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The Present Position of the Synoptical Problem

Originally appeared in The Theosophical Review 28 (June 1901): 324-335.
by G. R. S. Mead


The question of "tendency" in the Synoptic writers is of first importance, for, as Professor Schmiedel says, "tendencies of one kind or another" are acknowledged by even the most conservative critics. Especially to be noticed is Mt.'s repeated appeals to Jews to prove from the O.T. the Messiahship of the Christ, prefaced by the words "in order that it might be fulfilled as it is written." Equally remarkable is the polemic carried on in Mt. against the Scribes and Pharisees; while in Lk., in striking contrast to Mt., many of these speeches are addressed to the people in general. This and numerous other points show that Lk. had Gentile interests in view. But what is the special tendency of Mk.? From the small number of discourses of Jesus incorporated by Mk., it is concluded that he attaches less importance to the teaching than to the person of Jesus. We would rather say that the peculiarity of Mk. (or rather of the "embedded" document in Mk.) is the story of a designed life.

Further, "each evangelist in his own way is influenced by, and seeks by his narrative to serve, the apologetic interest"; already much was disputed. Another strong tendency, manifested by all three writers, is the political—"the desire to make the Roman authority as little responsible as possible for the death of Jesus."

Now, as we have seen in our last paper, the traditional view regards Lk. as being of a specifically Pauline character, but this "widely accepted view" can be maintained "only in a very limited sense."

It is true that in Lk. we find the rejection of the Jewish nation, but beyond this general position, no distinctly Pauline doctrine; on the other hand Lk. preserves and favours a distinctly Ebionitic tradition. The poor are blessed simply because of their poverty, the rich condemned simply because of their riches; other sayings and parables also breathe the same atmosphere. Now the Ebionim (or Poor Men) were the most ignorant of the earliest followers of the public teaching, who, it would seem, saw in the Master a sort of socialist leader; for we cannot really believe that He taught so crude and immoral a doctrine as here represented. The Ebionim formed one wing of the Judaising party with whom Paul contended. It is, therefore, exceedingly difficult to understand why if Lk. were a follower of Paul, he should have selected part of the most pronounced tradition of the opposing party to incorporate in his Gospel.

But more important than any special tendencies which may be detected in the individual writers, there is to be noticed a common tendency to set forth a document that should serve the interest of a nascent catholicity, that is to say, a view that might be accepted generally.

Passing next to a review of the principal hypotheses which have been put forward as tentative solutions of the synoptical problem, Professor Schmiedel characterises the very simple hypothesis of "a primitive gospel handed down solely by oral tradition"—so that eventually there came to be formed a "fixed type of narrative" in Aramaic, the vernacular tongue of the contemporaries of Jesus—as an "asylum ignorantiae," contradicting all the facts of criticism, if it be held to account for all the facts. Nevertheless the hypothesis of oral tradition, or rather oral traditions, as one of the factors to be taken into account, must be held to contain "an essential element of truth."

The next most simple hypothesis is that of borrowing, where we have to "put aside all idea of any other written sources than the canonical, and must keep out of account as far as possible the idea of any oral sources." Of the six imaginable orders only three continue to be seriously argued for: Mt., Mk., Lk.; Mk., Mt., Lk.; Mk.,Lk., Mt. It is, however, to be remarked "that every assertion, no matter how evident, as to the priority of one evangelist and the posteriority of another in any given passage will be found to have been turned the other way round by quite a number of scholars of repute."

Summing up the evidence, Professor Schmiedel concludes that "the borrowing hypothesis, unless with the assistance of other assumptions, is unworkable." The result of this investigation into the labours of criticism seems to us to indicate that the three Synoptic writers were contemporaries and familiar with one another's design, but did not borrow one from another, the "borrowing" was from other written sources of which they made use.

We next come to the hypothesis of a single original written gospel; this is open to the same objection as a single original oral tradition, only that "it explains the agreements in our gospels better, their divergences in the same proportion worse."

