Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 4)

Watson, Francis. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013. 665 pages, pb. $48  Link to Eerdmans.

[NB: This is a review of the third and final section of Gospel Writing by Francis Watson. I covered the first section (“Eclipse of the Fourfold Gospel“) here, and the second (Reframing Gospel Origins) in two parts entitled “Reclaiming Gospel Origins” and “The Process of Gospel Writing.” My intention is to draw this lengthy review to a close in this post, briefly commenting on the final section of the book and providing some overall evaluation.]

Watson Gospel WritingPart 3:  The Canonical Construct

When I began reading Gospel Writing, I looked over the chapter titles and assumed that the last four chapters would be my least favorite of the book.  I assumed that this would be a review of the commonly known history of the development of the fourfold Canon.  Certainly that history is presented, but only in the service of the major thesis of the book that the non-canonical Gospels ought to be included in the discussion of Gospel formation. As outlined in my previous post, Watson wants to include non-canonical books like Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter as important witnesses of how the Gospel writers read the traditions they received and interpreted them in a different context.  I thoroughly enjoyed this section of the book, although it strikes me as rather far removed from the central section of the book. It could stand on its own as a brief monograph on the origins of the fourfold Gospel and the Canon.

Watson observes that one can approach the Gospels with the assumption that the many non-canonical Gospels post-date the four canonical Gospels. GThomas can be excluded from any account of how the Gospels were written because that book is written after the “completion of the canon” and they are therefore out-of-bounds.  On the other hand, some scholars have pushed the date of the composition of GThomas earlier and argue that the book developed independently of the canonical Gospels. Such Gospels ought to be given some sort of priority in the account of Gospel writing.

Both of these extremes are rejected simply because the dividing line between canon and non-canonical Gospels is arbitrary and value-laden.  To call a particular text “non-canonical” or “apocryphal” (or worse, unorthodox or heretical) is to presume something about that Gospel before it is read. It is entirely possible, Watson observes, that authentic and authoritative words of Jesus are to be found in a Gospel which later was not recognized as canonical.

Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria

In order to support this thesis, Watson draws on references to gospels in Clement of Alexandria. While Clement knew of a fourfold Gospel that “was handed down to us,” he also referred to the Gospel of the Egyptians. In dialogue with Julius Cassianus, Clement interacts with this non-canonical Gospel, but there is no indication that Clement did not accept at least the cited portion of the gospel as scripture.  Watson points out that Clement disagrees with the interpretation of the Gospel of the Egyptians, rather than the use of the book. In fact, Clement is able to correct Cassianus’s interpretation by quoting more of the context of the saying (p. 420-1).  He does not state that the cited text is apocryphal or non-authoritative.

For Watson, Clement lives at a time when the fourfold canon is beginning to develop the authoritative standing it will have officially by the time of Eusebius.  In fact, Eusebius’s discussion of canon relies heavily on Clement, although his references to other gospels are ‘suppressed” (p. 438). By the time Eusebius writes, the boundary between canon and non-canon is clear, and some gospels are “outside” of that boundary.  That is not necessarily “repressive,” although it might have been understood that way by some Christians who cherished the Gospel of Peter, for example (p. 452).

If Eusebius stands on one end of the creation of a fourfold canon, Irenaeus represents its beginning (p. 454). This is often recognized, and because the classic statement on the four Gospels appears in Irenaeus’ work on heresy it is often assumed that the motivation for a canonical list of Gospels is the response to heretics. Usually this canon is a response to Marcion, mostly since Marcion offered his own “canon.” But Marcion still used the traditional texts, even if he narrowed the canon. But like many other things in this book, Watson challenges this consensus view.  Irenaeus never states that the heretics are wrong because the use non-canonical gospels. In fact, Watson shows that the Gnostic Valentinius appealed to the four Gospels rather than to any Gnostic gospels.

