Markus Vinzent's Blog

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

A paradigm shifting hypothesis on the Synoptic Problem

Although still a working hypothesis - the progress that I am making on my detailed synoptic commentary on Marcion's Gospel has given me confidence, in suggesting the following preliminary hypothesis which I am setting out here below.

Let me, first, give two summaries of paradigms from the hand of my revered colleague and friend, the late Michael D. Goulder, before I set out the hypothesis of the new paradigm.
Only a few years ago, in the mid-eighties, Goulder summarized ‘the standard position’ to contrast it with his own revolutionary ‘alternative’:

1.       Some parts of all our major Gospel traditions go back to the events and words of Jesus’ lifetime.
2.       These traditions were treasured and collected in a number of different Christian communities, which both eroded them and amplified them.
3.       The first collection to be written down and to survive was made by Mark around 70, with further amplifications and erosions of his own.
4.       There was a second collection, now lost, which we call Q, preserved in the common non-Marcan matter in Matthew and Luke.
5.       Matthew wrote his Gospel about 80, combining (conflating) Mark and Q and a third body of tradition to which he alone had access, called M, for the use of a Jewish-Christian church.
6.       Luke wrote his Gospel for a more Gentile church about 90, drawing on Mark and Q; he did not know Matthew or M, but had access to a further interesting source, L.
7.       John wrote about 100, and (on a majority view – a consensus till 1970) had access to traditions also shared by Luke and perhaps Mark.
8.       Serious attention should be paid to the Gospel of Thomas, which may sometimes contain earlier forms of synoptic logia and parables.[1]
Of this list of ‘eight hypotheses which constituted the old position’, Goulder only retains one, namely no. 3, ‘Marcan priority’,[2] and replaces the other seven by the following new paradigm:
1.       Some parts of Mark go back to the events and words of Jesus’ lifetime. It is possible but doubtful that there are reliable traditions in the non-Marcan sections of the other Gospels.
2.       The Marcan traditions were collected and treasured by the Jerusalem community under Peter, James and John, which amplified and eroded them.
3.       They were written down by Mark about 70, with further amplifications and erosions of his own.
4.       There was no lost sayings-source common to Luke and Matthew. Q is a total error.
5.       Matthew wrote his Gospel about 80, as an expansion of Mark for a Jewish-Christian church. He was a competent scribe, a fine parabolist, and an inspired poet; and the Q and M matter in his Gospel is almost entirely his elaboration of Mark.
6.       Luke wrote his Gospel about 90 for a more Gentile church, combining Mark and Matthew. He re-wrote Matthew’s birth narratives with the aid of the Old Testament, and he added new material of his own creation, largely parables, where his genius lay. The new material can almost always be understood as a Lucan development of matter in Matthew. There was hardly any L (Sondergut).
7.       John wrote about 100, for an Asian church with a different foundation from the synoptic churches, and with acute doctrinal problems. He drew on all three Synoptists, but especially Matthew, and developed them freely. He did have other traditions, of dubious reliability.
8.       No serious attention should be given to Thomas, which is a gnosticizing version of the Gospels, especially Luke.[3]
When I first read Goulder’s two lists, I was glad to get his contrasting set which indeed allows the reader to know where one stands. Given that New Testament scholarship on the Gospels and their mutual relations is so dense and complex, it is a big help to get a clear structure where to start from. Goulder knew that his eradication of Q, previously believed to be the earliest stratum, hypotheses 4, of Matthew’s assumed ‘body of tradition to which he alone had access’ (= M), hypothesis no. 5, and of (almost all of) Luke’s so-called Sondergut (special matter), hypothesis no. 6 bereaved scholarship of ‘almost all the tradition which has normally been taken as going back to Jesus’, hence the revolutionary character of his suggestion[4] and the many critical, but collegial responses.[5]
Building on this lucidity of Goulder, but also significantly deviating from him, I’d like to suggest my own list of hypotheses which, I hope, will be substantiated in the course of this monograph, and which takes as a starting point one of the biggest omissions in most of the Synoptic scholarship: The earliest witness for the existence of any Gospel, a text which, fortunately, can even be reconstructed to some extent, as others have shown and we will carefully check again, with regards to its textual content, Marcion’s Gospel.[6] Almost entirely excluded from the discussion of the Synoptic problem and the making of the New Testament since 1853, the Gospel that Marcion attests, is partly, at least, preserved in Tertullians work Against Marcion and in Epiphanius’ Panarion to which we can add a few more sources.[7] Granted that there were scholars in the 19th century that dealt with Marcion and built him into the history of the Synoptic gospels (Ferdinand Christian Baur,[8] Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf Hilgenfeld, and Gustav Volckmar), we can notice a similar journey of scholarship in this area, as I have previously seen in the field of the Apostles’ Creed, where the 19th century after Ferdinand Christian Baur can be characterized by its post-enlightened, romanticizing, anti-critical and denominationalizing Patristic output.[9] Already Albert Schwegler complained in 1846 that critical scholarship as made regress since 1804.[10] Adolf von Harnack is the eminent example who disguised his conservativism under the cloud of historical endeavours. In his masterpiece Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott which he published when he was already beyond his 70th birthday, the year he retired in 1921, in this re-worked Dorpat Prize dissertation of his student days he categorically rejects even to look at the critical arguments of Baur and take into account other dissenting voices of the mid 19th century: ‘That the Gospel of Marcion is nothing else than what the primitive church judged it to be, namely a falsified Luke, there is no need to spend one word on it’.[11]
The first deviating opinion from that of Harnack in the 20th century came from the States. It was John Knox Sr. (1901-90) who re-discovered Baur when he lectured at University of Chicago Divinity School (from 1939) and in 1942 published his Marcion and the New Testament. The book helped him to become the Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan in the year 1943. In this place Knox taught for the next years to 1966 to then become Professor of the New Testament at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He stayed in this post for another five years until his retirement in 1971. After him, it was another American, Knox’ pupil Joseph B. Tyson, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, who built on Knox’ research. From 1958 to 1998, Tyson worked in Dallas, published a number of books on Luke-Acts and summarized his life-long developed views in his Marcion and Luke-Acts (2006). Shortly before Tyson’s book, hence only very recently some younger scholars came back to Knox’ and Baur’s view on Marcion’s Gospel and started to re-think the origin of the New Testament in the light of it (Andrew Gregory, Matthias Klinghardt).[12] It was independent of all the named scholars (including Baur), that I developed a view that came close to Baur as reflected in Knox, Tyson, Gregory and Klinghardt, when I looked into the reception of the belief in Christ’s Resurrection in early Christianity. Different from the mentioned colleagues, who I had only consulted after I had formed my own insights, but who have helped refining my ideas, I suggested in the Resurrection-monograph that Marcion did not only made use of a Gospel which he found – something he never claims –, but that he himself is the first Gospel-author, a hypothesis which is going to be tested in the present study. But before undergoing the test, let me summarize our finding in the following diagram that visualizes and schematizes the interrelations between the early gospels, as I now see them (and to which I will also add, later, further early Christian texts):
