restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


The Synoptic Problem: Why Are the Fathers Ignored?

 David Alan Black  

We always have a stimulating time in class as we discuss the various solutions to the Synoptic Problem. Obviously my own approach is not the traditional one, in that I take the statements of the early church fathers seriously. I am very much aware of the extensive work being done on exegesis, hermeneutics, and source criticism of the Gospels. But after listening seriously to the questions posed and the answers proffered, I am convinced there is no real future for them.

Most experts disregard the external evidence for the historical origins of the Gospels in a way that is very odd. It seems to me today there is more faddism than serious academic inquiry taking place. In reality, the fathers are ignored. This has to do perhaps with the observable tendency in evangelical scholarship to pay mere lip service to the careful exegesis of the patristic writings. A classic example is the misuse of Origen when dealing with the authorship of Hebrews, a subject I have treated elsewhere. It seems to me to be rationally untenable to discard sound hermeneutics when it comes to the writings of the church fathers while at the same time insisting that the Scriptures be investigated and expounded in the light of their historical contexts. Incidentally, I have my students read Scot McKnight’s excellent essay on the Synoptic Problem in the book I co-edited, Interpreting the New Testament. I am sympathetic with many of the points made. The points of disagreement are also there, for I cannot believe that it is sufficient to assert the importance of studying the church fathers without actually doing so. Nor can I accept the commonplaces of source critics that hypothecated documents (Q, M, and L) are necessary if an appeal to the fathers is heeded.

This raises one of the themes that crops up again and again in my teaching, namely my view that the internal evidence, being so obviously and unavoidably subjective, is never probative but is at best corroborative. Or, to put it another way, theories based on internal evidence alone inevitably lead to results that are mutually incompatible. One may point to the use of the so-called linguistic argument to support both Markan priority (McKnight et al.) and Matthean priority (Farmer et al.). In my own writings I have tried to show that Mark’s peculiar diction proves only that the content of the Gospel of Mark is different from that of the other Synoptics. There is no question here of temporal priority. We have stylistic differences and no more. On my view – the Fourfold Gospel Hypothesis – these differences are attributable to the fact that the Gospel of Mark is a viva voce transcription of Peter’s discourses in Rome and thus it preserves the flavor of oral (as opposed to literary) communication. This view is in concord with the fathers’ opinion that the bulk of Mark’s Gospel consists of chreiai or short, pithy stories presented in an unusually vivid style (consider, for example, the 151 instances of the historical present in Mark). However, the internal evidence itself does not require Matthean priority any more than it requires Markan priority. What is settled by the internal evidence is only the possibility (and no more than that) that Peter had the scrolls of Matthew and Luke in front of him as he dictated his lectures. This means that nothing is proved by the internal evidence. It would be completely fallacious if I were to say that the Synoptic Problem is solved by means of internal evidence.

To sum up, we find the following occurring in Synoptic studies today: (1) the neglect or utter rejection of the patristic testimony; (2) the determination to base one’s theory on internal evidence; and (3) the resultant growth of artificial techniques of investigation. In these conditions it is absolutely impossible to say that source criticism is making any headway. This is why it seems to me that the most urgent and decisive task for the New Testament teacher today is to give our students as many points of view as possible, even those which appear to us to be patently reactionary and retrogressive, and then encourage our students to make up their own minds.

This is not at all an affirmation of the indifferent neutrality of things. The one question is: Which of the competing theories best accounts for all the evidence? It is thus unconscionable to me that anyone today would teach the Synoptic Problem and leave out the massive and detailed evidence provided by the fathers. I am not being scrupulous over trifles. I am not interdicting or condemning scientific scholarship by Christians. I am simply saying that many fields of study, including source criticism, are still very much open to question. We must therefore be careful – all of us, teachers and students alike – to weigh our decisions, realizing that there are often points of view that we will fail to consider simply because we are trapped by a group mentality.

September 7, 2007

David Alan Black is the editor of

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