Tag Archives: Synoptic Gospels

What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 2

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 »

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

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 »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 1)

Part 1: A Sea Change

Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.

Published in 1989 by SCM Press, Studying the Synoptic Gospels remains one of the best resources for learning about the first three books of the New Testament. Not a week goes by that I don’t take it off the shelf and refer to it. Sanders and Davies cover most of the important subjects related to synoptic studies, and they do it in an engaging and evenhanded manner. Each subject receives appropriate coverage, with suggested “further readings” that can take you even deeper.

Studying the Synoptic Gospels

Studying the Synoptic Gospels

Studying the Synoptic Gospels treats the question of genre quite seriously, devoting one chapter for each gospel. The chapter on Matthew for example, continues for 14 pages, touching on its various features — how it resembles different forms of known, contemporaneous literature, how it uses the traditional material, etc. In the end, the authors conclude:

The most satisfactory definition of the genre is ‘a theodicy about the creation and recreation (see palingenesia, ‘new world’, 19.28) which is centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.’ (p. 264, italics original)

The authors contend that although in some ways Matthew’s gospel resembles a βίος (bios), it also has some striking differences, and in the end it is a wholly inadequate description. Mark has even less in common with ancient literary biographies. They write:

The form of the Second Gospel is, however, even less like a Hellenistic biography than that of Matthew. It does not begin with birth stories, and, if 16.8 is the original ending, it is quite without parallel. (p. 267, bold original)

The authors grant that Luke has even more in common with Hellenistic biographies than the first two gospels.

It is fair to say that Luke-Acts could not have existed in its present form without knowledge of Graeco-Roman texts. . . . But, to return to the preface, the truth for which the work offers Theophilus assurance is not just the accurate reporting of past events, nor the discernment of patterns of history, nor the exact depiction of a holy community worthy of imitation or admiration, but the story of the creator God who repeatedly offers people salvation, through prophets, through Jesus and through his apostles, and whose sovereignty is about to be finally established by replacing the kingdom of Satan on earth with that of God. Historical motifs are swallowed up by eschatological, and history is understood from the perspective of creation and recreation. (p. 297, emphasis added)

Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.

Fortress Introduction The New Testament

Fortress Introduction The New Testament

Now compare Sanders’ and Davies’ careful, detailed, and sober conclusions to this quote from the Fortress Introduction to the New Testament by Gerd Theissen:

The gospel is a variant of the ancient ‘life’, which was widespread in the non-Jewish world: the gospel is an ancient bios (a better term to use than ‘biography’), though a bios of an unusual kind. (p. 16, Nook edition, 2004, bold and color emphasis added)

Theissen notes that writings centered on a single person were quite unknown in the Old Testament. How did a sect that started within Judaism come to employ a genre that was so unlike anything known in Jewish religious writings up to that point? He says: read more »

Why the Gospel of John Depicted John the Baptist So Differently

John the Baptist is almost unrecognizable in the Gospel of John to those who have known him only from the Synoptic Gospels.

Apart from the Gospel of John’s Baptist never baptizing Jesus, (and apart from the possibility that in John’s Gospel Jesus himself uniquely does some baptizing for a time), one major difference between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics is that in the latter there is a clearly laid out sequence while in John’s Gospel Jesus and John work alongside each other.

The reason that the Gospel of John treats John the Baptist so differently from the way he is depicted in the Synoptics is, I suggest, because that sequential pattern in the Synoptics implies something about the nature of Jesus that the last evangelist flatly rejected. So this post looks firstly at what that sequence implies about Jesus and that might have been at odds with the theology or Christology of the Fourth Gospel.

In the Gospel of Mark, first John the Baptist appears to Israel; John is then imprisoned; only then does Jesus appears to Israel. In the Gospel of John, however, John the Baptist and Jesus are carrying out their respective baptizing ministries in tandem. The only difference is that the followers of Jesus are increasing while those of John are diminishing. So the Baptist is said to explain:

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

That’s not how it is in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark a sequence is clear. First John the Baptist, then Jesus who announces the Kingdom of God, then (we must wait for it) the Kingdom of God is about to arrive (at hand). read more »