Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jordan's Hypothesis: The Real Solution To The Synoptic Problem


If you don't know anything about the Synoptic Problem, please click here to read a post that will give you enough information to get the joke.

My junior year, that is, my first year of seminary I shared an apartment with a a fellow student, a young man my own age, named Jordan Scharf. Jordan was intelligent, articulate, and witty.

He was my friend.

I was studying for a Master of Divinity, a professional degree. Jordan was going for a Master of Theology, an academic degree, a step toward a doctorate. As I recall, his thesis was to be something about the theologian Tielhard de Chardin. Jordan seemed destined for academic greatness.

Unfortunately, at the end of our first year of school, my friend was diagnosed with leukemia. His doctors treated the disease aggressively. Jordan went in and out of remission. He was able to return to school for a short time, but after a two year struggle, my friend succumbed to the illness. I think it was 1982, when Jordan was about 25 years old, that he died.

Okay. That's not the funny part.

Jordan once shared with me his "solution" to the Synoptic Problem. I thought it was funny, have always remembered it, and have shared it many times. Recently, when Joel Watts posted a humorous video extolling the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Hypothesis at his Unsettled Christianity blog. I replied by posting Jordan's Hypothesis:

The Gospel of Mark was the first draft of a doctoral candidate’s dissertation. He submitted it to his advisor who suggested the need for more background information about Jesus’ birth, maybe some more teaching material, and a stronger ending. The student rewrote his dissertation and submitted the Gospel of Matthew.

His advisor thought the revision was much stronger but felt that the teaching material should be better integrated into the narrative, thought a story about Jesus’ youth might be helpful, and suggested that the genealogy could be expanded back to Adam, etc. The PhD candidate did another major revision and produced the Gospel of Luke.

Once again the advisor was critical and asked for major revisions. Frustrated, the student took drugs and wrote the Gospel of John.

Not surprisingly, Joel liked this bit of theological geek humor. He asked if he could publish it on his blog, and so it got a post of its own which drew a comment from none other than Mark Goodacre, the third name in the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Hypothesis.

Then Dr. James McGrath picked it up and posted it on his Exploring Our Matrix blog. I've also found it on Dr. Platypus's blog.

Now, Joel has asked permission to possibly use Jordan's Hypothesis in his book. (As if permission were mine to give). This means that three decades after his untimely death, my roommate may actually be cited in a scholarly publication.


Anything clever or funny about my quotation of Jordan's "Hypothesis" owes directly to him. Any lapses of grammar or errors of fact are strictly my own. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Synoptic Problem


The word "synoptic" comes from the Greek and literally means "seen together." The Books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "Synoptic Gospels" because they contain much of the same material and largely follow the same outline. They can be laid out in parallel columns for comparison and study. These three Gospels can be seen together.

The Gospel of John goes its own way. It is made up mostly of unique material and doesn't lend itself easily to comparison with the other Gospels.

The Gospel of Matthew contains roughly 90% of the Gospel of Mark. Luke contains a little more than 50% of the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke also have some material, mostly teachings of Jesus, in common that is not found in Mark. All of the synoptics have some material found in none of the others.

The "Synoptic Problem," as scholars call it, is the question of just how these three Gospels are related.

The most commonly held solution to the Synoptic Problem is the so-called "Two Document Hypothesis." This theory postulates that Mark was written first. Matthew and Luke both had copies of Mark which they used as one source for their own writings. Matthew and Luke also had another common source, a hypothetical, probably written, collection of sayings that scholars call "Q."

The designation "Q" probably comes from quelle, a German word meaning "source." The simplest definition of "Q" is material found in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but not in Mark.

So, the Two Document Hypothesis holds that Matthew and Luke, working independently, both used Mark and the hypothetical Q  as sources for their own Gospels. They also included a certain amount of their own material, referred to as "M" for Matthew, and "L" for Luke.  The Two Source Hypothesis is often illustrated with a diagram like this one:

Although the existence of Q is strictly hypothetical, the International Q Project, a group of notable New Testament scholars, worked to reconstruct its text as nearly as possible. Using their knowledge of how Matthew and Luke used Mark, they built what they believe to be the nearest possible approximation of what an actual Q source would have looked like. Based on this work, some scholars claim to have found two (or is it three?) layers of tradition in the Q material and have even proposed a structure for what the community that produced Q would have looked like. It is fascinating work (at least to a New Testament geek like me) but seems an elaborate structure to build on the shaky foundation of a hypothetical document.