What motivated Irenaeus is a potential division between the Eastern Church (Ephesus) and the Western Church (Rome). Mark and Luke reflect the preaching of Peter and Paul, who are assumed to represent the West, while John and Matthew represent Ephesus and Antioch to the east. By advocating a fourfold Gospel, Irenaeus achieves “an ecumenical consensus by securing Western recognition of the gospel from Asia” (p. 502).

Watson includes a chapter on Origen, one of the first commentary writers.  “Commentary presupposes normativization” (p. 528), so Origen’s commentaries on Scripture are a window into what was considered canonical in the second century. Returning to themes he began early in his book, Watson describes how origin dealt with the differences between the four Gospels.  Origen approached the fourfold Gospel as a unit and represents a “reinterpretation of the complex textual object still known as ‘the gospel, though consisting of four gospels” (p. 552).

Conclusion. Watson’s Gospel Writing is (for me at least) one of the more anticipated books of 2013. While this is not the last word on the Synoptic Problem, Watson has produced a major attack on the consensus view of Q.  While others have done similar work, Gospel Writing is one of the most comprehensive and cohesive argument against the Q theory to date. Watson offers a “process” that explains how (and why) the Gospel writers used and reinterpreted received tradition. Perhaps more troublesome for more conservative scholars is his insistence that the non-canonical Gospels be included in the discussion. But Watson never argues that these Gospels be authoritative for doctrine or practice, only that they illustrate the process of Gospel Writing in the first century.

In a book of this size there are many smaller issues that are open to question or clarification.  In some place I think that Watson goes a bit beyond the evidence. Clement’s use of the Gospel of the Egyptians, for example, does not imply that he cherished the book. He may be quoting an opponent’s favorite text and pointing out that he has interpreted it wrong. That the fourfold Gospel was not a response to heretics may be too strongly stated since Clement does state that an opponent used a non-canonical gospel. Nevertheless, Gospel Writing is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Synoptic Problem.

Eerdmans has produced a few “social media” extras for this book.  Here is an interview with Watson discussing his canonical approach to the Gospels. In addition, there is a blog for the book with photographs to supplement several footnotes in chapter 11.  This blog has not been updated since the book was published.

Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 3)

Watson, Francis. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013. 665 pages, pb. $48  Link to Eerdmans.  (Part one of this review is here, part two is here.)

Part 2b: The Process of Gospel Writing

After reading the second Part of Watson’s book, I found that the most significant contribution to my understanding of the Gospels is his sevenfold “process of reception.” He makes this explicit on pages 347, although it is developed throughout chapter 7 of the book.

TWatson Gospel Writinghe first three stages are pre-written forms:  Datum, recollection and tradition.  The “datum” is an actual event.  Somebody did or said something that was remembered by those who found it to be important (or at least memorable).  His immediate example is that Jesus was baptized by John.  That “happened” at some point and various people remembered that it happened because it was a significant event. The recollection or the event became a tradition (or “social memory”) when it was repeated many times by people of significance in the early Christian community. It does not take long for “everyone to know” that Jesus was baptized because it was an oft-repeated tradition.

The tradition is given stability by the fourth stage in the process of reception: inscription.  At some point the tradition is put into writing. That written form of the memory becomes a kind of “standard version” of the memory. This stage may refer to Proto Mark of the Sayings Collection(s) Watson proposes as an alternative to Q, but it may well refer to the Gospel of Mark, or (to extend Watson’s argument), to Matthew and Luke when they include something not in their sources.

The last three stages of the process of reception involve developments from that inscription: interpretation, reinterpretation, and finally normativization. If Matthew used Mark as a source, he is interpreting the inscripted tradition, perhaps by modifying it or by receiving it without any significant changes.  Luke also works at the interpretation level, but with Mark and Matthew. Gospel of Thomas picks up inscripted traditions from a Sayings Collection and interprets them in the same ways.  A later Gospel writer might use Mark, Luke and a Sayings Collection to re-interpret the traditions in yet another direction.

