Teaching the Synoptic Problem after the Synoptic Gospels

Categories: Education, New Testament

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Jason Staples Substack

I had the opportunity to teach a five-week course of “Introduction to New Testament Literature” at UNC-Chapel Hill this summer, and I took the opportunity to reexamine and revamp a few aspects of how I’ve taught that course (or have seen others teach it) in the past. In addition to a lot of fine-tuning and a few things I didn’t think worked quite as well as they might, I was especially pleased with three primary “innovations” that I tried this summer, which I’ll be blogging about in my next few posts.

The first of these innovations stemmed from my overall dissatisfaction (shared by others ) with the way that the Synoptic Problem tends to be taught in introductory classes, namely that the Synoptic Problem tends to be taught “solution to plight,” leading off with the standard scholarly solution(s) and only later turning to the data to demonstrate the problem to be solved. (For those who are unfamiliar, the “Synoptic Problem” is the scholarly term for the difficulties involved in explaining the similarities and differences among the “Synoptic Gospels”: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) Typically this amounts to teaching the 2-Source Hypothesis and then explaining why this theory makes the most sense of the Synoptic Problem, which has not yet become a “problem” in the minds of the students.

This solution-to-plight pedagogy amounts to reinforcing the consensus view from generation to generation, inasmuch as the next generation of scholars will have necessarily passed through Intro to NT classes, where their first major academic NT lesson is on the Two-Source Hypothesis for solving the Synoptic Problem, standing in contrast to our responsibility to train students to think critically and creatively through problems we ourselves may not have been able to fully solve (and even some we think we have already solved). As tends to be the case whenever the solution is taught before the problem is recognized, this sort of teaching leads to a weakening of the learners’ critical and creative faculties. Once a plausible solution has been presented (and with some authority, at that), trying to think through the problem is like watching/reading a murder mystery after having the ending spoiled. It’s next to impossible to put the solution one has learned far enough outside one’s head to be able to consider any other possible solutions. Of all people, biblical scholars should be aware of just how embedded a first solution or interpretation (regardless of how wrong!) can get; once a student has been told a given passage means this, that student tends to see only this whenever s/he sees that passage, rarely if ever actually reading the passage itself. (Students in my NT classes regularly express shock that, despite having read a given text numerous times, they didn’t know that was even in there!) Once a given solution is entrenched, it is terribly hard—no matter how good the evidence—to disabuse a person of his/her strongly held (from the very first time s/he learned given information) beliefs.

Given all this, I decided to try an experiment this summer: rather than beginning our studies of the Gospels with the Synoptic Problem, I decided to invert the usual order and start with the Gospels themselves, giving my students the opportunity to grapple with the data and see with the problem before introducing any solutions. To facilitate this, I constructed a few careful assignments to force them to engage with the data firsthand and begin to think through the problem. I also began with an “Introduction to the Gospels” lecture, the last ten minutes or so of which was dedicated to explaining that the first three gospels we would read would share a large amount of material and that we would begin with Mark since it was the shortest, while the other two had more material that Mark didn’t have. But this lecture did not address the dating, chronology, or redaction of the Gospels, as that would only come after going through the Synoptics themselves. So, my schedule looked like this (in the compressed summer format):

(After a few basic background lectures)
The Transmission of the NT & Introduction to the Gospels (w/underlining assignment & reflection paper)
Gospel of Mark
Gospel of Matthew
Gospel of Luke
The Synoptic Problem (w/another underlining assignment & reflection paper)
Gospel of John

Ideally I’d like two classes on the Synoptic Problem after going through the Synoptics themselves, but the compressed summer session didn’t allow for that this time. The underlining assignments required both underlining the passages in the standard red, green, yellow, and blue colors as well as a prompt asking the students to write one to two pages reflecting on the possible causes of the agreements and disagreements between the three gospels. As it turns out, I was quite pleased with the results of inverting the schedule. My students began to get restless about the similarities and differences right from the start. This short audio clip from the class meeting on the Gospel of Matthew illustrates how well they were wrestling with the problem before even getting to Luke:

Intro NT Students Wrestling with Synoptic Problem (mp3)

I was obviously pretty excited to hear this level of problem-solving and textual attentiveness among my introductory class. It’s precisely what I was hoping to stimulate by teaching the solutions after introducing the problem. As an added benefit, I think it helped keep the Synoptic Problem from seeming quite so tedious, since the students were invested in the problem by the time I was getting to introduce the various scholarly solutions. This approach did require that I not assign textbook readings for the three Synoptic lectures (thanks to introductory textbooks assuming the Two-Source Hypothesis from the start), but given my predilection for favoring primary text assignments over secondary texts, that wasn’t much of a problem. I did get complaints from a few students who went through the main textbook used for the course after we had gone through the Synoptic Problem lecture: they were disappointed/frustrated by the textbook’s dismissal of all but the Two-Source theory.

At any rate, I think I’ll continue teaching along these lines in the future, beginning by letting students see the Synoptic Problem before I try to explain the Synoptic Solution(s).

Tags: Biblical Studies, class, comparative criticism, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Matthew, Jesus, New Testament, Pedagogy, Q, redaction criticism, source criticism, Synoptic Gospel, Synoptic Problem

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