Monday, October 19, 2009

Mark Allan Powell on the Synoptic Problem

In my previous post, I offered some enthusiasm for the splendid looking new textbook for introductory New Testament classes, Introducing the New Testament by Mark Allan Powell, published by Baker. Regular readers will not be surprised to see me revisiting something of a bĂȘte noire in complaining about the way that the Synoptic Problem is treated in introductory texts, and there is no exception here. I must admit that the personal disappointment on this occasion was a little more pronounced than usual. It is several years now since I complained about the way that the Synoptic Problem gets treated in introductory books (The Case Against Q, Chapter 1), and I have done what I can, through books, articles, websites, blogs, to try to generate some awareness of a major alternative to the consensus view. Sometimes, this has met with success. But all too often, I have felt like Kierkegaard's clown, and no more so than here, apparently having made next to no impact on the way that the debate is framed, let alone the solutions that are offered. Let me try to explain why, and please forgive me for focusing in a major way on something that is clearly peripheral to Mark Allan Powell's interests, as it is to many other scholars. The difficulty for people like me is that the introductory textbook can do more than anything else in embedding ideas in students' minds, and it is a shame if they are not even given the framework within which to explore the problem in a balanced way.

Powell's discussion of the Synoptic Problem (here called "the Synoptic Puzzle", 92-100), presents the Two-Source Theory as the solution to the Synoptic Problem and gives the Griesbach Theory as the main alternative (diagrammed on 97, sidebar on 99). I am grateful to Mark Allan Powell for adding a sentence about the Farrer theory (99) after I drew attention to the lack of mention in the manuscript, but all the books under "For Further Reading" are by defenders of the Two-Source Theory, and there are no arguments provided for the existence of Q. Q is largely taken for granted, and then explained. New students, therefore, do not have any framework within which they are able to question Q at the same time as affirming Marcan Priority.

The website provides some supplementary materials, but here things are no more encouraging. There are Chapter 4 flashcards that give "Two Source Theory", "Q", "M", "L", "Four Source Theory" and "Griesbach Theory". Note that Marcan Priority is treated only in partnership with the Q hypothesis and not separately. Under "Extra Content", 4.5 Proposed Solutions to the Synoptic Problem (also available as a PDF), four solutions are listed, "Augustine's Solution", "The Two-Gospel Hypothesis", "The Two Source Hypothesis" and "The Four-Source Hypothesis". In a summary on the "Status of the Synoptic Puzzle in the Twenty-First Century", the Farrer theory and its proponents are not even mentioned.

Then under 4.6, there is Evidence to Support the Two-Source Hypothesis (also available as a PDF). Given the absence of any arguments for the existence of Q in the book itself, I was interested to see what the grounds would be here. Four arguments are given as "Evidence That Matthew and Luke Were Produced Independently of Each Other". All will be familiar to those who have spent any time studying the Synoptic Problem, alas:

(1) With regard to sequence of events, Matthew and Luke frequently agree with one another and with Mark, but they never agree with one another against Mark. This suggests that Mark served as a basic outline used independently by both Matthew and Luke, who sometimes followed him and sometimes did not. If (as an alternative proposal suggests) Mark had copies of both Matthew and Luke and produced an abbreviation of their works, we would expect instances in which Mark departed from a sequence of events followed by both Matthew and Luke, but that never happens.

This argument is problematic because it is expressed in terms of opposition to the Griesbach Theory. The fact that Luke usually follows Mark's order is not a problem for adherents of the Farrer theory, for whom Luke is prioritizing Mark over Matthew and, like Matthew, using it as "a basic outline". The "never" is also incorrect since there are minor Matthew-Luke agreements against Mark in order.

(2) Neither Matthew nor Luke ever includes the other’s additions to the Markan text.

This is simply an error. The reason that the Two-Source Theory invokes categories like "Mark-Q overlaps" and has to spend time discussing "Minor Agreements" is that there are many triple tradition passages in which there are substantial agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark.

