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.