Category Archives: Synoptic Gospels


What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 2

by Tim Widowfield

Underestimating serious problems

While researching background information on a post I’ve been picking away at for several weeks, I came across a problem that bothered me to the point where I had to pull some books out of storage.

As you no doubt recall, the consensus explanation for the Synoptic Problem posits a “Q” source that Matthew and Luke used. But they also copied Mark.

Who touched me?

According to the theory, the authors of those two later gospels used their sources completely independently, and edited their material according to their own tendencies. So when we happen upon a passage in which Matthew and Luke redact Markan source material in exactly the same way, we take notice. We call these passages “minor agreements,” in keeping with NT scholarship’s penchant for underestimating potentially fatal flaws.

Sometimes these agreements span just two or three words, and even in this case it’s only five words, but remarkable nonetheless. As the woman with the issue of blood approaches Jesus through the crowd, she reaches out.

  • Mark 5:27:

ἐλθοῦσα ἐν τῷ ὄχλῳ ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ
(having come in the crowd behind touched the clothing of him)

  • Matthew 9:20b:

προσελθοῦσα ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ κρασπέδου τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ
(having approached behind touched the fringe of the clothing of him)

  • Luke 8:44a:

προσελθοῦσα ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ κρασπέδου τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ
(having approached behind touched the fringe of the clothing of him)

Interpolations and non-interpolations

Preliminary checks online showed that the reading in the extant manuscripts of Luke can either look like Matthew or like Mark. The Markan reading — without the fringes — is much less common. However, its existence causes us to wonder which is correct, and what are the arguments for preferring one over the other.

I especially wanted to see what Burnett Hillman Streeter and Bruce Manning Metzger had to say about the matter. Streeter’s 1924 book, The Four Gospels, contains an entire chapter dealing with the minor agreements in which he explains them in light of the Two-Source Hypothesis.

Here’s what Streeter had to say on the subject: read more »


The Enigma of Genre and The Gospel of John

by Tim Widowfield

In an earlier post, I wrote:

Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.

Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.

Charles Harold Dodd

The fact that John’s pattern for writing a gospel — what the Germans refer to as Gattung — seems suspiciously similar to Mark’s pattern did not escape Charles H. Talbert’s notice. In What Is a Gospel? he wrote:

The heritage of the last generation’s research, as enshrined in the commentaries on the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann, has supplied us with the working hypothesis that John and the Synoptics are independent of one another. James M. Robinson has seen that this hypothesis poses the problem of explaining how the same Gattung could emerge independently in two different trajectories, the synoptic and the Johannine.

If, as is usually supposed, Mark was the creator of the literary genre gospel and if John was independent of Mark, where did the fourth Evangelist get his pattern? (Talbert 1986, p. 9-10, bold emphasis mine)

Mark’s Pattern

The consensus among NT scholars for over a century has held that sayings of and stories about Jesus floated freely, first as oral history — kept alive through telling and retelling by his disciples — then as oral tradition, and finally as written gospels. But those first “gospels” were, so the reasoning goes, more or less freeform collections. Not until Mark did we at last see the first narrative gospel, which integrated the stories, sayings, and parables, laid out structurally as a journey along the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, with a tacked-on, pre-existing Passion Narrative.

[James M. Robinson] states that “the view that one distinctive Gattung Gospel emerged sui generis from the uniqueness of Christianity seems hardly tenable.” [Robinson (Trajectories) p. 235, 1971] The emergence of Mark and John independently points to the necessity for a reexamination of the question of the genre of the canonical gospels. (Talbert 1986, p. 10)

Wow. Can you believe Bultmann had the nerve to insist that the author of the Fourth Gospel had no knowledge at all of Mark’s gospel and failed to realize that John’s independent invention of a supposedly unique Gattung strains credulity?  read more »


“Who Is It That Struck You?” — Minor Agreements and Major Headaches

by Tim Widowfield
Mathis Gothart Grünewald: Jesus Blindfolded

Mathis Gothart Grünewald: Jesus Blindfolded

In the late 1990s, I worked as a consultant at a technology company based in the midwestern United States. At one point, our team was rolling out a new version of a help desk solution. They needed to send someone to Europe to train new users, and, as luck would have it, they picked me.

When I landed in Milan, I discovered that the group I was supposed to train had gone out on strike. My contact, a mid-level manager for the branch in Italy, couldn’t hide his exasperation. He apologized many times that day, and I had to keep telling him it was all right. He felt so guilty about the whole thing that he took me on a tour of the city. There wasn’t much else to do; in countries that respect the rights of labor, you don’t cross picket lines.

No matter where you dig

Something he said that day as we were driving around Milan has stuck in my head ever since. We had to take a detour at one point, because a construction zone had recently become an archaeological site. He said, essentially, “You can’t dig anywhere in the city without finding artifacts from the past.” In fact, he said they tried not to move any earth if at all possible, because they know it’s going to happen — and it’ll throw off the schedule by months. In this case, the builders had gambled. They needed more parking within a densely populated section, and so they started in.

I often think about what he said when I start digging into the New Testament. No matter where you plant your shovel, you’re bound to find tons of material, layer after layer of articles, lectures, theses, commentaries, and books. The density of material is probably greater in the gospels than elsewhere, and though I have no hard data to back it up, I strongly suspect the volume of information in the passion narratives is greater still.

Any time I start to imagine that a superficial reading of a verse or a pericope will suffice, I have to remind myself that my opinion will surely change once I start digging. It will never be as simple as I expected, and my first impressions are often completely wrong.

Irresolvable rumps

Consider, for example, the supposed slam-dunk argument from Q (Q for Qwelle) skeptics that the minor agreements in Matthew and Luke represent intractable issues that advocates of the Two Source Theory cannot answer. They point to synoptic stories of Jesus’ mistreatment before being sent to Pilate a the prime example.

Mark Goodacre puts it this way: read more »