Normativization occurs when a dividing line is arbitrarily imposed on the production of Gospels, likely as a “pragmatic response to contingencies” (p. 355). Perhaps this is a response to aberrant interpretations of the tradition, although Watson does not specify this as a possibility. When a line was drawn between the four canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels, it created a four-fold canon that was itself a literary work and was (from that time on) the normative form of the Gospels.

If I have understood this process correctly, one of the advantages of Watson’s method is that there must be something at the beginning to be remembered and passed along. This is more or less the same idea found in Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, cited by Watson several times in this section, as well as the work of James Dunn (Jesus Remembered) and Anthony Le Donne (The Historiographical Jesus). Watson’s point seems to be that this datum is real and accessible, rather than so overlayed with theological reinterpretation that it cannot be recovered as “history.”  The whole reception history movement (if that is the right way to describe it) seems to assume that if something is remembered and received as a tradition, then there must be some even that caused it to be remembered.

I agree, and think that the traditions remembered in the Gospels do reflect real events of some kind. But it seems like the datum level can be challenged on historical grounds. It seems entirely possible for someone to have “made up” the baptism of Jesus in order to make it appear as if Jesus of Nazareth were a part of John’s ministry before breaking off on his own.  I am not sure what would motivate that kind of a fabrication, but if someone had created the baptism out of nothing, and was a sufficiently respected leader, it is possible that the story of Jesus baptism is a non-event that was remember as a real event.

How can I know with any level of certainty that Matthew did not create the Baptism of Jesus? It seems to me that we are back on the ground of “historical plausibility.” Is it plausible that Jesus would submit to baptism by John? In order to establish plausibility, I might revert to the various criteria of authenticity employed by now out of fashion Historical Jesus scholars.  I might use this same historical method to argue that Jesus did not actually say that female disciples would need to somehow become men to enter the kingdom of heaven (GThomas 114). That saying is inconsistent with Judaism and Christianity and without parallel in any other source. It is therefore less likely to be authentic.

In any case, Watson’s outline of the process of reception in the creation of the Gospels seems to me to be a reasonable description of how the Gospels were formed, both the canonical Gospels as well as the “other gospels” that existed alongside the canon. Whether there is room for “Historical Jesus” scholarship at the New Testament scholars table still is a matter of debate. Watson really does shift attention away from “did it happen” to “what did people think about” the Jesus events.

Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 2)

Watson, Francis. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013. 665 pages, pb. $48  Link to Eerdmans.  (Part one of this review is here.)

Part 2:  Reclaiming Gospel Origins

In the second part of his book, Watson lays out his argument against the need for the hypothetical Q document.  The case for Q is based on a series of similar passages in both Matthew and Luke that appear to have circulated as a collection of sayings. The consensus view is that Matthew and Luke both used this document to supplement the general plot line of the Gospel of Mark. This seems harmless enough, but Watson warns us that this simple proposal that solves the Synoptic problem is double-edged.  “Q entails a radical reconstruction of Christian origins” that sets the real, historical Jesus against the canonical Gospels, Paul and the church as it developed in the second century.  For Watson, “Q is the definitive expression of liberal Protestant ambivalence towards catholic Christianity” (p. 118). The “real Jesus” is found in Q, not in the layers of theological development found in the Synoptic Gospels (and certainly not in the Gospel of John!)

Watson Gospel WritingWatson proposes that Mark did indeed write first, Matthew followed Mark and supplemented that Gospel with a “sayings source.”  Luke then wrote his Gospel fully aware of both Mark and Matthew; Luke is an interpreter of Luke.  If this case can be made, then the Q theory is unlikely (p. 119). A common sayings document like Q is only necessary if Luke is independent of Matthew. The Q document is established by common agreements between Matthew and Luke.  But Watson finds these “coincidences” too common to be mere coincidence; rather they indicate that Luke had a copy of Matthew before him as he wrote.

