Book reviews

Goodacre, M. The Synoptic Problem – A Way through the Maze

Didactically this is a strong book. The author’s style of writing is clear and accessible and he offers numerous well-chosen examples, summaries and conclusions.

After a discussion of the Synoptic problem itself in the first chapters, the book turns its focus on three subjects: Markan priority (the gospel of Mark was the first to be written), the Q hypothesis (which states the existence of a hypothetical written source behind the common material in Matthew and Luke) and the Farrer theory (the gospel of Mark was followed by Matthew, and Luke used these two existing texts).

I believe Goodacre is right to adhere to Markan priority and reject Q, but his defence of the Farrer theory is much less persuasive. Although the interesting ‘editorial fatigue’ concept seems to support this theory, Goodacre’s most extensively discussed textual examples, the sermon on the mount/plain and the parable of the ten talents/pounds, in my opinion do not point to Luke using Matthew.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his sermon with the beatitude ‘Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’, and, knowing that Jesus is an Essene priest and that ‘the poor’ is a self-designation of the Essenes, Luke is simply blessing his audience (and himself) at the beginning of his speech. Where Matthew writes ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ instead, this seems to be the unnatural start of a theoretical explanation.
The parable of the ten pounds/talents is even weightier. Luke’s version tells the story of a king (or emperor), while in Matthew any hint of a political reality is missing. These political hints in Luke are numerous: ‘nobleman’, ‘far country’, ‘kingdom’ (or ‘empire’ – twice), ‘ten servants’ (Roman provinces?), ‘hated by his citizens’, ‘to reign’, ‘to give authority over cities’ (2 mentions, the first ‘over ten cities’, the second ‘over five cities’), ‘his enemies to be killed in front of him’. Were these elements added to Matthew’s politically neutral story to achieve a consistent political account with the Roman emperor Vespasian as its protagonist? Or were all these subversive political elements eliminated to retain a harmless apolitical story?

I believe that in both examples Matthew has defused the politically loaded, subversive text of Luke, the first time by adding a few words and the second by eliminating any political reference from the original text.

Although this is a highly informative book, I don’t believe the Farrer theory, which Goodacre fervently defends in this work, is strong enough to guide us out of the synoptic maze. Maybe the early history of the gospels is more complex than is being claimed by this theory about the unilateral dependency of the gospel of Luke on the gospel of Matthew.