Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Note: The Synoptic Problem and David Alan Black's "Why Four Gospels?"

David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels?  The Historical Origins of the Gospels, Second Edition (Energion, 2001, 2010):  106 pp.

Teaching courses on New Testament Introduction and the Life and Teachings of Jesus has gotten me thinking again about the composition of the four canonical Gospels and especially the perennial question of the literary relationship, if any, among the first three Gospels (the so called “Synoptic Problem”).

For about the first 1800 years of the New Testament canon, most believers and scholars held to the priority of Matthew as the first written Gospel.  The so-called “Augustinian proposal” (so titled since this was the view of Augustine of Hippo) held that the Gospels were composed in the order in which they appear canonically (Matthew-Mark-Luke-John).  In the nineteenth century, the German scholar J. J. Greisbach (1745-1812) proposed that Matthew and Luke were written first and that Mark provided an abbreviated synthesis of both Gospels.  This came to be known as the “Two Gospel” Hypothesis.  Later in the nineteenth century, the “Two Source” Hypothesis was suggested by C. H. Weisse (1838) and crystallized by H. J. Holtzmann (1863).  This theory argued that Mark was the first Gospel and that Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark and a hypothetical sayings document which German critics dubbed “Q.”  The theory was expanded in 1924 by British scholar B. H. Streeter who suggested the so-called “Four Source” Hypothesis:  namely that Matthew and Luke were dependent on Mark, Q, and two other hypothetical sources called M (for special Matthew material) and L (for special Luke material).  The view of Markan priority has come to be the reigning opinion down to the present day in the academy and has even been embraced by most mainstream evangelical scholars (e.g., Craig Blomberg, Robert Stein, Darrell Bock, D. A. Carson, etc.).  There are occasional dissenters to the scholarly orthodoxy.  William R. Farmer, for example, tirelessly attempted to revive the Griesbach (or “Two Gospel”) Hypothesis in the modern era but ultimately failed to overturn Markan priority as the majority opinion. At the least, however, Farmer reminded scholars that Markan priority was only a theory and not an assured fact.

I just finished reading another effort to challenge Markan Priority, as proposed by David Allan Black who teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Black presents his views in Why Four Gospels: The Historical Origins of the Gospels, Second Ed. (Energion, 2001, 2010).  In the preface to his work he notes that he is nearly entirely indebted in his theory of Gospel origins to the work of RC scholar Bernard Orchard (1910-2006) who advocated a variation of the Griebach Hypothesis.  Black dubs this view the “Fourfold Gospel” Hypothesis (based on a reference to the “Fourfold Gospel” in the church father Irenaeus).

Black contends that modern scholars have wrongly jettisoned the external evidence concerning Gospel origins from the early church fathers which strongly support Matthean priority.  He observes, “Today the academic guild, both in Europe and North America, assumes that the patristic evidence is basically legendary and unreliable” (p. 32).  Rather than give credence to external evidence, modern scholars have devoted nearly all their attention to internal evidence (comparing and contrasting the texts of the Synoptic Gospels and attempting to theorize a literary explanation for their origin, sources, and dependence).  The end result, however, has been a decided lack of consensus and clarity.  Black observes:  “But far from achieving their objective in this way, the result of over two hundred years of endeavor has been frustration and stalemate, and not a few critics have come to the conclusion that the problem is insoluble—and so it is [without external evidence]” (pp. 36-37).  He adds, “All that internal literary criticism can do is show how an existing text could have originated in more than one way.  But the decision as to which is the correct way requires the help of history, if it is to be reached at all” (p. 37).

In the end, Black posits a rather detailed theory of Gospel origins which he pieces together from various patristic sources and his own fertile speculations.  He holds that Matthew was written first by the apostle Matthew sometime before 44 A. D., making it among the earliest canonical writings and “the prototype of the gospel genre” (p. 53).  It reflects the views of Jesus held in primitive Jewish Christianity.  The Gospel of Luke was then commissioned by the apostle Paul and the writing entrusted to his associate Luke sometime around 60 A. D. when Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea.  “Under the guidance of Paul and in light of his experience among the Greeks, Luke was able to restate the main teaching of Matthew in a form and style that appealed to the Greek mind and heart” (p. 59).  This theory next holds that Mark was produced in order to synthesize Matthew and Luke and, most importantly, to “provide accreditation for the Gospel of Luke” as a legitimate presentation of the life of Jesus (p. 60).  Black holds that the Gospel of Mark came from a series of lectures given by the apostle Peter in Rome in which he alternated between the texts of Matthew and Luke to synthesize the life of Jesus, with John Mark at his side recording what Peter said.  Black even proposes a historical context for textual confusion regarding the ending of Mark’s Gospel, suggesting that Peter ended his remarks at Mark 16:8, with Mark later adding vv. 9-20 (the traditional ending) to round out the Gospel “as an act of pietas to his old master” (see pp. 66-68).  Black even concludes that this theory explains the traditional canonical location of Mark:  “No wonder that church tradition inserted the Gospel of Mark between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as a reminder that it was the work of Mark recording the oral recommendation of Peter that had made possible the acceptance of Luke’s Gospel on equal terms with Matthew’s in the Christian world without danger of further controversy (cf. 2 Peter 1:1)” (p. 67).  Finally, the fourfold canonical Gospels were completed with the writing of the Gospel of John by the aged apostle and son of Zebedee around the year 96 A. D. in Ephesus.

