Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Is the Synoptic Problem tedious?

In a recent post on The Golden Rule, Mike Koke speaks of the Synoptic Problem as one of those "seemingly tedious aspects of studying the NT", echoing, perhaps unconsciously, similar remarks made my Raymond Brown in his Introduction to the New Testament.  I must admit to being somewhat baffled by those who find the Synoptic Problem boring.  It is so basic to so much of what we do in studying the New Testament that saying that it is boring is a bit like saying that New Testament study is boring.  It's a literary enigma, it's a historical puzzle, it's a theological essential.  What is not to enjoy?

I have never had anyone explain to me clearly why the Synoptic Problem is supposed to be dull or tedious.  I have a couple of theories, though, why people otherwise interested in New Testament study come to this odd conclusion:

(1) People find it dull because it is taught badly.  In fact, the Synoptic Problem is often not taught at all.  In so far as New Testament introductions and introductory courses teach it, they focus on one particular solution (the Two-Source theory) and then they refract all the data through that theory.  Simply setting out a solution deprives students of all the interest in the process of history, all the enjoyment in puzzling out the literary enigma.

(2) People find it dull because they do not actually study it.  The only way to engage in serious study of the Synoptic Problem is to get down and dirty with the Synopsis, and to spend enjoyable time working with the texts, ideally doing some colouring.  It's one of the guilty secrets of the guild that too many scholars simply do not do the work with the texts that they should, preferring instead to keep wading through the pile of largely mediocre pieces of secondary literature.

(3) People find it dull because they think that there is an obvious solution (the Two-Source Theory).  Alternatives are thought to be unpersuasive and not worth attention.  To an extent, Mike's post bears this out -- he engages only the Two-Source Theory and the Griesbach Theory.  I think that this is a shame given the strong case that can be made for the Farrer Theory, engagement with which can make the Synoptic Problem interesting again.

In my experience, students love to study the Synoptic Problem.  I have run graduate courses on the Synoptic Problem and they have produced excellent intellectual stimulation and publishable work from the students involved.  In my undergraduate classes, colouring and analyzing the Synopsis has proved to be one of the most popular assignments I have given and student feedback has been very positive.  These students had never heard that the Synoptic Problem was supposed to be dull, and found the tasks engaging, not least because it is "hands on" -- actually working seriously with texts rather than reading textbooks describing the supposed results of scholarship.

My diagnosis, then, is that the Synoptic Problem needs to be studied in detail, taught effectively and represented fairly.  It is amazing what fun it then becomes.

21 comments:

Peter M. Head said...

It can get a bit boring if you don't have coloured pencils.

Mark Goodacre said...

The colouring certainly helps. I enjoyed asking my NT Intro class to bring in their coloured pencils. They really didn't know whether I was being serious or not.

steph said...

coloured pencils are essential, and highlighters and I mutilate synopses with felt pen too. The problem itself isn't boring (if you're pedants like us) but the ever flowing river of books proposing solutions is (unless perhaps you like fantasy, which I don't, not even Lord of the Rings with those silly little hobbits). From the Klopp's great tome built on two false assumptions, inventing "Q" people and historical layers and theologies of a text that doesn't exist, to Dungan and co asserting that Mark used Matthew and Luke and then just stating what he must have done to have done that. And then there are all the ridiculous feminist interpretations and so on assuming the authenticity of a written text "Q". Lack of detail, contradictions at ever corner - frustrating and BORING!!! Of course you're not boring for secondary literature ... partly because I sometimes agree with you I think
;-)

Watch out for James' 'text book'. His approach to the synoptic problem is not biassed in any direction and makes much more entertaining reading that anything else available.

Nathan said...

My main problem with the synoptic problem is that after studying it I cannot see a clear solution. It becomes depressing to put in the sufficient diligence to study a topic as complex as this and yet come out more confused than when you went in.

steph said...

Uncertainty is exciting Nathan. I love knowing I don't know and nobody else does either. We're all playing a game that will go on forever and ever. Historical reality is complex and no simple theories will solve a complex reality. And no complex theories will be simple accepted. But the fear of being wrong should be accepted simply. And when you're reading the secondary literature it's like proof reading first drafts - it's full of mistakes. And alot of them funny.

Please note: do not take this comment seriously. The Synoptic Problem is the nuclear physics of biblical studies as the Klopp himself trumpeted which proves doesn't it, that it's as boring as...

Micah said...

Dr. Goodacre,

You said: "It's one of the guilty secrets of the guild that too many scholars simply do not do the work with the texts that they should, preferring instead to keep wading through the pile of largely mediocre pieces of secondary literature."