The next hypothesis to be considered is that Mt. and Lk. use an original Mk., that is to say a Mk. in one and the same form, but different from the one we now possess.

It is very evident that Mt. and Lk. do not use our Mk., though they use much material contained in our Mk.; but we could never understand why this phenomenon could be explained by postulating an original Mk. There is certainly in Mk. an "embedded" document; but the embedded document, so far from being an original Mk., is used freely in common by Mt. and Mk. and Lk., and may, therefore, be said to be equally embedded in all three. Whether this embedded document can be the Mark-gospel of Papias is impossible to determine, but our Mk. is in all probability not Papias's Mk., though the misunderstood statement of Papias probably brought about its christening.

We pass next to the theory of the Logia (spoken of by Papias) as a probable source for Mt. and Lk., that is to say of the common material (discourses and parables) used by Mt. and Lk., but not found in Mk., for in this they cannot be said to borrow from each other, seeing that in addition to general agreement "the passages exhibit quite characteristic divergences."

Now it is first of all quite conjectural whether by Logia Papias meant simply Sayings or Sayings mixed with Acts-narrative. In the second place, although Professor Schmiedel thinks that Papias was acquainted with our canonical Mt., there is absolutely no proof of this, and, on the contrary, Papias's statement as to his Matthew makes it as certain as anything can be in this vexed question that it was not our Mt., for the Logia-collection of his Matthew was a single document and written in Hebrew. It is absolutely certain that our Mt. as it stands was not written in Hebrew, though some of its sources may possibly have been originally written in the classical language of the Jews (Hebrew), or in the vernacular (Aramaic). But upon this point there is a great divergence of critical opinion.

Indeed in this connection nothing can be proved as to Papias's Matthew-Logia; all that is stated at present is that demonstrably there was another source common to Mt. and Lk. besides the source common to all three Synoptists. This so-called theory of two sources, we are told, "ranks among those results of Gospel criticism which have met with most general acceptance."

But the more advanced critics are not satisfied with the assumption of only one source for the matter common to Mt. and Lk. but absent in Mk., for the divergences between them are so great, that if there were only one source, then one or other of these evangelists, or both, must have treated the source with "drastic freedom." This is especially evidenced by the Ebionitic tinge of the Logia in Lk. A close consideration of this phenomenon leads to the conclusion that other sources, at any rate as far as Lk. is concerned, have to be postulated.

Moreover the "original Mk." or the "embedded document" theory no longer stands in its original simplicity; for sources are being searched for in this and not without success, and the belief is fast gaining ground that in Mt. 24, Mk. 13, and Lk. 21, for instance, there are the remains of an ancient fragment of an apocalyptic character. The passage is quite alien from Jesus' teaching as recorded elsewhere, but closely related to other apocalypses of the time. "It will, accordingly, not be unsafe to assume that an apocalypse which originally had a separate existence has here been put into the mouth of Jesus." This fragment is known to criticism as the "Little Apocalypse."

Other minor sources, also, have been conjectured, of which we may specially mention Scholten's so-called anonymous Gospel found in certain passages of Mt. and Lk., and the book which is held to be cited by Lk. under the title of "Wisdom."

The parallels also adduced by Seydel from the life of the Buddha "are in many places very striking, at least so far as the story of the childhood of Jesus is concerned, and his proof that the Buddhistic sources are older than the Christian must be regarded as irrefragable."

We do not, however, believe that in this matter there was any outward borrowing or use of any written or oral sources, but that the outer similarities were produced from inner causes.

But "the synoptical problem is so complicated, that but few students, if any, will now be found who believe a solution possible by means of any one of the hypotheses described above, without other aids. The need for combining several of them is felt more and more." Professor Schmiedel then proceeds to give some interesting "graphic representations," or diagrams, of some of these combinations, which are not too complicated, as put forward by some of the best known critics, and then proceeds to test their sufficiency to explain the problem, finding that they all break down on some points.