A key component of his argument is Luke’s prologue.  In the first few verses of his Gospel, Luke states that he did use other accounts of the events of his gospel along with eyewitnesses to these events. Using the well-known saying of Papias, Watson thinks that Mark’s gospel was not written “in order” and that Matthew addressed this problem by writing in order the sayings “in the Hebrew language.” Luke says that he used these other accounts, Watson takes this as meaning that he interpreted these earlier Gospels when he wrote his own “orderly account.” Key to this argument is the fact that both Matthew and Luke place sayings in the same Markan context. This might be a coincidence, but there are too many examples of the same sayings in the same Markan context to convince Watson of the Luke’s independence of Matthew.  If Luke is following Matthew, then there is no need for Q.

On Q

As Luke writes his Gospel, he might adapt, reject, or reserve material he finds in Matthew (p. 158-9).  The Sermon on the Plain is adapted, but some elements are rejected (some of the beatitudes, for example).  Other material is reserved for use in another context, such as Luke’s re-location of the Anxiety saying (Matt 6:25-33) to another context (Luke 12:22-31). By arguing that Luke rejected a saying, Watson does not mean to say that Luke did not like the saying.  Luke simply chose to not use it in his own gospel.  In order to demonstrate this theory, Watson wades through a great deal of detail, comparing Matthew and Luke in pericope after pericope. In the end, Watson argues that it makes more sense that the common material in Luke comes from Matthew (and Mark) rather than Luke and Matthew sharing a common source.  It might be that there was a Q, but it is by no means a necessary conclusion.  Luke has gathered sayings in Matthew and created a “sayings collection” from which Luke constructs his travel narrative (p. 216).

This process of Gospel writing is exactly what we ought to expect: the writer receives a tradition about Jesus and interprets that tradition in a new context. To show that this tradition – reception – interpretation process “works,” Watson examines the Gospel of Thomas as another example of Gospel writing.  For some readers, this strategic move might sound a bit too much like the Jesus Seminar, and Watson is careful in his use of Thomas to avoid such accusations (i.e., “GTh is a relatively late example of a much older Christian genre,” p. 287).  In fact, he works very hard to separate Thomas from Gnosticism (p. 221-49). Comparing the Gospel of Thomas to the Apocryphon of John, for example, shows that Thomas is not all that Gnostic after all (p. 248). Thomas becomes a way to solve the synoptic problem without a Q because it demonstrates the way a gospel writer receives a tradition and interprets it in the writing of a new Gospel.

The unknown author of the Gospel of Thomas received traditions from a saying source and sometimes relocates them in new contexts. As such, “Thomas is a descendant of the early Sayings Collections employed by Mark and Matthew” and a relative of the Sayings Collections used by other non-canonical gospels of the second century (284). The main point that Watson is getting at here is that there were (potentially) multiple sayings sources that cannot be reconstructed as a single “critical edition” from the parallel material in the Synoptic Gospels (plus Thomas, if desired).  These saying sources are earlier than the written Gospels and faithfully transmit the ipissima verba of Jesus (p. 285).

Watson attempts to work the same methodology with the Gospel of John and the Egerton Gospel (ch. 6). This is far more tentative due to the nature of the Egerton.  Watson argues that this gospel comes from a time when it was still possible to be a Jew and believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  John, on the other hand, writes after that is no longer a real possibility (p.329). If this is true, then there is at least a possibility that a theological trajectory can be traced from Egerton through John’s Gospel.  In chapter 7, he adds the Gospel of Peter to the trajectory. Watson examines how this apocryphal gospel receives traditions and modifies them to highlight theological interests.  For example, in the canonical gospels, Jesus is mocked as a king (Mark) and then a King of the Jews (Matt / Luke). But in GPet 3.7, 4.11, Jesus is mocked as the “King of Israel.” There is a shift away from a political description to a theological statement that Jesus is the crucified God (p.376).

