Is There a Synoptic Problem? Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels

By Eta Linnemann
Grand Rapids : Baker (1992). 219 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
4.1 (Spring 1993) : 111-113

For many years famous as a NT scholar with an extremely liberal bent, Linnemann experienced the new birth, and almost simultaneously the realization dawned that these liberal scholarly conclusions were totally incompatible with a relationship to Christ. So the current volume is to rectify previous misleading teachings.

Is There a Synoptic Problem? uses tools of literary research to demonstrate the improbability that literary dependence of any sort existed in the composition of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It shows through credible evidence that proponents of literary dependence have never proven that the three authors copied from each other, copied from the same source, or both. On the other hand, explanations of their compositions without literary dependence are more plausible and probable. The application of historical-critical methodologies to the gospels, such as assumptions of literary dependence, entail serious undermining of the authority of the Word of God (15).

Part 1 of the book examines closely the assumptions of the prevalent method of gospel study, the historical-critical. Linnemann reviews part of an earlier work (Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990] 130-34) to recall how unscientific socalled scientific theology really is (chap. 1). Yet the correctness of scientific theology's conclusions is a foregone conclusion throughout theological training programs in Germany (chap. 2).

Part 2 faces the question of whether literary dependence among the Synoptic Gospels is a fair assumption. The author first establishes a five-step process through use of linguistic data to evaluate the possibility of literary dependence, particularly as relates to the widespread two-source hypothesis with its view of Markan priority. The purpose of this is to "clear away the rubbish heaps of hypotheses that have denied access to God's Word and cast doubt on its veracity" (73). "Tedious detail" well describes application of the five steps to the issue of literary dependence (chaps. 3-7). Before reaching a conclusion from the resultant data, the author examines seven possible forms that literary dependence could have taken: copy, précis, quotation, redactional reworking, tendentious ideological/theological reworking, plagiarism, free reworking, and creative rewriting (chap. 8). A review of all the data leads to the inevitable necessity of "bidding farewell, finally, to the unproved and unprovable claim of literary dependence among the three Synoptic Gospels" (152).

Part 3 of the work faces the possibility that the Synoptic Gospels originated independently. A monistic worldview that, consciously or unconsciously, presupposes that God has not created the world, ruled history, and intervened through Christ's redemptive act is the only obstacle to literary independence among the Synoptics (158-59)`a nonexistent obstacle for discerning Christians (chap. 9). Evangelical proponents of literary dependence are blind to the implications of their endorsement of literary-critical hypotheses and, through their endorsement of them, fail to do full justice to Scripture (178). The gospels originated during a short span of time and in widely separated areas, making literary dependence impossible (chap. 10).

Part 4 answers the question, "Why Four Gospels?" Their purpose was to supply four independent witnesses of the words, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus (chap. 11). Using the four together, one can construct a comprehensive portrait of Jesus (chap. 12).

This thorough analysis of the Synoptic Gospels purposes to erect a warning sign -"Caution! Trap!" -that will keep any further victims from falling into the clutches of what is falsely called "science" (Epilogue).

This reviewer does not concur with every minor point along the way, but this does not keep him from calling Linnemann's work probably the most significant volume on the Synoptic Problem to appear thus far in the twentieth century. Hopefully, many NT scholars will heed the case it builds, regardless of the personal price. After all, the integrity of Scripture is at stake. The book is replete with tables, charts, and statistical lists that help visualize and verify various points made by the author, but even so, it will take clear thinking and patience to appreciate fully the information therein. The volume ends with a brief bibliography and an index.