There are other possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem.  The strongest contender is the "Farrer Hypothesis" (also known as the "Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Hypothesis" after some of the prominent scholars who have championed it). The Farrer Hypothesis does away with the need for hypothetical sources. In this scenario Mark was written first, Matthew expanded upon Mark, and Luke was written using both Mark and Matthew as sources.

Other possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem have been proposed, but the Two Document Hypothesis and the Farrer Hypothesis have the best scholarly support. There are also highly nuanced variations of these two hypotheses.

As a student of the Bible, I find all of this quite fascinating. As a preacher, I am less concerned with the solution to the Synoptic Problem than its very existence. Paying attention to the way that Matthew, Mark, and Luke handle the same material helps me better understand what each author is trying to say. Understanding a text is a necessary step before proclaiming it.

Coming soon: The Real Solution to the Synoptic Problem. I found the illustration of the Two Document Hypothesis at this website.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Adam and Eve and the Cat in the Hat


When I was young, one of my favorite books told a story about a cat, an anthropomorphic cat, about the size of an adult human. This cat walked upright, carried an umbrella, and wore a red-and-white striped top hat.

In the story, the cat shows up unexpectedly to torment a pair of human children who are home alone while their mother is away. The cat's mischief causes mayhem and consternation for the youngsters. Somehow, by the story's end, the cat manages to clean up the mess it has made and beat a hasty retreat just as the children's mother returns.

The story also features a talking goldfish.

I'm sure you recognize the book I'm talking about as Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. It's a great book. It is not only highly entertaining, it also teaches some valuable life lessons. It is not, however, factual.

I think that even at age five or six I would have laughed out loud at anyone who dared suggest that the events of this story had actually occurred. It is not that kind of book.

Another favorite book from my childhood tells the story of a man and a woman who live a harmonious life together in a beautiful garden. There they enjoy a close relationship to the God who created them. They are innocently, naively, naked.

One day, when God is away from the garden, a talking snake happens along. The snake's mischief causes mayhem and consternation for the couple. Did I mention that this snake apparently has legs? Unlike the Cat in the Hat, the snake doesn't clean up after itself, and by the time God gets back to the garden, everything has gone to hell.

This is, of course, the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis. It, too, is a great story and highly entertaining. Beside this, it teaches some valuable life lessons. Perhaps most importantly, it describes the nature of our life in this beautiful, broken world.

Describes, not explains.

Some Christians insist that the story, because it is in the Bible, must be factual. This overlooks the fact that the Bible contains many different genres of literature, sometimes within the same book.

Last month, in this post at the Slacktivist blog, Fred Clark had a pointed reply to those who would read such a story literally:

Seriously, people, it’s a story. If you don’t know how to read stories, then you don’t know how to read.

If you don’t know how to read stories, then you become the literacy equivalent of that person who never lets you finish a joke because they’re always interrupting with irrelevant questions and thinking they’re particularly clever for pointing out that a bar stool probably couldn’t support the weight of a gorilla.

 I sometimes encounter Christians who say that the story of Adam and Eve must be factual because, without a real Adam, there is no need for a Savior. This is wrongheaded thinking. For humankind to need a Savior, Adam does not need to have been real. Only sin needs to be real.

 A talking snake with legs!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

I Don't Write All The Good Stuff

Clint has a good post titled "If It Weren't For The Bible I'd Give Up On The Bible" over at his blog Lutheran Confessions.

Seriously, if this is all the bible does, all it is good for, if this is how the average non-Christian experiences the bible as it is used in Christian community or quasi-Christian culture, then I want nothing to do with it. I'd rather leave the bible dusty and aging on the shelves it typically occupies, and move on. At this point I sympathize more with the agnostics, atheists, and post-religious.

What pulls me back from the precipice: The bible is just so damn interesting.

Read it all here.