For more than a century the “synoptic problem” has troubled the waters of New Testament studies. Paradigms rise and fall, theories come and go concerning the date, authorship, and composition of the Gospels. Currently, the dominant position, in scholarly circles (often labeled the “Two Source” theory) upholds the “priority” of Mark’s Gospel, which was, in large chunks, copied by Luke and Matthew. Thus they explain the many passages containing nearly identical words. Underlying it all is the second source, “Q” (for Quelle), a mysterious document allegedly used by the New Testament community, but now lost.
Not all scholars, of course, have embraced the reigning view. David Laird Dungan, a professor at the University of Tennessee, argues the case for an older view, “The Two Gospel Hypothesis,” in his recently-published A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels (New York: Doubleday, c. 1999), a volume in The Anchor Bible Reference Library. To fully appreciate and understand the question, Dungan takes us back to the earliest sources. Questions concerning authorship, audience, authenticity surfaced during the second century, particularly in response to Marcion’s assault upon the scriptures which were revered in Christian communities. As would Thomas Jefferson centuries later, Marcion pasted together his own book, which he labeled “the gospel”–basically an expurgated version of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters. Intent on proving we are saved by “faith alone” by a non-judgmental, loving God, he cut out the Old Testament and any materials in the Gospels which suggested the Law had enduring worth.
Defenders of the emergent “orthodox” tradition, such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons, vigorously asserted the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament and compiled lists of what we now label New Testament books. The four gospels we consider “canonical” were universally approved. Papias (ca. 75-140), bishop of Hierapolis, near Ephesus in Asia Minor, wrote several works, of which a few fragments were preserved by Eusebius in his monumental Ecclesiastical History. Papias tells us that Mark’s Gospel is derived from Peter’s preaching; thus it reflects his active, impulsive nature. Matthew, on the other hand, Papias says, was written by Jesus’ disciple Levi in the Hebrew language for the Jewish people and was quickly translated into various other languages.
Matthew’s primacy was widely assumed in the second century. Tatian, following his teacher, the great apologist St. Justin Martyr, compiled the first “harmony of the Gospels,” the Diatessaron, weaving together the four Gospels into one narrative. Tatian wrote for the Syrian Christian community and left us with “a priceless treasure: a second-century Palestinian text of the Gospels. This text stands in the closest proximity to the original writings of the Apostles of anything that we have” (pp. 42-43). Importantly, the Diatessaron preserves some uniquely Jewish flavors which make it invaluable for understanding the scriptures used by the New Testament Church.
Early in the next century (ca. 220-250 AD), one of the Church’s greatest biblical scholars, Origen, addressed a whole gamut of textual and hermeneutical issues. In Dungan’s judgment, “Origen’s methodological approach is so carefully thought out that it is worthy of being made the paradigm for all later discussions in the book” (p. 66). He provides us an inimitable prototype. Origen accepted the traditional view that the first Gospel “‘was written by Matthew, … the second was (written ) by Mark who composed it according to the instructions of Peter, … and the third (was written) by Luke and is the Gospel commended by Paul, (and) last of all (is) that (one) by John'” (p. 70). The four books fit together, hand-in-glove, despite their many differences, because “‘Jesus is many things, according to the conceptions of Him, of which it is quite likely that the Evangelists took up different notions, while yet they were (still) in agreement with each other (despite) the different things they wrote'” (p. 85). They all portray the same person, Jesus Christ, but they differ in their emphases and descriptions because the Spirit illuminated different truths concerning Him. To Origen, the four Gospels were equally, yet differently, inspired. And they mixed literal details with spiritual truths which invite the interpreter to prayerfully open his mind to what God intends for him to grasp.