1.       Marcion started gospel-writing off with the creation of The Gospel for his own class-room. Based on his collection of 10 Pauline letters that served as hermeneutical benchmark, he checked against them what he knew, heard and read, oral traditions of elders, knowledge preserved of events and words of Jesus, the Jewish Scriptures (Torah, Prophets and other Writings) and everything he could get hold of. As with The Apostle’s, he selected carefully when he put together a narrative on Jesus. Similarly and after Marcion, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John relied on older traditions, but the main source of these authors of later canonical Gospels was Marcion’s Gospel which was the second book of his overall work, The Apostle’s.
2.       Such older traditions were collected and treasured by various people and communities, and disseminated by apostles, prophets, teachers and elders, sometimes being amplified, sometimes eroded, as were Jewish traditions transmitted orally, but also sometimes written down and even added to the third part of the Jewish Bible, the Writings.
3.       The first fixation of oral traditions related to Jesus and his movement took place in Paul’s letters, letters of others (for example 1Clement), but also in other literary genres (catechisms like the Didache, didactic novels like Hermas, apocalypses like Revelation, collections of sayings like the Gospel of Thomas). The earliest ‘Gospel’ surfaces, however, only with Marcion after 140 in Rome, written by him in and for his Roman classroom. The ensuing history of Gospel-writing and, hence, the Synoptic problem, cannot be understood without a revised understanding of how teachers (not only, but particularly in second century Rome) interacted. Far from being purely antagonistic as they are described in later apologetic writings, they taught in close proximity, knew each other, each other’s works and pupils and influenced each other as much as they developed differing views from each other. Once Marcion had created the very first Gospel, copies most have been carried (by pupils?) to classrooms of other teachers, as often pupils attended not just classrooms of one teacher. According to Tertullian, Marcion complaints that others have taken ‘from the truth material’ of his Gospel and that it ‘suffered hostility’, before he even had published this work.[13] Other teachers, therefore, must have seen the power of this Gospel-narrative which lead them immediately to the creation of alternative versions of Marcion’s Gospel which they published even before Marcion did his. These publications were not simple copies of Marcion which we could trace like the transmission of manuscripts building a stemma – one of the major problems with the Synoptic solutions in past and present – but, because the alternative versions were all creations of leading scholars and schools, they are deliberately alterations to express particular theologies. The alternative versions were not stand-alone products, but part of inter-school discussions. This can be seen by the fact that when Marcion finally published his Gospel, he prefaced it with his Antitheses in which he a) set out his particular theology in a commentary to his Gospel where he quoted in exemplary manner the ‘contrast between the cruelty of the Creator and the love of Christ’[14] and b) he reacted critically to both, the Jewish writings of what he called ‘the Old Testament’ and the Christian writings that falsified his ‘New Testament’, Paul’s letters and his Gospel. Hence we have to reckon with what in codicology one calls cross-contaminated products. In the production process, authors take note of what has been written in neighbouring schoolrooms which results in an intrinsic literary dependency which can no longer be entirely disentangled and defies a final stemma-like explanation. Any simplifying two- or three-source theory is, therefore, anachronistic and no longer compelling with one exception, that later Gospels can be traced back to Marcion’s own Gospel.
4.       Prior to Marcion there was no written account of Jesus’ life. Marcion created both the concepts and the designations of ‘Gospel’, ‘New Testament’ and ‘Old Testament’, adopted his Scripture orientation of the ‘new’ religion from Rabbinism and based Christianity on this first, new Gospel which he saw as the narrative enlightened by and building on Paul’s letters, hence the title The Gospel as part of his work The Apostle’s without attaching any author’s name to it.
5.       Mark and Matthew are the first to have reacted to Marcion with Luke using The Gospel, Matthew and Mark, and John being developed slightly later, but also using The Gospel. In addition, also other writings like for example the Ascensio Isaiae, the Epistle of the Apostles, the Gospel of Peter were composed as an engaging response to The Gospel, and so did Justin or his (and Marcion’s) pupil Tatian produce the first Gospel harmony, followed soon by the Marcosians, again, both based on Marcion’s Gospel. The years after 140 in Rome were the time of Gospel-writing, first for specific classrooms, but quickly also for the wider communities of competent teachers, scribes, parabolists, and inspired poets. In direct response to Marcion who contrasted his New Testament (especially The Gospel) with the Old Testament by using contradictory quotes from both sources,[15] the author of Mark followed closely structure and content of The Gospel, broadened and also cut down some passages. Matthew combined his Gospel with the Torah and the Prophets (= nebiim), using an enormous amount of cross references. Probably The Gospel itself was regarded as part of the Christian Writings (= Ketubim). The same re-linking to the Jewish Scriptures was made in Luke, although Luke features less Jewish elements than Matthew.  
6.       Luke and similarly Matthew, Mark and John are close re-writings of Marcion’s Gospel, as were the Gospel harmonizations and a number of other Gospels of which only fragments, traces and names are extant. The canonical texts, however, seem the earliest and most closely matching texts to that of The Gospel in structure and wording – one of the potential reasons why they had been brought together into one collection of works re-setting Marcion’s Gospel-part of his New Testament.
7.       John was written in another classroom at Rome, related to Valentinus, as can be seen from the first commentators. During the time of Ptolemy, potential a pupil or colleague of Valentinus, only the prologue of John existed which was commented on by Ptolemy, a few years later, the entire Gospel was finished and published on which Heraclius commented, a copy of which was owned by the Valentinian Ambrose, Origen’s patron who after having moved away from Valentinians asked Origen to produce his own commentary on the basis of the one by Heraclius. John knew and drew on all three Synoptics, but especially Matthew, and developed them freely. He did have other traditions, of dubious reliability.
8.       Serious attention has to be given to all first and second century literature that can be compared with the Synoptics and John.