Black’s theory is highly unlikely to unseat the communis opinio in the mainstream scholarly guild.  Even for those who are willing to give historical credence and weight to the patristic witness on Gospel origins, Black’s speculations go beyond the existing evidence (e.g., his detailed suggestions about the precise number and content of the five hypothetical “lectures” given by Peter in Rome, the role of Mark as Peter’s recorder, his suggestion about how the traditional ending of Mark came to be composed, etc., see pp. 59-69).

Still, Black’s efforts are to be appreciated in several areas.  These include:  First, he rightly challenges the bias of modern mainstream scholarship against traditional, pre-critical views of the canonical Gospels, from issues of traditional authorship to the suggestion of Matthean priority. Second, he rightly points out the lack of consensus and assured results that have been yielded by modern scholarly efforts since the nineteenth century to solve the relationship among the synoptic Gospels based on their proposed literary dependence.  Third, he reminds us that Markan priority remains a theory that has not (and perhaps cannot) be proved based merely on internal evidence.  Markan Priority is not true merely because it is the reigning hypothesis of modern scholarship and the majority view of the academy.



Armand said...

Very interesting!

I have never particularly subscribed to the Markan Priority, simply because, in my own humble studies through gospel texts, Mark seems to "reconcile" what appears, at times, to be discrepancies between Matthew and Luke. It definitely has more of the feel of coming later to, as you say, "synthesize".

Nonetheless, Black's accounts of Peter's lectures and further unfounded details provide a very interesting hypothesis to say the least, and a fun and fanciful tale to say more.

Thanks for sharing.

Pastor Jeff said...


Thanks for your comment. As noted, Markan priority is axiomatic in mainstream NT studies. The assumption of those in the academy is that none of the Gospels is written by their purported authors. They see the Gospels as reflecting more the theology of the "post-Easter" church than the actual life of the historical Jesus. This presupposition means they also must reject any notion that the Gospels might have emerged independently and share the same outline and often verbatim material because they each reflect faithful tradtions about *what Jesus and the disciples actually said and did.* It is the rejection of the historicity of the Gospels that drives the search for literary dependence. Even Black's work, laudable as it is (in the areas I pointed out), is also based on the assumption of the necessity of a literary relationship among the synoptics (one borrowing from another).


Pastor Jeff said...

The original post wrongly identified B. Orchard as an Anglican scholar. He was, in fact, an RC. This error has now been corrected in the text.


Gary said...

Christians should not be surprised that authors of some of the books in the New Testament “plagiarized” the writings of other New Testament authors, ie, the authors of Matthew and Luke copying huge chunks of Mark, often word for word, into their own gospels.

This habit is not new in the Bible. There is evidence that Old Testament writers did the exact same thing. An example: the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!

If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, why would God have the author of one inspired book of the Bible copy almost word for word large sections, sometimes entire chapters, from another inspired book of the Bible? Is that how divine inspiration works?

So should we simply accept this “word for word copying” as the will of the Almighty, accepting it blindly by faith, continuing to insist that God wrote the Bible, or should we consider the overwhelming evidence that the books of the Bible are human works of literature, no more divinely inspired than any other work of fallible human authors?

Pastor Jeff said...


Thanks for your comment though, of course, I am not in agreement with them. Some responses:

1. The idea of literary dependence among the Synoptic Gospels is a theory, not a proven fact and not all hold to it. Some hold to the independent development theory of the gospels.

2. If one Gospel writer did make use of another Gospel (or other sources), this would not be considered "plagiarism" (an obviously pejorative term). In fact, Luke tells his readers from the beginning (see Luke 1:1-4 that he is making use of eyewitness sources. This would have been a perfectly acceptable literary practice of the times.

3. Apply thoughts in #2 to your comments on OT parallels.

4. The Christian view of the Scriptures is that they are both divine (from God; God-breathed) and they have human authors. An analogy can be drawn to the doctrine of the Incarnation: Christians believe Jesus was and is fully God and fully man (fully God without compromising his humanity; fully man without compromising his divinity).