In St. Augustine we find what Dungan calls the “second form of the synoptic problem.” Debating the Manichaeans, Augustine sought to perfectly prove the “harmony of the Gospels.” Though he certainly utilized the “allegorical” approach Origen pioneered, Augustine was more determined to smooth out all apparent conflicts or discrepancies in them. His On the Harmony of the Evangelists makes a meticulous comparison of the texts, and he insisted that if one reads with a commitment to the full inspiration of Scripture the alleged “difficulties” dissipate. All Scripture “comes from God, who is Truth,” so it must, of necessity, be “completely free from error, self-contradiction, and inconsistency. Hence one task of scriptural interpretation is to remove all apparent contradictions of inconsistencies in Scripture” (p. 119). This approach has, for 1600 years, spawned a host of “harmonies” which satisfy many believers.
When the Modern World displaced the Medieval World, however, a new approach–often called “historical-critical”–made inroads into biblical studies. Introduced to this approach as a young scholar, Dungan confesses that he “never knew that I was a foot soldier in a great crusade to eviscerate the Bible’s core theology, smother its moral standards under an avalanche of hostile historical questions, and, at the end, shove it aside so that the new bourgeois could get on with the business at hand” (p. 148). In time, he realized that “biblical criticism” must be understood as an aspect of Modernity’s humanistic revolt against God. Architects of modernity, such as Hobbes and Sponoza, Dungan insists, forged “biblical criticism” as “a weapon to destroy or at least discredit the traditional metaphysics of Christianity and Judaism” (p. 199).
Dungan devotes much attention to Spinoza, one of modernity’s architects. In his Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza “systematically destroyed the entire medieval religious worldview, repeatedly putting one thing in its place: the commandment to love God and love your neighbor” (p. 200). Spinoza saw biblical criticism as a way to further his political objectives: angered by the intolerance of the Dutch Calvinists who ruled Holland, Spinoza longed for an overthrow of the established authorities and the installation of an “enlightened” political system. In his own words, he sought “to indicate the main false assumptions that prevail regarding religion . . . and then again the false assumptions regarding the right of civil authorities” (p. 219).
Spinoza’s goals materialized as the Enlightenment triumphed and the “third form” of the synoptic problem took shape in Germany. The Bible was reduced to a humanly-designed collection of materials. “Biblical criticism” focused on historical, textual issues, largely unconcerned with their Divine Author. For example, the “Father of Protestant Liberalism,” David Friedrich Schleiermacher brushed aside the OT as “too Jewish,” as “‘a superfluous authority for (Christian) Dogmatics'” (p. 337). Arm-in-arm with German nationalists supporting Bismarck’s anti-Catholic Kulturkampf, floating with the rising anti-Semitic tide of the day, the scholars refurbished the Bible to make it acceptable to political powers. Doing so paved the way for promotion and tenure in the state-controlled German universities.
“It is not surprising, therefore,” writes Dungan, “to see German Protestant biblical scholars, in the midst of the violent, national struggle with the forces of Roman Catholicism, create a Gospel source hypothesis that will sever ‘German Christianity’ from its Jewish roots. With the Two Source Hypothesis in hand, that is, a historical scenario that locates the beginning of the Christian faith in the un-Jewish, pro-Pauline Gospel of Mark, accompanied by a theoretical Sayings Source having a conveniently non-Jewish message, German biblical scholars could decanonize the very Jewish Gospel of Matthew and split the New Testament from the Old in biblical theology” (p. 339). “When Marcion’s anti-Jewish agenda surfaced again seventeen hundred years later in Europe,” Dungan notes, “it was no accident that Church historian Adolf von Harnack chose Marcion as his hero” (p. 57).
After a lengthy recitation of the flaws of the “Two Source” hypothesis, Dungan urges us to reconsider the “Two Gospel” hypothesis, set forth by Augustine, which argues that Matthew and Luke independently wrote gospels and that Mark used materials from them both as well as Peter’s preaching. If nothing else, entertaining Dungan’s argument frees one from mindless obeisance to the reigning scholarly community!
