A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels

By David Laird Dungan
New York : Doubleday (1999). 526 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. F. David Farnell
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 121-124

 This volume is part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library, designed as a major component of the Anchor Bible series. Dungan is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is author of Documents for the Study of the Gospels and the Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul, has been one of the major contributors to the revival of the neo-Griesbach (Two-Gospel) hypothesis in Synoptic studies. He dedicates this book to his mentor, William R. Farmer, perhaps the strongest proponent of the neo-Griesbach hypothesis in modern times. The work originated in a course taught by Dungan while he was Catholic Biblical Association of America visiting professor at the Pontificio Instituto Biblico in Rome in 1976-1977.

The work provides an account of the debate regarding the relationship of the three Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Luke, and Mark—throughout church history, noting cultural, historical, political, technological, economic as well as theological trends that the author identifies as molding discussion surrounding the Synoptic Gospels. He demonstrates how scholars throughout church history, influenced by such factors, have defined and redefined the Synoptic “Problem.” Primarily, the book’s purpose centers in challenging the current status quo in Synoptic studies regarding the priority of Mark and the existence of Q, tracing the forces that Dungan identifies as bringing this “Protestant” hypothesis to dominance. Although the book champions the neo-Griesbach hypothesis, its review of Synoptic history is not too narrowly confined, for it gives a somewhat sweeping history of Synoptic discussion from the first century to the present.

Dungan has organized the work into a chronological narrative divided into three parts that roughly correspond to three major epochs of the unfolding debate over assumed interrelations among the Gospels. Part One covers the period from the first century to the fifth, with Origen and Augustine being key contributers. This first phase lasted long after Augustine who set the pattern for Synoptic studies for a thousand years. Part Two covers the second phase, starting with how key figures in the Reformation viewed the Synoptic Gospels, and running through the important period of the Enlightenment, and ending with World Wars I and II. Part Three takes up Synoptic discussion in the post-World War II period and examines current trends and developments.

Besides these three epochs in the Synoptic debate, Dungan sees three “Forms of the Synoptic Problem” in the history of Gospel studies: The First Form centers in Origen. The Second Form centers in Augustine with his emphasis on “authoritarian strictly literal harmonization of the differences among the Gospels.” (3). His Gospel harmony “is the telltale sign of the Second Form of the Synoptic Problem” (4). Emphasis on the Third Form of the Synoptic Problem runs from the nineteenth century to today, with such factors as Deism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, etc., being key catalysts in the development of modern discussions of the Synoptic Problem. As skepticism regarding the Bible increased during this period, harmonization was rejected and replaced by a qualitatively different approach—i.e., literary-dependence interrelationships among the Gospels— that centered in “a new developmental approach toward the differences among the Gospels” (309). The Gospel harmony is replaced by the Gospel synopsis (5). The Griesbach (Two-Gospel) and Two-Source Hypotheses arose during this period, with the latter gaining overwhelming dominance in Synoptic discussion. Thus, the modern literary-dependence concepts of the Two-Gospel and Two-Source hypotheses arose as a direct result of acute skepticism regarding the veracity and historicity of the Gospel accounts, a skepticism, produced by the impact of philosophical presuppositions (e.g., Rationalism, Deism, Skepticism, Romanticism) upon Gospel discussion.

The author has rendered an excellent service in highlighting the various stages of the Synoptic Problem discussion, especially in terms of history and presuppositions. Such a treatment is lacking in other reviews of Synoptic discussion, especially among champions of literary-dependence hypotheses. Dungan sets his book apart by noting that his work attempts a more comprehensive treatment of Synoptic discussion, starting with the early church while most modern treatments ignore this period and begin around 1800. He also frankly admits that most treatments ignore “how destructive to Christianity the modern form [of the Synoptic Problem] is” (2). Though this reviewer does not adopt the neo-Griesbach hypothesis of Dungan, he appreciates Dungan’s constant emphasis on the impact of history and philosophical presuppositions in the development of both the Two-Document and Two-Gospel hypotheses. From the reviewer’s perspective, history and philosophical presuppositions stand as monumental testimonies against the both the Two-Source and Two-Gospel hypotheses.

Increasingly, Dungan’s work implies that within the Roman Catholic Church the neo-Griesbach hypothesis is gaining great sympathies, with the theory’s preference for Matthew being identified as the first Gospel written, especially in terms of its impact on papal interpretation. Dungan seems at times to exhibit not so subtle Roman Catholic sympathies (vii), exhibiting anti-Protestant biases in his interpretation of reformative events in church history. For example, he writes, “[H]aving burnt the Roman Catholic bridge of Tradition (‘Scripture and Tradition’), Protestant theologians and pastors had painted themselves into the logical corner of sola Scriptura” (194).

He also correctly traces both historical criticism and the modern discussion of the Synoptic Problem to its originator/father Baruch Spinoza who under Enlightenment influence deliberately rejected and moved away from traditional harmonization. He states,

Spinoza and his followers multiplied questions about the physical history of the text to the point that the traditional theological task could never get off the ground. That, however, w as precisely the intended effect of the first step: to create an endless ‘nominalist barrage’ if you will, an infinitely extendable list of questions directed at the physical history of the text, to the point where the clergy and the political officials allied with them could never bring to bear their own theological interpretations of the Bible. In other words, Spinoza switched the focus from the referent of the biblical text (e.g., God’s activity, Jesus Christ) to the history of the text. In doing so, he effectively eviscerated the Bible of all traditional theological meaning and moral teaching (172).

Perhaps Dungan’s most valuable contribution is his demonstration that the Two- Source and Two-Gospel hypotheses are not neutral but are controlled by philosophical presupposition and speculation. Regarding historical criticism, Dungan writes, “No one told me precisely how the inventors of the new historical method first eviscerated the Bible, then secretly packed it with their own values so that, after the defenders of orthodoxy had dragged this strange Trojan horse inside their city, the hidden soldiers rule the city under the guise of biblical criticism” (148). Thus, historical criticism is not objective but has been purposefully designed to destroy the meaning, influence, and authority of the Scriptures and avoid its claims on society. In effect, it reduces the Bible to a mere handbook of morality (147).

Some significant weaknesses exist in Dungan’s work, however. He accepts the neo-Griesbach hypothesis, but Oden and Hall’s Mark, in The Ancient Commentary on Scripture series (InterVarsity, 1999), insightfully notes that no mention of literary dependence occurs among the church fathers, but is a modern (nineteenth century) development. Others have noted that literary-dependence finds no support in the fathers (e.g., Meeks, in The Relationships Among the Gospels, An Interdisciplinary dialogue-Trinity University Press, 1978). No support for neo-Griesbach or the Two-Source hypothesis appears in a review of church fathers (Dungan’s assertions regarding Augustine notwithstanding, e.g., 84-85). Instead, the Independence view predominated. Dungan’s failure to acknowledge this fact and to discuss the Independence approach in history enervates the usefulness of his treatment.

Moreover, though Dungan shows what modern Enlightenment hermeneutics (i.e., historical criticism) did to destroy the authority of the Bible, associating Griesbach with this trend, he then adopts the neo-Griesbach hypothesis. Regarding modern biblical criticism with its Spinozan roots, he states, “I 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 along with the business at hand” (148). He notes that the neo-Griesbach and Two-Source hypotheses found foothold during this period: “It was within the crucible of Spinoza’s hatred of religious tyranny and longing for a better way that the central elements of the Third Form of the Synoptic Problem were forged” (260). If Dungan now understands such historical and presuppositional intents, why adopt literary-dependence hypotheses? That defies explanation.