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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 

My Synoptic Pilgrimage Part 1

Recently, Brandon Wason at Novum Testamentum created a poll in which he asked readers to vote on what they thought was the most persuasive “solution” to the synoptic problem (here). Not surprisingly, the Two-Source theory came out on top but with the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis, of which I am an adherent, taking second place. The results of Brandon’s poll elicited some interesting responses, most notably in the exchanges between Mark Goodacre and April Deconick (here, here, and here). For my own part, I tended to agree with Goodacre against Deconick but that is not what I want to discuss. Instead, I would like to offer a brief account of my pilgrimage from the Two-Source theory to an acceptance of the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis.

Like most young religious studies students I held to the Two-Source theory (commonly referred to as Q) unquestioningly. Everything that I read and/or was taught accepted the existence of Q as a fundamental basis of NT scholarship. But slowly I began to have misgiving after misgiving about Q, especially concerning the way Q was constantly abused by certain scholars in their attempts to locate various stratifications or editions of Q, and the extent to which most of these same scholars believed that they could extrapolate a specific Q theology or Q community. This was especially exemplified for me when I was researching burial practices in the Second-Temple period and came across a book called Roll Back the Stone by Byron McCane. In this book, McCane devoted an entire chapter to an examination of the Q community’s specific burial theology (which was, of course, at odds with typical Second-Temple Judaic practice). His ostensibly dubious analysis especially alerted me to the pitfalls that occur when scholars become strongly dependent on Q.

The next crucial thing which happened that started me on a path to Q skepticism was an encounter with of one of the many minor agreements between Luke and Matthew against Mark. Of course, at the time I did not understand the issues surrounding the minor agreements since I had yet to even read anything written against the Two-Source theory. And so, intriguingly, I stumbled upon this minor agreement from a discussion unrelated to the synoptic problem. A friend of mine was authoring a series of posts (I would provide links but the posts nor his blog now exist) attempting to indicate why inerrancy was a faulty view of the Biblical texts. One of the several passages he used was Mark 2: 23-28.

In this passage the author of Mark attributes to Jesus the saying that it was Abiathar who was high priest when David entered into the house of God to feed his hungry men. However, according to 1 Sam 21: 1-6 it is Abiathar’s father Ahimelech who was the high priest at that time and not Abiathar as Mark mistakenly indicates. Furthermore, it is not until Ahimelech and his fellow priests are slaughtered in 1 Sam 22: 17-19 that Abiathar becomes high priest. Given that both mens’ names begin with an “A” and the proximity of the two narratives to one another it is easy to see how Mark could have made the mistake. But it is a mistake nonetheless.

My friend further pointed out to his readers that what was interesting was what Matthew did with this passage. In the Matthean version of this passage (Matt 12: 1-8) the author of Matthew simply omits Mark’s reference to who was the high priest during this particular Davidic episode. More than likely, as my friend observed, given the gospel of Matthew’s probable Jewish authorship, the author of Matthew being more acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures recognized that Mark made a mistake and so remedied it by simply omitting the reference altogether. Immediately curious as to how Luke dealt with this passage I read Lk 6: 1-5. Now, you must realize that I was still operating under the rubric of a Two-Source theory and so recalling that the consensus of scholarship has been that Luke was of gentile authorship I expected Luke to replicate Mark’s mistake since he most likely was not as versed in the Hebrew scriptures as Matthew. Instead I was astonished to discover that his version followed Matthew’s verbatim by simply omitting the reference to the high priest. Here's how it all worked out in my head:

1). Mark mistakenly identifies the high priest in 2:23-38 as Abiathar and not Ahimelech.

2). Matthew because his gospel is more Jewish and well versed in the Hebrew scriptures (as his preoccupation with finding passages in the Tanach which he felt Jesus had fulfilled clearly exhibits) spotted the error and chose to "fix" the situation by omitting the reference to the high priest altogether.

3). Luke follows Matthew by omitting the reference to the high priest thus agreeing with Matthew against Mark.

4). Generally, scholars view the author of the gospel of Luke as a Gentile and so it seems rather unlikely that the author would have recognized Mark's mistake on his own.

5). Therefore, it seems more probable to assert that Luke knew Matthew and chose to follow suit with Matthew by omitting the reference to the high priest.

Once I had worked this out in my mind I realized that the principal implication of these conclusions was that, contrary to what the Two-Source theory stated, if Luke in fact knew Matthew then this would entail that invoking Q as a source might be superfluous. Now of course this one minor agreement does not prove that Luke knew Matthew and at the time I was still a bit reluctant to dispense with Q. However, what was chiefly important for me concerning this encounter with one of the minor agreements was that I could for the first time conceive of the possibility of Luke's literary dependence on Matthew. Eventually, I read Mark Goodacre's The Case Against Q and was persuaded that Q was an unnecessary postulate of the synoptic problem and that the literary relationship between the synoptics could in part be satisfied with reference to Luke's dependence on Matthew.

To be continued...

Great post Chris. I certainly agree that many "religious studies" students operate as though Q was as real and important as many of the NT writings. Though I have no strong stance, I find your evidence in favor of the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis compelling.

Congrats on finishing undergrad!

Have a look at David Catchpole's Quest for Q - a rigorous and convincing defense of the Q hypothesis

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