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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Proposed Solutions to the Synoptic Problem.

1. The Griesbach Hypothesis.

Truly scientific study of this problem did not begin until in 1776 J. J. Griesbach produced a critical edition of a Synopsis of the Gospels, printing the gospels in parallel columns and thus enabling the reader to see in detail the similarities and differences between them. His conclusion, published in 1789, was that Mark was nothing but a combination of Matthew and Luke. The same conclusion had been reached slightly earlier by the little-known Oxford scholar Henry Owen in 1764, so that this view is sometimes called the Owen–Griesbach hypothesis. It later fell into obscurity, but has been revived by William R. Farmer in 1964, and has since become known strictly as the Two-Gospel Hypothesis. For brevity and to avoid confusion it will here be named the Griesbach theory.

The theory is that the first gospel to be written was that of Matthew, the most Semitic of the gospels, written for Christians of Jewish extraction. Next, for Christians of Gentile origin, but still before the destruction of Jerusalem, Luke was written. Finally Mark combined the two. The fundamental argument for this hypothesis, both for Griesbach and for Farmer, lies in the order of pericopes. Wherever Mark departs from Matthew's order, he supports Luke's; if there is a difference between the order of Matthew and Luke, Mark zigzags between the two, following first one, then the other. In addition, the supporters observe, Mark always proceeds forward, never turning back in the order established by Matthew and Luke. These observations are correct, but are not enough to prove the point that Mark combines Matthew and Luke, for in the same way the order of Matthew and Luke can be explained at least as well (see c.2) if Mark is taken as the starting-point.

Support for the theory is claimed also from the material within pericopes. Mark has many double expressions, of which half occur in Matthew and half in Luke. The paradigm case is Mk 1:32 , ‘That evening, at sunset’, where Matthew has in the corresponding passage ( 8:16 ) ‘That evening’, and Luke ( 4:40 ) ‘when the sun was setting’. The explanation given by the Griesbach theory is that Mark takes one phrase from each of the other gospels and combines them. There is a number of instances of this phenomenon (e.g. Mk 1:42 , ‘the leprosy left him, and he was made clean’; Mk 8:3 , ‘his leprosy was made clean’; Lk 5:13 , ‘the leprosy left him’; similarly at Mk 10:29 , ‘for my sake and for the sake of the good news’).

The Griesbachian explanation, however, is not compelling. Opponents claim, with good evidence, that duality of this kind is a feature of Mark's own style, specifically a feature of his oral style, in which a certain repetitiveness aids the hearer (see E.I). Rather than Mark combining his predecessors, he serves as a quarry for his successors; the phenomenon noted could equally well be the result of Matthew taking one of Mark's two elements and Luke taking the other. It might seem that here again the argument may run either way, except for another observation. On many occasions Matthew keeps both Mark's elements while Luke has only one (Mk 4:5 , ‘other seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil’; Mt 13:5 has both elements; Lk 8:6 has only ‘some fell on the rock’); on many occasions Luke keeps both elements while Matthew has only one (Mk 4:39 , ‘the wind ceased and there was a dead calm’; Luke, ‘they ceased and there was a calm’; Mt 8:26 has only ‘and there was a dead calm’; similarly at Mk 6:36 ); on many occasions Matthew and Luke choose the same half of the double expression (Mk 2:25 , ‘were hungry and in need of food’; Mt 12:3 and Lk 6:3 , ‘were hungry’; similarly at Mk 3:26; 12:23 ). Double expressions occur also in Mark even in those few passages where there is no parallel in Matthew or Luke (Mk 4:28 , the double ‘head’; Mk 8:24, 25 , the double ‘looked’ in each verse). How widespread a feature it is of Mark's own style has been fully documented by Neirynck (1988 ). There is therefore no need to postulate that it derives from the combination by Mark of Matthew and Luke.

The greatest difficulty for the Griesbach theory is, however, why Mark should have written a gospel (and why the church should have accepted it) in which he deliberately omitted so much that is valuable: the infancy stories, the beatitudes, the Lord's prayer, the resurrection appearances, and many other important and favourite passages which had already been included in Matthew and Luke.