This method highlights Watson’s assertion that any Gospel can be viewed from two perspectives.  It can first be viewed as contributing to the on-going process of Gospel writing, looking back on how it develops traditions received and forward to how it influences later Gospels. Alternatively, a Gospel may be viewed from the perspective of the canonical boundary. Comparing Matthew and John will yield far different results than comparing Thomas and Peter (p. 407), and I would add that comparing Matthew to Thomas creates a third perspective which is lost if the canonical boundary is absolute.

Watson believes he has successfully rendered Q unnecessary and shown that the non-canonical Gospels have something to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how any Gospel was written.  While his use of the Gospels of Thomas, Egerton and Peter may perplex some more conservative scholars, they are necessary to illustrate the process of Gospel writing which he detects in the early process.  In the end this is a compelling and well-defended argument and should change the discussion of the Synoptic Problem into a discussion of how tradition is transmitted, received and interpreted.  That alone is a positive contribution to scholarship!

 

Part one of this review is here.  Part three of this review is here.

Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 1)

Watson, Francis. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013. 665 pages, pb. $48  Link to Eerdmans.

Given the interest in literary methods, canonical approaches, and theological to the gospels, a monograph on Source Criticism might seem a bit behind the times. After all, Mark Goodacre described a “world without Q” sometime ago. In his recent Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington proposes a “narrative and theological” approach to the gospels that simply ignores source-critical questions. Yet Watson provides a consistent presentation of the origin of all four Gospels that challenges the academic consensus and cogently argues for a theory of Gospel origins that takes into account all of the evidence available.

Watson Gospel WritingThe book has three sections. The first is a short overview of the synoptic problem, beginning with Augustine. In the second and longest section of the book Watson develops his thesis and illustrates it in each of the four Gospels.  In the third section of the book, Watson examines the “Canonical Construct” of the four Gospels by examining the canon in the East (Clement and Eusebius), the West (Irenaeus and Rome). My plan in this review is to give a brief overview of the book in this section, and then provide a critique of part two,  part three, and part four.

Background to the Synoptic Problem

The consensus view on the origin of the Synoptic Gospels is that Mark wrote first, followed by Matthew and Luke.  Both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a model and supplemented his narrative with material from a sayings source, Q (for Quelle, source in German). This sayings source contained only the words of Jesus with no narrative. Matthew and Luke edited the narrative from Mark together with the sayings of Q to form their Gospels. This Two-source hypothesis has been occasionally modified, but for the most part it is the default position for most Gospel scholars for the last 100 years. The theory made sense and for the most part solved the so-called Synoptic Problem better than other proposed solutions. While Q remains a hypothetical source, the Gospel of Thomas at least confirms that there were collections of the sayings of Jesus.

Watson challenges this consensus by arguing that Mark wrote his gospel first, Matthew followed him and supplemented the narrative with a sayings source, and that Luke interpreted Matthew. There is therefore no need for the Q document as it is normally described in scholarship. Instead of the complex, multi-layered Q standing between Mark and Matthew, Watson suggests a sayings source that is independent of the canonical Gospels.

A second challenge to the consensus is Watson’s proposal that the “other gospels” be used to illustrate how the four canonical Gospels were formed.  He therefore includes a chapter on “Thomas and Q” as well as a chapter on the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. Rarely does a work on the origins of the Gospels venture into the Johannine world, but Watson is trying to argue that the Gospel writers were interpreters of Scripture. John is therefore an important witness to the reception of the Gospels and their subsequent re-interpretation. The non-canonical Gospels are important witnesses for Watson because the show how other writers continued the interpretive process well into the second century.

This process of reception and interpretation is critically important to what Watson wants to do in this book – the interpretive process created a diversity of gospels which were the result of the interaction of both oral and written sources. This process occurred early (Mark) and late (Thomas, Gospel of Peter, etc.). Watson points out that the canonical Gospels are only defined as “canonical” after the appearance of these other gospels. There is an “indefinite number of broadly similar texts and intertextual links” between the four canonical Gospels and the many non-canonical gospels which were severed when the four became “the gospels” (p. 614).  By observing this process of interpretation not only at the canonical level the interpreter is venturing out into theological and historical issues usually ignored by New Testament scholars.

Part 1:  The Eclipse of the Four-Fold Gospel

In the first two chapters of Gospel Writing, Watson examines the history of the Synoptic Problem, although he does not really express it in those terms.  Beginning with Augustine’s De Consensu Evangelistarum, Watson traces the development of harmonizing the Gospels into the various rejections of harmonizing popular in the nineteenth century. Watson thinks that Augustine “laid down the principles of Gospel harmonization that remained influential even as they were rejected in post-Enlightenment scholarship” (p. 15).

Augustine did not practice the kind of conflation of the Gospels one finds in the Diatessaron, but rather saw empirical facts “parceled out between the four evangelists” (p.43).  Watson uses the announcement of the resurrection in Luke and John as an example. That there are differences in the reports is obvious, but Augustine does not see these as contradictions but two reflections on a single (historical) event. But in allowing for diverse reports of an event, Augustine opens the door for contradiction, a door that is exploited by Enlightenment critics of harmonization. Watson says, “Reimarus is unthinkable without Augustine” (p. 44).

G. E. Lessing

G. E. Lessing

The second chapter of Gospel Writing traces the development from Reimarus and Lessing and the response to them that developed into the current state of the “synoptic problem.” While this is one of the better introductions to the contributions of G. E. Lessing, I wonder if this level of detail is necessary for the overall argument of the book. The main point of the section is that Lessing desire to read the Gospels as a historian led him to search for sources behind the Gospels, primarily the Aramaic Gospel to the Hebrews and the implication of Papias’s statement that Matthew wrote first in the “Hebrew language.” The drive to discover the oral sources behind the text was motivated by the privileging of that oral period in the development of the gospels. The Q hypothesis is almost a natural result of this search for the original, single gospel from which the others developed.

Essentially that is the idea that Watson challenges in the main section of his book.  Rather than an early (and implicitly more pure, less Christian) proto-Gospel, Gospel writing was an ‘unfolding process of reception and interpretation” rather than a “decline into untruth and illusion” (p. 113). In order to support this unfolding process, Watson must first dispense with the need for Q.

Part two of this review is here, part three is here.

What is the Problem with Q?

The dominant view in over the last 150 years of New Testament scholarship is that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as an outline from which they wrote their gospels.  This accounts for the narrative portions of the gospels.  But there is a great deal of material where both Matthew and Luke agree that is not in Mark.

In order to account for this common material, scholars have conjectured a document they call Q (from the German word Quelle, source).  This hypothetical document is used to explain the many sayings of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.  In this theory, both Matthew and Luke used two documents, hence the name “two source theory.”  Some scholars assume that this document must have existed in one form or another.  For example, G. N.  Stanton says that “we can be reasonably certain that Q existed as a written document” (650).  Yet scholars such as Thomas Edgar vehemently deny its existence.  Edgar states that “Q has never been seen nor is there any evidence that such a document ever existed” (147).

The existence of a “sayings” gospel is a possibility in the light of two pieces of circumstantial evidence.  The statement of Papias can be taken quite easily as a collection of sayings of Jesus were collected by Matthew first, rather than the gospel of Matthew.  A problem night be then that Papias does not know the Gospel of Matthew.   Second, the Gospel of Thomas, while not a particularly help source for historical studies, does show that the genre of a sayings gospel existed. Alas, circumstantial evidence is just.  Thomas is not Q and dates well after the first century.  What Papias says may be explained in several different ways which do not imply the existence of a Q-like source document.

There is something about the idea of a source document which makes evangelicals uneasy.  We do not want to accept the idea that Matthew and Luke were scholars and editors, assembling their gospels from sources.  Most conservatives would dismiss Q immediately because it is the product of Historical Criticism (as the essays in The Jesus Crisis do).  Did God inspire Matthew and Luke to edit their sources, or write their gospels?  For the conservative scholar, Q simply is not helpful since their emphasis is on the text as it appears in the Bible.