[1] M. Goulder, Luke (1989 = 1994), 5.
[2] M. Goulder, Luke (1989 = 1994), 22.
[3] M. Goulder, Luke (1989 = 1994), 22-3.
[4] M. Goulder, Luke (1989 = 1994), 11. 22-3.
                [5] See, for example, Chr.A. Rollston (ed.), The Gospels according to Michael Goulder (2002).
[6] D.T. Roth, Towards a New Reconstruction of the Text of Marcion’s Gospel (2009).
[7] Dieter T. Roth has kindly provided me with his PhD dissertation Towards a New Reconstruction of the Text of Marcion’s Gospel (2009), on which he is still working towards a version for publication.
                [8] See F.C. Baur, Kritische Untersuchungen (1847), 425-35 shows that Marcion’s Gospel can only be read on the basis of the author’s Paulinism.
[9] See M. Vinzent, Der Ursprung des Apostolikums (2006).
[10] A. Schwegler, Das nachapostolische Zeitalter (1846) I 260.
[11] A.v. Harnack, Marcion (21924 = 1966), 240*; another exponent is T. Zahn, Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons (1888), I 681. 713. 
[12] Thanks to D.T. Roth, ‘Marcion’s Gospel and Luke’ (2008), we have an insightful study of the history of the whole debate since Baur.
[13] Tert., Adv. haer. IV 4.
[14] S. Moll, The Arch-heretic (2010), 111.
[15] Tert., Adv. Marc. I 19,4: contrariae oppositiones.


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