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

By Keylock, Leslie R. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Keylock, Leslie R., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels. By David Laird Dungan. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1999, xii + 526 pp., $39.95.

Dungan has written an idiosyncratic volume, especially for a reference library, ostensibly on the history of the synoptic problem but ranging far from that subject as narrowly conceived. As the subtitle suggests, he is also supposed to be discussing the canon, text, composition, and interpretation of the synoptic gospels-a daunting task for any one volume! These subjects, however, are only discussed tangentially. Instead, as Dungan states in his conclusion, "It has been the foremost goal of this history to present, in some respects for the first time, a complete (if not comprehensive) history of the debate on this issue from its inception, not just from the eighteenth century. Moreover, this history has examined the Synoptic Problem within a rigorous and consistent methodological perspective, so as to clarify the subtle nuances of its different forms" (p. 394). What Dungan is saying, in sum, is that he has written a carefully researched, detailed study of a few key theological thinkers and their views of the Bible and religion, from the perspective of someone who has long held that the two-gospel hypothesis (the neo-Griesbachian or Owen-Griesbach hypothesis) is the correct view of the synoptic problem and that the dominant two-source hypothesis can only be explained in terms of the post-Kantian antisupernaturalism of the last two centuries. He admits, "My treatment is undoubtedly uneven and tendentious in many places" (p. 347).

The three divisions of the book reflect this idiosyncratic methodology and, I would suggest, its limitations. Part One, "The First to the Fifth Century: Conflict and Consolidation," consists of ten chapters, most of which are devoted to in-depth analysis of the primary sources to survey the thought of individuals. Papias of Hierapolis, Justin Martyr, Marcion, Celsus, Origen, Porphyry, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Augustine each receive a thoroughly researched chapter. The author's wide-ranging approach leads him at times to stray rather far from his ostensible focus. For example, his analysis of Marcion includes a discussion of the roots of anti-Jewish polemic, he has a thorough discussion of Celsus's general criticism of the Christian religion, and he gives a detailed treatment of Eusebius's views of apostolic succession!

Of particular interest is Dungan's discussion of Augustine's view of Biblical inspiration. Dungan notes that Augustine held firmly to a Scripture without error, though the Biblical authors have freedom to change events in terms of order, to be flexible about chronological order, etc., the very issues that evangelicals try to keep together and critics see as making inerrancy impossible. It becomes quite clear that inerrancy goes back to Augustine at least, not just to "the Old Princeton" or Francois Turretin, as some very influential religionists maintain today. Inerrancy has always involved a nuanced view of the phenomena of Scripture. The evangelical reader will conclude from Dungan's discussion that inerrancy is the historic position of the Christian church and should not be abandoned, as some evangelicals seem to be willing to do despite its great antiquity, but reaffirmed and explained for today's reader as Augustine did for his day. …

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