2. The Two-Source Theory.

Since it was extensively proposed by C. Lachmann in 1835, seconded by C. G. Wilke and H. Weisse in 1838, the Two-Source theory has won over-whelming acceptance, at least as a working hypothesis. It still holds the dominant position in NT scholarship. The theory is that Mark is the first gospel, and was used independently by Matthew and Luke, neither of whom knew each other's texts. The large quantity of material shared by Matthew and Luke (but not by Mark), mostly sayings material, derives from a common source. Since an article by J. Weiss in 1890 this common source has been known as ‘Q’ (Neirynck 1978; 1979 ). The acceptance of this common source has been greatly assisted by the mention by the early second-century Bishop Papias (quoted by Eusebius) of a collection of Sayings of the Lord in Aramaic made or used by Matthew. Although few scholars accept all Papias' evidence, his mention of the collection of sayings has been widely taken to support this theory.

Despite the hypothetical nature of the very existence of Q, studies have progressed which have established what this document would have been like, e.g. Piper (1995 ), magisterially summed up by Kloppenborg (2000 ). It was caricatured by Meier (1994: 181) as a ‘grab bag’, without any coherent theology or genre. Its most striking feature was, however, that it contained no account of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, and indeed showed no interest in these events, containing no hints that they were to occur. Kloppenborg suggests that Paul's stress on these events could be a deliberate corrective to their neglect in this very early document. The most important stress is on the threat of the coming judgement; this frames the whole document (Luke 3:7–9, 16–17 and 19:12–27; 22:28–30 ), as well as many of the fourteen sub-units isolated by Kloppenborg. Combined with this is a ‘deuteronomic’ criticism of the continual rejection of the prophets (Luke 6:23; 11:47–51; 13:34–5 ), and a promise of fulfilment through ‘the one who is to come’ (Luke 7:18–23; 13:35 ). Many of the sections isolated show a common structure, beginning with programmatic sayings, introducing a series of imperatives and concluding with affirmations of the importance of its message (Luke 6:21–49; 9:57–10:24). Kloppenborg (2000: 187) likens it to the ‘widely attested genre in Near Eastern literature’, the instruction or sapiential discourse. According to some scholars (e.g. Burton Mack) the principal function of its authors is social critique and the destabilization of a corrupt society, after the manner of itinerant Cynic teachers. There is reference to the rule of God, but—by contrast to the canonical gospels—there is no interest in exegesis of the Torah. This carefully elaborated characterization is, however, obviously secondary to proof of the existence of Q. The strongest arguments for this theory are the order of pericopes, the detailed editing, and the mutual independence of Matthew and Luke.

With Mark as starting-point it is possible to explain the order of pericopes in Matthew and Luke. However the crucial point here (by contrast to the Griesbachian zigzag claim, see B) is that whenever they diverge from Mark's order it is possible to give clear and plausible reasons for this divergence. Matthew follows Mark's order of pericopes strictly except when he is composing two series, the collection of miracles in Mt 8–9 and the discourse on mission in Mt 10 . For these two collections he takes material that occurs later in Mark (Mk 1:40–5; 3:9–13; 3:13–19; 4:35–5:43; 13:9–13 ). It is quite clear that Matthew is a careful and orderly teacher who likes to assemble into complete collections all the material on one subject. Thus all the changes in Matthew's order are explained as anticipations in accordance with his teaching methods. Luke's changes of the Markan order are not to be explained so simply and schematically, for Luke is far more creative in his writing and independent of his sources than is Matthew. So he puts the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (Mk 6:1–6 ) earlier and builds it up into the programmatic opening speech with which Jesus begins his ministry at Nazareth (Lk 4:16–30 ). On the other hand Luke postpones until 5:1–11 the call of the first disciples (Mk 1:16–20 ) and builds it into an important lesson in discipleship (see F). Luke's most far-reaching change in order is the construction of the great journey to Jerusalem ( 9:51–18:14 ), by which he locates much of Jesus' teaching on the final journey to his death at Jerusalem. All other distracting geographical names are there suppressed, to subserve the typical Lukan concentration on Jerusalem, where Jesus will die as a prophet and from where the gospel will spread to the ends of the earth. Luke's order varies so widely and imaginatively from that of his predecessors that Luke's supposed rearrangement of Q's order was mocked in 1924 by B. H. Streeter as that of a ‘crank’, a charge disputed by Goulder (1984 ). An alternative explanation of Luke's order is given in the same volume by H. B. Green (1984 ). A full explanation of the changes in order by Matthew and Luke, on the hypothesis of Markan priority, is given by Tuckett (1984a ).

