Posts Tagged ‘Synoptic Gospels’

The following Gospel texts are from the conclusions of Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  Compare them and ask yourself the question, Who said “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others”?

Matthew 21:39-41  “… 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.  40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Mark 12:1-11  “…8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.  9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.  10 Have you not read this Scripture: “‘ The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;  11 this was he Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Luke 20:9-16   “…15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?  16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”

According to Matthew’s Gospel the crowd says it and according to Mark and Luke Jesus does.  In addition to that variation, the careful reader notices others as well.  Christians often perceive these variations as threatening the reliability of the Bible, but 4evangelists-smperhaps they need not be so.

For some time now the so-called (now quite old) New Quest for the Historical Jesus and many figures within the Jesus Seminar have argued that the Gospels relay sayings and stories that were grossly distorted through a sort of “telephone game” mode of transmission.  Supposedly, with each communication of a story about or saying of Jesus from one community to another the story underwent change, such that within a few re-tellings the story or saying being told hardly resembles what Jesus really said or did.  Against this thesis James D.G. Dunn and Richard Bauckham have both recently proposed that the discrepancies amongst the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) evince a pattern that suggests that they derive largely from well-controlled, orally transmitted testimony and, at least according to Bauckham, largely eyewitness testimony at that.  The upshot of of this thesis, if it is correct, is that, whatever the discrepancies may mean for our idea of Biblical inspiration, they can indicate that the Gospels’ portraits of Jesus is a generally reliable one.

Bauckham’s thesis is the bolder one.  He draws on the work of Kenneth Bailey who outlines several ways in which traditions are passed along orally:

  • informal uncontrolled oral tradition or “rumor tradition,” which is basically what one sees enacted in the “telephone game” and in high-school gossip.  Here stories and sayings are extremely vulnerable to gross distortion and exaggeration.
  • informal controlled oral tradition, which is when a community constrains the amount and the sort of variation that can be introduced in a given re-telling of a story, saying or tradition.  Here stories can be subject to creative liberties within certain parameters, but will generally retain their integrity over time.
  • formal controlled oral tradition, which is when officially designated authorities constrain the sort and amount of variation that can be introduced into the re-telling of  a story, saying or tradition.

Whereas Bailey argued only that the Synoptic Gospels record informal controlled oral tradition, Richard Bauckham does him one better and argues that the Synoptics were written while eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus still lived and that they authoritatively constrained the transmission of stories about and sayings of Jesus within the early Church.  Therefore, in the Synoptics give us a cocktail of both formal and informal controlled tradition.  Thus, the variations between the Synoptic Gospels should give evidence of being products of the vicissitudes of individual and cultural memory.  On this hypothesis, a discrepancy between the Gospels (such as, Who exactly said what?–precisely the sort of thing most vulnerable to individual memory), paradoxically, can actually count in favor of the Gospels’ general historical trustworthiness

I would suspect that to the degree that Jesus (rather than an inerrant Bible) occupies the center of our faith, the work of scholars such as Dunn and Bauckham (and N.T. Wright and Fr. John Meyer and many others, for that matter) will be encouraging to classically orthodox Christians.


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