Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On the Pedagogical Advantages of the Q hypothesis and the Importance of Simplicity

I shared some thoughts the other day On the Pedagogical Advantages of the Q Hypothesis, suggesting that it can act as an appealing and tangible symbol of participation in academic study of the New Testament.  There is no Q in the Bible, but there is a Q in the scholar's canon, and it quickly and effectively makes the point that Higher Education is not about Bible Study.

I have also noticed other pedagogical advantages in teaching Q.  The architecture of the Two-Source Theory has an elegance, a simplicity that lends itself very nicely to teaching introductory students.  The genius of the theory is that it is able to assign a document to each major type of tradition.  People find it difficult to grasp the complexity of the Synoptic data, but refracting the data through the theory can be helpful and clear.

If one is looking to simplify the data, there are broadly two key types of material in the Synoptics, triple tradition and double tradition.  The Two-Source Theory enables the teacher to link a documentary source with each of those basic data sets.  Triple Tradition is essentially Mark's Gospel -- Matthew and Luke are copying Mark.  Double Tradition is Q -- Matthew and Luke are copying Q.

The same essential elegance is taken a step further in Streeter's classic Four-Source Theory, according to which one adds in Special Matthew and Special Luke and assigns a document to each, M and L, so that we end up with four types of material -- triple, double, Special Mt and Special Lk -- and four documents -- Mark, Q, M and L.

In fact, the model is so elegant and straightforward that I enjoy teaching it myself, and explaining how the Two-Source Theory nicely maps onto the data that it is isolating and describing.

The difficulty with the model is, sadly, that the data is not quite as simple as the model requires.  Triple tradition is contaminated throughout with material that should not be there, with major and minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark.   Double Tradition is not its own unique data set but often flows into Triple Tradition, requiring the postulation of Mark-Q overlaps in order to make sense of the evidence.

Luckily, at an introductory level, one does not need to introduce the complications like the Minor and Major Agreements, and the discussion can remain on the kind of general level that keeps the model functional.  The genius of  the Two-Source Theory is that it works so well on a general level.  It's only those who linger for a little longer who find out that the devil is in the detail.


Wieland Willker said...

"Luckily, at an introductory level, one does not need to introduce the complications like the Minor and Major Agreements,"

Here is the problem. This is a kind of "pre-exposure" that determines everything that follows. As you said before, one has to teach much more the problem and not so much the "solutions". It should be stated clearly that there is no solution. The data are just too insufficient. There are several rather simple hypotheses, but all of these have problems. The solution, if there will ever be one, will be more complicated. And don't mention Ockham's razor here, humans don't follow that law.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Wieland. I agree in part with the first part of your comment, though I know of people who have been taught and who have accepted the Two-Source Theory only to find out its problems once they have done more detailed study.

I disagree, of course, that there is no good solution.

I agree that one should not be cavalier in the use of Occam's Razor. However, where the data is better explained without postulating a hypothetical document, it performs a useful function.

Brian Small said...

I have presented the Farrer hypothesis along with the other hypotheses on the Synoptic problem, but I fear that this is too much information for an introductory level class which normally has no religion majors. How do you present the various hypotheses without overwhelming your students?

Mark Goodacre said...

I could refer you to my extended eps. of the NT Pod on the topic, Brian, which record my lectures on the Synoptics? Actually, I think that students like to hear competing hypotheses, and like to be able to begin the process of judging between them. What I find so disappointing with many NT Intros. is that they are descriptive / narrative based and do not offer students alternatives for their consideration.

G.B. Sadler said...

At my former job, teaching for Ball State University in Indiana State Prison's degree program, I used to teach NT and a course on Historical Jesus discussions coupled with discussions of canonical and non-canonical gospels. My students were a bit unlike typical college students -- very interested, fairly poor academic background, but quite reflective (not least from age and experience).

I'd introduce the Q hypothesis -- some of them had already heard of it from other texts, but usually thought it was an actual extant text. Once explained as a hypothetical object which would go some way to explaining matters, most were quite comfortable with the notion -- but they did, to take up a point in Mark's last comment, want to know what other alternatives were possible, and which were considered plausible by scholars.

Would that be applicable to more typical undergraduates? Perhaps not, but it would be worth putting to the test. It would certainly make for an interesting study in the intersection of SOTL with NT studies