The argument from the detailed editing can hardly be briefly summarized. Some impression of it will be given by the pericopes discussed below (F–K). The outlines, however, are:

  • (a) There are numerous occasions when both Matthew and Luke improve the grammar and style of Mark's unsophisticated Greek; it seems perverse to argue in the opposite direction that Mark deliberately roughens a more cultured presentation.

  • (b) Some features of Markan style and composition appear also in Matthew and Luke where and only where Mark uses them. It is more reasonable to suppose that Matthew and Luke derived them from Mark than that Mark adopted all the instances from both Matthew and Luke. One example of this is the Markan afterthought-explanation with a past tense of eimi and gar (‘for they were fishermen’); this is a feature of Markan style which occurs in Matthew and Luke only in passages parallel to those of Mark: in Mk 2:15; 5:42; 16:4 the construction occurs only in Mark; in Mk 1:16, 22; 6:48; 14:40 it is paralleled in Matthew, in Mk 10:22 it is paralleled in both Matthew and Luke.

  • (c) There are several theological differences between Mark, Matthew, and Luke which may perhaps point (though uncertainly) in the direction of a development from Mark to Matthew and Luke rather than in the opposite direction. Thus Matthew and Luke show a distinctly more explicit Christology than Mark. Again, Mark is highly, even shockingly, critical of the disciples' lack of faith and understanding; Matthew and Luke both weaken this criticism, in a way that might be expected to have occurred at a time when reverence for the first leaders of Christianity was increasing.

The mutual independence of Matthew and Luke is a point crucial for establishing the extent and indeed the existence of Q. If Luke knew Matthew (or vice versa), the links between Matthew and Luke can be accounted for without the intervention of any Q. The large number of minor agreements (some calculate there are as many as 1,000) between Matthew and Luke against Mark demands some explanation in the sources. It may, however, be approached at various levels:

  • 1. The minor agreements. In texts of this length it is quite possible that many agreements may occur where Matthew and Luke make the same change to their version of Mark by sheer coincidence. This will especially be the case where they share the same principles, either linguistic (objection to Mark's primitive historic present and wearisomely repetitive conjunction kai/kai euthus = ‘and/and immediately’) or theological (increasingly explicit Christology or reverence for the disciples). It cannot be considered surprising that two Christian writers sometimes share the same reaction to a primitive Christian text. It requires explanation only if the identical expression of this becomes remarkable by its frequency or its extent. There can be no verdict on the likely frequency of such similarity, and little agreement on the significance of individual cases. The most striking single case is Mt 26:68 ǁ Mk 14:65 ǁ Lk 22:64 , where both Matthew and Luke have ‘Who is it that struck you?’, lacking in Mark. So difficult is this of explanation that determined advocates of the theory that Matthew and Luke are totally independent of each other sometimes turn to the desperate expedient of declaring all the MSS corrupt. There are, however, scholars who are prepared to rebut the claim for each passage that Luke knew Matthew, e.g. Tuckett (1984b ). Another significant minor agreement is in the order of pericopes: an important support for the Q-theory is the claim that the Q-material always occurs in different places in Matthew and Luke. But in three instances both these gospels have material in the same sequence: the Baptist's preaching of repentance (Mt 3:7–10; Lk 3:7–9 ) comes between the same triple-tradition pericopes; the testing in the desert (Mt 4:1–11; Lk 4:1–13 ) occurs in both between the baptism and the first proclamation in Galilee; the parable of the leaven (Mt 13:33; Lk 13:20–1 ) in both follows the parable of the mustard seed.

