Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Synoptic Problem: Part 2 Development of the Synoptic Gospels

Development of the Synoptic Gospels
            In what has become known as the prologue of Luke’s Gospel, the author describes the process by which he gathered the material for his Gospel.  First, he mentions eyewitnesses who passed down their accounts to him and others.  Second, he mentions the writers who had drawn up an account of the things that had occurred.  Finally, he mentions his own research in writing an orderly account.  Lea and Black believe these three stages refer to the period of oral tradition, the period of written sources, and the period of final composition[1].  Additionally, a brief review of a more modern critical approach to the Gospels is called literary criticism is in order.
Oral Tradition: Form Criticism
Imagine those first Christians who had the opportunity to actually hear Jesus teach.  Imagine having the opportunity to talk with Lazarus in person.  In the period immediately following Christ’s ascension, there were thousands of people who had the opportunity to see Jesus in person, hear Him preach and teach, and talk directly with those on whom Christ performed the miracles that are documented in the Gospels.  The accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were initially passed on to others orally though it is likely that some began taking notes during his ministry much like students do today.  The Apostle Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 15: 3 (For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures[2]) refers to oral tradition.  The study of this period of Gospel transmission involves the discipline of form criticism which studies the first stage, oral transmission, in the process of writing the Gospels[3]
            Form criticism was initially used by Scandinavian scholars in their study of the Old Testament[4].  The forms included paradigms, tales, legends, myths, and exhortations[5].  Form criticism focused on the characteristics of various things such as the miracle stories or certain kinds parables in order to infer the history of the Christian communities that either shaped the material or even called it into being[6].  Many form critics believed that the Gospels were the work of the early church which had embellished the original records of the life of Christ and whose writers were nothing more than editors who pieced the fragmentary writings together[7].  Lea and Black take a softer stance simply stating that many form critics are skeptical of the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels though form criticism need not conclude with judgment about the historical accuracy of the Gospels[8].  Chafer rightly pointed out that the findings of archeology have gone a long way as a demonstration of the fact of Biblical accuracy and that he believed this would likely continue[9].  By all accounts of which I am aware, Chafer’s belief has proven to be well-founded. 
Written Sources: Source Criticism
            As mentioned previously, some written material containing the accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus must have come into existence even during the oral period of Gospel transmission.  With the passage of time, the eyewitnesses and Apostles age and pass away, the need for a written record of events must have become increasingly apparent to the leaders of the early church.  Source criticism attempts to identify the sources used in writing the Synoptic Gospels and identify their relationships to the Gospels. 
            Source criticism has given rise to a number of theory about the origins of the Gospels including the two gospel hypothesis, the two-source hypothesis, a modified version called four-source, and even brought into question a source that has since been lost.  These proposed solutions as well as others will be discussed in some detail later.  I must agree with Paul Enns in finding two issues with source criticism[10].  First, source criticism seems to ignore divine inspiration completely.  Second, it appears to be firmly rooted in conjecture providing no documentation of underlying sources.
Final Composition: redaction Criticism
            Where form criticism focuses on the oral transmission of the Gospels and source criticism focuses on the written material the Gospel writers used, redaction criticism focuses on the activity of the author[11] in terms of their editorial work while compiling the final versions of their respective Gospels.  This very much casts the writer not only in the role of historian but also in that of a theologian in the modification, composition, and creation of tradition[12].  Redaction critics insist that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels changed and modified their writings to introduce their own points of view and add special emphases.  The redaction critic studies these changes in emphasis and then attempts to determine the setting in which the author wrote their respective Gospels.
            Often redaction critics assume that the changes made by the Gospel authors are theologically motivated.  Carson and Moo point out that while many of these changes may be so motivated, many may be stylistic in nature[13].  In other instances, major additions could be due to historical interests rather than theological concerns.  Like form criticism, redaction criticism has earned a reputation for being a critical method that attacks the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts.  It should be pointed out that simply because some choose to pursue redaction criticism in such a way does not mean that redaction criticism is itself anti-historical.
Contemporary Scholarship: Literary Criticism
            The simplest definition of literary criticism is that it concentrates on studying the text “as it is” rather than focusing on the prehistory of the Synoptic Gospels to help illuminate the meaning of the text.  Most literary critics assumes that the Gospels are in their fixed canonical form  and is not so interested in the process by which the Gospels came to be that way though that is certainly not true of all literary critics[14].
            The literary critic has a valid concern: study of the Gospels has been so focused on the history of the tradition that the Gospels themselves become lost to sight.  Perhaps a better to state this is that other forms of criticism can no longer see the forest for the trees.  Literary criticism has also brought welcome clarity to the way various parts of the Gospels function within the larger literary unit.  That being said, literary criticism is not without issues.
            Many literary critics do not seek to locate the meaning of the author but rather seek meaning in the text itself.  This effectively separates the text from the author leaving the reader to set the context for interpretation for himself.  When literary critics abandon the concept of the author’s meaning, their own subjectivity is left to define the meaning of the text.  Other problems arise from categories of interpretation that are derived from modern literature such as the novel[15].  Similar to other critical approaches, this fails to take inspiration of scripture into account.
            A review of form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism and literary criticism explains a great deal about the current notions of how the Synoptic Gospels came to be in our possession in their current form. Each form of criticism has positive aspects and each has problems.  The more liberal the uses of these methods the more problems arise.  Conservative literary criticism in conjunction with the other critical methods mentioned will most likely yield the clearest understanding of the Synoptic Gospels.  Seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit while seeking a deeper understanding of God’s word will profit one even more.

