Why the Synoptic Problem Matters

This will be my final post for awhile on the Synoptic Problem and it is an update of one of my earlier posts from my last blog (see Mark Goodacre’s response here so I hope I have done more justice to the Farrer option this time and especially avoided the term “boring” :)).  I have attempted to make the case in three different posts for Markan priority, but many students may wonder why the order of the gospels and who was doing the copying really matters.  Here are 3 scenarios to show how different solutions have led to very different pictures of early Christian history.

Scenario 1:  According to the Griesbach hypothesis, the Gospel of Mark is a later abridgment of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  The famous approach of Ferdinand Christian Baur and the Tübingen School viewed the entire early history of Christianity through the Hegelian dialectic of thesis (a Jewish or Petrine Christianity stream inherited by the Ebionites), antithesis (a Gentile/Pauline Christianity stream inherited by Marcion and his followers) and synthesis (catholicizing Christianity).  Matthew represented a Jewish Gospel and Luke a Pauline Gentile one, while Mark was the later synthesis of the two.

Scenario 2:  The Two Source Hypothesis (2SH) starts with Mark and the hypothetical Q.  Add the possibility of the independence and early date of (some) traditions contained within the Gospel of Thomas and it becomes possible to speak of multiple trajectories (cf. Robinson and Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity).  Specifically, the argument is that some groups privileged Jesus as a teaching sage as opposed to those that valued the kerygma (proclamation, preaching) of Christ crucified and risen (Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins or Who Wrote the New Testament: the Making of the Christian Myth pushes the source & form critical argument that every reconstructed source goes back to a distinct Sitz im Leben [situation in life] to the limit by positing a variety of Jesus groups in Syria-Palestine behind Q, Thomas, pre-Markan pronouncement stories, miracle chains in Mark/John, etc).   Of course, not all advocates of the 2SH agree.  The dating or literary relationship of Thomas with the Synoptics is widely debated and many question the existence of a distinct “Q community” (chaotic approaches doubt the “Q” material was ever from a single document at all!) or how this ‘community” could be ignorant of interpretations of Jesus death & resurrection as creeds (1 Cor 15:3-5), prayers or hymns to the exalted Lord (1 Cor 16:22; Phil 2:6-11), rituals (Lord’s Supper, baptism as symbolizing death/resurrection) and possibly a pre-Markan passion narrative were fairly early and widespread.  But we cannot exclude the possibility of greater diversity in the earliest period. 

Scenario 3:  According to the Farrer hypothesis, Markan priority is correct but we can dispense with Q because Luke relied on Matthew.  Suddenly the pool of multiply attested sources for reconstructing the historical Jesus and the earliest history of Christianity is lessened as there is no more Q (not to mention other written sources like “M” and “L” as in B.H. Streeter’s revision of the 2SH in The Four Gospels: A study of origins).  Our best evidence for the emergence of the Jesus movement in an apocalyptic milieu is found in Paul and the Gospel of Mark.  For instance, to summarize the points listed in the late Michael Goulder’s Luke – A New Paradigm (pp 22-23), (1) some parts of Mark go back to words and events of Jesus lifetime while the non-Marcan accounts in other gospels is doubtful, (2) Marcan traditions were collected and expanded by the Jerusalem church under Peter, James & John, (3) Mark wrote around 70 CE, (4) there was no Q, (5) Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians around 80 CE and he is the creative author of so-called “M” and “Q” traditions, (6) Luke wrote around 90 CE expanding on Mark and Matthew, (7) John wrote in Asia around 100 CE and knew all three Synoptics, (8) Thomas is a late gnosticizing gospel depending on the Synoptics and especially Luke.  Of course, not all these points necessarily follow for advocates of the Farrer theory as Matthew could have still had source(s) for his non-Marcan material (Goulder here relies on his unique theories about Midrash and Lection in Matthew) and the issue of dating the texts and of John/Thomas dependence could all be debated.

Conclusion: the Synoptic Problem matters!  It is not just for those individuals who enjoy a good puzzle.

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2 Responses to Why the Synoptic Problem Matters

  1. Ron Price says:

    A fourth scenario (the Three-Source Hypothesis) has the logia (ca. 45 CE), Mark (ca. 70 CE), Matthew (ca. 90 CE), Luke (ca. 95 CE), with each writer making use of each earlier document.

    With its Aramaic logia produced by the Jesus community in Jerusalem and translated to varying extents by each synoptic writer, this scenario bridges the gap between an Aramaic-speaking Jesus and the Greek gospels.

    The primary significance for Mark’s gospel is that we can compare the aphorisms of Jesus which Mark took from the logia with the corresponding aphorisms as preserved by Matthew and Luke. Almost always Mark’s version reveals changes in wording, and/or supplying a new context. Many of these editorial adaptations can be seen to have been designed to promote his gospel to the gentiles.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Ron for the comments. That could certainly be a way of interpreting what Papias means by Matthew compiling the logia in the Hebrew (Aramaic) dialect (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.16) and all the patristic references to a Hebrew Gospel, as well many past scholars argued for a Aramaic Ur-Gospel. I myself am not quite convinced by this as when I look at the shared material in the triple tradition (Matthew, Mark, Luke) the “Ur-Gospel” looks alot like Mark so it makes sense to me to just argue that Mark is the source of Matthew and Luke. I am open to the idea that there may be Aramaic sources underlying Mark and the material in the double tradition (commonly labelled “Q”) (cf. as argued by figures such as Matthew Black, Bruce Chilton, Joseph Fitzmyer, Maurice Casey or my own advisor James Crossley).

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