Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My mind is blown by how cool the Synoptic Problem is

Image source.

I read these two blog posts: How Editorial Fatigue Shows That Matthew and Luke Copied Mark and Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case (by Paul Davidson) and wow, YOU GUYS. This stuff is so cool. Makes SO MUCH sense. And is, of course, forbidden in church culture.

It's about the Synoptic Problem. What's the Synoptic Problem, you ask? Well, if you read the four gospels, you'll find that three of them- Matthew, Mark, and Luke- are incredibly similar. So similar that it's pretty undeniable that they were copying from each other, or possibly copying from another common source. The Synoptic Problem is the question of how this all happened- who copied who, and was there another source involved.

In my experience, people in church talk as if the bible was given to us directly by God, or maybe dictated by God (that's what "inspired" means, right?), or at least God oversaw the whole thing to make sure they wrote down the right stuff and didn't make any mistakes. The bible is seen as perfect, and is usually treated as if it has no source, as if it just appeared in front of us to tell us absolute statements of truth that are all totally right and good and applicable to our lives.

That's how evangelicals tend to talk about the bible and use the bible. But I think most of them know the bible didn't just fall out of heaven- they know it was written by people. If pressed, the average evangelical Christian would probably agree that Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have been copying from each other. You could probably even get them to admit that the writers wrote stuff down years after the events actually happened.

(Hmm, this difference between the way the bible is treated- as a set of completely perfect and wonderful statements directly from God, intended specifically for us- and the unavoidable facts of where the bible actually came from (which we totally don't talk about in church) could be a whole nother blog post. Hmm.)

All of this is to say, back when I was a Real True Christian, yes, I would have said it must be the case that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were copying each other. But of course, everything they wrote is still true- all the details in all the stories really happened- of course they wouldn't have changed the facts when they were copying. I mean, that would just be absurd. And of course there are no mistakes. (And try not to think too much about the parts where, really, the details are totally irreconcilable.)

Anyway let's get back to Davidson's two blog posts that I linked at the beginning of this post. He writes about the concept of "editorial fatigue" and how it can help give us insight into who was copying who. "Editorial fatigue" means that, for instance, as Matthew copied Mark, Matthew changed some details in Mark's account, but didn't catch all the places where those details came up, so the resulting story is a bit inconsistent. Finding examples of editorial fatigue can help show which was the original and which was the copy.

And I mean, just, whoa, stop the presses there. How many blasphemous concepts did you spot in the above paragraph?

(Though if you call it "blasphemy", that means you believe "my concept of the bible as a completely perfect and 100% true text given by God" is God. So.)

It's not "blasphemy" at all- it's just things you are totally not allowed to say in church. Here they are:
  1. Wait, Matthew CHANGED some parts of the story Mark wrote? As in, changed the FACTS and added details that were not actually true?
  2. Wait, you're saying Matthew made mistakes when he was writing the bible? He was too fatigued to pay attention to every little detail? But what about the Holy Spirit making sure everything got written down perfectly?
  3. Wait, now you're claiming that there is something wrong with some of the accounts that Matthew gives- that some stories don't exactly hold together well? Ohhhhhhhh my.
But wow, for me to read about this stuff... this is amazing. Because I know and love the bible, and it's great to see someone talking about it so HONESTLY and in ways that actually MAKE SENSE. I mean, go read those blog posts, there are a TON of really cool examples.

(Are his conclusions right? I don't know. I bet biblical scholars have a lot of competing theories about this. I don't know who's right, but this is a thousand times better than "yes to be a Christian you have to believe the bible is totally inerrant and for those of you with more logical minds we have prepared a series of apologetics books with all the correct answers you can memorize to help yourself believe the bible is inerrant.")

This is the kind of stuff we were always pointing out when I attended bible study groups in college. We read the passage, and then any and all questions were allowed. (But, you know, only certain answers were...) People would totally pick up on the little strange bits and inconsistencies and ask "why?" and we usually couldn't come up with a good answer. We just trusted that everything in the bible was true and accurate and perfect and good, even when we didn't understand how that could be.

I'm the kind of person who loves logic and details, but I've trained myself not to notice those things when I read the bible. (Or rather, when I notice them, no answer is allowed except "I know this passage is perfect and good, because duh it's in the bible, but I just don't understand how." And if, every time I find a problem, I have to make myself believe such an illogical answer to said problem, well, you can see why I learned to just not notice them.)

So, just, wow. I don't know what else to say. My mind is blown. Looking at the little details from the biblical accounts, trying to imagine how they came to be, pointing out differences between the different writers- this is so cool!

It's stuff like this (and also Peter Enns's book) that makes me want to start reading the bible again.


  1. Yay! Excited that you're getting into this stuff and feeling so much positive energy around it. :)

  2. Wonderful post. I love it when people approach the Bible with this kind of enthusiasm and curiosity, and are willing to give up inerrancy so the text can speak for itself.

  3. Thanks for your posts~ I should read your blog more often. :)

  4. This is exactly my reaction to those blog posts! It's just so much cooler than the fundamentalist idea that we have all the answers and there are no questions worth asking.