Dungan dedicates his book to William R. Farmer, long a professor at Southern Methodist University, who devoted much of his scholarly career to refuting the “Two Source” Hypothesis. His position is explained in The Gospel of Jesus: The Pastoral Relevance of the Synoptic Problem (Louisville: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1994), “the fruit of a prolonged struggle with one of the great intellectual problems of the twentieth century” (p. x). At stake, now as in St Paul’s day, is “the truth of the Gospel.” Considering the fanfare generated by the “Jesus Seminar” and its unorthodox assertions, Farmer wrote this book for the general public, hoping to establish confidence in the Gospel accounts.
Farmer’s disillusionment with the Two Source Hypothesis began when he tried to explain it as a young professor. He found himself unpersuaded by his own presentation! So he re-doubled his efforts and thought that would help. But the more he studied the less plausible it all seemed. Learned scholars believe in “Q,” a collection of sayings allegedly used by the Gospel writers. Professors James M. Robinson of the Claremont Graduate School and Helmut Koester of Harvard University, deeply shaped by Bultmann, have energetically promulgated the Q hypothesis in order to implant “‘the Bultmann tradition on American soil'” (p. 164). Koester thus declared: “‘The distinctions between canonical and noncanonical, orthodox and heretical are obsolete. . . . One can only speak of a ‘History of Early Christian literature”‘” (p. 164). All sorts of sources, such as the patently Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas” celebrated by the Jesus Seminar, now clamor for recognition in academic circles.
Koester made clear his stance by defending the Gospel of Thomas as an early Christian source. He emphasized that Thomas says nothing about “Jesus’ death and resurrection–the keystone of Paul’s missionary proclamation.” Q (as identified by Koester) also lacks the “stories and reports about the resurrection and subsequent appearances of the risen Lord,” so clearly central to the Early Church’s proclamation. Thomas and Q, instead, emphasize Jesus’ words, “his words alone” (p. 3). Arguing for Q’s existence, in brief, is one way to dismantle the NT canon established in the second century by folks such as St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian.
But when the distinguished scholar C.S. Petrie examined the Q materials used by NT scholars, he found shocking disparities. Each scholar had his own Q! Frankly, Petrie concluded: “the malleability of this nebulous hypothesis makes Q a letter to conjure with. Its protean nature allows the magician to endow his production with whatsoever characteristics he may choose, and he is encouraged to adopt for Q the principle that Humpty Dumpty paraded when Alice sought for a definition of glory: ‘It means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less'” (p. 169). In England, B.H. Streeter, for 30 years, successfully defended the Two Source view, but Austin Farrer, one of the brightest British scholars, “concluded that Luke had used Matthew and that therefore there was no need for Q” (p. 171). Consequently, Farmer wonders why one should believe in the existence of a hypothetical document when “the church’s Gospels actually exist” (p. xi). Clearly one may assume that there were “early Jesus traditions, both oral and written, but there is no need for Q” (p. 36).
Farmer likewise questions the scholarly dogma concerning Mark’s priority. Nineteenth century German scholars established the dogma that “shorter is earlier.” Because Mark is the shortest Gospel, they assumed the longer gospels were necessarily expanded copies. Yet, Farmer shows, when you actually compare the narratives, Mark’s account of a specific incident is usually longer than Matthew’s or Luke’s. Mark simply describes fewer incidents, and that explains why his Gospel is shorter. Throughout the Synoptics, “Matthew generally provides us the shortest narrative. Luke’s parallel text is generally longer than Matthew’s, and Mark’s version is generally the longest of the three” (p. 128).
In his massively detailed, sophisticated Harmony of the Gospels, St. Augustine concluded that Mark, writing for a Gentile audience, saw no need to include the peculiarly Jewish aspects he found in Matthew. But he took “the kingly emphasis of Matthew and conjoined it with the priestly emphasis of Luke to produce a human figure of Christ related to both” (p. 129). A century before Augustine, Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, reported that the Gospels with genealogies, Matthew and Luke were written before those without genealogies, Mark and John. So, Farmer emphasizes, “It is very important to emphasize that nothing in church history supports the idea of Markan priority” (130). German scholars, in state-controlled universities, set forth the hypothesis to justify their distinctly liberal theology and nationalistic political objectives.