He then proceeds to an investigation of the very complicated subject of "sources of sources." This investigation points to so many new phenomena to be taken into consideration, that it practically puts out of court most of the hypotheses hitherto put forward as to origin, and leads to far-reaching consequences. We cannot, therefore, do better than append some of the most striking inferences which Professor Schmiedel draws from the present position of advanced gospel criticism:

"The first impression one derives from the new situation created is, that by it the solution of the synoptical problem, which appeared after so much toil to have been brought so near, seems suddenly removed to an immeasurable distance. For science, however, it is not altogether amiss, if from time to time it is compelled to dispense with the lights it had previously considered clear enough, and to accustom itself to a new investigation of its objects in the dark. Possibly it may then find that it has got rid of certain false appearances under which things had formerly been viewed. In this particular instance, it finds itself no longer under compulsion to assign a given passage to no other source than either the logia, or to original Mk., or to some other of the few sources with which it had hitherto been accustomed to deal. The great danger of any hypothesis lies in this, that it sets up a number of quite general propositions on the basis of a limited number of observations, and then has to find these propositions justified, come what may.

"On the other hand, signs have for some considerable time not been wanting that scholars were on the way to recognition of the new situation just described"—as, for instance, the hypothesis of a Proto-, Deutero-, Trito-Mk., and the like. And even those critics who are satisfied with the simpler hypotheses have to reckon with the probability " that writings like original Mk., or the logia, whether in the course of transcription, or at the hands of individual owners, may have received additions or alterations whenever any one believed himself to be acquainted with a better tradition upon any point. The possibility is taken into account, in like manner, that canonical Mk. in particular does not lie before us in the form in which it lay before those who came immediately after him; possible corruptions of the text, glosses and the like, have to be considered. Another element in the reckoning is that already our oldest MSS. of the gospels have latent in them many examples of transference from the text of one gospel into that of another, examples similar to those which we can quite distinctly observe in many instances when the T.R. [our present received text] is confronted with these same witnesses. . .

"Lastly, scholars are beginning to remember that the evangelists did not need to draw their material from books alone." There was a large mass of oral tradition and legend floating about which they could each utilise according to their pleasure. From this most interesting and instructive sketch of the present position of the synoptical problem we pass to the consideration of the credibility of the Synoptics.

At the outset Professor Schmiedel laments the unscientific way in which this question is for the most part handled. "Thus, many still think themselves entitled to accept as historically true everything written in the gospels which cannot be shown by explicit testimony to be false. Others pay deference at least to the opinion that a narrative gains in credibility if found in all three gospels (as if in such a case all were not drawing from one source); and with very few exceptions all critics fall into the very grave error of immediately accepting a thing as true as soon as they have found themselves able to trace it to a 'source.' "

From such fallacies we have to free ourselves in the outset of any independent historical investigation. Two opposite points of view should guide us in treating the leading points in the synoptic gospels. "On the one hand, we must set on one side everything which for any reason, arising either from the substance or from literary criticism, has to be regarded as doubtful or wrong; on the other hand, one must make search for all such data as, from the nature of their contents, cannot possibly on any account be regarded as inventions."

According to this canon of judgment the two great facts that we are bound to recognise are that Jesus had compassion on the multitude and taught with authority.

On the other hand, the chronological frame-work "must be classed among the most untrustworthy elements in the gospels"; nor is the case any better with the order of the narratives.

Again "the alleged situations in which the recorded utterances of Jesus were spoken can by no means be implicitly accepted."

As to places, "in the case of an eye-witness the recollection of an event associates itself readily with that of a definite place"; this is not borne out by our gospels. As for persons, "neither the names of the women at the cross, nor the names of the twelve disciples, are given in two places alike."

Again, "several of the reported sayings of Jesus clearly bear the impress of a time he did not live to see."

