David Alan Black and David R. Beck, eds., Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001. 160 pp., paperback. ISBN: 0-8010-2281-9. $16.99.
L, M, Q (Q1, Q2, Q3): these are not alphanumerics in a new board game. They are the stock and trade of the scholarly sleuths in search of a solution to the elusive synoptic problem. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are so-called because they contain similar or parallel material which may be "viewed together" (syn opsis, in Greek) as is demonstrated in the standard Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum (Kurt Aland) ( English edition: Synopsis of the Four Gospels).
For nearly two hundred years, New Testament scholars have attempted to explain the similarities in stories, order of events and vocabulary in the synoptic gospels. Noting that much of Mark's gospel is paralleled in Matthew and Luke, the majority of scholars have argued that Mark's work was written first and Matthew and Luke used him as their primary source. This is the so-called Markan priority position of Heinrich J. Holtzmann of Strassbourg (1863) and (especially) B. F. Streeter of Oxford University (1924). Streeter also noted that Matthew and Luke include material not in Mark; he therefore posited a hypothetical document called Q (for Quelle [German] meaning "source") to account for the unique material. But Streeter also acknowledged that there was material in Matthew not found in Mark, Luke or Q. He further posited a document M to account for this material. And he acknowledged that there was material in Luke not found in Matthew, Mark or Q. This material he labeled document L. If all this seems to our readers to be an alphabet soup morass, you are getting the picture.
Another group of scholars, led by William R. Farmer, have rejected Markan priority (now being called the Oxford Hypothesis because of Canon Streeter) and "mythical Q" for a proposal advanced in the 18th century by J. J. Griesbach. The Griesbach Hypothesis for the formation of the synoptic gospels asserts the priority of Matthew. That is, Matthew writes his gospel first; Luke uses Matthew; and Mark uses both Matthew and Luke. No hypothetical L, M, Q documents are necessary on the basis of Matthean priority.
While this whole discussion may seem equivalent to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, it is very serious business, as the volume under review makes clear. Assembled within the pages of Rethinking the Synoptic Problem are four essays by advocates of : (1) the quest for the synoptic solution (Craig Blomberg); (2) the elusive Q document (Darrell Bock); (3) the priority of Mark (Scot McKnight); (4) the priority of Matthew (William Farmer). The whole is admirably introduced (David Black and David Beck) and concludes with an epilogue "Response" from Grant Osborne (subject and Scripture indexes are appended). The essays are the result of a Symposium at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina from April 6-7, 2000.
The volume is a handy summary of the "state-of-the-art" in synoptic studies. Each essay is a helpful summary of the current state of the discussion by an advocate of that point of view. We learn how, in 1964, Farmer upset the "assured results" of New Testament criticism (i.e., Markan priority) with his now famous challenge. So much for critical fundamentalism! We learn that the Jesus of Q is a Cynic philosopher (Jesus Seminar), a Jewish sage/wiseman (John Kloppenberg), a Jewish prophet (Dale Allison) or a royal Messiah (E. P. Meadors). One begins to seriously suspect vaporware with such newly "assured results" from a nonexistent document (NB: in fact no piece of Q exists anywhereit has been manufactured to support a critical presupposition!). And we learn that the post-Enlightenment pursuit of the synoptic problem is closely associated with Christianity as a "civil religion." That is, synoptic criticism is a "religion" (especially in Germany) driven by an Enlightenment agenda (see pp. 132-34 of the present volume).
While this book (and the Symposium) is useful in what it does present, what is omitted is troubling. Black and Beck admit that the only members admitted to this "symposium club" were "representatives of . . . the leading alternative positions being proffered today" (p. 15). The "lepers", those left "outside the gate" at this gathering, are the defenders of yet another view of the origin of the synoptic gospels. These are the scholars who defend the "independent" view of the synoptics (indeed, all four gospels). They argue that each gospel was inspired by the Holy Spirit as a complete unit, independent of the others. Matthew wrote his without consulting Mark, Luke or John; Mark wrote his without consulting Matthew, Luke or John; and so forth. The leading defenders of this view are Eta Linnemann (former student of Rudolf Bultmann, wonderfully converted to evangelical Christianity and author of the book Is There a Synoptic Problem?) and Robert Thomas and L. David Farnell.
The message which this book sends (with only slight qualification) is that only the favored few are welcome to the discussion. Sad! Especially since the authors of these essays (with the exception of Farmer) are well known evangelicals. Has intolerance trickled down into scholarly evangelical circles? And will that mean another pin-prick to the "assured results" of New Testament (evangelical) criticism in the future (1964 encore?!)? Stay tuned.
James T. Dennison,