[1] Lea and Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (2nd ed) (Nashville: Broadman & Hollman Publishers, 2003, pp. 113-127).
[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. (LaHabra: The Lockman Foundation, 1995, S. 1 Co 15:3)
[3] Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament: It's Background And Message (2nd ed). Nashville: Broadman & Hollman Publishers, 2003.
[4] IBID
[5] Drane, John. Introducing the New Testament. (Oxford: Lion Publishing PLC, 1999, pp. 182-195).  Drane’s discussion of the various forms used in form criticism is quite useful in understanding the differing approaches to form criticism.  Drane points out that no single approach can answer the questions about the writing of the Gospels.
[6] Carson, D A, and Douglas J Moo. An Introduction To The New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, pp. 77-284).
[7]Enns, Paul P.: The Moody Handbook of Theology. (Chicago, Ill. : Moody Press, 1997, c1989, S. pp. 576)
[8] Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament: It's Background And Message (2nd ed). Nashville: Broadman & Hollman Publishers, 2003.

[9] Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology, Vols. 1 & 2. (Grand Rapids: Kregal Pub., 1948, 1976, pp. 61-88).
[10] Enns, Paul P.: The Moody Handbook of Theology. (Chicago, Ill. : Moody Press, 1997, c1989)
[11] Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament: It's Background And Message (2nd ed). Nashville: Broadman & Hollman Publishers, 2003.
[12] Enns, Paul P.: The Moody Handbook of Theology. (Chicago, Ill. : Moody Press, 1997, c1989)
[13] Carson, D A, and Douglas J Moo. An Introduction To The New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, pp. 77-284).  Carson and Moo go on to discuss the fact that identifying the particular setting of a specific gospel based on his theology is far more specific than the available data allow.  And like other forms of criticism, the historical trustworthiness of the Gospel material is called into question but in the case of the redaction critic, they assume that the Gospel authors had little concern for historical accuracy.  Further, many redaction critics wrongly assume that the Gospel writers could not be both theologically motivated and historically accurate.  Such an assumption, based on little more than conjecture, is unwise.
[14] Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament: It's Background And Message (2nd ed). Nashville: Broadman & Hollman Publishers, 2003.
[15] IBID


Allen Thomson said...

When Paul says, "according to the Scriptures", do we have any indication of what, specifically, he was talking about? Matthew is explicit about OT typology in several cases -- is there any information whether Paul was talking about the same passages?

Chris Sanchez said...


I am unaware of a specific instance where Paul refers to the same passages of OT Scripture as Peter used but it is certainly possible. Paul, having been a Pharisee, would have been much better educated in the Hebrew Scriptures than Peter.