That's interesting. I've heard people say this about other sources, e.g. The Dead Sea Scrolls. I am doing graduate work in philosophy, and I've heard philosophers make the same comments ("Many Plato scholars spent too little time on his texts and too much time on the mass of secondary literature.") I have a few questions:

1) Why do think this is? It seems to me that scholars would have good motivation to constantly work with the texts.

2) Do you think this has a serious detrimental effect on the field?

3) Do you think this is prevalent even among other fields in Bible Studies, e.g. studies of Paul's letters?

Sorry for the questions. Feel free to ignore them. I enjoy your blog.

--Micah

Mark Goodacre said...

I think a further problem with the Synoptic Problem is that people have defaulted to the dominant solution rather than saying, "I have not engaged in sufficient study and reflection to be able to give a decisive answer", so embracing uncertainty can be a good thing. I would be interested, though, to hear what you find unsatisfactory in the Farrer theory because that might help me to clarify and / or rethink certain arguments.

I am not sure, Micah, why this appears to be the case. I should add that it is not universal, and all the best academics -- of course -- spend a lot of time with the texts and the evidence. Sorry not to be able to give better answers than that.

thegoldenrule1 said...

Thanks Mark for drawing attention to the post. I highlight the word "seemingly" because what I was trying to do was set up a trap by getting readers to agree that the Synoptic problem is seemingly boring, only to turn that on its head and show how critically important it is to reconstructing Christian history by giving three very different scholarly models. I probably did less justice to the Farrer theory then I should have, though I did try to get at it by discussing in scenario 2 Mark as our earliest source besides Paul without mentioning any other hypothetical sources. Obviously the major import of the discovery of Markan priority is that it rejuvenated a text (Mark) that had been neglected for most of church history (especially sidelined by Augustine's abbreviator of Matthew line) and was rediscovered for the radically important text that Mark really was (the first attempt at a Jesus bios whose framework was the basis for Matthew/Luke, a juxtaposition of a christology of glory and suffering, a radical perspective on the Temple establishment and on the circle of Twelve/Jesus' Family, the literary device of the Messianic secret, etc.).
- Mike K

Bob MacDonald said...

Marc - I have not found your books boring and the great Klopp (lovely nickname) I have only partially worked through several years ago. My complaint is not that the Snyoptic Problem is boring but that it can be distracting. So I now routinely skip intros and declamations of confirmed results of scholarship in this area.

I have coloured the whole shooting match using background colouring based on Kurt Aland's concordance and driven by a local database. My results are online here in English based on reading that particular Greek with little reference to textual differences.

My pet theory is Griesbach - simply for the delight I imagine of my slightly mad deaf mute (Mk 3:19, 7:31) learning to perform it as a whole. It seems to me that this one Gospel could be performed as a unit. So I do not see it as early. Also I ask why there are 4 or 5 pericopae that are unique to Mark (exluding the longer endings) - and my answer is that they are the performer's signature. I will call him 'beloved', 'a young disciple', first language Aramaic, reads Hebrew, Greek is leaned, likely the young man who ran away in the garden, not the rich young man, but one who recognized the love expressed (Mark 10:17), he was deaf, tougue-tied (Mark 7:31), and blind (8:22) in all three cases figuratively - just to confound the problem. So he invents the the visual language of the healing of the deaf man with an impediment in his speech and the story of the incomplete healing - trees walking - as part of his signature. In this he is like John Mark, nephew of Barnabas who failed to see what he was doing on that first journey, but subsequently learned how to perform the gospel based on his work with Levi and Luke and knowledge of their texts.

My problem with the Synoptic Problem is that I have never read a credible set of reasons for the motives of a redactor who would be a real person. People will find my own reconstruction improbable also I expect. Why would Mark invent the Gospel called after his name? Very simply because this Jesus was one whom he learned to love and who taught him the meaning of Anointed in every imaginable aspect.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Mike. Good point about the mischievous opening ahead of explaining why it is not dull. I don't see Farrer in the post, though, in contrast to Griesbach & 2ST, both of which are mentioned.

Thanks for your comments, Bob. It's good to have someone around to defend Griesbach.

Brent said...

Thanks for the reflections, Mark. I would push you on one point, though. You invoke a distinction between "the texts" and "secondary literature," implying the priority of the former. If, however, the "secondary literature" happens to be of a text critical nature, then the secondary literature may just be more primary than the primary "text," especially when that text is the eclectic Nestle-Aland. And with this point, we arrive at something that troubles me: Even among scholars who do work on the synoptic problem seriously, there seems to be an assumption that the Nestle-Aland is a sufficient basis for study. Harmonization among manuscripts or within a given manuscript complicate these questions of synoptic relationships even more, and these complications seem to me to be rarely acknowledged.

Mark Goodacre said...

Good points, Brent. Yes, "the texts" are clearly primary, and essential.

Micah said...