5. We grant that one will not understand the Bible as Scripture unless he is converted (read 1 Corinthians 2:14). If you are not a Christian, then, we are not surprised that you cannot accept the Bible as the Word of God.


Gary said...

Isn't it also possible that the reason you believe that I, as an unbeliever, cannot see the "truth" of the Bible, is because someone long ago invented this idea that only the "insiders" can see the mystical truths of your belief system; "outsiders" will never understand unless they first convert (and submit to the authority of the leadership).

Every cult on the planet uses this line to maintain control over its followers. It is a ruse, Pastor Jeff. If you honestly look at the evidence for Christianity, there is not much there. For instance: the belief in the Resurrection is based on the four Gospels? But who wrote these books and for what purpose. Christianity only has ONE piece of evidence for the traditional authorship of the Gospels: Papias, the mystic.

Pastor Jeff said...


Thanks again for your reply. Again (likely no surprise) I am not in agreement. Responses:

1. You suggest it is "possible" that believers might be wrong. Do you think it is also possible, at least hypothetically, that they might be right? I think you would agree with me that we cannot prove or disprove Christianity. We either believe it or we do not.

2. You suggest that the idea I put forward that only those who are converted can grasp the authority of the Bible is to be attributed to "someone" in the distant past who did so in order to make persons who adopted this view submissive to "the authority of leadership." The quotation I mentioned (1 Cor 2:14) to support this view, in fact, is from the apostle Paul. His conversion to Christianity resulted in severe hardships, personal suffering, imprisonment, and eventually death. He definitely did not adopt Christianity because he was on a power trip and wanted to have authority to manipulate people. How do you explain that?

3. I agree that I cannot give anyone enough "evidence" to convince them of the truth of Christianity. On the other hand, I do not think you can give me adequate "evidence" not to believe. We do not become believers or unbelievers based merely on evidence. For one thing this is logically impossible because none of us can have an infinite amount of knowledge in order to make adequate judgments on all evidences.

4. To clarify: The resurrection is not merely taught in the four Gospels. It is also found in the rest of the NT (e.g., Paul's letters: see 1 Corinthians 15). Christians believe in the resurrection because of the total witness of the Christian revelation to it.

5. To clarify: I do not understand the Papias comment. The argument for traditional authorship is not based primarily (or exclusively, as you erroneously imply) on the citation of Papias in Eusebius. Traditional authorship can be traced foundationally to the ancient titles which adorn the oldest copies we have of the Gospels (e.g., to euangelion kata _____; the gospel according to _____). As regards early Christian writings, beyond Papias, we have references to traditional authorship in other Fathers (e.g., Irenaeus, The Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Augustine, etc.).

Again thanks, JTR

Gary said...

Thank you for the detailed reply, Pastor.

1. Yes, it is possible that the supernatural claims of the Bible are true. Anything is possible. The question is, what is probable? The supernatural is the least of all probabilities. So to believe a supernatural claim, which is the least likely of all possible explanations, most people would require a higher standard of evidence to believe it. For instance, if you told me that you saw a 1962 Chevy on the interstate yesterday, I would take your word for it. However, if you told me that you saw a Martian space ship on the interstate yesterday, I would demand more evidence than just your word.

So if someone claims that a first century dead man walked out of his grave, ate lunch with his friends, and then teleported into outer space, I need more evidence than just Paul saying he saw a talking, bright light on the Damascus Road in a "heavenly vision". or the brief statements by Papias that someone told him that John Mark had written an (unidentified) gospel.

Yes, several Church Fathers in the early second century refer to passages in the Gospels, however, they do NOT mention the authorship of these gospels until in the late second century with Irenaeus and the Moratorian fragment.

I am not questioning the existence of the gospels in the second or first century. I am questioning who wrote them, specifically, do we have evidence that they were written by eyewitnesses to the supernatural claim of a resurrection. Just because Clement quotes from a gospel does not mean that Clement knew who wrote the gospel.

Pastor Jeff said...

Again thanks Gary.


1. On possibility/probability. It seems to me that if you exclude the supernatural from the outset then, of course, you will reject the supernatural aspects/claims of the Bible (cf.the rationalists of the Enlightenment). If you entertain the possibility of the miraculous, however, then you are at least open to the Biblical claims. That they would be unlike natural events (things that usually happen) would be a given. This is why they are miracles. This also spoils the whole conversation about "probability." The question is whether or not--given the category of miracle--the descriptions seem in any way reasonable. As for the resurrection, for example, why do all four Gospels record women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb? Given the first century view of women, why would early Christians have fabricated this, unless it really happened? Another example relating to the resurrection: In 1 Corinthians 15:6 Paul refers to Jesus appearing to 500 brothers at one time and he adds that most of them are still alive at the time of his writing. How and why would he make such a claim that would be easily falsifiable if incorrect? See the German scholar Wolfhart Pannenberg who sees this as the strongest Christians argument for the historicity of the resurrection.