(3) The likelihood that either Matthew or Luke used the other as a source is reduced by what would then be inexplicable omissions of material.

The argument from omission is always a problematic one, not least given the fact that every theory has to cope with omission at some point. It often simply amounts to a statement of what we would have done if we were one of the evangelists. The only example Powell gives of an implausible omission by Luke is Matt. 25.31-46 (Sheep and the Goats). If I were Luke, I don't think I would include it, with its characteristically Matthean judgement day scenario of divisions into two groups, sheep and goats, wheat and tares, wise and foolish, good and bad, and eternal hell-fire for the second group. But that may not be right; it is always a guess to say why we imagine that Luke omitted any material, likewise with the huge chunks omitted from Mark, including material we might think to have been congenial.

(4) The material that Matthew and Luke have in common but that is not found in Mark is never found at the same place in their Gospels.

This is another error. One of the difficulties for the Q theory is that Matthew and Luke sometimes integrate double tradition material with triple tradition material, especially in Matt. 3-4 and Luke 3-4, but also elsewhere. The reason that there is a category called "Mark Q overlap" is that "the material that Matthew and Luke have in common but that is not found in Mark is" sometimes "found at the same place in their Gospels."

So, once we get to arguments for the existence of Q, they are not especially impressive, which is a shame given that the actual text seems to express some confidence in the existence of Q. All in all, I remain optimistic, though. Where Q is sustained either by ignoring the arguments against it, or by reproducing weak arguments in its favour, it is surely only a matter of time before an Introduction to the New Testament is produced that at least takes seriously the Q sceptical view.


Brent said...

Chin up, Mark. You are having an impact. I suspect that openness to alternatives-to-Q will be a generational issue. What I mean is this: As an undergraduate, I had the Two Source Hypothesis and Q presented to me as "the" solution to the synoptic problem (I was left with the impression that only a handful of "fringe" "conservative" scholars were clinging to the Griesbach Hypothesis; anything like the Farrer hypothesis was not presented as a serious option). It wasn't until grad school when I read The Case Against Q (on my own initiative; it was not part of the curriculum) that I began to question this received wisdom. When I brought up criticisms of Q in my seminars, the other grad students were generally receptive, but the professors were entrenched. Evidence would not move them; too much of their construction of early Christianity rested on Q. It was frustrating. Now, in teaching my own introductory courses, I try to give all the main solutions to the synoptic problem a fair hearing (I have the students read selections from A Way Through the Maze.
We discuss the pros and cons of Q as a solution to the synoptic problem, but we stop short of talking about things like "the Q communities," much less the "strata" of Q. I suspect that colleagues in my grad cohort who are now themselves teaching are taking a similar approach. It would seem there is some truth to the somewhat morbid saying, "Old entrenched ideas don't die, but the scholars who hold them do."

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Brent. Good points all.

smijer said...

Hi again. Your post is a little over my comprehension level, but if you don't mind a question...

Assuming no Q, that Matthew or Luke brought in the bulk of non-Markan material,... what is the presumptive origin of that additional material? For sake of explanation, I'm assuming that Matthew added most non-Markan material and Luke relied on Matthew. In that scenario is it believed that Matthew worked from oral tradition? That he gathered significant information from an apostle? (I understand this would work better if Luke were the source of the non-Markan material) That he invented the material from whole cloth? That he was a non-apostolic eye-witness?

One argument, if you can call it that, that has appealed to me in favor of Q is that someone with access to this much original material might not have needed to rely on Mark for anything and could have written a complete Gospel of their own. If Q and Mark each represented complementary histories in their own right, it is simpler to me to see Matthew and Luke integrating the two separate histories, each in their own way - and not necssarily without being aware of one another...

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I had always thought that a mature, seasoned scholar would be best to write a New Testament introduction, but this assumes that the scholar is keeping up with the research in all the fields. Given the breadth of the topic, I'm not so sure my assumption is realistic.

