Restudying the Synoptic problem" of the Gospels and questions of priority/harmony

Discussion in 'The Gospels & Acts' started by Pergamum, Jun 13, 2013.

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  1. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Steve, thank you or your kind reply. Since this is your field of expertise, I have no doubt you have read far more widely than I. In my limited reading about these matters, the synoptic problem and the quest for the historical Jesus are linked, and the fact of literary relationship and variation among the synoptic gospels is put forward as evidence for the hypothesis that parts of the Gospels have to be discounted as being historically valid. I am away from home at the moment, so can only refer to John C. Dwyer, The Word Was Made Flesh, pp.61,62:

    Certainly, it is always a valid question whether an event is described differently because it was a different event or because the narrator has a different standpoint and purpose; but claiming a contradiction in the dating of Christ cleansing the Temple, or in the setting and content of the Sermon on the Mount, becomes pointless if one accepts that the Gospel writers wrote accurately, so that if time and setting are described in terms that are incompatible, the reference must be to different events.
  2. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    I must just correct the impression that this is "my field of expertise". Before embarking on my part-time PhD I had no formal training in biblical studies or theology, being a software engineer by career (my first PhD was in logic for computer science). I was accepted as a PhD candidate on the strength of a paper
    I'd written articulating a Reformed response to the New Perspective on Paul. My supervisor is David Wenham (son of John, whose book on Matthew has featured in this thread). He first set me working on some substantial essays to ensure that I had the basic grounding in New Testament studies that I ought to have had. One of these was on the synoptic problem, and source, form and redaction criticism, and another was on the "Historical Jesus". I did read reasonably widely for these, but I am no expert. The focus of my research has been Luke-Acts, justification, N.T. Wright and Reformed covenant theology.

    I agree that the synoptic problem and the quest for the historical Jesus are linked, but not particularly tightly. Most attempts to identify the documentary dependencies between the gospels I have seen have not depended upon a particular theory about the "historical Jesus". Personally, I find the whole quest for the "historical Jesus" much more problematic for a conservative scholar - so much depends upon what one understands by the word "historical". It rarely means "the Jesus who actually lived", but rather "the Jesus whom we can know lived according to the evidence that we have that any historian (even those with a materialistic world-view) would have to acknowledge was valid evidence". In other words, a certain scepticism is invariably smuggled into the discussion with the adjective "historical". That is not to say, of course, that some good work has not been done by "historical Jesus" scholars situating Jesus in his first century context.

    One's (working) solution to the synoptic problem will impact the "sources" one detects in the various gospels, and hence the "redactions" and the "tendency of those redactions" that one detects in the accounts. None of the questions asked by these forms of analysis are improper. However, the expectation that we know enough to get any kind of meaningful answer to these questions ... seems to me ... to be widely optimistic, and invariably leads into problems. Some questions, however valid, are simply unanswerable. Armed with these techniques is a bit like having a hammer ... they make everything seem like a nail. In contrast, literary readings of the gospels (especially those that do not deny the historicity of the accounts) are invariably more profitable and insightful. It is one of the exciting things about contemporary biblical studies is that these synchronic concerns have largely eclipsed the older (unanswerable) diachronic concerns.
  3. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

  4. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    I'm amazed that Wenham's 20yr old book, in paperback, can command a $45 pricetag in the US (to say nothing of the $100 hardback).

    I had the chance to peruse this work in Seminary--it was a paperback, recently acquired by the Library at that time--and I thought the thesis was provocative and certainly gave the more common theory a run for its money. I couldn't justify its purchase for myself then, and not now either (not at the current valuation). But it is a book likely to repay the outlay, in my opinion.

    I'm probably inclined to be contrarian (and in favor of Wenham), merely because Marcan priority seems to me to have arisen mainly out of the 19th century's desire for innovation and iconoclasm, by the fact that it was rationalists and anti-supernaturalists who set it forth as "the assured results" of better scholarship.