2. Back to traditional authorship: I see that you did not address the issue of the ancient titles which appear in our earliest mss of the Gospels (the papyri). You do seem to concede that Papias is not the only Father to support traditional authorship (btw, Irenaeus is dated to c. 200 and Clement does not just quote from the Gospels but identifies the traditional authors). In fact, the challenging of traditional authorship is a relatively novel notion, only dating to the Enlightenment.


Gary said...

Regarding your discussion on probability: I disagree that when discussing the supernatural we cannot discuss the probability of the supernatural. Your argument is based on the assumption that the supernatural event DID occur, and therefore probability is of no value.

When I discuss supernatural claims and probability, what I am saying is that when an event occurs for which we have no ready explanation, a supernatural explanation is the LAST explanation that most people would jump to. I will bet that for most events in life, this rule holds true even for you, Pastor.

Here's an example: Let's say that you wake up tomorrow morning and cannot find your car keys. Would the first explanation to pop into your mind for the absence of your car keys that be that an evil demon has spirited away (stolen) your keys in the middle of the night?

I doubt it.

I would bet that the explanation that would come to your mind and the mind of every other person living in the civilized western world would be:

1. You misplaced your keys the night before.
2. Your wife moved your keys.
3. Your children moved your keys.
4. Your dog moved your keys.

I bet that if all the above failed, you might even entertain the possibility that a their crept into your house the night before and stole your keys. I very seriously doubt that you would ever claim that an evil demon stole your keys.

However, when it comes to the Resurrection of Jesus, this is exactly what Christians want us to do! They want us to jump to the supernatural explanation before considering the other much more probable explanations, such as:

-Joseph of Armithea only buried Jesus in his tomb until the end of Passover. As soon as Passover ended (Saturday at sundown), he had his servants remove the body and place it in a common criminal's grave, as was the custom. This had been arranged with Pilate when he asked for the body.

-The statement is only one gospel that there were Roman guards is a later scribe addition. There were no guards. Grave robbers stole the body.

-Some of Jesus family members took his body in the middle of the night and reburied him in Galilee. (no guards present)

-Pilate changed his mind about letting the executed "King of the Jews" have a decent burial. In the middle of the night, he ordered his soldiers to take Jesus body and dump it into a ditch.

-There never was a tomb. It was a later embellishment to the story. This embellishment started in far off Rome and did not appear in any Christian writings until all the witnesses to the crucifixion were dead. Jesus' body was taken off the cross by the Romans and tossed into a common, unmarked grave with the two thieves.

Any of the possible explanations are more probably than that a dead man was reanimated, walked out of his grave, ate lunch with his friends, and teleported into outer space.

That is my point. You wouldn't jump to a supernatural explanation in the case of your missing keys, why jump to a supernatural explanation for the second scenario?

Pastor Jeff said...


First, sorry to be so long in posting your comment. I overlooked it, got busy with other things, and just rediscovered it this am when doing some blog maintenance and checking my comments log. I wish I did not have to moderate comments, but it is a necessity.


My whole point regarding "probability" is that since miracles are, by definition, extra-ordinary events, they cannot cannot be evaluated according to what ordinarily happens. Probability governs ordinary experiences not extra-ordinary ones. Thus, the lost car keys analogy breaks down. I might lose my car keys from time to time. The disciples, no doubt, experienced similar ordinary events. They had never, however, seen someone they knew to be dead who had experienced the resurrection.

As for your comments on the Gospel resurrection accounts, here are a few replies:

1. You offer a variety of naturalistic explanations to explain the resurrection as an ordinary event. This is really nothing new. Matthew records an anticipation of the "disciples stole the body" theory (see Matt 27:64). Odd isn't it that Matthew is not afraid to share this denial? Such views have, of course, been widely popularized ever since the publication of Reimarus' "Fragments." You essentially ask that I believe your explanations of what happened rather than the explanation of the early Christians. Why should I trust your authority over theirs? They were eyewitnesses. They were willing to die for what they believed. No offense, but I take their word over yours.

2. You mention the guards being only in one Gospel (Matthew). In fact, each Gospel records unique ancillary details while agreeing in the main narrative. They do not claim to be exhaustive (see e.g., John 20:30; 21:25). Just because a detail is only recorded in only one Gospel does not mean it did not occur.

3. You appear to have bought in heavily to 19th century form and redaction criticism that dates the Gospels as late and sees the material as fabricated and non-historical. May I suggest something to read as a counter-balance to such thinking: Richard Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses." I very often read the works of modern historical critics with whom, as a traditional Christian, I strongly disagree.I hope you agree that we should be open-minded when approaching this topic.