Powell got his Ph.D. in 1988, and what he's writing now about the synoptic is pretty much in line with what people like Robert Stein, The Synoptic Problem (1987), were writing back then.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Smijer. Sorry to hear that my post was over your comprehension level. That may simply be because I am assuming a degree of knowledge here in arguing the case. Basically, I was concerned that Powell did not argue for Q in his book. He just assumed it. And when he did provide four arguments, on the website, each one was weak or even erroneous. I have written some stuff aimed at an introductory level in The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze.

You ask a good question about the source of the non-Marcan material. My guess is that Matthew's non-Marcan sources were oral, but of course I could be wrong about that.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Stephen. Interesting point. In fact Stein's book is one of the ones on Powell's list for further reading, along with several others that defend the Two-Source Theory. I am curious that he does not refer to Sanders and Davies, which I regard as the strongest and most balanced introduction to the Synoptic Gospels in general and the Synoptic Problem in particular. I criticized him for not referring to this in an earlier book when he characterized Sanders (as well as Wright) as a proponent of the Q theory, "The Quest to Digest Jesus: Recent books on the Historical Jesus", Reviews in Religion and Theology 7 (2000), 156-61.

Mark Goodacre said...

Here's the link to that review article:

James said...

It really is remarkable that a fine new text could barely mention what’s by far the best supported explanation of Luke-Matthew agreement against Mark, and indeed by two factual errors deny its very existence. Bart Ehrman comes out the wrong place, but he at least articulates the correct view and supplies an argument against it.

Casting about for analogies, one that comes to mind is the theory of continental drift, first devised by Frank Taylor in 1908 and Alfred Wegener eighteen months later, but not generally accepted till the 1960s. It took half a century, but the truth did out. Maybe in this instance as well.

Daniel Graves said...

An opportunity is constantly missed in introductory textbooks, probably because the authors assume so little of the students, namely, the opportunity to test out theories by WORKING WITH THE TEXT of the new Testament and relevant tools. As we all know, this work can even be done in translation (under the guidance of the teacher)! I remember in my undergrad days (early 1990's) one of my professors insisted on using Conzelmann's out of date textbook because it was the only one that offered serious questions and exercises that made the students work with the NT text and the respective tools (synopses, lexicons, etc). I long to see a new introduction that sets out the synoptic problem, expolores the various theories (without judgement), and gives exercises for the students to explore the problem and decide what makes the most sense... isn't that what higher education is supposed to do?!?!?

Keep up the good work, Mark.
Fr. Dan

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Fr, Dan. Excellent point.

Sean said...

Well Mark, you'll be happy to know that the new introduction to the NT: The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown by Kostenberger, Kellum & Quarles, has a two page overview of the Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis, and to my limited knowledge and understanding, it seems fair.

I heartily concur with your statements regarding the way this forms a students understanding. I was never given an option to not accept "Q", and so I assumed everyone accepted this view. It was not until I became a graduate student, and discovered your website that I even began to question the existence or validity of "Q". So I'm all for good introductions to the New Testament which give the various views a fair hearing.

Josh said...

I've looked at how 7 textbooks treat the issue here. Even where they discuss a view like yours, it is often dismissed without much qualification. I found some notable exceptions, however.

Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

I'm taking a NT Intro course currently for my Grad studies. We were just discussing the Synoptic Problem yesterday in class and attempting to work through several different texts and map out the precise agreements, unique material,etc. What intrigued me is that the professor holds to the four source Q theory and essentially dismisses all the others (but not without at least mentioning them). However, the majority of the class seems to reject the notion of Q (and I was vocal about proposing other theories that do not entail 'Q'. Thanks for your many postings and work in this area. It is a blessing to those of us not predisposed to exert such significant effort as yours to delve into all the details, but it is imperative that we all have a grasp of the overall issues (and ready access to such resources as folks like yourself provide).

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Josh. I appreciated your post very much.

Thanks, Rick, for those very interesting comments.