Rethinking the Synoptic Problem

By David Alan Black and David R. Beck, eds.
Grand Rapids : Baker (2001). 160 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. F. Farnell
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 105-108

 The book alleges to explore two main areas: (1) “the problematic literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels” that “has given rise to numerous theories of authorship and priority,” and (2) it “familiarizes readers w ith the main positions held by NT scholars and updates evangelical understanding of this much-debated area of research” (back cover). The book is based on a NT symposium, organized by the editors and held at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on April 6-7, 2000 in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The title adopted was “Symposium on New Testament Studies: A Time for Reappraisal.” During this time, the presentations explored not only the Synoptic Problem but also the authorship of Hebrews and NT textual criticism. The book treats the Synoptic area exclusively as its topic for consideration.

The book fails significantly regarding the two areas that it attempts to clarify and update. Specifically, it does not detail “numerous theories of authorship and priority” nor does it familiarize readers with main positions held by N T scholars regarding the Synoptics. Only two Synoptic hypotheses receive consideration: the Two-Source and Two-Gospel hypotheses. One hardly gets the impression that “rethinking” has been done when both the Independence approach and Farrer’s position on Markan priority dispensing with Q are ignored. Ignoring other views is no way to dialogue or discover truths regarding the relevant issues. It is a way of controlling information and supporting the status quo. It sends a not-so-subtlemessage that the editors believe that no other alternatives deserve attention because no other alternatives matter. The book begs the question regarding Synoptic studies by assuming what it attempts to prove: the Two-Source and Two-Gospel literarydependence hypotheses are held by most evangelical scholars today as the only viable alternatives, so by rethinking these same two hypotheses, one demonstrates that these two are still the only viable hypotheses. The conclusions are decided before any discussion/symposium has been conducted. This is not scholarship at its best. Moreover, other hypotheses (especially the Independence approach) are ignored or summarily dismissed with little or no consideration so as to guarantee the results that were assumed from the outset. Such tactics clearly attenuate any usefulness for the book.

Black and Beck note this fundamental weakness: “The editors are well aware that the essays that follow have at least two significant omissions, for there are neither separate chapters nor substantive discussions devoted to either the independence theory or the Farrer hypothesis. . . . Perhaps the organizers were remiss in not assigning separate contributions on these subjects, but when this symposium on the NT was being planned, it was decided to invite representatives of what were considered to be the leading alternate positions being proffered today, at least on this side of the Atlantic” (15). Notice that they regard their omission as “significant,” indicating that they deliberately chose to ignore important evidence in their “rethinking” of such issues. That is not good scholarship. Several replies to Black’s and Beck’s logic are necessary. First, the Two-Gospel (Owen-Griesbach) position can hardly be said to hold large support among Synoptic investigators even today. Only a significant few support it (e.g., Farmer, Dungan). It does not enjoy widespread support in comparison to the Two-Source hypothesis that overwhelmingly predominates Synoptic issues. Second, it has only been since 1964 (Farmer’s The Synoptic Problem) that the Owen-Griesbach hypotheses has come back to the forefront of discussion. Its proponents need to be reminded of their own recent attempts to get investigators to give attention to their Synoptic discussion. They faced open opposition and hostility. Now that their theory has gained some recognition, are they attempting to shut out other hypotheses? Do they now practice the same tactics that the Two-Source proponents used against them by ignoring other views? Third, So what if the majority support these two positions? Since when do numbers dictate the scholarly viability of a position? Sadly, sometimes in Synoptic studies a follow-the-leader approach prevails without fresh re-thinking of issues and logic. Fourth, this ignoring of other alternatives evidences itself also in a blatant disregard for crucial evidence both historically and presuppositionally that control literary-dependence hermeneutics and that cast light on its tenuous bases. For instance, Osborne in his article argues, “Early in my education I was trained largely in the fundamentalist camp. I was taught that Q was accepted only by liberals and was dangerous. . . . It was not until I reached seminary that I discovered that it was a literary issue centering on the relationship of the Gospels to one another rather than a point of orthodoxy” (138). Osborne’s ignoring of both history and presuppositions is a fatal flaw in his position of defending literary-dependence and the Two-Source hypothesis, for the history as well as the presuppositions of literary-dependence affirms its hostility to orthodoxy, since it stems from skepticism regarding the historicity of the Gospels. To ignore or dismiss such factors is highly questionable.

The book treats the Independence approach with open hostiliy. Blomberg remarks, “I cannot conclude . . . without making some reference to a work that would have you believe that those of us who believe in some kind of literary dependence among the Synoptics are thereby unwittingly disabled by ‘satanic blindness.’ I speak . . . of The Jesus Crisis. . . . It is a book that made me alternately sad and angry as I read it, in that it is rife with inappropriately sharp polemic against virtually all evangelical Gospel scholars, regularly misrepresents them, contains numerous typographical and factual errors, and offers no detailed inductive or exegetical study of the Gospel parallels that would support the alternative of literary independence, which the editors view as the only position consistent with inerrancy” (39). Blomberg’s statement deserves a few replies. First, The Jesus Crisis does not offer sharp polemic against all evangelical scholarship. It praises a number of modern evangelicals (e.g., Linnemann, Geisler, Schaeffer). Only evangelical practitioners of historical criticism with their accompanying dehistoricization of the Gospels are cited negatively, not for their personal scholarship, but for their conclusions that denigrate the Gospel accounts. It questions these evangelicals regarding their hermeneutical conclusions—not personal issues. More is at stake in these issues than a scholarly, irenic discussion, for the historicity and factuality of the Christian faith is at stake. The Jesus Crisis centers on issues. Second, one wonders if he actually read The Jesus Crisis carefully, because he offers no instances of misrepresentation of the scholars cited by the work. Indeed, the editors of The Jesus Crisis await citation of a valid instance in which they have misrepresented anyone’s position. Misleading, non-sequitur arguments that misrepresent The Jesus Crisis are constantly proffered instead. Third, how does one “rethink” the issues of Synoptic discussion when such closed-mindedness characterizes the dialogue? This book is redundant and unnecessary. Other books have contributed more dialogue to this subject and allow for more possibilities than just the Two- Source and Two-Gospel hypotheses. No rethinking of the issues regarding Synoptic interrelationships can occur when censorship of viable alternatives occurs.