Synoptic theory nomenclature.

Steps toward a neutral system.


With respect to scholarship on the synoptic problem, Stephen Carlson is, and has been for some time, one of the most visible scholars on the web. I have found that one of his most endearing characteristics is his clarity of thought; another is his synoptic neutrality. He has admitted that he favors the Farrer solution to the synoptic problem, but one could read his material, especially on his Synoptic Problem Website, for a long time before guessing his opinion on the matter.

I myself have endorsed his four-color system for coloring synopses of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, even though he has since moved on to a seven-color system that is every bit as neutral, but not quite as clear (in my humble opinion) as the original four-color coding scheme. (I do, however, find his seven-color system useful for coding passages in John and other parallels from outside the synoptic three, particularly as it follows so intuitively from the four-color system.)

It is with this same kind of clarity and neutrality of thought that he proposed, some time ago, a standard method of referring to synoptic solutions in one of his weblog entries.

Carlson begins by agreeing with Mark Goodacre, another synoptic scholar who both favors Farrer and is highly visible on the web, that calling the Farrer solution the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis makes it too easy to dispute Goulder (and his lectionary idea) without really touching Farrer. He then goes on to propose a standard nomenclature for synoptic views across two headings:

  1. Theory versus hypothesis.
  2. Eponym versus structure.

He points out under the first heading that the terms theory and hypothesis do not, or at least ought not, have the same meaning in the humanities as in the sciences:

Roughly, in physics, a hypothesis is a provisional conjecture that is proposed to account for some observation, while a theory is a proposal whose correctness has been repeatedly verified through experiments. Since empirical confirmation by repeatable experiments is not available in historical disciples, the meaning of hypothesis and theory differ from that used in the predictive sciences. In the context of the synoptic problem, a hypothesis is a supposition proposed to account for a specific subset of the patterns of literary agreement and disagreement that gives rise to the synoptic problem, while a theory is a comprehensive framework, built on one or more hypotheses, design to explain all the synoptic data.

Good point, and I accept this distinction as part of my system of nomenclature for . Examples of hypotheses would include, then, Matthean, Marcan, or Lucan priority, Matthean, Marcan, or Lucan posteriority, and recourse to hypothetical documents, such as Q.

At the same time, what we usually call hypotheses would be promoted, so to speak, to theories: Augustinian, Farrer, Greisbach, two-source, and so on.

However, a change from, say, the Augustinian hypothesis to the Augustinian theory is not a very impressive intellectual step. Under his second heading Carlson proposes a structural nomenclature to replace the more common eponymous nomenclature (using theorized relationships between documents rather than the name of the founder of the theory). He advocates a hyphenated name for each theory, the first half naming the document theoretically responsible for the triple tradition the second half naming the document responsible for the double tradition. The familiar two-source hypothesis becomes, then, the Mark-Q theory. Carlson identifies the Augustinian hypothesis as the Matthew-Mark theory, the Greisbach hypothesis as the Matthew-Luke theory, and the Farrer hypothesis as the Mark-Matthew theory.

It is at this point that the system of nomenclature that Carlson proposes actually outshines his explanation for it. For it is not exactly clear how, for instance, Mark is more responsible (to quote Carlson) for the double tradition in the classical Augustinian theory than Luke. If Matthew wrote first, then the double tradition is simply what Mark excluded from Matthew that Luke included. Both Mark and Luke, then, are responsible for the double tradition.

And will not help to name the source of the double tradition, since in that case both the Augustinian and the Greisbach theories would unhelpfully come out as Matthew-Matthew.

For my own purposes on this site, then, I retain the structural nomenclature that Carlson proposes, right down to the actual names that he gives each theory, but modify his explanation somewhat. It occurs to me that synoptic theories may be broadly divided into two groups:

  • Those which require hypothetical sources.
  • Those which do not require hypothetical sources.

Three of the principal theories (Augustinian, Farrer, Greisbach) fall into that second category. For these simple triangular theories I simply name the first two gospels written, in order:

  • Augustinian: Matthew-Mark.
  • Farrer: Mark-Matthew.
  • Greisbach: Matthew-Luke.

The more exotic triangular theories are just as easy to name:

  • Büsching: Luke-Matthew.
  • Lockton: Luke-Mark.
  • Wilke: Mark-Luke.

Those synoptic theories requiring hypothetical documents can be more challenging. The dominant two-source hypothesis has already been accurately named:

  • Two-source: Mark-Q.

But what about some of the other schemes? Some simply inject proto-gospels of some kind into the stream of transmission. These are not a problem:

  • Holtzmann: Ur-Mark-Q.
  • Parker: Ur-Matthew-Q.
  • Marsh: Ur-Gospel-Q.
  • Lagrange: Mark-Ur-Matthew.

Others divide responsibility for the triple or double tradition across two or more documents. For these theories I employ a forward slash / to separate these cooperating documents:

  • Three-source: Mark-Q/Matthew.
  • Bleek and de Wette: G-Matthew/Luke.

But it is just beyond this degree of complexity that the Carlson proposal reaches certain practical limitations. I am not certain, for example, how to label the Jerusalem School theory or the Greek Notes theory (despite its simplicity) within the Carlson format.

It is fortunate, however, that one only rarely has to refer to these more exotic synoptic arrangements. Some are held by so few scholars (as few as one!) that it is probably still easier to refer to the theory eponymously (Boismard and Vaganay spring to mind), yet fairly.

What matters for my own purposes is that the following theories are easily named:

  • Augustinian: Matthew-Mark.
  • Farrer: Mark-Matthew.
  • Greisbach: Matthew-Luke.
  • Two-source: Mark-Q.
  • Three-source: Mark-Q/Matthew.

The rest I will refer to both by structure and by eponym, just for clarity.