As to the important question of miracles, even the stoutest believer in miracle must have some doubt as to the accuracy of the accounts. After adducing the evidence, as he does in every case for every one of his assertions, Professor Schmiedel writes: "Taken as a whole the facts brought forward in the immediately preceding paragraphs show only too clearly with what lack of concern for historical precision the evangelists write. The conclusion is inevitable that even the one evangelist whose story in any particular case involves less of the supernatural than that of the others, is still very far from being entitled on that account to claim implicit acceptance of his narrative. Just in the same degree in which those who came after him have gone beyond him, it is easily conceivable that he himself may have gone beyond those who went before him."

As to the very contradictory accounts of the resurrection, the controlling view of the whole matter is the fact "that in no description of any appearances of the risen Lord did Paul perceive anything by which they were distinguished from his own, received at Damascus." As to the conclusion of Mk. 16, 9-20, it is admittedly not genuine, and should it be found that, according to the lately discovered Armenian superscription to this appendix, it was written by Aristion, "a very unfavourable light would be thrown on this 'disciple of the Lord,' " as Papias calls him.

We come next to what Professor Schmiedel considers absolutely credible passages as to Jesus.

There are five passages about Jesus in general, and four on the miracles of Jesus, which the Professor takes as the "foundation pillars for a truly scientific life." The first five are as follows: "Why callest thou me good? none is good save God only"; that blasphemy against the "son of man" can be forgiven; that his relatives held him to be beside himself; "Of that day and of that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son but the Father"; and "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Professor Schmiedel thinks that these passages prove "not only that in the person of Jesus we have to do with a completely human being, and that the divine is to be sought in him only in the form in which it is capable of being found in man; they also prove that he really did exist, and that the gospels contain some absolutely trustworthy facts concerning him."

The four selected passages from the miracles are as follows: Jesus emphatically refused to work a "sign" before the eyes of his contemporaries; Jesus was able to do no mighty work (save healing a few sick folk) in Nazareth and marvelled at the unbelief of the people; the feeding of the 4,000 and 5,000 is to be interpreted spiritually, for Jesus refers to this in a rebuke to the disciples concerning their little understanding ("How is it that ye do not perceive that I spake not to you concerning bread?"); so also in the answer to the Baptist that "the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have the gospel preached to them," the same spiritual sense is implied.

On these selected passages Professor Schmiedel bases his view of Jesus; but if we are not content with so limited a view of miracle-possibility, and would accept miracles of healing as well, then "it is permissable for us to regard as historical only those of the class which even at the present day physicians are able to effect by psychical methods—as, more especially, cures of mental maladies."

But even if we grant (as we are quite willing to do) that the origin of some miraculous narratives is to be traced to figurative speech and of others to the influence of O.T. prophetical passages, we are no more prepared to seek their whole origin in misunderstood metaphor or interpretations of prophecy than to call mythology merely a disease of language. Nor are we prepared to admit Professor Schmiedel's selection of test-passages as the "foundation-pillars of a truly scientific life" of Jesus, unless by "scientific" we are to understand solely the present limited field of scientific research, which notoriously has nothing to tell us of the soul and its possibilities. But it is just the facts of the soul (its nature and powers) which constitute the facts of religion, and which alone can throw any real light on the inner side of the origins, or explain the standpoint of the writers of the Gospels. It is here, then, that the "higher criticism" breaks down; it is invaluable in its own domain, but it is as yet utterly incapable of explaining the inner side—the most important side—of the evolution of Christianity.

Professor Schmiedel applies his view of Jesus also as a test of the Sayings, and after pointing out the historical and critical difficulties which surround every other class of sayings, continues: "It is when the purely religious-ethical utterances of Jesus come under consideration that we are most advantageously placed. Here especially applies the maxim that we may accept as credible everything that harmonises with the idea of Jesus which has been derived from what we have called the 'foundation pillars' and is not otherwise open to fatal objection."

It must be confessed that this is a poor result of all our investigations, to reduce the grandiose conception of the Master to such bourgeois proportions. It is almost as paltry as the "cher maitre" of Renan. Still this is the general tone of mind of the present advanced critic, and so long as he will look at the "facts about religion" solely through the eyes of modern scientific limitations so long will he exclude many of the most important "facts of religion."