  • 2. Clusters of agreement between Matthew and Luke occur in a limited number of pericopes. Since B. H. Streeter it has been accepted that there are passages where the agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark are so pronounced that there must be literary contact between them apart from Mark, either directly or at least through Q; these are known as ‘Mark–Q overlaps’. Streeter listed five major passages (John's preaching, the temptation, the mustard seed, collusion with Satan, and commissioning the twelve) and eleven others where this Mark–Q overlap occurs. In all these passages put together there is a total of 50 verses in which Streeter finds verbatim agreement between Mark and Q. This causes two major difficulties:

  • (a) The source-question is therefore in fact simply pushed one stage further back: what is the literary relationship between Mark and Q? This widespread agreement must be explained; verbatim agreement in 50 verses must presuppose some literary connection. If Mark used Q for some passages, why did he not use Q more widely, especially to include some of those precious passages mentioned in C.I? Was only a partial edition of Q available to him? The number of unknown documents begins to proliferate, for example by different editions of Q. Alternatively, if the whole of Q was available to Mark, why did he omit so much?

  • (b) While it is accepted that on many occasions both Matthew and Luke show major inventiveness, editing their sources with imagination and steady theological purpose, on these occasions their inventiveness is assumed to have deserted them. For instance, in the case of the mustard seed, they have carefully stitched together the versions of Mark and Q simply for the sake of using both versions without any large theological advantage.

  • 3. Recourse to other editions of Mark is a possible expedient to account for a number of agreements, both positive and negative, between Matthew and Luke against Mark. If both Matthew and Luke include a phrase absent from Mark (a positive minor agreement), it may be that they had an earlier text of Mark that included this phrase. There was therefore an earlier version of Mark (Proto-Mark) on which both Matthew and Mark drew.

Conversely, if Matthew and Luke both lack a phrase, it may be that the phrase was added to Mark after they used that gospel. Sanders (1969 ) offers a list of such suggested additions to Mark after it had been used by Matthew and Luke, e.g. ‘and Andrew with James and John’ in Mk 1:29 ; or ‘carried by four of them’ in Mk 2:3 ; or ‘and there he prayed’ in Mk 1:35 , a phrase that would have fitted Luke's emphasis on prayer, but is lacking in Luke's parallel passage; or Mk 2:27 . This ‘Deutero-Mark’ theory will explain many negative minor agreements (that is, where Matthew and Luke agree on omitting a Markan phrase), and the lack of phrases in Matthew or Luke that might be expected to appeal to the particular evangelist. The suggestion is that Mark is the first evangelist, but these phrases were simply not contained in the edition of Mark used by the later two. The difficulty about this theory is that many of the phrases are consistent with the style and methods widespread in and characteristic of the main part of the gospel. If they are consistent with the author's style, it seems unjustified to attribute them to a second editor. Deutero-Mark is, however, a possible way to evade some of the difficulties of the minor agreements.

The suggestion that a Matthean form (Proto-Matthew) existed before Mark is, however, attractive as a solution to some passages where Matthew seems more correct (or more faithful to the Jewish background) than Mark. For instance, in the pericope on plucking corn on the sabbath, Matthew's version makes far more sense than Mark's. In Mark's version ( 2:23 ) the disciples simply tear up the corn to make a path; this leads to a badly focused legal dispute. In Matthew's version ( 12:1 ) they pluck ears of corn to assuage their hunger as they pass through the field, in accordance with Deut 23:26 ; this gives rise to a good legal dispute about threshing on the sabbath. On the Proto-Mark theory Matthew would be drawing on an earlier version of Mark, which was later misunderstood and simplified by an author unfamiliar with niceties of Jewish law; finally Matthew would have simplified the legal issues and adopted some expressions from the final edition of Mark. The question is whether it is more economical to postulate this earlier version of the gospel, or to suppose that Matthew used Mark, but correctly spelt out and narrated the legal situation that alone makes sense of Mark's story. (However, Casey (1998 ) maintains that Mk 2:23–3:6 is itself the translation of a very ancient Aramaic document.)

