Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book Review of The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel Part 9: My explanation of the Synoptic Problem and the Q Hypothesis

See Part 1 General Comments

            Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic Gospels, because they all present a similar view of Jesus’s life and ministry.  (This is in contrast to the Gospel of John, who presents a much different view.  I’ll write about the problems between John and the synoptics in the next section.)

            However, careful analysis of the synoptic Gospels shows that not only do they have the same view points, but the synoptic Gospels are word for word identical for much of the time.
            This means that they aren’t 3 independent accounts.  Someone was obviously copying from someone else.

            Bart Ehrman, in his lectures on the New Testament, says that he often has trouble making his students believe that 3 independent accounts cannot by coincidence alone produce passages that are word-for-word exactly the same.  So he says he does an exercise where he walks into class and rearranges things on his desk for 5 minutes without saying anything.  Then he has everyone in the class write down a description of what has happened, and afterwards the class compares to see if anyone produced sentences exactly the same as someone else.  Inevitably, there are no exact duplicates of sentences.  “So,” Ehrman asks, “if you find a group of documents that were written many years after the event, and they all had sentences that were word for word exactly the same, what would this tell you?”  At this point, Ehrman claims, someone in the class will usually yell out, “It’s a miracle.”
            Well, says Ehrman, those are our two options.  Either the synoptic Gospels were copied from each other, or else there was some sort of divine miracle that caused them to be word-for-word the same at certain passages.  However, Ehrman adds, if you assume a divine miracle for the passages that are the same, then you are going to have trouble explaining the contradictions in passages that are different.  As I’ve mentioned in part 4, a certain amount of discrepancy might be excusable in human eyewitnesses, but in divine revelation it doesn’t make sense that God is always contradicting himself.

            So, if the synoptic Gospels are copied from each other, then which one is the original, and which two are the copies?

            Scholars have generally assumed that Mark is the original, because the Gospel of Mark is the shortest, and Matthew and Luke both contain most of the material that is in Mark, plus their own substantial additions.  Scholars assume that it is more likely that Matthew and Luke would be adding material to their source material, and less likely that Mark’s Gospel would be deleting material from his source material. 
            This is problematic for Church tradition, because Church tradition says that Matthew wrote his Gospel first.  In order to try to preserve this Church tradition, at one time there used to be a theory that Matthew could have written his gospel first, and then Mark wrote his gospel which was intended as a short summary of Matthew.  But that doesn’t really make sense for a whole bunch of technical linguistic reasons.  For example, Matthew seems to be correcting factual mistakes in Mark, or fixing the grammar, or getting rid of the redundancies.   It makes sense that Matthew would be trying to improve on the original material that he was using as a source but it doesn’t make sense that Mark would be taking Matthew’s account and adding mistakes or deliberately sabotaging the grammar, or adding in redundancies.
            This is just a very brief summary of the issue.  Whole books are written on the synoptic issue, so for more hard hitting analysis of the technical side of it see HERE, HERE, or HERE.

            Moreover, whenever Matthew and Luke can both use Mark as a source, they tell the same story (with occasionally some added minor details or changes).  But when Matthew and Luke are writing stories for which they can not go to Mark as a common source, then they contradict each other wildly.
            For example, there is nothing written in Mark’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus.  (Mark’s Gospel just starts when Jesus is already an adult.)  So Matthew and Luke have no common source for the birth stories, and have to make up the stories on their own.
            In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary start by living in Bethlehem, then have to flee to Egypt when Herod kills all the newborn baby boys.  Then later, after Herod dies, they return from Egypt, but are warned in a dream not to go back to Bethlehem so they resettle in Nazareth instead.
            In Luke, Mary and Joseph start by living in Nazareth, but then there is some sort of strange census which for some reason requires everyone to go back to their ancestral town, so they go down to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, and then return to their home in Nazareth after the birth.
            (Sidenote: The details of either birth story, by the way, are not supported by history.  We have no record of Herod killing all the newborn baby boys in Bethlehem, or of this Empire-wide Roman census that required everyone to go back to their ancestral towns.  It appears Matthew and Luke are just making their stories up.  Both seem to be trying, in separate ways, to get around an awkward problem: Jesus was well known to have been from Nazareth but the prophesies predicted the Messiah would from Bethlehem.  So how to explain that Jesus was born in Bethlehem even though he was from Nazareth?)

            Another example is that in Mark, in its original form, Jesus never appears to anyone after the resurrection.  (Mark 16:9-20 was added much later.  This should be footnoted in your Bible).  In Mark as it was originally written, the women see the empty tomb, they run away, and then the Gospel just ends there, and Jesus never makes any appearances after his death. 
            So Matthew and Luke, when they were writing their Gospels, could copy from Mark only up to the point of the empty tomb story, but then after the empty tomb, they were left on their own to write the stories of the resurrected Jesus’s appearance to the disciples, and for this section they again contradict each other wildly.  In fact, they contradict each other on just about every point that it’s possible to contradict on.
            In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are told that Jesus has been resurrected, and to prove it he will meet them in Galilee.  So they all trudge all the way out to Galilee (the Gospel says many of them were still skeptical that Jesus had risen, but they went out to Galilee anyway) where Jesus met them.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples while they are still in Jerusalem, and then leads them out to Bethany, where he ascends into heaven from there.  In Acts (which is written by the same author as Luke) the disciples are explicitly told not to leave Jerusalem until they receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
            Unless you assume Mark was the first Gospel, it doesn’t make sense that Matthew and Luke would both follow Mark for the points that Mark had written on, but then go off on completely different stories at precisely the points on which Mark is silent.

            Now again, none of this is crazy left-wing scholarship.  All of this was explained to me in my religion 101 class at my conservative Christian college.  I remember this lecture very well, because I remember at this point getting very confused, and I raised my hand and asked, “But, wasn’t Matthew an eyewitness?”
            “Exactly!” the professor responded.  “So why would Matthew, who was an eyewitness, be copying down from John Mark, who wasn’t even there?  This is one of the reasons scholars think the Gospel of Matthew wasn’t actually written by Matthew.” 
            The professor then went on to explain some of the other reasons why scholars don’t think the Gospels were written by their traditional authors.

The Q Hypothesis
          There are sections of Matthew and Luke which are word for word the same, but do not appear in Mark.  More specifically, there are a number of sayings of Jesus which are word for word the same, and which furthermore appear in the same order in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.
            Once again, note that this could not have been from coincidence.  They had to be copying from somewhere.
            So, since these passages are not in Mark, is Matthew copying from Luke or is Luke copying from Matthew?
            Well, probably neither.  Or at least if the author of Matthew knew about Luke, or vice-versa, then he obviously didn’t trust him above half.  Remember in the places where Mark is not a common source—the birth narratives and the resurrection appearances—Matthew and Luke tell completely different stories which contradict each other on everything.  So if somehow the author of Luke knew about Matthew, he obviously didn’t trust anything Matthew had to say about the birth of Christ or the resurrection.
            So since the authors of the Gospels Matthew and Luke either didn’t know each other, or mistrusted each other, it is hypothesized by scholars that there must have been some collections of sayings of Jesus (so named as the “Q” source) which both Matthew and Luke were copying from, and which has since been lost to history.
            This is another reason why it is problematic to claim that Matthew’s Gospel is direct eye-witness testimony.  The author of Matthew is apparently copying straight out of the Q source, and we don’t even know who wrote the Q source, or how reliable it is.  Did an eyewitness write Q?  Is it a collected oral tradition?  Or did someone somewhere just make it up?  Scholarship has no idea, and church tradition is entirely silent on the issue.

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