But to return to the safer ground of a further consideration of the authors and dates of the Synoptic writings and their most important sources. Professor Schmiedel is of the opinion that it was not till the middle of the second century that the word "gospel" came to mean a book. Linguistically considered, the traditional titles "Gospel according to Matthew," etc., so far from meaning "the written Gospel of Matthew" (or still less the " written Gospel based on communications by Matthew"), mean simply "Gospel history in the form in which Matthew put it into writing," etc. The original writings bore no superscription at all.

Reviewing the evidence as to the attribution of the substance of the Lk. document to Paul, Professor Schmiedel comes to the conclusion that "it is only an expedient which the church fathers adopted to enable them to assign a quasi-apostolic origin to the work of one who was not himself an apostle."

Equally so suspicion attaches to the statement that the gospel of Mk. rested on communications of Peter. "In short, all that can be said to be certain is this, that it is in vain to look to the church fathers for trustworthy information on the subject of the origin of the gospels."

Moreover, as to whether the Mark of Papias was the author of "original Mk.," this is a pure matter of opinion, for we do not possess original Mk. "Should original Mk. have been written in Aramaic, then the author cannot be held to be the author of canonical Mk." But we may suggest that there is a high probability that the original common document in Mt., Mk. and Lk. may have been written in Hebrew, and not Aramaic, and this irrespective of the question of its sources.

As to the First Gospel, the authorship of the apostle Matthew "must be given up" for many weighty reasons. "All the more strenuously is the effort made to preserve for Matthew" the authorship of the Logia. But even here there are many difficulties to contend with, as we have seen before.

As to dates. Certain passages strongly tend to establish an early date for the Logia as found in Mt. By early date is meant prior to A.D. 70 (the destruction of Jerusalem), the only means we have at all of establishing a criterion. But even this claim for the early date of certain Logia preserved by Mt. cannot be definitely established.

With regard to the story of the Magi, a Syriac writing ascribed to Eusebius of Caesarea "makes the statement, which can hardly have been invented, that this narrative, committed to writing in the interior of Persia, was in 119 A.D., during the episcopate of Xystus of Rome, made search for, discovered and written in the language of those who were interested in it (that is to say in Greek)." Those who would assign an earlier date to Mt. than 119 A.D. accordingly suppose the late addition of an "appendix" referring to the Magi. But the simplest hypothesis we should think, and the most natural one, is to make A.D. 119 the terminus a quo of canonical Mt.

With regard to canonical Mk. we have no data whatever for fixing its date, except the deduction from the contradictory results of critical research on the borrowing-hypothesis, which to our mind clearly indicate that the Synoptic writers were contemporaries.

As it is "quite certain" that the author of Lk. was also the author of Acts, and as the author of Acts "cannot have been Luke, the companion of Paul," Luke cannot have been the author of the Third Gospel.

Now, the author of Lk. is definitely proved to have been acquainted with the writings of Josephus, and this would assign the superior limit, terminus a quo, or earliest possible date of Lk., to 100 A.D. There is, however, nothing certain in all this, and nothing to prevent a far later date. In brief, in our opinion, the statement that all three Synoptics were written somewhere in the reign of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), seems to be the safest conclusion.

Now, it is generally assumed that the credibility of the gospels would be increased if they could be shown to have been written at an earlier date, but this is a mistake. "Uncertainty on the chronological question by no means carries with it any uncertainty in the judgment we are to form of the gospels themselves. . . . Indeed, even if our gospels could be shown to have been written from 50 A.D. onwards, or even earlier, we should not be under any necessity to withdraw our conclusions as to their contents; we should, on the contrary, only have to say that the indubitable transformation in the original traditions had taken place much more rapidly than we might have been ready to suppose."

Thus does Professor Schmiedel shatter the false hopes of those who imagined that because Professor Harnack had recently modified his opinion on some points of hypothetical document chronology, all the old positions were restored to them intact!

Our next paper will be devoted to the Fourth Gospel.