Similarly, in the story of the empty tomb, the women's motive in Mt 28:1 (to pay a pious visit to the tomb) accords with Jewish custom, and with good sense, better than the motive in Mk 16:1 (to anoint an already decaying body, blocked off by a great stone). Has Matthew made better sense out of Mark's version, or has Mark misunderstood and simplified the story from an earlier version used by Matthew?

3. The Multiple-Level Hypothesis.

This theory, put forward by M.-E. Boismard and other distinguished members of the French Biblical School in Jerusalem, goes a step (or several steps) beyond the theories of Proto-Mark and Deutero-Mark just outlined. It is little known beyond the French-speaking world, but is nevertheless important. The basis of the theory is that all the hypotheses hitherto put forward are too simplistic. There were several basic versions of the gospel material, which have interacted on one another at more than one stage of the development of the tradition to its final form. Traces of such development may also be garnered from divergent, non-standard quotations of the gospels in very early church fathers. These are often attributed to faulty citations by the fathers from memory, but in this theory it is suggested that they are genuine relics of earlier versions of the gospels.

Boismard (1972 ) holds that there are four documents at the basis of the tradition. One (A) is a Palestinian version, stemming from Judeo-Christian circles. The second (B) is a Hellenistic reinterpretation for use in the non-Jewish Christian circles. The third (C) is less well defined, an independent version, probably of Palestinian origin. Document A gave rise to an intermediate version of Matthew, into which fed also Q (possibly not a single document itself). This Intermediate-Matthew had no contact with B, C, or the Markan tradition. It was only subsequently that large sections of this tradition were replaced by sections drawn from an intermediate version of Mark, and further editorial changes were made by an editor whose style is in some ways remarkably similar to Luke. Such ‘criss-crossing’ is shown by the appearance in one gospel of expressions characteristic of another. It may well be attributed to the influence of each gospel on the others at a late stage of the tradition.

Boismard's method is to look for a pure and simple form of a story, eliminating the least illogicality or unevenness. He attributes any illogicality or development to a written source, until the characteristics of the final authors are reached. One example of this method may be seen in his treatment of the return of the apostles (Mk 6:30–4 and par.). Mt 14:13 has the same pattern as Mt 12:15 and 19:1–2 , which shows that it stems originally from an earlier version of Matthew, and has received further Markan vocabulary at a later stage. According to one version (mostly vv. 32–3 ) Jesus goes away to a deserted place, where the local people recognize him and hurry to meet him; this comes from Document A. According to another version (mostly vv. 31–2 ) the crowd is already present and sees Jesus and the apostles depart in a boat; this version is from Document B. It is, of course, no longer possible to separate out the two versions completely now that they have been combined.

This particular case (which Boismard claims is a strong one for his schema) presents difficulties for the Two-Source Theory, since there are three positive minor agreements in two verses of Matthew and Luke against Mark: ‘withdrew’, ‘the crowds followed him’, and the mention of healing; Matthew and Luke also agree in three omissions against Mark. It does therefore seem likely that there is some direct relationship between Matthew and Luke. But there is no need at the documentary stage for the complications suggested by Boismard. Such a criss-crossing process may well have occurred at the stage of oral tradition. It fits better the more fluid consistency of a body of oral tradition, passing backwards and forwards between many witnesses.

4. Mark as the Single Source.

This final theory is that of Goulder (1974; 1989 ), a revival and elaboration of a position put forward by Austin Farrer in 1955, ‘On Dispensing with Q’. Goulder holds that Mark is the first gospel. Matthew's only written source was Mark, which he edited and developed through his own theological resources. The material in Matthew which is not drawn from Mark shows a consistency of method and approach that can only be the stamp of one mind. This approach extends to the material taken over from Mark, to the material shared with Luke, and to the material proper to Matthew alone. The elements said to be characteristic of Q (a concern for eschatology, the threat of judgement, the need to bring forth good fruit, the importance of the Christian community) are in fact characteristic of Matthew, and expressed in Matthean language, so that there is no need to postulate (let alone reconstruct) any such hypothetical source. Two reservations about the original statement of Goulder's theory have been repeatedly and strongly expressed: Matthew should not be tied to any theoretical arrangement of a lectionary, which is too nebulous. Nor should Matthew's process of elaborating Mark be termed ‘midrash’, for midrash can be done only on a sacred text, and Mark has not yet this status. Neither of these reservations affects the main thrust of the theory, though it would certainly strengthen it if it could be shown that Matthew was doing only what many other midrashists had done.