    Well, today I think its time for some updated "revisionism," and questioning the Marcan/Q "orthodoxy" by severe critical examination of the newer theory. Have the years strengthened it, so that the assumptions that swiftly turned the older tide have been borne out by more patient labors? Seems to me, it was a rather unfair, hasty assessment of the "naivete" of the ancients--scholars and ordinary folks alike--that gave preference to modern theory, laden with its own historical prejudice.
  5. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    I have sympathy with the suspicion of all things that arise from 19th century anti-supernaturalist rationalism; and I think that ... by and large ... the more ancient a view (in this sort of topic), the more the presumption should be that it is right. However, while not convinced about a literal Q (as opposed to numerous sources written by various "followers" of Jesus), I think there are good arguments for Marcan priority that are not beholden to the origins of the view of Marcan priority.

    There remain, of course, minority reports, amongst biblical scholars concerning the synoptic problem. The principle positions are:

    • The Augustinian Hypothesis: This states that the canonical order represents the order the Gospels were written, and the later Gospel writers knew the earlier Gospels. In spite of being an early theory, and the dominant one for many centuries, few scholars currently hold it.

    • The Griesbach (or Two-Gospel) Hypothesis (named after J.J. Griesbach who proposed this solution in 1790): This states that Matthew’s Gospel was written first, and then Luke made use of Matthew. Mark’s Gospel is an abridging synthesis of both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. This hypothesis has been defended in recent times by William R. Farmer, but he has failed to convince very many others in spite of writing repeatedly on the subject.

    • The Two-Source and Four-Source (or Oxford) Hypotheses: This states that, of the canonical Gospels,Mark’s was written first. Matthew and Luke’s Gospels were written using Mark’s Gospel but independently of each other. However, they both used a Source document known as ‘Q’, which contained the material common to Luke and Matthew, but not in Mark (the ‘Double Tradition’ material). In the Four-Source hypothesis, Luke also used a Source ‘L’, which contained the material unique to Luke’s Gospel; and Matthew used a source ‘M’, which contained the material unique to Matthew’s Gospel.

    • The Farrer Hypothesis (named after Austin Farrer who proposed it in 1955): This states that, of the canonical Gospels, Mark’s was written first. However Matthew’s Gospel was written before Luke’s, and Luke used it along with Mark’s Gospel in composing his own. Austin Farrer, “On Dispensing with Q”, [23], in D.E. Nineham (ed), Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R.H. Lightfoot, [44], Basil Blackwell (Oxford: England), 1955. The Farrer Hypothesis has been developed and defended by scholars such as Michael D. Goulder and Mark Goodacre.

    There are various categories of evidence which convince the holders of the Oxford and Farrer hypotheses of Marcan priority. These include:

    1. Arguments from grammatical style

    These arguments are based on similar reasoning as is used to determine text-critical questions. To reject these is to call into question the critically
    constructed Greek texts that we almost all scholars and Bible translators use. An example is Mark 5:10 and Luke 8:31.

    Mark 5:10 And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country
    Luke 8:31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.

    In Mark there is this awkward switch from a singular to a plural. Luke uses two plurals. It is hard to imagine that Mark had Luke in front of him when
    writing this.

    It is the cumulative effect of numerous such examples which convince many scholars of Marcan priority.

    2. Arguments from more "awkward" descriptions of Jesus

    These are more subjective, but nevertheless, it is clear that Mark often contains descriptions of Jesus' actions which might raise difficulties and
    questions which Matthew and Luke's accounts avoid raising. E.g. Mark 6:5 (cf Matthew 13:58 and Luke 4:24), where Mark writes:

    "And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them."

    3. Arguments from the stories that are unique to Mark

    There are only a few Marcan stories not picked up by either Matthew or Luke or both, and these often involve healing as a multi-stage process. One can
    easily imagine why writers might drop such stories, but not why Mark would only add such stories (when presumably he had many others he could have
    drawn upon.)

    4. Arguments from Mark's simpler theology

    Mark when he has people give Jesus a title, often records them calling him "teacher." Luke usually has them using "Lord", and Matthew often has
    "son of David". These differences need to be accounted for, and that Mark was downplaying the honour given to Jesus seems unlikely; whereas Luke and
    Matthew select the strongest pertinent title used over the one Mark records is more plausible.