This unease is felt over a  broad spectrum of scholarship as well.  The essays in Questioning Q, for example, wonder if relying on the existence of a Sayings source has short-circuited the idea of the Gospel writers as creative writers who should be treated as authors, not editors of their books.
Both of these warnings are well intended.  It is true that documents which “count” are the synoptic Gospels as they appear on the page of the Bible.  If the writers used sources, that may not matter much for our interpretation of the words in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  I have always tried to get students to “stay within the world of the story” and read Matthew as Matthew, not as a parallel book to Luke.

Yet the evidence is there, and as I read it Matthew used Mark and a sayings source of some kind.  Luke likely also used Mark and a sayings source, although he could have also used Matthew.  For me, it is not correct to mis-characterize Matthew ans cut and pasting sources together to create his gospel.  Rather, if Matthew used courses, he was a scholar marshaling all of his resources to create a theological document which answered some questions about the person and nature of Jesus and the idea of discipleship after the resurrection.  There is nothing wrong with the idea that Matthew (or Mark) used sources, but too much emphasis on the sources will obscure the goal – a clear reading of the Gospels.

Bibliography:

Thomas Edgar.  “Source Criticism: The Two Source Theory,” pages 132-157 in The Jesus Crisis (ed. Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998).

Mark Goodacre, editor. Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downer’s Grover, Inter-Varsity, 2004).

G. N.  Stanton.  “Q”, pages 644-650 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed.  Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight;  Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1992).

Why Study The Synoptic Problem?

One is tempted to argue that the whole issue is hopelessly confused and it is best to approach the gospels as they are written and not really worry about the differences.  While this is a noble sentiment, it leaves the question of differences unanswered.  There are differences that we must account for in some way, either by a dependence theory (2 source, 4 source, etc.) or an independence theory.  In his excellent introduction to the Synoptic Problem, Mark Goodacre suggests several reasons students of the Gospels should think through the Synoptic Problem.

Synoptic Meme

Historical and Apologetic Reasons.   The order of the writing of the gospels is valuable simply because it is an historical question that is at the very roots of the Christian story.  It is sometimes thought that the earliest Gospel is the more “primitive”, before the later theological layers were added. Therefore it we read Mark, or Q, we are reading the earliest strata of Christian thinking.  While this has some merit, it is not true that the later gospels are somehow less valuable than the earlier for the sole reason that the demonstrate theological development.  It is obviously true that John is more theologically nuanced that Mark, but that does not mean that John is necessarily creating stories and making Jesus say and do things that he did not say or do.

There is an apologetic value to this form of research.  It is sometimes objected that the Gospels contradict one another, therefore they are to be entirely doubted.  Rather than contradictions, the synoptic variations are to be explained by a literary relationship that can be tracked through the three gospels and in then in to later texts. It is not as though we have to make up crazy explanations for obvious contradictions, the parallels are quite close, just to sort of thing you would expect if there was a literary relationship.

Theological Reasons. It is possible to track the development of thinking about Jesus, who he was and claimed to be over the four gospels.  What did Jesus do on the cross?  What did he think would happen when he died?  What is the importance of the resurrection?   This is aided greatly by the synoptic tradition.  For example, Mark has the least to say about the resurrection, Matthew and Luke quite a bit more, John clearly the most.

Goodacre uses the Lord’s Supper as an additional example of this theological development.  There are four versions of the words spoken by Jesus when he passes the cup, in each of the three synoptic gospels and 1 Corinthians (Mt. 26:27-28, Mk. 14:23-24, Lk. 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25). Historically speaking, Paul is the earliest of the four, only Paul and Luke use the words “new covenant” – a theologically loaded word.  Why is that not in Mark or Matthew?  Were there multiple versions of the Lord’s Supper liturgy with slight variations?  Would a Jewish community be more likely to understand the “new covenant” than a Gentile?  Would Mark be likely to not use the phrase if he were writing to Rome?  Is there a relationship between Paul and the writer of Luke?

