Monday, May 20, 2019

Larsen's Challenge to Studying Synoptic Relations

This is a second post on Matthew Larsen, Gospels Before the Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) [First post here] in which I'd like to comment on Larsen's challenge to the study of Synoptic relations in Chapter 6.

Larsen's concern is that scholars of the Synoptic Problem tend to see the gospels as separate, discrete books, each with a unique author, [1] rather than seeing the gospels as different instantiations of the same fluid textual tradition. He illustrates the point by noting the way that various Synoptic theories are diagrammed. He is talking about diagrams like these, and he gives his own versions of them (p. 102), and writes:
In all these graphic depictions, each constellation of textualized gospel tradition is represented as its own discrete unit, bounded by lines within a box or a circle or some other shape, with arrows indicating the direction of source relationship and redaction. All of this, however, as should be clear by now, serves to reinforce the third-century and subsequent gospel textuality and authorship discourse, reifying each gospel as an enclosed, separate text with its own unique author. How might we rethink the data? (p. 102).
It's actually not always the case that these diagrams are "bounded by lines within a box or a circle or some other shape"; my own preference has been to avoid the boundary lines, e.g. here in my book The Synoptic Problem: A Way through the Maze (p. 22):

In fact the irony of Larsen's concern about "clear black lines separating out discrete gospels from one another" (Larsen, p. 104) is that sometimes entities in these diagrams are placed in a box in order to show uncertainty about their existence or tangibility, as here in my diagram of the Two-Source Theory (Way Through the Maze, p. 20):

Nevertheless, Larsen's broader point is worth thinking about. Is it fair to say that diagrams like these tend to make us think too rigidly in terms of discrete, separate gospels, with different authors, and to ignore the overwhelming similarity between the Synoptics? Larsen's suggestion is to represent the "degree of overlap" between Matthew and Mark by means of a "Proportional Venn diagram of Overlap Between the Gospels of Mark and Matthew" (p. 104). So he counts the number of parallel "stories" in the index of Aland's Synopsis (see further yesterday's post):

Mark: 115 “stories”.
Matthew: 178 “stories".
Overlapping: 107 “stories”.

He then plugs these numbers into a Proportional Venn diagram, which I have adapted here in a coloured version (using my Synoptic colouring scheme) [2]:

Matthew's non-Marcan material (blue)
Mark's non-Matthean material (red)
Material shared by Matthew and Mark (purple)

It's a great idea to represent the data in this way, and I'm grateful to Larsen for thinking of it. There are precedents, e.g. the nice Wikipedia coloured diagram, but I don't recall having seen a proportional Venn diagram like this.

There is a point that needs making, though. The proportional Venn diagram is doing something completely different from the theory diagrams. The proportional Venn diagram is illustrating some of the data, while the other diagrams are illustrating theories of Gospel relationships. In other words, the Venn diagram is illustrating (an element in) the Synoptic Problem while the other diagrams are illustrating solutions to it.

It's a basic point, I know, but it is an important one. I have argued that one of the difficulties with the way that the Synoptic Problem is studied is that a theory is presented (usually Two-Source) and the data is then refracted through it. As Jason Staples says, it's "solution to plight" thinking.

In a sense, Larsen's preference for the proportional Venn diagram could be seen to forward this aim -- we might think of it as a way of encouraging people first to take the data seriously, and to get a sense of the problem before proceeding to solution. The difficulty, though, with the way that Larsen discusses the issue is that the Venn diagram is presented as an alternative to the theory diagrams, contrasting their bounded, discrete entities, with his overlapping materials. But both are necessary -- finding ways to represent the data as accurately and as clearly as possible as well as representing the theories as clearly as possible.

And with respect to those theory diagrams, everyone discussing the issue realizes that there are massive overlaps between Matthew and Mark. That's the beginning point of the discussion. If there were only differences, there would be no Synoptic Problem. Placing an arrow from Mark to Matthew (and to Luke) only expresses a model of textual relationships. One can still, like Burkitt and others, see Matthew as a "fresh edition of Mark" (see yesterday's post), and use a classic diagram to show that relationship, the new edition being subsequent to and incorporating the previous edition. Or, to use Larsen's language, if we "think of the textual tradition we call the Gospel according to Matthew as continuing the same unfinished textual tradition of “the gospel” more broadly understood", there is nothing to stop us illustrating that in a theory diagram, a diagram that would be attempting a solution to the problem, which is a quite different thing from a diagram that attempts to depict the data.

[1] Larsen regularly uses the term "human" author, though I am not sure why the adjective is necessary given that no one is arguing for animal or alien authors.

[2] Generated using the Venn Diagram Generator.

No comments: