A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels

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A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels, by David Laird Dungan. ABRL. New York: Doubleday, 1999Pp. xiv + 526. $39.95 (cloth).

David Dungan's recent contribution to the ABRL, A History of the Synoptic Problem, is an excellent intermediate-level survey of the Synoptic Problem. This recent history is commendable for at least three reasons: (1) it sets the debate in its historic economic, political, and intellectual settings; (2) it comprehensively covers the debate through the past two millennia; and (3) it rationally calls into question common assumptions among the majority of scholars today.

As the title suggests, Dungan describes the history of the debate from the first century to the present. As his is a single-volume treatment, the author must often use broad strokes to sketch the picture of this history. With each stroke, however, Dungan offers a plethora of documentation to support his statements and reconstructions. The result is a quality historiography that offers the student a guide and the scholar a reference to the development of the debate through the centuries.

Dungan lays out the history of the debate according to the way major figures have answered the central question "Where may I find reliable testimony to the Lord Jesus?' In demonstrating the responses to this question, Dungan discusses the development of the debate according to three main periods. The first stretches from the first century until the time of Augustine; the second is from the Italian Renaissance until the end of World War II; and the third includes the decades since WWII.

In a highly readable, narrative style, Dungan discusses the salient developments and challenges in the early church through the texts of Luke, Papias, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Marcion, and Celsus. Then he illustrates how Origen addressed all four elements of the Synoptic Problem for the first time (canon, text, composition, and hermeneutics). Here, Dungan goes beyond many treatments of this topic as he demonstrates the need to consider the canonical and textual issues before one addresses the compositional and hermeneutical elements of the problem.

Next, the author illustrates the Christian movement embattled by Porphyry's attacks and gives a plausible interpretation of Eusebius's works (Preparation for the Gospel, Demonstration of the Gospel, Ecclesiastical History, and Gospel Canons) as a response to the critic. Further, Tertullian's remarks on the logic of canonization in The Prescription of Heretics are used to demonstrate the view that unity was equated with veracity.

Dungan closes the first part of the book with a discussion of Augustine's harmonization of the Gospels. In this second form of the Synoptic Problem, the author recounts Augustine's assumptions and method in resolving the issue. This refutation of the Manichaeans is also seen to close the book on the Porphyrian and Neoplatonic criticisms. Dungan grants that the official suppression of these views may be more the reason for the silence than Augustine's writing; nevertheless, Augustine's treatment stood until the beginning of the Enlightenment.

In the second part of the book, Dungan addresses the cultural, political, economic, and technological elements that contributed to the development of the historical-critical method and the modern understanding and common resolution of the Synoptic Problem. Beginning with the Italian Renaissance, Dungan demonstrates how the scientific approach to biblical studies developed out of the breakdown of the "medieval synthesis" and resulted in "denaturing the Bible so that it became no more than a handbook of morality any decent person could accept" (p. 148).

In successive chapters, Dungan shows how the Enlightenment and Romantic understandings of nature changed the basis of reason. The purely physical view of the cosmos precipitated the understanding of the universe as a "thing" and the basis of knowledge as empirical data. …