Since I am a lowly philosophy student, I am ignorant of some of these things.

Could someone point me to an explanation of the method of "coloring" the texts?

Sorry for my ignorance.

--Micah

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Micah. I discussed colouring the Synopsis in Chapter 1 of The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze. The only other book I know that discusses it is E. P. Sanders & M. Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels. I have some examples in English at http://www.markgoodacre.org/maze/synopses.htm.

John Lyons said...

"a theological essential"?

An interesting claim, Mark, but a highly questionable one. In Benedict 16's book on Jesus, he exegetes the temptations and simply decides to follow Matthew's order because he prefers its dramatic build-up. Not a hint that the relationship between these texts is of any interest whatsoever. None of the theologians I know - Catholic or Protestant - care about the Synoptic Problem either. So the question is, for whom is this puzzle a theological essential? It is an honest question, to which my current answer is no-one I know.

steph said...

Bob - I normally refer to his eminence as The Great Klopp but here, I feared it might be interpreted as 'he is great' whereas in actually fact, it's as a Klopp that he's great .... if you see what I mean... sigh ;-)

Mark Goodacre said...

John: yes, I needed a third thing to go with "literary enigma" and "historical puzzle". I like the rhetorical list of three and I thought "theological essential" would be a good guess.

The fact that Pope Benedict et al are not too excited about the Synoptic Problem is hardly surprising, though, given the kind of attitude we see to it among NT scholars. I tried to sketch out why I think it is important theologically in my Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze, end of chapter 1, and I was quite impressed by it at the time, but that might just have been because I was trying to think of a third thing to go with literary enigma, historical puzzle.

Bob MacDonald said...

Mark - I was glad to see 'theological' in your list. (Even if I do mistype whole words sometimes)

Thank you for the encouragement. I do think what we do with the NT Gospels must be theological whatever else it is. One day I will get back to reading them but these past 4 years I have been too immersed in Hebrew poetry.

steph said...

John: The reason I think the Pope avoids the Synoptic Problem is because it's theologically essential to the Catholic Church to assume the priority of Matthew. The reason other theologians are generally disinterested in the Synoptic Problem is a)they're not interested in historical truth, just theological 'truths' and b)John has little significance in the Synoptic Problem and historically reliable original sources (or shouldn't have despite the post 2001 enthusiastic declaration of his historical reliability - to which there are and will be refutations by Crossley, Casey and a number of others) and to a theologian John (and Paul) is essential. And fundamentally theologians are theologians and shouldn't dabble in the Synoptic Problem which is history, just as OT specialists shouldn't overnight become Jesus scholars and suddenly declare he didn't exist because they don't understand their methodology is anachronistic and their knowledge of both primary and secondary NT sources is inadequate.

So what? MHO only and I'm neither a Catholic, a theologian or an OT specialist...

James said...

Given the priority of Mark, the historical value of over half of Matthew and a quarter of Luke is considerably, even drastically, reduced. If 200 of Luke’s more seemingly revelatory verses derive from Matthew, then their historical value is considerably, even drastically, reduced.

The solution to the synoptic problem should be taken to bear rather heavily on one’s understanding of the historical Jesus. That understanding must be based largely on Mark and 200 verses of Matthew, plus whatever of historical value can be gleaned from John. (And perhaps more of the Pauline corpus than one might expect--see J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, page 182.)

The supposed solution to the synoptic problem accepted in most classrooms today grossly overrates the historical value of a good portion of Luke.

steph said...

James: I haven't seen anything in Paul that doesn't have allusions to material in the gospels, that could arguably arise from historical Jesus sources. I don't think Dunn suggests that there is - he just uses the material that has allusions to gospel material, to argue that tradition was remembered and alluded to with echos in Paul, and inevitably elsewhere too... And John hasn't got much historically reliable material for historical Jesus researchers as has been argued fully elsewhere (see Casey 'Is John's Gospel True?' and forthcoming 'Jesus..', Crossley etc) despite what Bauckham claims ....

But you're absolutely right on Luke. The 'Q' document tends to leave his special material out, and while the IQP generally prefer Luke's version to Matthew's where they do, they're generally wrong and Matthew's version is earlier or more plausibly closer to historical reality. And the Farrer theory of course just dismisses Luke as secondary and doesn't acknowledge sources. In published theories of Farrer anyway.... But in fact Luke does have alot of material that is arguably historically plausible and fits in the life and teachings sitz im leben of Jesus and that is why a chaotic model synoptic solution more closely reflects historical reality. And that chaotic model is what I am trying to demonstrate in my thesis....

There will ALWAYS be uncertainty. Other things are historically plausible and almost beyond doubt. But there is absolutely NO simple solution to the synoptic problem and there never ever will be however popular books are printed on the subject