Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke, A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem

By John Wenham
Downers Grove, Illinois : InterVarsity (1992). 319 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
3.2 (Fall 1992) : 237-239

A well-known British NT scholar, John Wenham, has broken ranks with the majority opinion of NT scholars regarding a solution to the Synoptic Problem. He forthrightly acknowledges his differences from the viewpoint of "the great majority of scholars" of the twentieth century in rejecting the Two-Document hypothesis (2). Regarding those who still hold that theory, he writes, "Most probably, judging by the attitude of the members of recent gospels conferences, most scholars who have examined this [Two-Document] theory critically have not been particularly impressed with its logical weight, yet they find no other theory convincing, and, since life is short, they have been content to go along with the majority and accept it as a working hypothesis" (2).

In rejecting the Two-Document hypothesis, the author has thorough discussions of the weaknesses of presupposing a hypothetical document "Q" (chap. 3) and of the theory that Mark was the first of the three to be written (chaps. 4 & 5).

He notes that research of the last hundred years has been dominated by the assumption of some literary connection between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a contrast to the dominant assumption a hundred years ago among English-speaking scholars that a common oral tradition explained the likenesses between these gospels (3). Wenham's proposal is that the truth lies somewhere between these two positions: "There may be a large measure of [literary] independence as well as an important measure of [literary] interdependence" (10). By this he means he prefers a high degree of literary independence insofar as the individual words of the gospels are concerned (xxi, xxiii, 5, 51-55, 78), but some degree of literary dependence in following a standard order for the gospels (3, 6, 7, 200). He has three reasons for questioning complete independence: (1) the unlikelihood that the identity of order of seventy-two pericopes can be traced to a mnemonic device in oral tradition; (2) the unlikelihood that three leaders (i.e., writers) would refrain from consulting the works of one another; and (3) distinct traditions of gospel order in the early church that presuppose they were not all published at the same time (9-10).

A summary of available evidence leads to a candid conclusion: it is impossible to know "how much comes from literary dependence, how much from oral tradition, how much from assimilation of phraseology in well-known accounts of similar events, how much from an individual author" (213). The author also asks, "Is it possible to be more precise as to the part played by dependence and independence in the creation of the pattern of likenesses and differences which we find in the three gospels? The honest answer must be that we are in the realm of speculation, with small means of checking our guesses" (199).

Wenham attaches great weight to the early Roman tradition that Peter went to Rome in A.D. 42 (cf. Acts 12:17) and was in some sense overseer of the Roman church for twenty-five years until his death (146). He goes to great lengths to defend the accuracy of this tradition (chap. 7). This becomes his basis for dating Mark, a gospel written for Roman Christians, as early as c. 45.

Because of a possible reference in 2 Cor 8:18 to Luke's fame based on his gospel, he dates the gospel of Luke no later than 55. He places the final piece in the puzzle, Matthew, which he has earlier proven to be the earliest gospel, in A.D. 42 (223, 229-44). These dates reflect the sequence of structural but not verbal dependence of the three writers: Mark's dependence on Matthew and Luke's dependence on Matthew and Mark.

Wenham's work is stimulating, to say the least. After a seemingly endless parroting of an ill-proven theory by many others for the last hundred years, he has provided a chance to move on in an understanding of the relationships among the Synoptic Gospels. In response to several of Wenham's positions, this reviewer must ask two questions, however: (1) How can one draw a satisfactory line between literary dependence for wording and literary interdependence for structure? If the writers trusted their memories for the wording of their gospels, it is improbable that they would suddenly resort to literary dependence in arranging the sequence of the episodes they wrote about. Wenham's distinction between "a large measure of independence" and "total literary independence" (89) is quite vague and unconvincing. One must opt either for independence or for dependence. He cannot have both. For a work professing such a high regard for ancient tradition (xxiv), this book is strangely silent regarding the longstanding tradition of total literary independence of the three gospels.

(2) How fully can an early arrival of Peter in Rome be relied upon? Wenham's discussion of ancient tradition is enlightening, but it fails to explain convincingly Paul's relationship to the Roman church and the statement of Paul's determination not to build on another's foundation (Rom 15:20-24). His early dating of Matthew, a gospel for Jewish readers, leaves unexplained the question of why James, whose epistle so heavily depended on the teachings of Jesus, reflects no knowledge of it. Nor does his dating of Mark in the middle 40's explain the traditional connection of the epistle with the deaths of Peter and Paul in the 60's.

Though this reviewer cannot concur with all the conclusions of this book, it remains one of the more worthwhile additions in some time to studies of the Synoptic Problem.