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Powell's "Introducing the NT" and the Synoptic Problem

Mark Goodacre has posted an important discussion of the treatment of the Synoptic Problem in Powell’s Introducing the New Testament. Referring generally to introductory textbooks, Goodacre laments:

…I have done what I can, through books, articles, websites, blogs, to try to generate some awareness of a major alternative to the consensus view. Sometimes, this has met with success. But all too often, I have felt like Kierkegaard’s clown, and no more so than here, apparently having made next to no impact on the way that the debate is framed, let alone the solutions that are offered.

And most importantly he adds:

The difficulty for people like me is that the introductory textbook can do more than anything else in embedding ideas in students’ minds, and it is a shame if they are not even given the framework within which to explore the problem in a balanced way.

What follows here is a brief summary of how a few prominent introductory textbooks on the NT deal with synoptic problem. It so happens that I have recently been perusing NT Survey materials for a bibliography project for one of my seminars. Briefly, I think Goodacre and others sharing a “non-Q Markan priority” (a viewpoint I tend towards) are making a difference. I’ve selected a few prominent textbooks written from different perspectives (and for a variety of audiences) for observation. I’ve arranged them alphabetically by author’s last name, but take note of the dates as well.

Select Textbooks

Blomberg, Craig LJesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. 2nd ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009.

  • Mentions Goodacre’s work in the main body of text when discussing the synoptic problem, though he says that the option has not “gained large amounts of support worldwide” (90).

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

  • He entertains the possibility that Luke used Matthew, but dismisses it with a brief argument. Moving on to Markan priority, he again mentions that some in this camp also affirm the possibility of Luke using Matthew, but dismisses this view based on the brief argument just before (114).

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

  • Carson says in the main body of text, “But other scholars are not convinced that we need to posit the existence of any such tradition… but some maintain both Markan priority and the use of Matthew by Luke” (100). A footnote here includes Goodacre’s The Case Against Q and his Synoptic Problem, as well as the response in Paul Foster’s “Is It Possible to Dispense with Q?” NovT 45 (2003).

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. [4th edition is out, but I do not think there are any revisions to the discussion on the synoptic problem.]

  • He seems to assume Q without much qualification, saying, “Once Mark is established as prior to Matthew and Luke, the Q hypothesis naturally suggests itself” (86). But under “further reading,” Ehrman suggests Goodacre’s The Case Against Q.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 4th ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

  • At the end of his discussion of the synoptic problem, he only briefly adds, “In view of the revival of the Griesbach hypothesis, criticism of the Q hypothesis has increased” (167). In a footnote here, he mentions Goulder’s work, but also Fitzmeyer’s defense of Q.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament. Fortress Press, 1999.

  • Implies that Markan priority entails the two-source hypothesis and notes that resistence to Q is by those holding Matthean priority (156). He does insist that Q’s existence is “a scholarly abstraction” (156).

Lea, Thomas and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2003.

  • The second edition is Black’s revision of the late Lea Thomas’ original volume by the same title (1996). Black revised the section dealing with the Synoptic problem (and has published on the subject in support of Matthean priority). He says, “The acceptance of the Q hypothesis has varied widely” and “The very existence of Q is uncertain” (121). In the general bibliography following the section, he lists Goodacre’s The Synoptic Problem.

McDonald, Lee Martin, and Stanley E. Porter. Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000.

  • In discussion of Q itself, the focus becomes whether or not Q was a written document of sorts or some sort of common oral tradition (282). A footnote here directs the reader to a few other sources. There it is noted that Farrer “has perhaps leveled some of the strongest arguments against the existence of Q and claims that Luke used Matthew’s Gospel” (315). Goulder is only mentioned with Farrer. Finally, it is said that “Rosche (“The Words of Jesus and the Future of the ‘Q’ Hypothesis,” JBL 79 [1960]:210-21), on the other hand, accepts the priority of Mark but not necessarily the existence of Q.”

Powell, Introducing the New Testament. See Goodacre’s discussion (linked above).


Perhaps what is needed is an analysis of how subsequent revisions of textbooks alter their discussions of the synoptic problem. In other words, have recent revisions started to take into account the view of Goodacre and others? In this small selection of texts, I found Blomberg and Carson/Moo to treat non-Q Markan priority with the greatest fairness [add Kostenberger here; see below], introducing the reader to the appropriate sources in the debate. The Lea/Black treatment is brief, but Q is certainly not assumed. Ehrman virtually assumes Q, though a student might reasonably access opposing arguments such as The Case Against Q via the “suggested reading” section. In the end, I think a ‘survey’ textbook by its nature will tend to treat consensus more thoroughly than dissenting views, but Goodacre makes a strong case in his post.