The evangelical scholar must approach these issues with the assumption that if there was dependence on sources, that dependence was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  If Matthew used Mark, he did so in a way that was superintended by the Holy Spirit and can in no way be seen as malicious (i.e., Matthew changed the words of Jesus for some theological reason.)   There is nothing about the various solutions to the Synoptic problem that is essentially “against” the authority of scripture or the inspiration or inerrancy of the New Testament documents.

By ignoring the problem and pretending that it does not exist does not help evangelicalism in dealing with criticisms of inspiration.  We must be able to explain the data in a way that actually enhances the doctrine of inspiration and glorifies God for the rather remarkable collection of documents we have describing the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Bibliography:  Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem (Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 2001), 24-32.

Is there a Synoptic “Problem”?

As Craig Blomberg observes in his Jesus and the Gospels, “the vast majority of careful students of the Gospels” assume that there is some sort of literary relationship between the first three gospels (97). Usually this is described as the “Synoptic Problem,” but I wonder if it is really a “problem.”  Why do “careful students of the Gospels” agree on a literary relationship?

There are two main reasons for this decision.

1. Similarity in the Material of the Gospels. The majority of the texts containing material in the Synoptic Gospels are similar. R. H. Stein identifies four areas of similarity:

  • Similar Wording.  In many of the synoptic parallels, there is often a nearly exact similarity of words in parallel passages. Even where the order of the words differ, the same words are often used (Matt 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17; Matt 24:4-8, Mark 13:5-8, Luke 21:8-11).
  • Similar Order of Events.  The general outline of the three synoptic gospels is identical. While a few events are in a different order, the general outline is the same. Note the order of the events in Matthew 16:13-20:34, Mark 8:27-10:52, and Luke 9:1-18 / 18:15-43.
  • Identical Parenthetical Material.   In Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14 there appear to be words added by the author as an aside to the words of Jesus.  This verse is the most impressive evidence for some sort of literary dependence.  The words, “let the reader understand” are repeated verbatim in both Mark and Matthew, imply that one of the writers used the other as a source for the sayings, or that a third source lies in the background.
  • Similar Biblical Quotations.  In the case of Biblical Quotations the texts match up between the Synoptic Gospels, but are not based on the LXX or any known Old Testament text.  In Mark 1:2, Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:4, there is a quotation of the prophet Isaiah that does not conform to either the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) and the Hebrew Bible.

2. Apparent Contradictions in the Material of the Gospels. There are a few sections of the synoptic gospels which are described singular events, yet vary in significant details. The baptism of Jesus is an example of a problem passage where one of the gospel writers appears to have changed the one of the others. In Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22 the voice from Heaven addresses Jesus saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  But in Matthew 3:17 the voice addresses John the Baptist (or the crowd) saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  Clearly this is a singular event, only occurring one time in Jesus ministry.  How are we to account for this apparent change by Matthew?

Examples of both categories could be multiplied, although there are not as many apparent contradictions as there are agreements.  From these observations is seems obvious that the writers of the synoptic Gospels drew on similar resources but were free to use those resources creatively.  All three know the story of the baptism of Jesus, Matthew was able to report the words from Heaven differently for some reason.  For me, it is the reason that Matthew is different which is interesting.

So, is there really a problem here? Perhaps it sounds trite, but I do not see a problem as much as I see an opportunity. We have three creative, theological minds (Matthew Mark and Luke) presenting their understanding of the events of Jesus’ life and teaching. That the vary tells me that there was no single authoritative document which told the story of Jesus until these three gospels were complete. But that they are so similar tells me that there was little tolerance for creation of stories and sayings of Jesus. It is true that Matthew has stories which are unique, or Luke has parables which do not appear in Matthew.  But for the most part, the Synoptic Problem is not that these are three different gospels, but rather that these are three similar gospels, written within a short time of each other.

Bibliography:  R. H. Stein, “Synoptic Problem,”  in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight;  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 784-85.