E. R. Richards in: The Secretary in the Letters of Paul confirmed that Greek, as well as Latin, shorthand writers were used widely at the time Peter was in Rome. This strengthened the basis upon which Orchard had based his theory.

In 1993 Dom Bernard explained his ideas in Annales Theologici.  When an English OFFPRINT version was issued, it was made available to a wider public as: The Making and Publication of Mark’s Gospel.

In the same year, Dom Bernard re-issued an expanded edition of his 1990 pamphlet under the title: The Origin and Evolution of the Gospels

So by 1993 Orchard had established and made known his hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel had not been written in a study using what appeared to be ‘poor Greek’, but was a shorthand account in Koine [Common Greek], of talks given by Peter when conflating together the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Orchard had produced a theory of Gospel composition consistent with the evidence of  the ancient historians, with literary/textural analysis, and with Church teaching.

But by 1993 Markan priorists were well entrenched in the educational and publishing establishments. Dom Bernard was 83 years of age and didn’t found an organisation to continue his work. He concentrated on consolidating his researches with the intention of publishing them in a final book entitled The Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis.

Although his death prevented such a work being published, Dom Bernard has left us the following articles, which explain his ideas:

Dei Verbum and the Synoptic Gospels (1990).

The Making and Publication of Mark’s Gospel (1993).

The Origin and Evolution of the Gospels (1993).

A list of other publications by him are also available (2002).

Dom Bernard promoted: Bismarck and the Four Gospels  by  W.R.Farmer (1992). This book shows how politics greatly influenced the establishment of the Markan Priority theory in German universities.  This is available in ‘The Modern Age’ section item [640] of the www.churchinhistory.org site. (html & pdf )

This Celebration of Dom Bernard Orchard's final years has been written
by Dennis Barton.


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Version: 3rd February 2011

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