    5. Arguments from the fact that Mark is not an abridgement

    Mark has fewer pericopes than Matthew or Luke, but those he does have, he tells with more words, and sometimes with more details. Difficult to maintain that
    Mark is an abridgement of Matthew and/or Luke.

    6. Arguments from Matthew and Luke's Editorial Fatigue

    There are a couple of places where some scholars think they see Matthew or Luke relying on a fact told in Mark's account, but which they have
    "forgotten" they have not included.

    It is only the last of these which might be problematic to a holder of a high view of Scripture. (I say "might", because although I have a problem with the idea of "editorial fatigue", my supervisor, David Wenham, who also has a high view of Scripture, expressed surprise at my difficulty with this concept.)
  6. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    I appreciate what you've put together there, Steve.

    My question is: does priority necessitate inverse dependency? If Mark writes before Luke, why does Luke have to use Mark? Maybe he did, it really doesn't seem like a vital question. Luke surely accumulated numerous eyewitness accounts with his own pen, and probably other written materials from credible sources. If Mark's Gospel (or a proto-Gospel) was extant, he may well have used it.

    Now flip it around, and if Luke writes before Mark, does Mark have to use Luke, thus leaving awkward grammatical tensions? It hardly seems necessary. Was Mark Peter's interpreter, as the ancients taught? There are powerful internal arguments in Mark's Gospel for the position. In which case, to what end would literary dependency even matter, assuming it were even possible or likely? Many of his unique word-choices could well be explained by Peter's recollection of events. "Teacher" might be the actual title he and the others used, especially prior to the Resurrection.

    If I recall, Wenham suggests Peter could have had Matthew (or proto-Matthew) before him, to use like an outline; while he told his own story. Meanwhile, Mark took note of Peter's typical presentation, solecisms and all. It doesn't seem any less reasonable than the other proposals, and less speculative than many.

    The thought that the Christology of the church has to grow and develop--and so Mark would represent a regress if that Gospel were supposed to come second--just seems like a dependent theory, rather than a good reason for supposing Mark came first. Belief in dependency (not just priority) and evolutionary-developmental theology (not just theological unpacking) force some scholars toward Marcan-priority. I don't think the opposite position entails a symmetrical commitment to dependency, or the importance of priority.

    The notion of dependency (it seems to me) is only significant if one wishes to push the longer gospels further out and away from the days of Jesus himself, and possibly away from the first generation of disciples. In which case, we need a Mark and a Q floating about alone for quite some time, so that gospel-evolution can take place in those mysterious "communities" favored by the Mythological School.

    If Acts is taken seriously, there was unquestionably a gospel-narrative that should have sprouted up among the Apostles, and predates anything written. When the Eleven add Matthias to their number (Act.1) the choice is between two men who were with them from the beginning. The witness is consistent across the Synoptics (and not undone by John) because it represents a collective memory. I suppose there were numerous "note-taking" accounts, and other non-sanctioned records, all which eventually go by the way when one and then another "authorized" narratives becomes commonplace.

    Furthermore, the differences one typically finds in the Gospels aren't of the kind that look like "corrections" of a previous witness, but sound like independent takes on the same events. When two accounts are compared, are they really telling a different story? The more the accounts differ, the more likely we are to assume they were different events: like the parable of the talents, and the parable of the minas; or the Sermon on the Mount, and the Sermon on the Plain.
  7. Jerusalem Blade

    Jerusalem Blade Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    For some 45 years I have pondered these things, having a supreme interest in Scripture as the basis – the foundation – of our knowledge of God, communion with Him, and our walks with Him in this world.

    I would side with Rich’s view as he initially laid it out in post #6. Like him I find that much scholarship is not pertinent for the serious disciple; myself, I think that when the locus of Biblical studies moved from the church to the academy an element entered into the endeavor that brought in a kind of scrutiny alien to a believing mindset.

