Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Inklings and the Synoptic problem

The two source hypothesis goes basically like this: Matthew and Luke made use of Mark, which they supplemented with additional sources. 

There's certainly some truth to that, but it can be misleading. It's frequently presented as a vertical model of literary or conceptual information-sharing, based on order of publication. If Mark was published first, while Matthew and Luke show familiarity with Mark, then they were literarily or conceptually dependent on Mark.

But the question of literary or conceptual dependence can be more intricate and intractable. Consider the Inklings. Tolkien and Lewis both took a keen interest in Nordic/Teutonic mythology. Likewise, Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Barfield all took a keen interest in the Arthurian mythos. And there were primary sources from which they drew. 

Conversely, there was horizontal information-sharing as they bounced ideas off each other, and shared drafts with each other. They influenced one another.

But that raises a tricky question: when you find Arthurian or Nordic/Teutonic motifs in their writings, what's the source? It is primary source material? Or did one Inkling get this from another Inkling? If two Inklings have the same motif, what's the direction of borrowing?

The order of publication is inconclusive. One Inkling might be the first to publish a story using that motif, followed by another Inkling publishing a story with a parallel motif. But even if we find "synoptic parallels" in writings of the Inklings, publication order faults to demonstrate that the author of the later writing borrowed from the author of the earlier writing. On the one hand, there's the possibility that both used a common source. On the other hand, there's the possibility that the author who published first borrowed the idea from an unpublished source. That is to say, that might reflect horizontal information-sharing rather than vertical information-sharing if he originally got the idea from a fellow Inkling during informal conversation. In some cases there may be letters or diaries that enable us to retrace the genesis of the idea, but in many cases, it isn't possible to reconstruct the creative process. 

In application to the Synoptic problem, in some cases it could be due to independent access to a common source. In other cases, an earlier publication might be indebted to the author of a later publication. 

Although Matthew's writing can't be a source for Mark, Matthew the writer might possibly be a source. A writer preexists his writings. The writer of a later writing can be a source of information for an earlier writing by a different author. 

Again, consider the Inklings. Even where there's evidence of borrowing, publication dates are not a reliable indicator of the direction in which that took place. 


  1. Also, if the Inklings were all present when something happened (say, Lewis told a particular joke), then any of them might give their own accounts of it.

    Unfortunately the rigid version of the 2-source hypothesis that is too often used treats Matthew as if he definitely was not present at or had his own memories of any of the events that are considered to be parallel in Mark. It's as if the 2-source hypothesis already assumes either a "no" answer to Matthean authorship or that Matthew suffered amnesia about any event at which he was present that is also found in Mark.

    1. This whole subject suffers from two problems.

      1. The determined belief of many 19th century scholars that the Gospels were written long after the events depicted and probably not by people who had direct experience.

      2. The determined belief of some others that the texts were fixed at a single point in time and were not modified or adjusted later.

      However if we discard the second belief then the primary reason for the first (the apparent awareness of events in the second half of the first century) evaporates.

      Once we get past these two ideas then the simplest resolution of all these problems is that all of the gospels were written early by writers who had first (or at worst second) hand experience. There is no need for Matthew or Luke to use Mark if they had access to the same events.

      In fact the rather truncated account of the resurrection in the earliest manuscripts of Mark could be explained if it was originally written during the period between the Resurrection and Pentecost. ie written for the people (~500 in number according to St Paul) who had direct experience of the Risen Christ but may have had more limited knowledge of His earlier ministry.

  2. Steve, if you don't know, John Loftus has been citing you on his facebook wall multiple times recently. Unless, it's some other "Steve Hays".

    1. That's a carryover from a comment thread on Capturing Christianity.