THE "SYNOPTIC PROBLEM", AND THE 2 SOURCE THEORY

by Yuri Kuchinsky

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The 2 Source Theory, and the Markan Priority are by far the dominant theories in the biblical field today. When one reads standard commentaries on the Synoptic gospels, usually these theories are merely assumed, and then -- without any further ado -- the authors begin to talk about the history of any given passage in the gospel of Matthew, or in the gospel of Mark from that standpoint. Unfortunately, all this may be an illusion...

Indeed, people who are still quite new to this whole Synoptic area are often under the impression as if 2ST is some sort of a gold standard in the field. But the truth of the matter is that, among _the Synoptic specialists per se_ -- and there's not really all that many of those -- the majority probably have already given up on the 2ST long ago, as the current situation on Synoptic-L illustrates all too well (there are hardly any 2ST supporters on the Synoptic-L!). So it's only the "NT generalists" who're still often under the impression that 2ST is just bee's knees...

Here, I will give 3 main objection to the Markan priority, and each one of them should be enough to bury it. Together, it's more than enough.

1. The purely textual argument -- "Minor Agreements".

As I already said before, according to the dominant 2 Source Theory, Mt and Lk were written completely independently of each other, and they were both based on Mk, plus the Q Source (The Synoptic Sayings Source).

But the main objection against 2ST has always been this very uncomfortable fact of the "Minor Agreements". These are the textual agreements between Mt and Lk against Mk. The name itself --"the Minor Agreements" -- is already sort of dishonest, because there are actually over 1000 such agreements! Various authors count them differently, but, in any case, there are hundreds of them for sure. (F. Neirynck has produced a detailed listing of these agreements, listing about 750 in this work of his, "The Minor Agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark", Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1974.)

So these are the textual agreements in the triple tradition, i.e. where Mt, Mk, and Lk have parallel passages, so this of course doesn't include the Q passages.

Of course, in the past, the defenders of 2ST have made a few lame attempts to address this problem, but the mathematical probability of Mk being the source of both Mt and Lk -- as written completely independently of each other -- is, quite simply, close to zero.

So this, alone, is a very powerful argument against Markan priority.

2. Mk is not likely to be a 1st century text

Now, in this case, I don't have to make an argument for this, because I shouldn't have the burden of proof here. The simple fact is that the earliest manuscript of Mk that we possess is dated to the 3rd century (P45, and it's not even anything like our standard Alexandrian text). Our standard Alexandrian text of Mk, as found in most Bibles today, is a 4c text. It's a common sense assumption (also supported by lots of evidence) that the Church was "adjusting" these texts over the centuries every which way as it saw fit.

Thus, it's the people who claim that Mk is a 1st century text that have the burden of proof here. This burden has not been met. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I assume that Mk, as we now see it, is a 4th century text.

3. Mk is the most Gentile of the Synoptics.

This is a generally known fact. So, since the earliest followers of Jesus (assuming there was a Historical Jesus) were all Jews, it's highly unlikely that the first gospel ever produced would have been such a Gentile-oriented gospel.

Indeed, it's widely accepted that the Jerusalem Apostles were all worshipping in the Temple. The Jerusalem Church was clearly a Jewish-Christian Church. So this is the earliest Christianity, and it had the weight of authority everywhere else up to 70 CE (at least). So this type of a movement simply couldn't have produced such a Gentile-oriented gospel as Mk.

The last two points are mostly based on the work of Alfred Loisy. So there's a lot more evidence in his books about all that.

In my own view, Mk, as we now see it, had been completed only around 250 CE. It's the shortest gospel, so, from the formal perspective, it does preserve quite well the shape of the earliest Christian proto-gospel (i.e. lacking the genealogies, the birth stories, extensive post-resurrection appearances, etc.). But from the textual perspective (when each particular passage is considered separately), Mk is often far later than Mt and Lk. To me, it seems to be the most politicised and heavily reworked text of the 3 Synoptic gospels.
 

MORE ABOUT THOSE ANTI-MARKAN AGREEMENTS

My argument from the "Minor Agreements" (better described as the "Anti-Markan Agreements" between Mt and Lk) should be conclusive in and of itself. Lots of people have heard about these "Anti-Markan Agreements", but even those who have heard about them often don't realise the huge number of them. Indeed, this number is around 1000!

So what do we have here? Two documents that are supposedly completely independent and even unaware of each other (Mt and Lk) happen to agree with each other 1000 times against their putative common source (Mk). I will just say that in the normal world, populated by normal people, this idea will be seen as completely bizarre. Any way you slice and dice evidence, this idea will still be seen as completely bizarre. I rest my case.

Now, it wouldn't be so difficult to illustrate this with some statistical calculations. Indeed, the probability of Mk being the source of both Mt and Lk should be extremely low, because what we're talking here about is 1000 coincidences! Yes, we really need that many coincidences for 2ST to be valid. If Mt and Lk were truly completely independent of each other, being both based on Mk, then there shouldn't be _any_ "Anti-Markan Agreements" at all...

Well, perhaps because of some chance intervention of Fate, there might be 2 or 3 such "Anti-Markan Agreements", but certainly not 1000.

IMHO, the only way to deal with this big problem honestly is to resort to the proto-Mark theory, and this has already been done by various scholars, most recently by Koester. But in such a case, it's good bye 2ST -- as it's now generally known -- in any case...
 

SOME COUNTER-ARGUMENTS?

So these "anti-Markan agreements" have traditionally been seen as the biggest problem with 2ST. How can anyone rebut this argument? There are 1000 such agreements, so this is a huge burden for 2ST.

Usually, 2ST apologists try to deal with this problem by dividing these 1000 cases into various categories, and then they try to supply the reasons why "anti-Markan agreements" belonging to each one of these categories -- if taken apart from all the others -- might not be a problem. So then we get an accumulation of such categories (I think Neirynck has suggested up to 20 of them?), each with its own set of reasons why they may not be improbable, after all. In short, the whole thing does look very much like a big house of cards... In plain language, this would be nothing else but the ad hoc fallacy.

But as all of us should know, proliferation of ad hoc explanations is a sure sign of a scientific theory in crisis. In fact, in his classic works on the history of science, Thomas Kuhn lists this as one of prime indicators that some establishment theory may be in big trouble. This is exactly what was happening in astronomy before Galileo came upon the scene -- all sorts of complicated new categories and hypotheses were being created in order to shore up the belief that the sun rotates around the Earth, contrary to the increasingly more precise astronomical observations.

There are actually lots and lots of professional NT scholars who are unhappy with 2ST, and especially with Q. I'm certainly not the only one there, who's been complaining about these strange anomalies.

The problem with all these often highly credentialled critics of Q and 2ST is not that they have too few arguments against Q and 2ST. They do have a lot of such arguments. The problem with them, usually, is that what they offer instead is only slightly better, or not even better at all. (For example, these critics often adhere to the canonical Matthean priority, which is just as problematic as the Markan priority, or they reject Q but still accept Markan priority, etc.)

But my present critique comes from the Multiple Stage Theory perspective, something that is currently found in the works of Boismard, for example. And Loisy basically advocated the same point of view, except that he was a lot more realistic than Boismard on the subject of dating the gospels.

Best regards,

Yuri.

 

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