Update: I just got a hold of the following volume…

Kostenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009.

  • Q is certainly not assumed, and the “Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis” receives one and half pages of treatment. Evidence supporting Luke’s use of both Mark and Matt is presented, and footnotes point readers to Farrer, Goulder, and Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique. Under “For Further Study,” Goodacre’s The Case Against Q is suggested. This is the best treatment I’ve encountered.
Filed Under: NT

16 Responses to Powell's "Introducing the NT" and the Synoptic Problem

  1. Josh,

    For those of us neophytes to the world of synoptic problem, what ARE the solutions/explanations out there? In other words, could you elucidate a brief review of each view and its major proponents (sending me and others to their writings is fine!)

    • Andrew, a brief summary can be found here. If you had NT Survey with Dr. Tomlinson, you likely used the Carson/Moo text. Chapter 2 deals with the synoptic problem in greater detail.

  2. good post josh. so you came through mbts without holding to matthean priority? i’m impressed, though i think i’ve made the move from markan to matthean priority myself. i used to agree with the philosophy that the shorter work came first, but the dating of luke-acts has changed my mind. i tend to date acts not long after the situation in acts 28, so if luke came first, then it’s relatively early. and i’m buying more and more into the idea that mark put together a snappier, more concise, literary masterpiece for a community in rome.

    i don’t know, lots to think about. for me personally, it’s a good discussion with lots of room for disagreement AND good conversation, nothing to cry “liberal!” or “fundamentalist!” about.

    again, good post!

  3. Josh, this is a very interesting post. One thing I noticed from your list is that it seems to me that the scholars who were most open to Markan priority without Q in these introductory textbooks tended to be much more conservative (Blomberg, Kostenberger, Moo/Carson). Could this be somewhat influenced by their disagreement with the direction some scholarship on Q has taken?

    • Mike, I noticed this, too, but I’m not sure I have an answer. To be more certain, one would probably need to investigate another 20 textbooks. I think you may be right, but I don’t think that the main issue is one of ‘openness’ so much as inclusion.

    • I would say that my assessment is just that: much like the distancing from JEDP among liberal scholars after Cassuto’s critique in 1951, conservatives are shying away from the messier aspects of the Synoptic solution they hold to…sadly, we cannot refer back to a single author here to reconcile the differences!

  4. I think the primary issue at stake has to do with how NT introductions cover the synoptic problem. Goodacre’s complaint was that they too often present the two-source theory as a ‘slam-dunk’ without giving other theories (esp. Farrer) a fair shake. On either side of the theological spectrum, scholars recognize that sources were used by the Gospel writers (cf. Luke 1:1-4). The call here is for authors of NT introductions to present the possible solutions fairly, recognizing how recent scholarship has contributed to the issues.

  5. Christians should not be surprised that authors of some of the books in the New Testament “plagiarized” the writings of other New Testament authors, ie, the authors of Matthew and Luke copying huge chunks of Mark, often word for word, into their own gospels.

    This habit is not new in the Bible. There is evidence that Old Testament writers did the exact same thing. An example: the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!

    If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, why would God have the author of one inspired book of the Bible copy almost word for word large sections, sometimes entire chapters, from another inspired book of the Bible? Is that how divine inspiration works?

    So should we simply accept this “word for word copying” as the will of the Almighty, accepting it blindly by faith, continuing to insist that God wrote the Bible, or should we consider the overwhelming evidence that the books of the Bible are human works of literature, no more divinely inspired than any other work of fallible human authors?

    • Gary, thanks for your comment. I agree in part: there are clear places in biblical texts where authors copy or use other biblical texts. I wouldn’t use the word ‘plagiarized’ as I think this implies a level of deceit that is difficult to demonstrate. We must be careful not to take contemporary (to us) values of academic honesty as normative for ancient authors (which is an example of anachronism). (I also think ‘habit’ is an overstatement.)

      My own perspective is that any view of inspiration must take seriously the character of the biblical texts, including the marks of their human authorship, their locatedness in a historical context, etc. I don’t really see this as a theological conundrum unless you assume a dictation-like theory of inspiration.

  6. Yes, and one might note that there are many places in the Biblical Texts in which the speaker(writer) must be human, not divine; (“I, Paul, write this with my own hand”) this implies “inspiration” not dictation. Connected to this, the notion of “canon” also leaves us with some uncertainties regarding the inspired text. We must then reply on the One who inspired the text to inspire us in our interpretation.

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