Attempting to Visualize the Synoptic Problem

by James Dowden

Over at the Jesus Blog, there’s been a lively discussion (and now a poll!) on whether Farrer theorists are still in a minority. I thoroughly expect that we are, and so I’ll preëmptively start harping on about why we’re right again.

Part of the problem is perception: Luke’s order’s being different from Matthew’s order gets mentioned frequently in discussions of the Synoptic Problem. What is less often mentioned is that Matthew is not simply Mark with a few discourses interpolated, but radically reörders the early part of Mark.

This reördering is incredibly difficult to visualize, but I’ve had a go at it below. One of the most difficult decisions was not to expand the discourses (although there are plenty of interesting things going on within them) and focus only on the surrounding narrative. It should hopefully be pretty self-explantory, but here’s a brief key in case it isn’t:

  • BLUE – Matthew copying Mark in order
  • GREY – Marcan material omitted by Matthew
  • BLACK – Matthew’s non-Marcan material
  • GOLD – Material Matthew has redeployed in discourse settings
  • YELLOW-GREEN – The Call of the Disciples, merged by Matthew into their Commission
  • RED – A massive block of material that Matthew has brought forward to various locations
  • TURQUOISE – A minor consequential flip
  • PURPLES – Doubletty stuff

ImageSo, on the basis of the Farrer Theory, Luke had three choices for which order to base his own on:

  1. Mark’s order;
  2. Matthew’s order; or:
  3. invent a completely new order.

As it happens, he generally went for option 1: Mark’s order. It’s easy enough to see why this is an appealing choice: that first Sabbath day at Capernaum is an incredibly powerful story, whereas Matthew’s fronted Sermon to an unexplained crowd doesn’t work particularly well. But this leaves an obvious problem: what on earth was Luke to do with anything he found appealing in all that material in black?

To be continued, maybe, if I can ever create a visualization of how the next step in gospel composition worked that isn’t too intimidatingly large…

tl;dr: Q theorists are happy for Matthew to know and reörder Mark, but not for Luke to know and reörder Matthew. Hypocrites! They will be cast out to outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!