    Which is not to say that godly and gifted teachers / exegetes / and commentators are not in the academic community, and are not rich blessings to the church. But it is to say that academic Biblical study has become contaminated by an alien element, and one must pick and choose very carefully.

    Steve P, I also, along with Pastor Bruce, appreciate what you have shared, and your obvious in-depth labors in the topic at hand, seeking to understand the “problems” that some have posited as such. However, also along with Bruce, I think that this area of study has given rise to much ado about nothing. For example, the “various categories of evidence which convince the holders of the Oxford and Farrer hypotheses of Marcan priority”, I find to be of little merit, to say the least. In these two parallel passages you noted,

    Mark 5:10 And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country
    Luke 8:31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss​

    I do not think the “switch from a singular to a plural” in Mark is awkward at all, given that one devil is apparently “spokesperson” for the multitude of them, and it appears that they were also able to speak in unison with one voice (v 12). Luke perhaps approached it from the latter view. It casts no light whatsoever on the priority of one gospel over the other.

    The “Arguments from more ‘awkward’ descriptions of Jesus” are in this same class, and are easily explained without any awkwardness at all in Mark’s presentation of the events, which really are transcriptions of Peter’s descriptions.

    It seems very likely, given the tight community of the apostles (later including Paul), they were familiar with each other’s writings – or proto-writings or verbal expressions – and likely reminisced often about those three and a half years with Jesus, Peter and John (James being cut short) telling the others things that only the three were privy to.

    Add to this the fact that the Author of the gospels – the guiding intelligence and bringer-to-remembrance (John 14:26; 16:12-15) – was the Spirit of God, and the apostles (and hence their amanuenses Luke and Mark) “spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:21), which process I think we can legitimately extrapolate to the NT writing of Scripture as well.

    I think much scholarship busies itself with material that may give it something to do, but is of little value to the church.

    About the authorship of Hebrews, which was briefly discussed above, I hold with Rich here too, though I would support it otherwise than by Origen. I would not belabor the thread with this off-topic matter, except to say it is confessional to assert Paul wrote the Epistle, per the Belgic Confession, Article 4.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  8. Pergamum

    Pergamum Ordinary Guy (TM)

    Thank you so much Steve!

    Excellent response.

    This is a fascinating fact I never knew before.
  9. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    Clearly, dependency is a stronger claim than priority (although it entails it!) Dependency by itself is arguably a purely academic question. However, it has been used as the basis for various other "critical" approaches to the gospels, especially, redaction criticism, which is used to give rise to substantial "insights".

    I agree that many word choices can be explained by the recollection of events, but when you work through all the parallels between the synoptics this thesis as a complete explanation becomes increasingly strained, until it collapses under the weight of improbabilities. The ordering of descriptions and the words chosen point towards a documentatory (literary) dependence of some kind, and not merely independent accounts of the same event. Consider, for example, the following:

    Matt 9:9 ..: And having passed on from there Jesus saw a man ...........................seated in the tax office, named Matthew,
    Mark 2:14: And having passed on .................. he saw Levi son of Alphaeus ........seated in the tax-office,
    Luke 5:27: And.............................................he saw a tax-collector named Levi seated in the tax-office,

    Matt 9:9 .: and he says to him, "Follow me". And .................................... having arisen, he followed him
    Mark 2:14: and he says to him, "Follow me". And .................................... having arisen, he followed him.
    Luke 5:27: and he said to him, "Follow me". And having left everything and having arisen, he followed him.

    Mark Goodacre in his "The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze", Sheffield Academic Press (London), 2001, writes: "This consensus [that there is a literary dependence between the synoptics] is based on the fact that there is substantial agreement between Matthew, Mark and Luke on matters of language and order. .... Some have argued that the closeness in agreement between the Synoptics could be due to faithful recording of the committed-to-memory words of Jesus, but significantly, in cases like this [i.e. the example given above], close agreement is not limited to the words of Jesus, and it will not do to argue on this basis that the Gospels are linked only orally. There is agreement in both narrative material and in sayings material."

