Is the Search for Literary Sources of the Synoptic Gospels Futile?

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Indeed, the search for literary sources that may be reflected in a piece of writing can be risky business. In the case of the Synoptic Gospels, however, we possess multiple accounts of the same events—events that originally occurred in a Hebrew-speaking environment, but were eventually recorded in Greek.

Comment from David Pennant (Woking, Surrey, U.K.) that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 55 (April-June 1999): 6-7.

[I am skeptical of] your belief that you can detect underlying strata in the text, whether this be a self-evident Hebrew original, or a scheme of one Gospel’s priority over another, in your case, Luke. It seems to me this whole area is an unstable one. For as Dame Helen Gardner once wrote, “Trying to detect sources in literature is like trying to weave ropes in sand.” My reading of the current theological scene in the West is that it has finally become apparent that this kind of enquiry is bankrupt, although it may take another generation before everyone is finally prepared to admit it.

Where I believe your authors are inclined to err is to place weight on findings gained from the understanding of supposed sources. I would be happier if the language used employed phrases like “It seems possible that,” or “One wonders whether,” and was generally less certain. My concern is that your excellent emphasis on the importance of culture is in real danger of being ignored because of problems over the latter.

Randall Buth responds:

Indeed, the search for literary sources that may be reflected in a piece of writing can be risky business. In the case of the Synoptic Gospels, however, we possess multiple accounts of the same events—events that originally occurred in a Hebrew-speaking environment, but were eventually recorded in Greek. We do not need to guess whether or not other people were retelling the same stories in different words or with different perspectives.

This constitutes quite a different situation from, for example, Philippians 2:6, where many assume that Paul quoted from an early Christian hymn. Conclusions about Paul’s use of a source should be accepted cautiously, even if a scholar includes such words as “evidently” or “clearly” in his or her explanations.

When studying the Gospels, we are compelled to search for an explanation of the differences in the wording among the Synoptic Evangelists’ Greek texts. Moreover, understanding the differences between two, or among all three, Synoptic Gospels in a given passage helps in understanding the intention of each individual writer.

Various approaches have been taken toward explaining Gospel similarities and differences. They may be categorized under two broad headings: 1) Oral Hypotheses, and 2) Written Hypotheses.

Oral hypotheses assume that the differences are to be explained because the Gospel writers included material that originated from oral retelling of stories. Details change over time. Westerners sometimes make the mistake of regarding the flexibility inherent in oral transmission as a pattern of random inaccuracies. In other words, they view orally transmitted material as if it were unduly suffering from verbal scribal errors and typos.

When dealing with texts that were originally orally transmitted, we must be prepared to accept purposeful reshaping and retelling of a story. Purposeful changes, condensations and expansions are sometimes necessary for an author to highlight the character and significance of a saying or event. Oral preachers, especially, have a responsibility to ensure that their audience grasps the heart of their message.

Written hypotheses assume that writers relied upon literary sources. Logically, of course, those written sources ultimately could be traced back to an oral stage. That stage could span many years, or merely several minutes. Thus, the most extreme diminishing of an initial oral stage would be a written source that had been transcribed at the moment Jesus spoke. Most scholars do not assume such an immediate jump from saying to written source. The differences in wording in our Gospels would not have arisen to the degree that they appear today if stenographic transcripts of Jesus’ sayings once circulated.

Most written hypotheses assume that at least two of our synoptic writers saw at least one other of our written Gospels. This becomes significant for interpretation. If we know which Evangelist had seen which other Evangelist’s work, then we can more easily see who is adding “spin” in the telling of the story, where, and when.

The problem, of course, is that scholars do not agree on which Evangelist used which Gospel. For this reason, the Jerusalem School’s methodology becomes so important. A serious exegete must know which verses or phrases fit tightly the Jewish first-century culture and which more tightly fit a Greek-speaking environment. This process reaches far into the Greek texts, to the level of the individual words used by the Evangelists. With careful evaluation and comparison of the Greek texts of the three synoptic writers, verse by verse, word by word, one can often see that a piece here is smoother Greek, or a piece there is more Semitic-like Greek. One might see that phrase A could have produced phrase B, but not the other way around. Such evaluation deals with accumulated probabilities, not certainties. Nevertheless, it is dealing with real data, not hypothetical sources. One who is skilled in biblical and mishnaic Hebrew, and first-century Greek, can, in this manner, make good progress in sorting out the data.

Trying to explain what we see in the synoptic texts leads to theorizing about sources. If one finds a roof, one is inclined, naturally, to theorize about what supported it. By all means, take the theories with a grain of salt! We do in Jerusalem—even our own.

The theory (literary conclusions) is like wrapping paper around the present. The content and the methodology constitute what is truly significant, but many only see our wrapping paper. When Jerusalem School scholars look at any one saying or story, we do not assume de facto that Luke’s text is preferable because, in our opinion, he wrote first. In other words, we resist the temptation of granting special status to Luke’s Gospel because it was written first—a habit of too many Markan priorists with Mark’s Gospel. Time and again we find wording, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel, that is more authentic, that is, less edited, than in Luke’s and/or Mark’s, even though we view Matthew as having been written after Luke and Mark. This helps in seeing more clearly why methodology is of greater import than theory.

Remain cautious about accepting literary theories, but if you want to study the Gospels’ words at their most reliable level, then there is no escape from a methodology that includes an advanced knowledge of Greek and the highest knowledge of biblical and mishnaic Hebrew. (You will need Aramaic, too, though it is less significant.) Because of the academic split between classical Greek studies and mishnaic Hebrew studies, such a comprehensive methodology is rarely found in the halls of New Testament academia. Only by demanding expertise in both disciplines will a new generation of Christian scholars emerge with the required skills to sift more surefootedly through so many conflicting opinions on the Gospels being offered today.

This article originally appeared in issue 55 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • Randall Buth

    Randall Buth

    Randall Buth is director of the Biblical Language Center and a lecturer at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Home for Bible Translators. He is a member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. Buth received his doctorate in…
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