Did Luke Solve the Synoptic Problem? image

Did Luke Solve the Synoptic Problem?

Biblical Studies research seminars can tend towards the obscure. But the session I've just come out of, which zeroed in on a Bivariate Binary Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels, was more obscure than most. The basic idea was that, by doing statistical analysis, we might be able to work out whether Matthew's use of Mark was independent of Luke's use of Mark (assuming, for now, that both Matthew and Luke used Mark). The very, very tentative answer is no: Matthew and Luke were probably not using Mark independently from one another. There. I've saved you two hours.

There was, however, a fascinating proposal to come out of an otherwise fairly dense seminar. It came when Professor Joan Taylor suggested that Luke might have solved the synoptic problem for us.

The premise of most discussions of the synoptic problem, you see, is that we have three main written sources (Matthew, Mark and Luke), plus a hypothetical written source that we no longer have (called Q), plus various oral traditions - and the four written sources (if Q existed) are somehow related. (Recent work by scholars like Francis Watson and Mark Goodacre is challenging this consensus, by the way, but it still represents the mainstream). This prompts all sorts of puzzles: why do Matthew and Luke change the text of Mark so much? Why do they change it in similar, but not identical, ways? Why does Luke leave out a huge chunk of Mark (the “great omission”), but Matthew doesn’t? Was there an early version of Mark, now lost, which contained a fuller resurrection account but not the chapters that Luke omitted? Did Luke even use John? And so on.

But Joan, in a crazy and radical move, went back to the start of Luke itself. She pointed out that Luke, by his own admission, was aware of “many” written narratives of the life of Jesus, and that there were probably all sorts of written sources floating around, many of which were available to Luke, and only a handful of which we still have today. Here’s how Luke begins:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (1:1-4)

As such, Luke may have had Mark, Matthew, John, Q, R, S, T, U, V and W to draw on. This pretty much scuppers any detailed attempt to reconstruct who read what and when, which makes it a huge problem for a certain type of biblical scholar, but it does have the significant merit of taking seriously what Luke himself says. And I can’t help feeling there would be an amusing irony to the people who know the text of scripture the best, and pontificate about its origins the most, having had the answer we were looking for sitting right under our noses. Worryingly like the Judeans in John 5, that.

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