In order to show the uniformity of Matthew's style and theology Goulder ‘finger-prints’ Matthew not only by means of vocabulary, but principally by means of the consistent use of imagery and patterns of speech (e.g. pairs or double pairs of images, pairs of parables, consistent use of contrast in parables; such contrast is a feature of all Matthew's own story-parables, and is also introduced into parables taken over from Mark), see E.2.

The same finger-printing technique is applied to Luke. The new material in Luke is largely parables and other stories, and in these not only a characteristic vocabulary but also a characteristic method of storytelling can be charted (entries and exits, conversation, soliloquies of the chief character, varied, lively, and often disreputable personalities). Vocabulary, techniques of storytelling, and recognizable theological interests (concern for the poor and underprivileged, stress on the need for repentance) are discernible throughout, not only in passages proper to Luke but also in Luke's treatment of passages shared with Mark and Matthew. Once Q has been set aside, the way lies open to explain the many agreements between Matthew and Luke, which remain such a bugbear for the Two-Source Theory, by Luke's knowledge and use of Matthew.

Three major difficulties remain with this theory. The first is the different position of much of the teaching material in Luke from that of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount becomes the Sermon on the Plain. Matthew's long, carefully structured discourses are cut up and cut down. Goulder explains this by Luke's theory that only a limited amount of teaching can be digested at one time; Luke therefore discards some material and redistributes other. Luke, in any case, shows no hesitation in relocating material (the rejection at Nazareth, the call of the disciples) if it suits his purpose. The second difficulty is that the theory attributes considerable freedom of inventiveness to both Matthew and Luke. This is particularly true in the parables, where both evangelists would have introduced whole stories which they did not receive from the Jesus-tradition. However, Goulder shows convincingly how Luke consistently builds his own stories out of existing hints. For example, Luke's parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11–32 ) is a characteristically Lukan version of Matthew's parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28–30 ). Luke's infancy stories could be his own retelling, according to his own theology, interests, and style, of minimal data derived from Matthew's. Similarly Luke's story of the ten lepers (Lk 17:11–19 ) could well be Luke's own remoulding, according to his own techniques and theology, of the healing of the leper in Mk 1:40–5 . The third difficulty, somewhat intangible, is the doubt whether such a careful, modern, scissors-and-paste method of editing two previous texts may be postulated of an ancient author. This difficulty is, however, common to almost all explanations of the interrelationships of the gospels. It may be less extreme if the texts on which the later evangelists worked are regarded not as written documents but as texts held firmly and word for word in the memory, and thus allowing greater flexibility. However, proponents of the Two-Source Theory point out that the first two of these (the Baptist's preaching of repentance, and the testing in the desert) could scarcely occur anywhere else, leaving only the third case to be explained as a partial coincidence.

The attack on Goulder's theory has increased in intensity during the last decade. A particularly strong attack is mounted by Tuckett (1995: 31–45). Principally, Goulder's answer to Streeter's argument has been exploded. Streeter argued that it would be ‘the order of a crank’ if Luke meticulously followed Mark's order but changed the order of almost every pericope which he took from Matthew. Luke seems carefully to have scraped off every Matthean addition to Mark and then inserted many of them (but not all, e.g. Mt 12:5–7; 16:16–19; 27:19, 24 , and why not?) elsewhere. Goulder's explanation of Luke's break-up of the long Matthean discourses—that Luke considered they provided too much richness to be digested at a single gulp—flies in the face of the long speeches in Luke 21, Acts 7 and elsewhere. Goodacre (1996 ) also casts doubt on Goulder's central vocabulary argument: are the ‘Matthean’ words which Luke is claimed to have adopted indeed specifically Matthean? In a number of cases it can be argued equally well that the borrowing is in the opposite direction.

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