They especially sought to discount traditional Roman Catholic positions. “Markan primacy offered support for discounting the claims for a papal authority, which rested on the Peter passage in Matthew that was absent in Mark” (p. 156). Without the birth narratives of Matthew, the Virgin Mary’s role in the Christian story could be minimized. So Otto von Bismarck, in his efforts to triumph over Bavarian-based Catholics in the newly-unified, Prussian-controlled Germany, made sure that politically correct professors were appointed to the nation’s universities. The conservative positions espoused by Vatican Council I in 1870 could not be tolerated in Germany! “In 1870, the Markan hypothesis was no more than a scholarly hypothesis with a growing following. But certainly by 1914, and possibly as early as 1880, this hypothesis implicitly was converted into a liberal dogma” (p. 156).
Farmer thus argues for the superiority of the Two-Gospel Hypothesis. “First, Matthew composed his Gospel, arranging the incidents in an order that suited his purposes. Then Luke, following Matthew, often took over incidents as he found them in Matthew, but sometimes he rearranged incidents to suit his considerably different purposes. Then Mark, with copies of the two earlier Gospels available for him, decide to basically follow the order of incidents in Luke, always being free to follow the order of incidents in Matthew when his purposes called for this literary procedure” (p. 133).
Importantly, Farmer argues, the Two-Gospel Hypothesis gives integrity to the Christian proclamation. For the good of the Church, for the future of the Faith, we must restore confidence in the trustworthiness of the canonical Gospels.
Reading recent discussions of the Synoptic Problem prodded me to read St Augustine’s The Harmony of the Gospels, v. 6 in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995). In his day, as in ours, anti-Christian critics assailed the Scriptures so as to discredit the Faith. Responding, St Augustine consistently, at times ingeniously, defended the truthfulness and harmony of their accounts. Each writer had distinctive objectives. Matthew and Mark emphasized Jesus’ kingly character, Luke the priestly, and John His divine nature. In Matthew He’s like a lion; in Mark, a man; in Luke, a calf; and in John, an eagle.
Jesus Himself left nothing in writing, but “the truth is, that His members have accomplished only what they became acquainted with by the repeated statements of the Head. For all that He was minded to give for our perusal on the subject of His own doings and sayings, He commanded to be written by those disciples whom He thus used as if they were His own hands” (I, 35; p. 101). Fully inspired, the Gospels deserve not only careful but devout reading. Using Matthew as the basic text, Augustine then compares the four Gospel accounts, intent on harmonizing them into one coherent story of the Savior. He deals honestly with objections raised by the critics. There are differences in detail between the four author’s accounts. But, if one assumes (as Augustine does) that they are fully inspired, there are ways to explain why “differences” do not amount to “contradictions.”
The Holy Spirit who inspired the writers brought to their minds different memories, different perspectives. Unlike a tape recording, memories come to mind without rigid, chronological order. So the Gospels, the things remembered about Jesus, were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but in accord with the ways the writers remembered as they wrote. So “it is reasonable enough to suppose that each of the evangelists believed it to have been his duty to relate what he had to relate in that order n which it had pleased God to suggest to his recollection the matters he was engaged in recording” (II, xxi; p. 127). God’s order, working through the personal liberty of the writers, may lack mechanical uniformity, but it reveals His truth infallibly.
As always, Augustine is worth reading! He understood the issues, and he responded with learning and humility. When he found himself struggling to harmonize different passages, he urged readers to find better solutions. He obviously prays while he reads, seeking not to spot discrepancies but to reconcile apparent contradictions. Most of the questions he faced, most of the solutions he proposed, remain timeless. Subsequent “harmonies” may have extended and refined his argument, but he clearly stands as the formative thinker in this tradition.