Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Synopsis, the Exploding Helicopter and Pictures or Conversation

I am constantly baffled by how few scholars allow themselves the luxury of illustrating their articles on the Synoptic Gospels with a nice Synopsis of the Gospels.  I like to tell my students that there are few articles on the Synoptics that would not be greatly improved by the addition of a nice Synopsis of the passage in question.  In this respect, Synopses are like exploding helicopters in films.  Just as there are few articles that would not be improved with the addition of a Synopsis of the Gospels, so too there are few films that would not be improved by the addition of an exploding helicopter (Roger Corman via Mark Kermode).

I suspect that the reticence proceeds from several factors.  First, it takes a long time to construct your own Synopsis, even of just the one pericope.  Many scholars are computer-literacy-challenged and balk at the pain of constructing their own Synopsis, with all its word alignments and line breaks, let alone having to master the use of a decent Greek font.

Moreover, some scholars have never taken a course on the Synoptic Problem and are reticent to risk exposing their ignorance by constructing a Synopsis that misses key pieces of data.

And many scholars are happy with the existing Synopses on their desks (these days usually Aland, though some, like me, still prefer Greeven) and they assume, wrongly, that their readers will turn up the relevant page in the Synopsis when they are reading the article.

But there are so many benefits to producing your own illustrative Synopses of Gospel passages in your academic writing.  For one thing, there will often be a specific piece of data to which you wish to draw attention.  Producing your own Synopsis, perhaps with some nice underlining to draw attention to the key point, can help the reader to visualize the data instantly, and without the added hassle of looking up the passage in Aland or Greeven.

The effort involved is nothing like as bad as it was in the days of typewriters and drawing.  Although it can sometimes be a little frustrating, producing Synopses is like any other element in word-processing -- practice makes perfect.  A simple table is the way to do begin, with single line spacing, no paragraph spacing or indents, left alignment and lots of carriage returns.  There are plenty of good electronic texts that you can use as the base text too, even if one wishes to tweak them.

For me, it's a bit like Alice's observation at the beginning of her Adventures in Wonderland:
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'
As Alice knew, pictures and conversation break up bland and boring blocks of text.  Far too many articles on the Synoptic Gospels are made up of boring old blocks of prose, with no Synopses or tables. And what is the use of an article, thought Mark, without Synopses or tables?


Steve Walton said...

See my article in the Max Turner FS,, including synopses! You've made me happy, Mark. :-)

Mark Goodacre said...

Yay! I'll have to look it out, Steve.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Another wonderful addition is subtitles.

A synopsis is of little use to me as an amateur without a translation.

I much appreciate that you and Adam Winn both bother to give the reader that little bit of added help.

Thank you.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Sili. Yes, I should have mentioned that. Can't fathom why so many scholars fail to provide translations. Laziness, perhaps.

Unknown said...

I think it was Bernard Orchard and David Dungan who argued that that Huck and Aland were slanted toward the Two Source hypotheses and that a neutral synopsis (toward source theories) was probably not possible.

New Testament studies would be richer if scholars do as you suggest.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I suspect it's just ignorance. Scholars not realising that people interested in their subject might not have Greek.

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes. Kloppenborg has a good discussion about the issue of Synopsis construction in the 2008 New Studies in the Synoptic Problem volume. Perhaps the ultimate in biased Synopses, though, was Zeb Crook's recent Synopsis that actually included the text of Q.

Mark Goodacre said...

You may be right, Sili, though presumably these guys teach classes including people who don't read Greek -- that's what I can quite fathom.

James Dowden said...

I reckon it's training. If you give the sort of undergraduate who knows Greek and/or Latin a word limit on an assignment, the first thing to go under space pressure will be the translations. And then the habit is formed.