    I agree that there is circular reasoning in adopting an evolutionary-developmental theory of theological development, and then seeing such development as evidence of dependencies. However, I think some of the examples of "development" are not significant theologically, but explainable in terms of "improvement of presentation." One knows from editing one's own words, that a second re-write of a paragraph will often remove awkward phrases or statements which are open to misunderstanding.

    I do struggle with how worthwhile this dependency question is. On the one hand it involves a careful reading and comparison of Scripture, and reflects upon features of the Bible that God has given us. This cannot be a bad thing. On the other, some use it, as you say, to support untenable and destructive theories of development that undermine faith. That it also supports redaction criticism is also a mixed blessing, because although there is nothing in theory wrong with redaction criticism, sometimes it is pursued to construct a "reductionistic" reading of Scripture, and its conclusions can never be more certain than the - far from certain - identification of the sources that were redacted.

    Again, I largely agree, although the presence of common ordering and language cannot be completely accounted for by the same underlying events, as I attempt to show in the example of above.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  10. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    I agree that Mark's account makes sense in its own terms, and any "awkwardness" in it can be accounted for, and that Luke's account can be explained in terms of adopting a different viewpoint. I even agree that by itself, one example like this does not cast light upon the dependency question.

    However, that Mark's account - however theologically justifiable - is more awkward, is clear. Sentences do not normally jump around between the plural and singular. If there was documentary dependency between Mark and Luke, it would almost certainly be Luke knowing Mark rather than vice versa. If a writer wanted to change Luke to make a theological point about one devil being a spokesman for the others, arguably he would chose a more verbose way of doing so, and not merely "corrupt" a way of telling the story that does not have this "awkwardness". Conversely, one can imagine Luke adopting his different viewpoint to avoid the awkwardness of jumping from a singular to a plural.

    Clearly, this one example may be accounted for by independence and not dependency. However, it is issues to do with ordering, word choices, and the shear consistency of the fact that time after time it is Matthew and Luke which have the smoother accounts of the same events which tend to support the idea of them being "dependent upon" (i.e. familiar with) Mark's account.

    I agree whole heartedly with both these points. However, the inspiration of John's gospel did not make it very similar to the Synoptics. Neither inspiration, nor memory of the same events, can account for the similarities between the Synoptic gospels. Some degree of documentary dependence is the most plausible explanation ... however familiar the apostles were with each others's reminiscences.

    This is unquestionably true. Don Carson calls teachers (and to some extent this can be expanded to evangelical scholars) in the church "stomachs in the body of Christ." These take in vast quantity of almost indigestible stuff, and extract the goodness to nourish the rest of the body.

    Your criticism was particularly true of older critical biblical scholarship which was controlled by a liberal sceptical agenda, but there are increasing numbers of evangelical scholars, and the techniques and questions have moved on ... some of which ... such as literary studies and studies into the social setting ... are more immediately helpful to the preacher and average disciple.

    A thrilling read from a contemporary evangelical scholar working with the gospels, is Richard Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses", Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, (Grand Rapids: Michigan), 2008. He highlights numerous features in the gospels which are the tell-tale evidences that they are based on eye-witness accounts. For example, have you ever wondered why the woman who anointed Jesus prior to the crucifixion is anonymous in one of the gospel accounts? However, it becomes explicable if it was a very early account, for, given that Jesus had been crucified for claiming to be a king, then in those early days, the person who anointed him might also have been thought to be in danger. Check out ... Jesus and EYEWITNESSES: Richard Bauckham: Books
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  11. Jerusalem Blade

    Jerusalem Blade Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    Thanks for your gracious and nuanced responses, Steve! Indeed, I much like Bauckham's, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, which I am slowly going through in preparation for refuting Bart Ehrman. It is an example of top-notch academic scholarship (I also appreciate his writings on Revelation, and Greg Beale's as well). Clearly, as you point out, there is a lot of excellent material now coming out of Christian academia; it remains, though, one must sort through it very carefully.

    Belatedly, welcome to PB, Steve
    – I look forward to seeing more of your posts.
  12. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    I also appreciate the presentation, Steve.P. God bless your studies, both to yourself, and to the church.
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