Friday, April 4, 2008

Why the Synoptic Problem can't be solved

Mark Goodacre has posted a link to the upcoming Oxford conference on the Synoptic Problem. There appears to me to be a great line up of scholars, and some very excellent papers. I am particularly happy to see that Alan Kirk is going to be there and shed some light on the issue of scribal practices and ancient composition. I am also pleased that Peter Head is going to carry on with the issues of textual criticism. Both of these areas represent, in my opinion, the future of synoptic studies.

Which takes me to the point of this blog post - that the Synoptic Problem is unresolvable. Whatever solution is posed will always be a hypothesis, and there will always be problems with it. Why? Because we don't have first century manuscripts of our gospels let alone autographs. And the transmission process of this material involved more than simple copying. It was creative reperformance and this means that it relied on human memory - whether we are talking about oral transmission or written.

To put it plainly, we have no idea what the Gospel of Mark actually said in the first century, or the Gospels of Luke or Matthew. We might act like we do. But the truth is we don't. Our manuscript tradition is at best 3rd century, and variable particularly by geographic locations. To be honest, I don't even know where Mark was written, although I can make a fairly educated guess. Textual criticism has created a wonderful eclectic Greek text for all of us to use. But it isn't what Mark wrote. It isn't what Matthew wrote. And it isn't what Luke wrote. How we should handle this fact as a guild has yet to be worked out with any satisfaction. I think we mostly ignore it because dealing with the manuscript tradition is, well, just too complicated.

But this we know. The early Christians, consciously and unconsciously were adjusting and even editing their gospels in this time period. One of the things that they were doing is harmonizing the stories. This isn't just the operation of scribes doing so deliberately. It is also the function of human memory which tends to recall things through what the mind already knows. So if a person knows a particular version of a story, and he or she learns a new version, the new version is going to be recast in light of the old.

At some point, I think it is going to be necessary for those people who work on the Synoptic Problem to deal with these two issues. By this I mean, not gloss over them, not give them lip service, but really face them and try to figure out what that means when we are trying to understand first century composition of our gospels. It is my sincere hope that whatever else comes out of the Oxford lineup, this will.


José Solano said...

But isn’t this the case with all ancient literature and that the situation is actually far better with the New Testament manuscripts which allow us to reconstruct an amazingly accurate copy based on a wide range of manuscripts from many different places and times?

April DeConick said...

I suppose there are different ways to look at this, as with most anything. But the point of frustration for me as a NT and Christian Origins scholar is that I don't have a version of these texts that is first century.

By the second century though I know from the patristic literature that various versions of Paul's letters and the gospel stories were already roaming around the churches - and that the Christians were editing these things at will. We don't have manuscripts this early to know who was editing what or what was being edited. As a historian who needs to know what the first century texts looked like, this makes me uneasy.

So I really don't know, for instance, if the first collection of Paul's letters that we have from the late second century is a manuscript that reflects some of Marcion's changes or not; or orthodox changes to counter Marcion. Who knows really. I once had a teacher who was a Marcion specialist and he used to warn us about this all the time. How do we know that the letters we are reading today in manuscript may not reflect some of the editorial decisions of Marcion? We don't.

José Solano said...

It would be absolutely wonderful to have some 1st century New Testament manuscripts and I keep hoping that something will turn up. As I fully trust the Canon we have today I would actually prefer finding a lost letter from Paul of which there were probably many.

Now, the Isaiah scrolls from Qumran range in dates from 335-324 BC to 202-107 BC yet I understand the Great Isaiah Scroll is almost identical to the most recent manuscript version of the Masoretic text from the 900's AD. That’s pretty astounding.

Based on the amazing manuscript corroboration we find for the New Testament I would certainly be willing to give odds of 100 to one or better that any authentic New Testament manuscript found from the 1st century would fully support what we have today with very minor spelling or tense-oriented scribal errors. I suppose a good statistician could probably greatly increase those odds.

Rob G. Reid said...

Dr. DeConick,

Thanks for your honesty. In the time I have spent working with a very active practicing text critic, though he would not agree, I think your statements resonate most with my own as to the present state of knowledge in light of the MSS evidence. That is, the synoptic problem will never materialize beyond a theory, the multiform issues converging in the manuscript traditions simply prevent the type of knowledge often tacitly assumed, even by those who know better. Moreover, the looming question is that, supposing Lk and Mt used Mrk, at which stage in the transmission history did each acquire the Mrk text? If such is even the case!

Nevertheless, I am glad to have found your blog now; I plan to continue to follow up on your future posts.